Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Of The Vance Avenue Gang And God's Outstretched Arms"

Luke 14: 16-24

Isaiah 56: 3-8

      I don’t remember exactly the year.  It may have been 1964 or 1965.  But I do remember the

names of the members of the Vance Avenue Gang.  There was me, Kristine Dinell, Gino Lalama

[who, believe it or not, was not a blood relation], Martha Whitney, Karol Waite, David Colarossi,

and Arlene Gault.  We ruled the ten hundred block of Vance Avenue….. at least as well as a gang

of eight and nine year-olds could, or until Arlene’s older sister Gail or Karol’s older brother Karey

would chase us away].  Otherwise, we established and held fast our borders and boundaries.  If

another kid wanted to ride their bike, or sled ride, or play catch, or flip baseball cards in the ten

hundred block of Vance, they had to get the okay of our Vance Avenue Gang.  Actually, if they got

the approval of Kristine Dinell, they were fine, because Kristine could easily beat the tar out of any

of the rest of us in a wrestling match.  And how well one wrestled determined one’s authority in

the gang’s pecking order.

     All was well in the hood until something curious happened that summer of ’64 or ’65.  Somehow –

I’m not sure how, although I think it had something to do with a magazine – Martha, Karol,

Arlene and Kristine came to the realization that they were girls, and we were boys.  In one fell

swoop, Gino, David and Larry were ousted from the Vance Avenue Gang.  And we had no recourse

because Kristine, Martha or Karol could wrestle any one of us boys to the ground any day of the

week.  So Gino, David and I were forced to yield the turf to what became the Vance Avenue Girls

We boys retreated to our clubhouse, which was the fruit cellar under Gino’s back porch.  As we sat

among the dried herbs hanging from the rafters and the shelves of jarred vegetables, I remember

thinking, “This really stinks.”  [And in that fruit cellar, it literally did!]  All of us felt genuinely

wounded that we were now the outsiders.

      The prophet writes, “(God’s) house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  These

are lofty and eloquent words which well express the goal of the prophetic proclamation of God’s

grace.  Unfortunately, these words did not square with the reality of the covenant community in

Isaiah’s time or in ours.  Instead, they represented the voice of the community’s conscience – the

prophetic voice – urging the community to reaffirm the foundations of its covenant faith, and to

reform its life accordingly; to do the right things.

      Those to whom the prophet spoke were skilled at establishing and holding fast their borders

and boundaries, discriminating against a great many people:  foreigners, women, the physically

impaired, the socially unacceptable.  None of these groups were welcomed to share fully in the

ritual fellowship or life of the community.  These outsiders had no place within the gang, and no

welcome in the hood. The house of God was not really a “house of prayer for all peoples;only for

those deemed worthy, who were for all intents and purposes unblemished Jewish males.

It was that exclusive.  It was a house of prayer for some peoples.    

      The sad reality is that the covenant community of Jesus Christ, the church, is not altogether different today. 

Don’t you know that ethnic, and racial, and class, and even age discrimination infects religious congregations

as much as it does society at large.  Maybe more so.  Women are still often subordinate to men in the church’s leadership,

even in denominations like our own Presbyterian Church which has, for many years, ordained women to all offices of leadership.  It still

remains a sad reality that few women ministers are given opportunity to serve churches of more

than a handful of members.  Few churches have broken the color barrier.  In America, whites

worship with whites, and blacks worship with blacks, and Latinos worship with Latino’s, and

 Koreans worship with Koreans. Persons of different sexual orientation continue to be marginally

welcome in many congregations – if welcomed at all - and are denied access to positions of ordained leadership in most.

  Churches of wealth and status are generally not wide open to persons we might call “without means.

”  Sure, we’ve become more polite and polished in our establishing and holding fast our borders and boundaries. 

But the truth is, the public worship of God continues to be among the most exclusive and divisive activities in American culture. 

We have to wonder how far we’ve come, or not come, from the practices of the temple of Isaiah’s day.

      Why do we exclude people?  We learn early in our socials lives to set borders and boundaries as

marks of our identity as a group.  We wear uniforms, perform initiation rites, create symbols, burn

tattoos, and develop common language to distinguish ourselves.  We do it with athletic teams, military forces,

political parties, fraternities and sororities, social clubs, and even clergy groups.

Religious boundaries like these other boundaries begin with good intentions and sound logic, 

identifying a group as people devoted to God, and defining the special commitment one must make

to be part of the group.  Borders and boundaries are meant to circumscribe and protect.

      The trouble with most boundaries is that we forget they are our own creations as we wrongly

sanctify and hallow them.  We confuse our identity and sense of worth with these boundaries we

establish, then defend them as we defend our very selves.  This is what drives what we call a “gang

mentality.”  In terms of religious life, our borders and boundaries which on the surface preserve

the integrity, sanctity and purity of the community of faith in God, often really serve to protect our

personal interests and our sense of self.  So if we’re male leaders, we may feel threatened by

sharing our leadership with females.  If we’re long-timers, we may feel threatened by sharing our

leadership with new folks.  If we are white, we may feel threatened by sharing fully with people of

other skin colors.  And so it is with social class, economic status, and sexual orientation.  So how

do we respond?  We exclude people.  We make it clear they can’t be part of our gang, or hang out

in our hood.  In effect, we set our borders and boundaries on God’s grace.  Hear again:  We set our

borders and boundaries on God’s grace.

      In the ancient witness of the Bible, isn’t it interesting that God works time and again through

outsiders to shatter Israel’s sense of exclusivity, and even to save and restore the covenant community?

For instance, Rahab, a local prostitute in Jericho, aided the armies of Israel in capturing her hometown. 

Ruth, a Moabite foreigner, demonstrated the meaning of loyalty and steadfast love to birthright members

of the Jewish community of which she had been denied a part.  Ebedmelech, an Ethiopian eunuch, saves

Jeremiah’s life and preserves a great prophetic legacy.  Cyrus, King of Persia, has been called messiah for his role

in the salvation of the remnant of Israel after its exile in Assyria.  A Roman centurion, whose name we do not know,

is commended by Jesus Himself when He declares of this enemy of Jews:  “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel

have I found such faith.”  And there are many more such examples throughout Scripture.  For you see, God is the

God of those outside the community as well as those on the inside.  God often shocks us and offends us by working

through strangers and foreigners and outsiders to bring conviction to the faith community, and to call it to reform its life;

to do the right thing.  The voice of the prophet reminds us that it is God who sets the borders and boundaries of God’s covenant of grace, not us.

      For in covenant faith, there are none ineligible.  Everyone stands equally before the Almighty as

God’s beloved children, but also as sinners who have rejected God’s love at one time or another.

Every human being is object of God’s continuous, redeeming love, whether the person lives within

the human-imposed boundaries of the community of faith, or outside of it.  “The foreigners who

join themselves to the Lord” as Isaiah writes requires only trusting faith and obedient commitment to God. 

There are really no other boundaries according to God’s prophetic word.  And although we tend to work hard

to establish and hold fast the borders and boundaries according to

our own devices, the God who sent His Son that the world be saved works to remove these   

barriers, and to make the way open for everyone.  That is a key point of Jesus’ parable of the banquet

which Rich read earlier.  The borders are opened and the barriers brought down,

allowing the outsiders to become insiders.  This isn’t about politics.  It’s about humanity.

      The prophetic message of the gift and claim of God’s love for all people uttered some 2500

years ago puts our boundary-setting in a whole new light. In light of the witness found in Isaiah, we

must admit that most of us are content with the borders and boundaries which exist in the church,

and have no urgent desire to change them. Most of us feel comfortable in homogenous congregations,

where everyone is very similar, and do little to go out of our ways to include people who are unlike us. 

Who do we tend to exclude – politely and with polish – because of social or economic class, or gender,

or orientation, or skin color, or physical limitations, or whatever else?  The prophetic word and Jesus’ parable

are sharp reminders that those whom we exclude on those grounds are loved by God, and remembered by God,

and should be fully welcomed and fully included participants in God’s “house of prayer for all peoples.” 

     On a closing note, the prophet’s word of inclusivity does not mean that there are no parameters.

Isaiah does place what we might see as qualifiers upon the “foreigner” and the “eunuch;”qualifiers

which apply as well to those previously invited; those already inside.  That qualifier is the demand

that God’s love places on the lives of any and all who seek to be faithful; who hold fast to the

covenant which is described by the greatest commandment, articulated by Jesus Himself.  And it is

this:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all

your mind…and…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang

all the law and the prophets.”  But that is the sole qualifier.  Any others that we impose, or boundaries we

establish risk violating the integrity of God’s love and grace. 

      I believe in this age, God is calling us to open wide the doors of the covenant community; the

church.  Becoming the hood – the neighborhood of God in a manner of speaking – a hood in which

there are no outsiders – is a responsibility, a privilege, and no small challenge.  Welcoming the

outsider and empowering those who have been historically disempowered ultimately strengthens

and enriches the life of the covenant community.  God’s promise is that those who hold fast to

God’s covenant of grace will have an everlasting legacy.  With that promise as the foundation of

our trust, we can commit ourselves without reservation to a faith community whose borders are as

open as the heart of God, and whose boundaries are as wide as the outstretched arms of Jesus

Christ, who says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will

give you rest.”

 

Heavenly Parent, teach us to be the community of covenant faith You have called us to be; a

covenant based on loving You fully, and treating others as we ourselves wish to be treated.  May

we open our doors to all -- inviting them; receiving them; accepting them; empowering them, and

joining ourselves to them in Your holy enterprise.  May this house be a house of prayer for all

peoples.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.