The text for this sermon is Leviticus 19:30-36
Have you ever felt like an alien? Like you just didn’t belong? Those moments when you are made to feel unwelcome. Being 16 and shopping with your friends and walking into that expensive store where the clerk makes it clear that unless you have daddy’s credit card in your pocket there is nothing here for you. Agreeing to golf with some new acquaintances only to realize after their first swings that you are way out of your league. Or being new to Columbus and accepting a Saturday invitation from your neighbor to watch football thinking it would be kind of funny to wear your U of M sweatshirt. OSU fans are a serious bunch.
My encounters with not belonging always have to do with picking the wrong thing to wear. I once wore a nice suit and tie to an interview. A great choice if it was a stockbroker job but it was for a youth minister position. The guy with long red hair, holy jeans and a t-shirt got the job. A few years ago I went to my good friend’s annual Halloween party dressed as a fairy God mother. I had a wand, a long blonde wig, white tights, pink tutu and a form fitting white shirt with two pink and silver hearts on my chest. I grew out my beard just to complete the look. I looked cute. Of course I get to the party and not one other guy is in any costume at all, unless you count the unimaginative red sweater vests with white shirts. Buckeye fans, so predictable. Even worse was when I was introduced to some very conservative Christians friends of the host as Pastor Karl. That was an awkward conversation.
It is no fun to feel like you don’t belong. It is as though you are an alien and everyone is staring at you. Or there is an inside joke that no one has let you in on. Or that the whispering by the groups around you is about you and not the weather. I know this happens for all us sometimes, but it disturbs me when it happens in our churches. If there is anything we can be sure about the God who created us in God’s image, as far as God is concerned everyone belongs. There should never be anyone who feels like an alien in God’s church.
Yet, when people visit a church, they often feel like an alien. This could be because of clothes. Every church has a different dress code. Wearing a suit in one would make you stand out in another. The color of your skin or the quality of your car can make you feel like an alien in our churches too. The rituals that everyone seems to know but you, can make you feel like you stand out like a sore thumb. Many visitors tell me that they didn’t take communion, even though I said aloud that everyone was welcome, because they didn’t want to do it “wrong”. Even doing something as innocuous as carrying in a coffee cup to a worship service can cause all eyes in the room. to pierce you. Every church wants new members. They just want new members that look like them and come knowing the unwritten rules of their congregation. This is a problem.
In the center of chapter 19 of Leviticus is this command to treat the resident alien as you would any other neighbor, with love. Scholars call chapter 19 the holiness code. The rules and commands are how the community of Israel is to live so that they are holy, which means close to God. Israel believed that they were expected to act as much like God as they were able. Some of what this meant to them sounds a little odd to us. Leviticus 19:19 tells them not to wear leather with cotton. Who knows. However, most of it is about being fair, honest and loving, especially to the orphans, the widows and the aliens. Aliens are signaled out because no one likes not belonging. And to God, who made us all in God’s image, everyone belongs. To be holy, like God means treating aliens as if they were a neighbor we knew well.
The church believes that God resides with us, just as God resides with Israel. We want to make God’s home, which are our communities as holy as possible. The details of that will look different today than three thousand years ago. It is okay now to wear leather with cotton, but still not okay to wear polyester with wool. Just don’t do it. God’s love is for everyone, not just people that look like us. We need a commitment to be as loving and inviting to the aliens as the neighbors we know.
Last summer I attended a small white clapboard church in Homerville, Ohio for the first time. I came in shorts and sandals and was immediately aware that I was way underdressed. Plus, the way the fifty or so people were talking before their service began made it clear that everyone knew everyone else,but me. It could have been a moment when I felt like an alien, like a 210 pound bearded guy wearing a pink tutu.
It could have been, but it wasn’t. Just two people was all it took to make me feel welcome. I had come without my reading glasses so I didn’t even bother to open a hymnal. Before the first verse of the first song was sung, an old guy across the aisle had handed me his hymnal, turned to the right page, with a big, welcoming smile on his face. When the song was over and we moved into liturgy, he walked across the aisle again with another hymnal and pointed to where we were now. When we got ready to sing the sermon hymn, I opened the book to the hymn myself and smiled at him, letting him know I was okay now.
The other incident I told you about in a sermon in the fall but it is too good not to share again. When I came up for communion, I mistook the intinction cup, the only one they offered, with the common cup. When I took a big swig of that cup, the woman’s eyes got large and I knew immediately, my church faux pas. I whispered sorry. Her smile was warm and she said, honey, it’s all good.
Surely, this church had identified me as an alien. This didn’t mean that I was to be dealt with cautiously or with suspicion. Rather, it meant that they had an obligation to make sure I was comfortable and welcome. Treating me well didn’t just mean smiling awkwardly if caught staring, as all us church regulars can’t help but do when new people visit our pews. It meant attending to my needs. Loving the alien as they would their neighbor was in their DNA. They understood, as far as God is concerned everyone belongs.
Each and everyone of us has had a moment where we have felt like an alien. It is up to us when we are part of the established group that we make sure the aliens among us know they are welcome. God’s hope is for this to be true throughout the creation, but for that to happen it must be witnessed in our churches. The strangers among us need to be loved, fully with the same affection we have for each other, already. This might mean helping them navigate the service or inviting them to come up for communion with you or engaging them in conversation after the service with genuine interest at what brought them to this holy place today.
God’s hope for Israel in Leviticus 19 is the same as God’s hope for the church is the same as God’s hope for the world. God hopes that we will be holy communities,. Holy communities where the alien that wanders in will be reminded that they are just like us, made in God’s image. Where all believe that to God everyone belongs. Amen