I’ve probably visited at a hundred churches in my lifetime.
One church gave all of their visitors a free jar of jelly. All you had to do to get it was to stand up, take the microphone, and introduce yourself to the hundreds of other worshippers. At another church, I was told that two long-time members walked out of the church because I was sitting in their seat.
Overall, I can honestly say the churches I visited were warm and welcoming. People were genuinely glad I was there. They thanked me for visiting and invited me to come back again. I enjoyed worshipping with them.
But one thing I couldn’t change was the fact that I was a stranger to them. Even though people introduced themselves to me, I didn’t remember their names—and they probably didn’t remember mine. And worst of all, there weren’t many other people in their twenties like I was. I was an outsider. And that feeling of being an outsider was the number one reason I stayed home many Sunday mornings. And since I didn’t go to church, I felt empty. Something truly important to me was missing from my week.
If there’s anyone who knows the pain of being an outsider, it would have to be the woman from our Gospel text for the day.
In her daughter’s hour of most desperate need, she came to Jesus begging for his mercy. But this woman was a Canaanite… To a Jew in Jesus’ day, a Canaanite was someone who was unclean—and to be avoided at all costs. She was also a woman—someone who had no rights of her own in this period of history. To approach a person of stature like Jesus was socially unacceptable… And on top of all of that, she was crying out to Jesus. In sum, she was a nuisance. And strangely, Jesus makes that quite clear to her… In no uncertain terms, Jesus says she’s dog. And the woman agrees with him! She knows she has no right to ask Jesus for anything. All she can do is beg for Jesus to help her daughter. It is this faith—this faith that cried out, begging for mercy—that Jesus commends. Her only hope was to come face-to-face with Jesus—and that was all it took to make her great faith come alive. Everything changed for this woman and her daughter the moment she came into the presence of Jesus Christ.
How strangely ironic that it’s an outsider, a “nobody”, who has great faith, while the disciples—the insiders—have little faith… Great faith was found in the least likely of places, and in the least likely of peoples…
And that is still true for our world today. We may be living a “Post-Christian” world, but there are people everywhere who have the potential for great faith, just like the Canaanite woman. Spiritual hunger is very real—and those who try to satisfy their hunger with worldly treasures, cheap thrills, and self-help quick fixes are eventually going to find that none of these will satisfy. People are in desperate need—and it’s only in Jesus Christ that one can receive a true and living hope. And there is nowhere else we can come into a life-changing encounter with the living Christ than in the community of faith.
Everyone who comes to church—either as a first-time visitor or a regular attendee—comes hungry for the real presence of Jesus Christ. We come to be surrounded by Christ’s love in the community of faith.
But the sad reality is that many people who come to church feel like outsiders. They come hungry for the presence of Christ, only to end up a spectator to all the things God is doing for everyone else. To be an outsider is to feel like you don’t deserve God’s gifts, or that others are more important than you… Being an outsider makes you feel like Jess us has rejected you. It’s hard enough to set foot in a new church for the first time—but it’s even more difficult to go back when you feel like you don’t belong. A 24-year-old member of my internship congregation said it best: “I love my church—but there’s nothing there for me.”
It’s not that we or any other church has set out to exclude anyone. We want to attract new members and grow our churches. We want everyone to be at home with Jesus Christ in our church. But no church is perfect—anymore than our people are perfect. People feel excluded. But the problem isn’t solved by pointing fingers or placing blame. The question is what can we do about it?
The first thing is this: we hear again the promise of the Gospel… We all come before Jesus Christ with nothing to deserve him. We have nothing to offer to Jesus but our desperate need of his forgiveness and grace. And Jesus gives us everything. All of the gifts of God are free.
The second thing we do is to be in conversation with one another. We share with one another all of the ways we encounter the living Christ in the ministries of this church. We share with one another how Jesus has transformed our lives. In our conversations, we discover our congregation’s spiritual gifts. And it is out of these very gifts that our church will grow.
And let us also talk about the ways we haven’t felt welcome here. Let us talk about the times we’ve felt left out. Let’s be in conversation with the people who we haven’t seen in some time. By the Holy Spirit’s help, we will see the opportunities to make this congregation a place where more and more people can come into the presence of Jesus Christ.
And finally, let us be telling others about the Savior who comes to us here in Water and Word, bread and wine, and in the fellowship we share. People are hungry for the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus Christ—and here at First Lutheran Church, they can be fed.
God has given us everything we need to make this church a place where young and old can come into the presence of the risen Christ. We have the Word, we have the Sacraments, and we have each other. Nothing is missing. The gifts are ours—we just need the Spirit to teach us to use them to make this house a home with the living Christ.
Let us build a house where the least, the lost, and the hurting can take refuge in the arms of Jesus. Let us build a house where we can live together in the hope that is ours. Let us build a house that welcomes everyone into the eternal feast that has already begun. Let us build a house where all who are hungry can come and feast on the bread of eternal life that is Christ Jesus our Lord.