The Welcoming Church
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The Welcoming Church
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
David Hartwig, a four-year-old, came up to me after our pre-school children’s chapel. I was the assistant pastor at Edison Park Lutheran Church in Chicago and one of my duties was to present the week’s Gospel at a pre-school level for our church school place so long ago that now little David is probably middle-aged but I still remember this boy asking me if he should pluck his eye out. “Of course not, David,” I said, “Jesus just said that in the Bible to make people listen.”
What Jesus said was quite dramatic: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’ If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame, rather than having your two feet to be cast into Gehenna, into the fire that will never be quenched—’where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’ If your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out. It is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire, ‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.'” (Mark 9:43-48 WEB).
Well, looking back, I wonder how in the world I ever talked about this to pre-schoolers. It reminds me of a running joke I had with our children’s ministry director that she should give a children’s message with paper dolls and a hibachi grill. Those who follow Jesus get to stay paper dolls and even put on fancy paper doll clothes; those who do not love and follow Jesus, well, into the hibachi they go. It always bugged her when I would bring this up and neither she nor I had any intention of ever doing this with the children. None of us want to hear about a hell of fire or a worm that never dies. So like most preachers, I will not preach on that part of the text.
I have talked at times about salt—we are to be the salt of the earth. In the ancient world, Roman soldiers were paid in salt—that is where we get our word “salary.” Just a little salt can flavor food and preserve it well, but I am not going to preach on that part of the text either.
Instead, I want to look at the first part of the passage which has been called, “The Strange Exorcist.” It seems that John and the other disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The exorcist was not a follower of Jesus or under the disciples’ authority and likely someone using the Lord’s name superstitiously. The disciples tried to stop him.
Reading this, I thought of the two thousand years of church history and that of Israel as well. In the Old Testament lesson, Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor goes to Moses. Two men, Eldad and Medad, had not gone to the Tabernacle to receive the spirit of prophecy but had prophesied in the camp. Joshua wanted Moses to stop them, but Moses answered them, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29 WEB).
I suppose that it was important to keep order in the Hebrew camp. It is surely important to have good order in the church. The Lutheran Confessions say that no one should publicly preach or teach without regular call, really without being ordained. Throughout history, popular movements have risen up and been suppressed by ecclesiastical authorities. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for being a heretic, Jan Hus, Savonarola, hundreds had their bodies burned to save their souls. The most famous Norwegian reformer was Hans Nielsen Hauge who was imprisoned by the state Lutheran Church of Norway under the conventicle act—he was preaching without being ordained or under the authority of the bishop. John Wesley preached in the fields because the Church of England of which he was a priest, would not let him preach in church buildings. Jewish authorities sought to stop the Christian movement. Stephen was stoned, James killed, Peter and Paul thrown into prison, early believers driven out of Jerusalem. Peter and the apostles would have been killed but the Book of Acts records that a Pharisee in the Council known as Gamaliel, respected by all the people, stood up and said, “You men of Israel, be careful concerning these men, what you are about to do…. Now I tell you, withdraw from these men, and leave them alone. For if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!” (Acts 5:35, 38-39 WEB).
Right doctrine is important. Our Gospel says that it would be better to have a millstone hung around the neck and be thrown into the sea than cause a little one to stumble. Those in authority, both spiritual and if possible, temporal, are charged with keeping God’s Word, preaching it in purity and protecting it. One of Queen Elizabeth’s titles is Defender of the Faith. She appoints bishops and at times has overruled Anglican leaders in her choice. It is why kings instituted the inquisition and church authorities bound heretics over to be burned, why emperor expelled unbelievers or false believers and Jews and why even in recent times were forbidden to pretend that they were churches—no bells, no steeples, no proselytizing. Jehovah’s Witnesses were put into Nazi concentration camps along with homosexuals and Jews. Scientology is considered a business in Britain and against the law in Germany. Those who teach false doctrine and lead others astray are dangerous. Like a certain exorcist, perhaps, who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but was not a disciple like John and the others.
But wait…Jesus does not commend John but scolds him. Jesus had just been teaching about welcoming little children. “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37 WEB). Jesus’ followers had just been upbraided for trying to one-up each other and told to become like children, humble and unassuming. Greatness is found in service. Hospitality, especially to the least, welcomes God. Now the disciples are still at it—making sure that they are in control, that everyone will recognize their greatness. We can get prickly when we think our dignity is under attack but who were these church fathers anyway but tax collectors and fishermen now acting high and mighty? Jesus calls them to task. Even outsiders can do works of grace and mercy. They may not be ordained or in the right denomination. They not even be Christian, but Jesus blesses them. Anyone who loves Jesus, anyone who wants to follow God and lives out justice and mercy is acceptable. Even giving a cup of water in the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. God’s spirit could rest on those outside the Tabernacle. The blessing of God can be upon an unknown exorcist. The whole idea of inside and outside breaks down right here.
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The church I served voted to be a welcoming congregation. Part of that was the adoption of a welcome statement. This is the one Central Lutheran Church adopted: “We embrace all of God’s people regardless of ethnicity, physical and mental abilities, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or economic circumstance and we welcome all to join with us in worship, fellowship and ministry.” The statement was overwhelmingly ratified by the congregation.
In some ways it became harder for the congregation. I know when some group says they are friendly, I become suspicious. Do they mean it or are those just words? Certainly people asking the question may be gay or lesbian or transgender. That is what much of the welcoming movement has been about. But being welcoming also means we had to make a Braille version of our service available to a woman who was blind. It meant discussion over welcoming the handicapped, especially one boy who was severely handicapped and sometimes disruptive. One person told me of going to church camp where they talked about inclusivity but made no effort to include a boy in a wheelchair.
And being welcoming is not just about the pastor or church workers but the culture of a congregation. Shortly after Central Lutheran Church had adopted its welcome statement and put a framed copy over the guest book, an e-mail came to me in the office: “Dear pastor, today my mother and I (a Lutheran pastor’s wife and daughter) visited Central Lutheran during our brief stay in Eugene. With us were another Lutheran pastor (retired) and his wife. Your church building is beautiful and the organ everything a Lutheran would require—and more—for hymn singing and making music to God’s glory. But my word, we have never been to a more unwelcoming church. Your greeters greeted friends but looked right through us. There was literally no one who said hello! Even the sharing of the peace was perfunctory. It was the oddest experience and one that has left us bemused all day. I’m telling you this because your bulleting and website claim that Central Lutheran is a welcoming church. We were welcomed with more enthusiasm and more frequently at Macy’s after the service.” I got back from vacation and read the e-mail and wondered if we should take down the welcome sign.
Garrison Keillor talks about Lutherans as “shy people.” I suspect that some of the unfriendliness was do to shyness. There is often a northern European reserve but that is really no excuse to talk only with the same people, people just like oneself. All have been estranged from God and welcomed home by a waiting father. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s grace but it is just that grace that welcomes us in the name of Jesus Christ, forgives us our sins and makes us part of the community of Christ.
A local rabbi wrote a piece in the newspaper recently about humility in religion. Rabbi Maurice Harris of Temple Beth Israel wrote, “I believe much rests on our ability to adopt an attitude of humility about the greatness or absolute rightness of one’s own religion. This is an attitude I call religious humility. It is absolute certainty, whether personal or religious, that gets us into trouble.” Moses told Joshua that the ideal would be the spirit of God resting on each person so that everyone would speak God’s word as a prophet. Jesus told John and the other disciples to welcome the little child, to be hospitable, and not to worry so much about power and authority. God does not need defending and order, while important, is not the most important. Be charitable and welcome those who may be welcome elsewhere. Accept the works of justice done even outside the community of faith as deeds rewarded by God. Truth and love go together in a welcoming church And yes, you may keep your eyeballs. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.