“First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Matthew 23:26
This past weekend I traveled to my hometown of Salem, Virginia (just outside of Roanoke) to visit friends and family. If you’re like me and you only go home once or twice a year, then maybe you can relate to alternating feelings of comfort and discomfort when you revisit familiar places and people.
I happened to be home on a Sunday, and I wanted to attend a church service. However, every time I thought about going to the small-town church where I grew up, Locust Grove UMC, I would get this clenched up feeling, this wave of anxiety. It came out of nowhere. What was I so afraid of?
For the last almost 9 years, I’ve been living in a much bigger city and attending a much bigger church. I’ve spent much of my adult life as an educator serving urban, black students and witnessing the effects of poverty and institutionalized racism. I’ve become very involved in my new church, Rayne UMC, and I’ve taken pride in our decision to be a reconciling church and our focus on serving the physical needs of our community. In short, my membership at Rayne and my passion for social justice has become a huge part of my identity.
When I thought about attending Locust Grove last weekend, instead of wanting to identify with my old church, I found myself wanting to distance myself. Even though I hadn’t been there in many years, I gathered evidence in my mind of my hometown church’s otherness, writing the congregation off as homogenous, uneducated, and closed-minded.
But was that true? I didn’t feel that way when I was growing up, but now I had seen the world. I was enlightened. Right? But I had the nagging feeling that my fear was unfounded and I was being ridiculous. So I decided to go. My mom, who also hadn’t been to Locust Grove in a few years, agreed to come with me.
Here we go, I thought, as we walked down the hallway leading to the sanctuary. It was lined with pictures of all the former pastors. All white men, I noted, beginning my catalogue of evidence.
I thought we would be able to slip in the back and expected to go largely unrecognized. Surely most of the people I remembered had moved away or, perhaps, had died. Most of the church members had seemed ancient when I was younger! However, no sooner did I turn the corner than I saw a familiar face and got a big hug. And then I got three more hugs. When we sat down, the folks in front of me and to my right waved, and I realized I knew them, too.
The service, though sprinkled with more Amens and out-loud prayers, was more similar to than it was different from my New Orleans church. As I was receiving even more hugs after the service, I felt ashamed at my own fear and smallness of thinking.
I owe a lot to my former church. It’s where my parents and grandparents got married. It’s where I was baptized and confirmed. It’s where I learned the importance of service by caroling at retirement homes and delivering Easter baskets to shut-ins. It’s where I met my first transgendered person who took the time to talk to me about why she looked different. It’s where church members thanklessly taught me Sunday school and led my youth group Sunday after Sunday, year after year. They brought meals to our family when my parents divorced. My former youth leader even picked me up during my second month of college and drove me home to attend my granny’s funeral. The people at this country church poured into me, and it’s because of them that I know about the expansive love of God.
This experience has me thinking about other groups that I’ve distanced myself from recently. Particularly during this polarizing election cycle, I’ve been quick to come up with reasons why I’m right and others are wrong without bothering to meaningfully engage.
Isn’t that what the Pharisees did during Jesus' time? The Pharisees were the leaders of the church. They were constantly criticizing Jesus and his followers for hanging out with sinners and doing other things that the Pharisees believed you just didn’t do if you were a holy person. Jesus saved some of his harshest words for the Pharisees. In fact, in a speech known as the eight woes (Matthew 23), Jesus calls out the Pharisees for condemning others while being blind to their own sins. He calls them “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “serpents,” and “a brood of vipers.” Yikes! Jesus accused the Pharisees of showing off a clean outside, but being dirty on the inside.
Am I any better? Wasn’t I congratulating myself for my inclusion and my open-mindedness while at the same time silently separating myself from my old church members? I’m thankful that I paid attention to my nagging feeling that my fears were baseless and that I revisited my old church. I hope that I have the courage to continue focusing on what I have in common with others rather than our differences.
Is there a person or group of people that you have been writing off in your mind and trying to distance yourself from? What are you afraid of? Have you thought that maybe you might be wrong? Is it possible that you might be more alike than different?