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The New Testament book of James reminds us that we do well if we fulfill scripture’s royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). Our neighbor is not only the person next door, but the one we haven’t yet bothered to get to know, the one of a different socioeconomic class, the one of another religious or cultural perspective. Our neighbors are increasingly diverse. As Diana Eck reminds us in relation to our own Constitution, “We the people” in our religiously pluralistic society includes the Muslim, the Buddhist, and the Hindu.

“If you show partiality,” James warns, “you commit sin” (2:9). The command to love our neighbors challenges us at the core of who Christ calls us to be. It challenges us to be inclusive in our welcoming. It challenges us to widen the scope of the ones we call our neighbors. It challenges us to live the gospel values of hospitality, compassion and grace.

When it comes to the church and who is in and who is out I am always stunned by God’s graciousness.

People I cannot relate to, God lets in.

People I don’t understand, God lets in.

People whose life decisions I can’t embrace, God lets in.

People who are stubborn or opinionated or worse, God lets in.

People who are not like me – fine, upstanding sinner that I am – God lets in.

God lets in all kinds of people. It’s the church that sometimes closes the door in the face of the hurting, the addicted, the self-righteous, the poor, the sojourner, or the different.

I favor the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.

I am constrained by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to accept those whom God accepts.

As a follower of Christ I believe in my heart that God accepts me and loves me as I am.

God’s grace is so unfathomable that you and I experience it even when the people around us know we don’t deserve it.

God’s love comes to us even when we know ourselves to be unlovable.

I have felt the assurance of God’s forgiveness and grace in my life. How can I deny it to other sinners?

The doors to God’s grace open wide to a vast array of imperfect people. How can I close a door that God opens?

As another pastor is quoted as saying, “I am so glad that God wants people who sin and struggle with sin to come to church, because as Pastor, I would hate to be excluded from the church I serve in.”

God’s kingdom is an alternative Realm where the least, the last, and the lost are God’s most urgent concern. How these neighbors are treated is a sign of how well the church understands God’s purposes.

A wonderfully inclusive welcome statement at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona Beach generated a lot of buzz on the Internet recently. It reads:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, y no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail, or could afford to lose a few pounds.

“We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woke up, or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s baptism.

“We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, and junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like ‘organized religion,’ we’ve been there too.

“If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

“We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!”

Again I ask, if God opens a door to my neighbors, who am I to close it?

Words (c) 2012 Mark Lloyd Richardson