21 September 2008

Welcoming Everyone God Sends Our Way

Acts 2: 43-47 & Romans 12: 2, 9-18, 21

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 21st September 2008

They say a painting is worth a thousand words. The same can be said for a photograph. The way a photographer composes a frame can speak volumes without saying a word. This week I came across such an image, a photograph of a square sign posted on an iron fence that blocks off a path running beside an old church. The sign reads: CHURCH PATH - THE PUBLIC USE THIS PATH ENTIRELY AT THEIR OWN RISK. How’s that for welcoming? The church is the United Reformed congregation (basically English Presbyterians), in Baldock, England. Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there is indeed a very dangerous path and they’re just protecting themselves against a lawsuit. They have to be stern in their warning. But the tone of the sign still is not welcoming.

The possibility of a dangerous path aside, the photo almost becomes an icon, an image with multiple levels of meaning. The photographer, David Cowie, entitles the image “Beware of the Church,” as if raising the specter that danger lurks beyond the gates down the church path. Does the use of the word “public” imply that there’s a private use of the church path that is somehow safe for church members? The insiders are okay, but outsiders, beware? And if the public, non-member happens to venture there alone, well, you’ve been warned, you’re on your own. From a different angle, we could ask is the “church path,” that is the way of the church, the Christian life public or private? How does one make the move from public to private? The sign doesn’t say. From a different perspective, still, it’s true that the church path, the way of the church, the Christian life is not for everyone and whoever walks it knows there’s always a risk involved. My sense, however, is that the photographer wants us to see the image the church often projects, that so many people perceive the church of Jesus Christ, as a closed-off, uninviting, private place, not welcoming of those who choose to wander down its path – and maybe a little scary. [1]

Last year, a study group here slowly walked through Anthony Robinson’s insightful study, Transforming Congregational Culture. Back in May, members of the group hosted several conversations during adult education hour that sought to share what insights we gained from that experience. My first week back, I phoned Vicki Haupt to ask how it went. I heard there was a huge response to these sessions and many purchased the book. I asked Vicki what were the main themes or issues that flowed from the study. She said four major themes emerged, areas of ministry where there seem to be a lot of energy and focus: Number 4, had to do with leadership. How do we all become better leaders to move this church forward? Number 3, mission – how can we focus our mission efforts, yet be open to new opportunities to serve? Number 2, member care, how can we improve the ways we care for folks and allow folks to feel better connected. The number one issue was hospitality, yes we are a friendly church, but we need to take this deeper and figure out what this means and how we’re going to do this.

Last Sunday, I tried to stress the point that hospitality stands at the center of both Judaism and Christianity. It was integral to nomadic, desert cultures (still is today). But it’s more than just being nice to one’s neighbor. It’s not about social etiquette. We saw that there’s a link between being open, receptive to the stranger, the guest, and the way we open ourselves up to God, being receptive to the presence of the Spirit. There’s a connection between the way we welcome the stranger and entertain the presence of God.

In her recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, Diana Butler Bass notes that one of the ten signposts of churches experiencing renewal is its approach toward hospitality. It doesn’t mean that such churches have “welcoming committees” or hospitality programs, “where friendliness seems little more than a phony act to get newcomers to join the church.” We’re not talking about a religious Welcome Wagon, that emerged in the 1960s, which, “for all its friendliness, was essentially a way to promote certain stores and products.” Hospitality is not a code word for “promotion,” with the church as the primary product, where it becomes “an instrument used for another end: to sign people up as pledging members.”

Bass writes, “True Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith – something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself.”[2]

And it’s something Christians do because it flows from what we have experienced in our relationship with God in Christ. In other words, Christians can be hospitable and will be hospitable people as a result of knowing the hospitality of God. And where do we see that? We see it all over scripture, but most profoundly in Jesus Christ and our life in him and through him. I’d like to think of hospitality less as one more “should,” one more thing we “have” to do and more as something that flows from our remembrance that we too have been received as guests in God’s kingdom; that we too were once estranged from God, but are no longer through Christ; that we have been welcomed, through the Spirit, into the very presence of God. It’s a way of life that flows from the depths of our being, from the core of who we are. Only then will hospitality be authentic, as an end in itself, instead of being a means to something else.

Let’s go a little deeper. If God’s welcome toward us is the motivating element in our welcome of others, then we’re free – or at least freer – to take risks in how we welcome the guest, the stranger, even the foreigner in our midst. We are free – or at least freer than most – to welcome someone unlike ourselves into the community of Christ, because in welcoming the stranger we just might be entertaining angels unawares, as scripture says (Hebrews 13:2). Who knows how many times we have missed an opportunity to be blessed by a stranger, missed the chance to be blessed by God, because of our distrust, suspicion, and fear of the stranger or the strange? But I’m convinced the reason the church can take such risks and even foolishly trust another, can welcome someone new into the community without a spirit of suspicion is because grace is operating in our spirits, because we know what it means to be loved and accepted and welcomed into the arms of God. Fear cannot be the controlling mechanism of how treat the stranger or guest.

Go deeper still. It’s grace, love, and acceptance that needs to be at work for true, authentic community to take place. The New Testament has a special word for it: koinonia. Koinonia is a bond, a unity, an affection within the community that is deep and profound and lasting. It’s more profound than being simply nice or appearing to be nice. Because of Christ we are all connected, tethered to one another despite all of our differences. Koinonia is what’s needed for the church to really be the church and not merely a private club or association.

This is a major issue facing the church these days, across denominational lines, where some Christians think they can only associate with other Christians who think, believe, act, and even vote the same way. This is what one person has called “cookie cutter Christian” churches, because they tend to stamp out members who are carbon copies of one another. After awhile, the members of such churches even begin to look like each other! John McFadden, a church consultant, writes: “These churches have a way of justifying their uniformity. They quote scripture to demonstrate that ‘all brethren should be of one mind’ or insist that there can only be one correct doctrine and one proper way for Christians to live. They seem to think it is their mission to force all members to conform to a single identity.”[3] We could almost call this a kind of Christo- fascism that demands everyone to be the same. This is just nonsense – it’s ridiculous – and, actually, it’s antithetical to what the early church was like.

Anthony Robinson offers a different image which the study group found helpful, one closer to the New Testament vision of the church. He prefers to think of the church with “a clear center but open boundaries. Rather than drawing a hard line that says who is in and who is out, the centered church articulates and honors its center in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But the walls have many doors (not unlike Catonsville Presbyterian). The boundaries are porous. Whoever is moving toward the center is welcome, no matter how far from the center they may be coming from. In such a church the goal is not to foster uniformity. It is to receive those whom God sends us. It is to foster in all people their own unique expression of Christ and their own specific God-given gifts for ministry.” [4]

When Christ is the center and the community is continually moving toward that center, we can make room for all the various, wonderfully, diverse people God is drawing into the community. This is also a mature (as opposed to an immature) vision of the Christian faith because it requires plenty of grace, love, mutual forbearance, and tolerance for others who are not where you are on the journey, or tolerance for those who are moving toward the center at a different pace than you might be, tolerance for those moving toward the center from an entirely different perspective or life experience. This approach requires a higher level of emotional, even theological maturity because we have to be able to tolerate ambiguity – which for those who are of a more fundamentalist bent is intolerable, which is why they become intolerant , even intolerable – and not a lot of fun at parties, making life miserable, as well as unsafe and scary for the rest of us.

A pastor-friend of Robinson’s observed, “The more diversity we can welcome into the community of the church, the more of Christ we can reveal – to one another and to the world.”[5] It’s worth stressing this point. The reference to diversity here is more than just a politically-loaded, culturally-charged slogan. We need to remember again and again that the early followers of Jesus were wildly diverse. Just think of the amazing ethnic and linguistic diversity at Pentecost. Yet, the Spirit cuts right across all boundaries, associations and identifications (and doesn’t care about them) in order to draw all people into the community, the church, where Christ is the center. Therefore the community has to make space for all the people the Spirit sends our way. The early Christian communities focused upon Jesus. With this focus, then everything falls into place. With the focus on Jesus, space is provided for everyone. This is why Paul could say for us, “there is neither Roman slave nor free citizen, male or female, Hebrew or Gentile (Galatians 3:28),” and to extend this to our day, there is neither rich nor poor; literate or illiterate; black nor white, Latino, nor Asian; there is their neither liberal nor conservative; evangelical nor progressive; Orioles fan or Yankees fan; Ravens fan or Colts fan; republican or democrat; or any other separating category. The Spirit doesn’t care about these, but cuts right through every prevailing sociological division in order to call all people into a new community founded upon love and grace and acceptance of Christ around a common table.

“We are called to welcome those God has sent,” Robinson writes, “not because we want them to “join the club,” but because in some way God would seek to become present to us through that person.”[6] God becomes present through the visitor, the guest, the stranger.

Over the sabbatical I had plenty of opportunity to meet with friends and meet new friends who were free to share with me all the reasons why they don’t go to church,; why they’ve given up on Christianity, but love Jesus; of their hunger to find not a club, but a authentic community where they will be truly accepted, but they’re reluctant to return, to take the risk to go down the church path because they’ve been hurt too many times before and prefer to just stay home on Sunday mornings – or go to Starbucks. My heart goes out to them and grieves with them. There are days when I don’t blame them.

But I also know what the church can be, that it can be different. So how do we get that message across and out? What “sign” do we have up on the path to our church? How do people in this community “read” us? My hope is that we’re a church that welcomes everyone God sends this way – because it is God who does the sending and our job is to do the receiving, receiving them as if we were welcoming the very presence of God.

[1] The photograph can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidcowie/416519351/
One online commentator looking at the photo noticed that the gate is also chained shut.
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2006), 81.
[3] Quoted in Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 109.
[4] 109.
[5] Robinson, 109.
[6] Robinson, 107-113.

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