Twenty years ago last week, I was invited to Chicago to begin theology studies at Loyola University Chicago. I can remember they had a Mass for all new students, and a big cook-out on the grass abutting Lake Michigan. It was magnificent. But the natural beauty was nothing compared to the people I would meet. They could not have been more welcoming, more generous with their time, their experience, and their gifts. That was the start of my falling in love with Chicago, my home. I felt so welcomed.
There are other times in my life, however, when I have felt less than welcome. Less than invited. We all have. People might have pre-judged us, heard something about us, or were upset that we were now ‘in the picture’. If we are honest, we have all been guilty of that type of behavior as well.
Today’s readings are all about welcoming, and inviting. A call to break through prejudices, those stereotypes, and those moments when we decide who we are going to accept, or who we are not.
Today we are asked to consider this: When God created you, He loved you into existence. And nothing you do is going to make God love you more. You don’t have to be perfect for God to love you. You don’t have to be more intelligent, more charitable, more wealthy. It’s done. God loves you, with all your history, with all your sins. You are welcomed and invited into the Kingdom of God, just as you are. It’s called agape, unconditional love, and it’s a challenging concept for us to fully understand.
So, if that’s how God sees you, the readings ask, why can’t you see others the same way? Why can’t you look at people the way God looks at people?
That’s what Isaiah and Luke are talking about. They are telling us… stop judging, and celebrate God’s favor. Stop trying to figure out who is good, and who is bad, and welcome them in. Stop trying to figure out what people did to lose their job, who is having a romance with who, why someone is in counseling, why someone left the Church, why they moved out of our neighborhood.
In 536BC, after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and exile, the Jews were welcomed back. There was a catch, though. Anyone who returned would have to commit themselves to a lifetime of rebuilding. Jerusalem was destroyed. Given the circumstances, many thought that staying in Babylon was the better option.
But some people did return. They know the work that needed to be done. And Isaiah is telling those folks: don’t judge those who stayed behind. In fact, don’t judge those who come from the north, south, east or west to help you, either. God is the one calling. Everyone has a place in the New Jerusalem, the heavenly banquet. Don’t assume you know what God is up to. Just invite, and welcome people into your world.
So don’t be surprised if you see your neighbor, the person at work who annoys you, the family member you are not getting along with, the salesperson who is rude to you… don’t be surprised if someone like that is standing next to you today in Church, or at the parish picnic. God has called them to the mountain top. This is the day the Lord had made, let us rejoice and be glad.
Isaiah reminds us that the covenant doesn’t start with Abraham, the covenant starts with Adam and Eve. Before classifications, before ethnicities, before rituals. God created and loves atheists, agnostics, people who doubt God even exists, people who are spiritual but not religious. God created liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans, and He accepts them all. He forgives. He understands. As Pope Francis recently said, if someone has repented of their sins, who I am to judge them?
Here’s our take-away: We live and work in a community… not with the people we have chosen, but with the people God has chosen. We are not that diverse, if you think about it, if we are unified in Christ and our Church. If we are all called to the Sacraments — we, the imperfect. Welcomed… like at a cook-out by Lake Michigan on a beautiful summer day.
A more important anniversary happened 50 years ago this weekend. Martin Luther King JR understood what a nation would look like if everyone stopped judging others, and welcomed them in to their community. I’ll close with his powerful invitation…
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”