Magnum Opus

This sermon “Include Them In” was preached at the Central Illinois Conference Missionary Recognition Service June 10, 1993.

It was a very interesting experience for the following reasons:

-It was billed as a Missionary worship service.  Different missionaries were asked to give this sermon each year and now it was finally my turn. (I transferred from that conference to the PNW Conference in 1995, so I took my turn just in time.)

-Homosexuality was a hot issue at the time, but even though I did not use the word, the content was applicable.  Unknown to me was that the hottest issue was merger between the Central Illinois Conference and the Southern Illinois Conference.  The proposal was just narrowly defeated, so my sermon was more relevant than I knew.

-The Bishop (Lawson) was very cool when I was finished, saying to me “Thank you for your witness.” Perhaps I went over my time limit?

-There was a long line of people wishing to speak to me after the sermon.  That had never happened to me before or since.  Of course, these were people who either agreed with me or were long time friends or relatives.


Text: Jonah 4:6-11 (verse 11) “…and should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city?”

Isaiah 49:1-6 “…too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as light to the nations, they my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

John 10:16  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Not my text, but raising the question of how we create an atmosphere where this might happen.”

Mark 9:33-41  inclusion of children  verse 40 “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Disciples: “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”)

Acts 14:8-18  verse 17  “Yet God has not left himself without a witness in doing good-giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”

The Central Illinois Conference Annual Conference is a bit larger than the Alaska Missionary Conference Annual Meeting. Since we have a total of 28 churches in the Alaska Missionary Conference, you can have some concept of the difference.

In our 31 years in Alaska, comparing physical locations, we have served 13 of the 28 churches. Only 15 more to go and we can retire.

Having been allowed 15 minutes to address the Annual Conference today and in light of the two minutes allowed when I retire, perhaps I should consider given Barbara my two minutes when that time arrives. (By transferring to another conference, I was given 5-7 words to summarize my life.)

It would be appropriate for me also to thank all of you, on behalf of missionaries and mission projects everywhere, for your generous support of the Advance Special program. It is an important part of your mission and it does make a difference in many locations.

Sometimes inclusion can be no more profound than allowing people to feel comfortable worshipping with us when they are not wearing a suit and tie. The volunteers operating the Youth Hostel in my local church called recently and one of their questions was whether or not they needed to pack a tie to worship with us.

In the 1960’s we became aware of the fact that in some places one of the functions of ushers was to exclude some individuals from worship.

Tuesday one of the retiring pastors suggested that our styles of worship could serve as an instrument of exclusion for some. the quality of physical space for the care of children is also important to many church shoppers.

Years ago Colin Williams wrote a provocative book entitled “Include Me Out”. With no credit or blame, my title builds on that title. As I reflect on my ministry and the ministry of others, I have come to the conclusion that the issue of inclusion/exclusion is at the root of many of the spiritual problems of the world. Some of the times when I have been at my best in my impact on the world, I have been focusing on such issues.

Alaskan experiences are similar to experiences in Central Illinois. Within our Illinois roots we have the experience of reacting to the Indian people with acts of violence, as well as being the objects of acts of violence as western migration of European immigrants came into conflict with the original inhabitants over land usage .

The attack on Mormonism is another example of religious conflict on Illinois soil.

Of historical interest in the fact that many native peoples in Alaska have not been conquered by war or battle, a fact that has stood them well in court battles over land.

Where I have been living in Sitka, Alaska, the original native inhabitants defeated one group of Russians, then retreated before massive firepower in battle with another group. They lost their land, but not their lives.

Our historic relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church sowed seeds of distrust with which we United Methodist are still struggling with and living with today. Documented comments by oldline denominations basically declared, in their theological feeling of superiority, that the Russian Orthodox followers were not really Christian, hence it was okay to evangelize in their territory in Alaska. We United Methodists were assigned the area of the Aleutian islands in 1880 agreements and by the year 1955 we had one local church with approximately 1 member.

Last February 21st that congregation was rechartered and we are now reestablishing an United Methodist witness in Dutch Harbor and Unalaska, motivated more by the great human need that exists there in modern day fisheries, rather than in trying to convert persons from the Russian Orthodox Faith. Six groups of Volunteers in Mission are building a new building there this very summer.

We are dealing with some of the same issues in the former Soviet Union, as we see fields white for harvest there, but must come to terms with how we will relate to the historic faith of that land, the Russian Orthodox church. The “Reader’s Digest” not withstanding, the relationships we are trying to build there are not simple and worthy of truth telling in its totality, not in bits and pieces. It was of special interest to me to learn that Ollie North and I have something in common now. We both dislike the “Reader’s Digest”.

Choice: to be a Jonah, who does not want to relate to persons he has no regard for, or to be a ‘party person’, as described by the Apostle Paul, or to be open to God’s leading to include persons who are different from ourselves, religiously speaking, knowing that this is being faithful to the biblical witness in its entirety, if not in specifics. John Wesley focused on this problem in his own relationships with religionists who differed from him on some of the details of religious life. he suggested that if one’s heart is right, then ‘give me your hand’. He also suggested that except for the essentials of the faith, he would “think and let think”, which probably cut down some of the conflict.

We have lots of examples of religionists who take a narrow view on acceptable beliefs and behavior, with the results of lots of human misery, wars and hostility. Gracious behavior, in relationship to our treatment of other religions, will do more for Christianity than ungracious behavior.

Given the attitude that all persons should believe as we believe, prior to inclusion in fellowship or even in being allowed to participate in activities, it is evident that even Jesus would be excluded from some meetings and organizations. Lest we forget, Jesus was a Jew.

In 1981 we were given our second appointment in Anchorage, where there are enough clergypersons of similar style, so most groups did not associate with anyone who might be ‘different’. But even the liberal, mainline, oldline, sideline group was able to develop its own problem of inclusion/exclusion. This centered on the question of whether or not to create a group in which a Jewish Rabbi could hold membership. The debate faced the organization several times and some did not participate because Jews were not included and others threatened to withdraw if Jews were included. The political climate was very difficult, until Roman Catholic Archbishop Francis Hurly made it known that he wanted the Jewish Rabbi to be included.

After several years of foot dragging and inaction, I decided to give the situation some intentional focus and I found myself in one of the bitterest debates of my career, as some felt that this decision centered on protecting the purity of the Christian Faith for all time. In the process of allowing this to happen, the Interfaith Council of Anchorage was created.

A fascinating footnote was to hear a Catholic priest in 1987 mouth some of the same objections to including other religions that were said about Catholics in 1961.

Why did Jesus associate with sinners, instead of the holy Pharisees (of which he most probably was a member in good standing)? Jesus did associate with sinners, you know. The Bible is very clear at that point.

He also associated with Samaritans…with women…with lepers…with fishermen…with tax collectors…but not with Mormons or Roman Catholics or Baptists (not counting John the Baptizer) or United Methodists. For some, the bible has to be very specific to be effective and that is a shame. I would prefer that people focus on the spirit of Jesus Christ, then we might get the point he was trying to make with his own life and witness.

The Bible provides us with enough information for us to make a choice. Fortunately, the early church struggled with this choice (Can Gentiles become Christians without first becoming Jews?) and we were allowed in…directly, not as second-class citizens, religiously speaking.

Even the Old Testament struggles with the question of relationships with foreigners and some put away foreign wives, but Praise God, Boaz married one (Ruth) and helped produce the line that produced a very important Jew in my life, the Jew named Jesus.

This has been a helpful quotation for me in my own spiritual life. It comes from the experience of a pastor Martin Niemoeller during and after World War II, in Germany.

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Personal paraphrase: (based on Niemoeller’s quote)

First they came for the Indians, and I didn’t speak up, because it was before my time; then they came for the communists, and I spoke up and my patriotism was questioned, until the time came when relating to some communists was made popular by Nixon and Reagan; then they came for the Catholics and I spoke up and some walls of separation and suspicion came tumbling down for some; then they came after the trade unions, and I didn’t speak up, because there were obvious excesses of power in some of the unions; then they came after a variety of religious sects and new religions and different religions, and I spoke up and experienced some alienation, but I felt in tune with the spirit of Jesus Christ; then when they came after me, I knew that I would survive, for I had sought for the truth and the truth has made me free.

Consider these words of Edwin Markham:

“Someone drew a circle that shut me out

Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout,

But LOVE and I had the wit to win

We drew a circle that took someone in.”

Personal correspondence with Tony Campolo, an articulate and respected writer and speaker, produced this quotation:

“I think that evangelicals and liberals can get along quite well as long as evangelicals are willing to admit, as I do, that the evangelical position is only a Christian position and not the Christian position. It is only when persons extablish a particular theological stance as the only legitimate one to have in order to be part of the household of God that real trouble starts….”   (dated 11/4/85)

Not a bad creedo for Bible times or modern times. It applies, in my view, to relationships with others than liberals and evangelicals. When we have a history of suppressing cults, for example, we only give rise to feelings and attitudes that have the potential of coming back and haunting us in future years.

I am aware, for example, that Methodism was regarded in negative ways (the word “cult” may have been used) in our beginning years. Certainly the enthusiasm of those years was suspect in many Christian circles.

We need to be very careful, as United Methodists and as Christians, as to the way in which we relate to other religions.

The primary new word added to my vocabulary is the importance of holding persons of others faiths in esteem. Now I must confess that this is easier for me with some groups than others. It will be a real challenge to attempt to practice that in my own faith and life, for there are some representatives of other faiths (and my own faith) that are very difficult to hold in esteem.

In addition, it is extremely important for persons of all faiths to share the main points of their own faith clearly, in those forums where it is appropriate. Harvey Cox has a new book “Many Mansions”, which would be very helpful in focusing on his learnings in this area. He speaks of the need to speak up for Jesus in the context of dialoguing with other religions.

Some of my concerns are not yet relevant in Alaska or in Central Illinois, but it is important to establish principles on how we relate to other religions, lest we be guilt of creating the climate to repeat the sins of Ireland, or Yugoslavia or Israel.

It is obvious to me that the deepest fears of Americans could not handle the establishment of Muslim mosques in every city and village of our land, but this is coming in some form, my friends. And they have as much right to evangelize America as we have had to send missionaries to Alaska, Africa and Asia in recent decades. Give our demonstrated lack of willingness to dialogue with one another within the Christian community, there is no question how some of us would handle new faith options in our midst.

We would turn our backs on the opportunities or we would give birth to hostility that would only damage the fabric which holds us together in human community. Humanity and the earth deserves better treatment.

History has shown that we are not able or willing to dialogue together, so we have demonstrated our capacity. However, for those of us who wish to enter the 2lst century by helping our church prepare for even greater, if not more difficult opportunities, then such reflection is imperative.

One of the best reminders is to remember that final judgment of other religions is not in our hands. It is in God’s hands. One of the things I learned in seminary was Dr. Phillip Watson’s call to Let God be God!





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