Through many pastoral encounters, I have realized three things. First, it is possible to have a connection with God without being a part of a church. Second, institutionalized religion can hurt individuals and interrupt their connections with God. Third, participating in a loving, supportive church will improve one’s relationship with God.
I think most people would find it utterly absurd and incredibly ironic that the very institution that claims Christ as its head would create rules that exclude and withhold the two fundamental sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion from certain individuals. The way I see it, Jesus told us to go and baptize and to share his body in communion bread. The key words for me are “go” and “share,” which are not modified to make us the evaluators of those to whom we offer baptism. He did not make rules concerning who can receive his body based on marital status or even those who have failed at marriage. For me, “go” and “share” to “all nations” is a clear command to the Church to do these things without reservation. “Do this in remembrance of me” did not have a caveat about the worthiness of the receiver. If it did, then I could not receive, because, after all, I am not worthy. Yet, history shows the institutionalization of His Body sometimes becomes subject to human failings, like rules that exclude and hurt.
So what do we do? How do we help those who have been hurt by other churches—or, for that matter, by our own? The answer, I think, is in hospitality.
I talk a lot about Jesus’ love for us and his command to love God and our neighbors. What I perhaps need to talk more about is his emphasis on hospitality. Jesus did not say, “No” to anyone who came to him. Instead, he listened and showed compassion. He said, “I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to even these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (Mt 10:42) Children, back in Jesus’ day, were not considered worthy of hospitality; yet Jesus applauds people who do as little as offer water to a child. Jesus attended a dinner at which a woman washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, an act of extraordinary hospitality. (Luke 7) And, as we heard this past Sunday, Jesus instructed his disciples to feed the crowd of more than 5,000.
One can have a relationship with God without the Church but, nevertheless, the Church can help in strengthening that relationship and it starts with hospitality, with being kind, welcoming, offering, and supporting, not condemning, condescending, and judging.
God sends me people who have been harmed by religion. This means God also sends them to Saint John’s – to you. We are a hospitable house of worship for all people. At least we strive to be. And what a refreshing place this is in our world. We can be just like a cold cup of water on a hot day.