You’re in—you may leave the runway. You’re out—auf wiedersehen!
These are the words spoken each week by Heidi Klum, amazingly long-tenured Victoria’s Secret model and executive producer, member of the judges’ panel and official verdict-speaker of the TV show Project Runway. As you might guess from the name, Project Runway is a so-called reality show centered on the competition between a group of fashion designers who seek fame and fortune by being named the winner. Each week, the designers are given an assignment that challenges their creativity, skill and fashion perspective, and we get to see the drama that ensues as the designers race against the clock to complete their garments. We also get to see how their relationships with each other play out as their stress builds and the competition grows more heated. Each week, the product of their work is judged by a group including three team members and a special guest. We get to see beautifully crafted garments as well as outfits that make the model look as though she got dressed in the dark—in someone else’s house. We also get to hear the judges’ comments—both their compliments for the work they’ve seen and comments so scathing and tacky that I sometimes can’t believe what I’m hearing. Each week, the number of designers is whittled down as a winner is declared and a loser is sent home. Each week, we get to see the winner scamper off the runway, watch the designers who have been declared safely “in” for another week congratulating each other, and witness the loser trading air-kisses with Heidi and trying to look as though he or she is not devastated by the loss and by the comments leading up to the verdict.
You’re in. You’re out.
For two thousand years, Christ’s followers have been trying to put those words in his mouth. For two thousand years, we’ve struggled with the notion that Jesus really did mean it—that he really did mean that all people are welcomed in the kingdom of God. For two thousand years, we’ve looked for the loophole that will mean exclusion for those with whom we disagree—for whom we feel animosity—for those who are unlike us. For two thousand years, we’ve edited and trimmed and twisted scripture to our understanding of the way the world would work if we—not God—were in charge.
The traditional teachings around the gospels appointed for these last weeks are excellent examples of the way we read scripture in the light of our own inclinations. In the story of the Canaanite woman, we are privileged to witness a critical turning point in Jesus’ life. He first rebuffs the woman’s plea for healing for her daughter, then comes to awareness that this foreign, ritually unclean woman and her child are as deserving of healing as the Jews he has understood to be the focus of his work. Jesus’ action demonstrates that there is no exclusion, but all too often, we have focused on the phrase “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish,” and this story has been used to teach that healing comes only to those with the right kind of faith, the faith that fits the rules of whoever happens to be in charge in that generation, and excludes those who discover their faith as they become aware of their healing.
The next week, we heard the story of Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the messiah and receiving from Jesus the keys of the kingdom. This story—with particular emphasis on the phrase “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loose in heaven” has been used for generations to promote the authority of the Church—whatever branch happens to be speaking at the time. We have tended not to notice that the gates of the kingdom are wide-open, that Christ’s resurrection blew them off their hinges and that all people are invited in.
Last week, we heard the story of Peter’s denial that Jesus would need to suffer. Peter knows what the messiah looks like, and suffering has no part of his understanding. Jesus tells us that we must lose our false visions and expectations if we are to gain the fullness of life that God seeks for us, but our institutional actions all too often paint the picture of the messiah Peter sought rather than the savior who died rather than stop telling us the truth about God’s love for every person.
And then we have today’s gospel—the reading that has perhaps been responsible more than any other scripture for the exclusion of those who disagree with the leadership of faith communities. The truth is, all too often, we experience disagreement as a sin against us personally or as a sin against the church. And sometimes, people do act in ways that are sinful. We humans can be infinitely creative in our sins against God and each other, and those sins must be acknowledged, amends made wherever possible and forgiveness given and received. But we must never forget that the mission of the Church is not to build up the institution but to reconcile all people to God and each other through Christ. All people. Not just the ones we like. Not just the ones who think the way we do. All people. God knows, there are days when that is not easy to do, but Jesus gives us a pattern to create reconciliation. If someone sins, we are to seek the person out in private and talk about it. Talk about it with the person who has offended—not with everyone else—but with the person who actually is part of the problem and can be part of the solution. If we talk—and listen—together in private, and we can’t reconcile, then we ask another person to help the two of us talk—and listen—together. If that isn’t effective, then we’re told to expand the circle to the whole community. And if that’s not effective, Jesus says to let that person be to us as a Gentile or a tax collector. And we know how Jesus treated them. We know how he treated the Gentiles and the tax collectors. He invited himself to their homes, he brought them into his closest circle, he healed them, he brought them to his table and he died for them.
Dearly beloved, the Good News is that no one is out. All are welcome at this table—to receive God’s forgiveness, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, to be strengthened for the journey ahead. Welcome home. Whether you’ve been away for two weeks vacation or have never before set foot in a church. Welcome home. The one who loves each one of us rejoices that we gather in his name. Thanks be to God.
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