I could not believe what I was reading. An interracial couple is being banned from a Kentucky church in 2011? Unbelievable. Banned from participating in worship, banned from membership, banned from the Lord's table.
Banned is the worst of feelings. I know just a bit of what it's like.
The day had been one of the longest of my life, literally. I boarded a Kenyan Airways flight in Nairobi and flew west with the sun, to Liberia. When I landed a friend met me and we drove to my war-ravaged guesthouse on the Monrovia beach. The next day I would travel eight hours into the jungle to meet our team.
The amber African sun was dipping into the Atlantic and the sky was growing dark, "Hold on," I shouted to my ride, as I pulled my bags out of the back of his Toyota pickup, "Let me make sure there's food here before you leave." I was famished and didn't want to be stranded with no car and no food. I found Nellie, who ran the guesthouse, and she assured me dinner would be waiting for me at the NGO house just three doors down, at six o'clock.
At six I walked down the dirt road by the beach to the NGO house. It was the only one on the beach with metal fencing, razor wire around the top, and an iron gate. I knocked on the dark mahogany door until a young American answered, "How can I help you?"
"I'm here for dinner," I smiled.
"Dinner? Who said you could have dinner here?"
"Nellie. Nellie said I should come down here at six and there would be dinner."
Now picture this, my guesthouse looked like a grenade hit it during the civil war. The sinks were rusted out, mold covered the walls, and the rooms were stifling. As I stood outside the NGO house I could feel the chill from the air conditioners, I could see a couple of other Americans watching ESPN -- these guys even had a satellite dish! Best of all, I could see the table was set.
"Yea, I don't know anything about that. There's no food for you here," he answered nonchalantly.
"No, you don't understand. I've just flown all day from Kenya and my driver already left and I'm starved." Plus, this was an aid organization that was in Africa to feed hungry people -- I was in Africa and I was hungry.
"Don't know what to tell you," was his answer, "there's no food for you here."
He shut the door.
I was banned.
Walking back to my gritty guesthouse, I think the shame stung more than my hunger pangs.
There's something in us that likes to keep people out. When we are on the inside and someone else is on the out, it almost feels good.
Maybe that's why even churches can become places of exclusion.
Social circles are not there to keep people connected, they are there to keep people out. That's what C.S. Lewis' says in his classic essay, "The Inner Ring." In it he describes the problem of rings that exist in every realm of society. "I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local ring and the terror of being left outside."
But the kingdom of God is not supposed to be that way, the kingdom of heaven came to earth to end exclusion and bring inclusion.
When Jesus arrived on the scene the religious ones were good at exclusion. Sinners were excluded, women, foreigners, immigrants, the divorced, the sick. They were all banned.
Scott McKnight uses the powerful metaphor of table to talk about Jewish exclusion. For religious Jews, table had always been a place of segregation. Table was reserved for the pure Jew. Their table was for people who looked like them, agreed with them, dressed like them and talked like them.
We have all seen exclusion. It's still alive today. The high school cafeteria is a microcosm of what it looks like in practically every aspect of life. When you walk into a high school cafeteria, there may be 50 tables, but you are not free to sit at whichever table you like. Tables are where life separates.There's the emo table, the baseball table, the surfer table, the cheerleader table, the burnout table. And then there's the table for kids who have no table. At this table high schoolers sit far apart and don't say a word, because theirs is not really a table at all.
Unfortunately, this kind of exclusion does not stop when you graduate from high school. Segregation, discrimination, racism and bigotry still happen. We exclude because of income, looks, race, background, gender, marital status, ethnicity, nationality, language and accent.
If you have ever been discriminated against in any way, I am sorry. It's time for that to end, and as people of God we can end it together.
When I hear people in churches talk about who is welcomed, I wonder what ever made us think that the kingdom of heaven is only for people like me -- those who talk like me, look like me, and agree with me?
Of all the places in the world where people gather, the church has to be a place where racial and ethnic diversity is celebrated and promoted. The church (Christians everywhere) reflects God's best when we follow Him with people of other ethnicities, race, nationality and color.
When Jesus appeared on the scene he turned the tables upside down.
"The next time you put on a dinner, don't just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks." (Matthew 14:12, The Message)
Our natural tendency is, if a person is different we move away from them and exclude them. Jesus says, go toward them, include them.
Jesus loved to compare the kingdom of God to a dinner party, and everyone was invited; a scandalously open invitation. Jesus shares a story to illustrate the inclusive nature of his kingdom: "A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests ... the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full'" (Luke 14:16-23).
Do you see how this kind of kingdom is for single parents, business owners and factory workers, divorced men and women, company executives and the unemployed, university faculty and high school dropouts, blended families and ... interracial couples!
. . .
Walking back into my dilapidated guesthouse by the beach, I found three former missionary kids -- now in their 30s -- sitting at a small table having dinner. They were back in the country trying to get a generator running for the mission hospital. "Palmer, why are you back already? We thought you had left for dinner."
"Yea, so did I," I laughed. "They said they had no food for me."
"Hey, well come sit down and eat with us," one of them offered. I tried to decline, because I could see their serving dishes were already empty. But they insisted, and each of them took food off their plates -- pieces of chicken, rice, collard greens -- until my plate was full.
As we ate together that night, laughing about memories of growing up in Liberia, I don't think it was the food that felt so good, it was the invitation to sit at their table.
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