Inclusivity: Draw the Circle Wide

by Sarah Daigen - August 17, 2014 A reflection on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 Listen to the audio recording

What Isaiah speaks of in today’s scripture reading is, in a word, inclusion – which we may consider to be a very modern idea, but is in fact an ancient one going right back to the heart of Christianity, and, clearly, had at least some resonance in the early Jewish community as well. This concept, inclusion, is also something very near and dear to our own hearts here at Trinity as well. Why it’s right in our very own mission statement that we developed last year with Momentum for Mission. The very first set of definitions we provide of ourselves in that wonderful document is as follows;

“We are open and welcoming; we are accepting, inclusive, diverse and progressive; we are compassionate friends and family; we are nurturing, supporting each other on journeys of discovery; we are critical thinkers, who create a safe place to question and explore.”

And how does our mission statement close?

“We believe all are loved by God; we believe each of us can experience the Divine; we believe in lessons from our Christian tradition; we believe truths are found in many spiritual traditions; we believe God is in all creation – the kindness of strangers, love of friends and family, in nature; we believe a more just and sustainable world is possible.”

Inclusion, as such, is the beginning and ending, the Alpha and Omega, of how we see ourselves here at Trinity. In short, it is, at its root, the Holy itself, the very way we live God’s love.

Now to be sure, ‘inclusion’ in Isaiah’s time and place meant something different than the concept we embrace today, which, to be fair, the prophet in his context probably couldn’t even envision. While Isaiah advocated that non-Jews be welcomed in the Temple, and be welcomed at worship, he expected that they would “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants”, to “keep the Sabbath … and hold fast my covenant”, making burnt offerings and observing all official Jewish ritual. This is a long way from believing that ‘truths are found in many spiritual traditions’, but, in its day, when Gentiles were seen as inherently unclean and to be avoided at all costs by the children of Israel, it was nonetheless a radical message of inclusivity in that community.

The message of inclusion was, and is, a message that people – and people of almost any persuasion, might I add – have continued to struggle with and do still struggle with today, even with the best of intentions. One of today’s potential Scripture readings from the lectionary included a story of Jesus himself – whose open and inclusive ministry inspires ours – struggling with whether or not to heal the child of a Gentile woman who had heard of, and believed, in his ministry. Now, while I don’t think anyone would accuse Jesus by any means of being exclusionary, either by the standards of his own day, or, in many ways, our own – in fact, he was radically the opposite – it can nonetheless be both challenging and reassuring to know that the very standard-bearer of our faith, and what it can represent at its finest, still sometimes needed to stretch his own understandings in order to be his best self.

And the arguments surrounding inclusion and exclusion would resound throughout early Christianity, in Jesus’ wake also. Was “The Way”, as it was called then, largely a Hebrew movement, one Jewish sect among many? Was it an evangelizing faith, reaching out to Gentiles and others? And if the latter, would those ‘outsiders’ be expected to abide by Jewish law in order to follow Jesus? Would they need to pay tithes to the Temple, make offerings to Yahweh, maintain a kosher diet and – perhaps most controversially – face circumcision? Ultimately – especially as Christianity became a predominantly Gentile religion and, ironically, the official faith of the Roman Empire who had initially so oppressed it – our predecessors in faith opted for the more inclusive option.

Clearly, we know now from our vantage point in the 21st century that, while this widening of the circle was a noble goal, it did not exactly become a universal tenet of the faith that was embraced going forward. Many denominations of the Christian church, and for that matter, different branches of other faiths, have decided to proceed along much more exclusionary lines. The result has been much animosity – both between different faiths, and between different understandings of the same faith umbrella. From exclusion from Sacraments and rights such as Communion or the reading of the Torah for those who are not sufficiently ‘pure’ or ‘devout’, to the out-and-out murders being carried out in Iraq right now by the terrorist group ISIS on those who are, quite simply, ‘not Muslim enough’ in their eyes, we can see the results of dogma being valued more highly than what is arguably the greatest commandment central to any functional faith – to love each other as we love God, to care for all of God’s creation.

Within the United Church of Canada in general, and certainly here in our community at Trinity, we have tried to live that Great Commandment into action. In my time here, I have been aware of fellow worshippers among us of many different identities in terms of age, race, economic status, disability, physical and mental health, sexual orientation … even people of different faiths, as my husband, who is Jewish, has felt for some time that he is at least a member of our community, if not exactly our faith.

As we look forward to the fall, and to the year ahead, as we explore the Affirming process together, and perhaps seek to confirm and even expand the already-wide circle of our comfort zones, this is something of which we should be proud of the work behind us, inspired by who we are today, and excited about the journey ahead of us. We here at Trinity know we are a compassionate community welcoming to all of God’s children – we have not only embraced Isaiah’s recognition that everyone deserves the opportunity to share in God’s love, we have expanded on it tenfold, and continue to explore ways that we can open our doors even wider.

When more fundamentalist religious communities excuse their more exclusionary approach, they often cite the Bible as the reason – for whoever it is we want to shut out, the Bible is such a diverse piece of work, that surely a reading within it can be found to support any bigotry, any fear, any desire to feel special and chosen as God’s elect. When Christian communities, for example, refer to themselves as ‘Bible-believing’, it often means that those who will be welcomed within their circle of worship are those who meet their standards of behaviour and comportment (while, of course, talking all along about how it is not behaviour, or ‘works’, that lead to salvation, right? But faith in God, and particularly Jesus).

And yet, this leads me to wonder … why do so many of these communities find it important to take some portions of the Bible literally, while ignoring so many exhortations that, frankly, are much more prominent throughout the arc of this founding document of our faith? Love for the most marginalized amongst us, justice and freedom from hate and oppression … While there are certainly plenty of Bible verses to choose from for those who wish to establish that God is a jealous, angry and exclusionary deity (those misunderstandings existed in Biblical times too, of course), it seems to me that, to wholeheartedly embrace anything less than inclusion is to ignore so many important, biblically based messages to the contrary – from Isaiah’s exhortation to welcome Gentiles to worship, to almost the entirety of Jesus’ message, from his sharing meals with lepers and tax  collectors, to holding up, of all people, a Samaritan – looked down upon by the Israelites of his day – as the best example of a faithful helper to one in need, to his ultimate decision to help the aforementioned Gentile woman’s daughter despite his own initial misgivings, stretching his own understanding of who his message of healing included. On that score, I’m not entirely sure that Jesus would entirely recognize some of the exclusionary messages being shared, rules being imposed, and judgement being passed in his name today.

I am so thrilled to be a part of a community like Trinity, which does not embrace that kind of dogma. I’m going to let you in on a little secret that might strike you as a bit odd, given that the work I do here involves meeting and greeting so many wonderful people, and at least some level of public speaking almost every week – despite all that, I am actually, and very deeply, an introvert. It’s true. While I really enjoy meeting new people, and the community that I have found here at Trinity is easily one of the biggest blessings my family’s relocation to Ottawa five years ago has brought me, one of the ways in which my work here has stretched me is that it never really came naturally to me to be the one to step forward and initiate a greeting, a conversation. Without such a warm and friendly community to pull me in, that never make me feel like an outsider or newcomer, I don’t know if I would have ever graduated from ‘that stranger in the back row’ that I was absolutely determined I would be my first Sunday here.

And no mistake – even my, in some ways, very typical nuclear family is one that many other faith communities, sadly, would struggle to welcome. We are of mixed faith, mixed race, our sons are adopted … all unique stories that can breed misunderstanding. And yet, that unquestioning embrace that all four of us have felt from our very first time here has never ended – it has been a five year long hug. And that warm and welcoming environment has helped me to expand my comfort zone, to be more outgoing and to welcome others as I was welcomed. That inclusion, that warmth, is contagious, and it’s something we owe ourselves as a community, and that we owe to anyone else God blesses us to share these pews with.

Whether this is good tidings for some of you, or ill, September is right around the corner for us now here at Trinity. The Fall always signals a season of change, but also renewal, as we know in just a few Sundays we will be welcoming back not just beloved, familiar faces from their Summertime Sabbaths, but new friends as well, seeking a place, as Isaiah says, to ‘keep their Sabbath and not profane it’, where they can feel welcomed, whatever their proverbial burnt offerings might consist of. And I know that we, as a community, of old friends and new, with everything we all have to offer, can steer this Trinity ark into another busy season with room aboard for all as we remember and affirm that the God we worship is indeed the God of Every Nation … as we sing about now at Voices United, hymn #677, “O God of Every Nation.”


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