All Are Welcome

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I want to ask you do a hard thing. I think you’ll gain a lot from trying it, but I’ll understand if you don’t want to. It’s risky. Before making your decision, I’ll share a little background, offer a rationale from Scripture, and then outline what I want you to do. Okay? Again, it’s up to you; I’ll understand if you decide not to go forward.

First, Some Background

Do you remember the last time you felt decidedly uncomfortable somewhere? Maybe it was the office party where your spouse works. Or at your child’s back-to-school night. Or on a blind date. Or the first day on a new job. Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we don’t know many of the people around us or when we’re not sure of our role, place, or responsibilities. We’ve all been there — feeling left out, alone, out of our depth, unwelcome. It’s a lousy feeling. So lousy, in fact, that we’ll go to pretty great lengths to avoid it.

Now, imagine for a moment feeling that way at church. This may be harder, as for most of us church is one of the places we feel most at home. That’s why, after all, we went into the ministry in the first place. But here’s the thing: each and every week, there are a certain number of people sitting in our pews, listening attentively or only partially to our sermons, singing or just mouthing the words of the hymns, going through the motions of the prayers and liturgy, who do not feel at home at church. More, they feel a bit like an outsider.

That may be hard for us to imagine, but it’s true: a whole lot of people don’t feel particularly welcome or comfortable at church. No one from our congregations sets out to make them feel unwelcome. I know that; you do, too. But the co-workers of our spouse, the parents of our kids’ classmates, the date we just met, the experienced colleagues at our new job — they didn’t set out to make us feel unwelcome or out of place either. It just happens. Blame isn’t the issue.

The issue is what can we do about it.

Second, A Word From Our Sponsor

The biblical texts appointed for this day conspire together to make the case that everyone should feel welcome in our congregations. Why? Because God says they are welcome!

Isaiah comes right out and names them as foreigners. No one will be left out, God promises, gathering the faithful and the foreigners, the insiders and the outcast, all together as one people. Paul, who has struggled these last couple of weeks to understand why so many of his own people have rejected the Messiah, finally realizes that he simply cannot comprehend God’s ways but can only trust God’s promise, both to Israel and all the world. In fact, were we to read one verse further, we would see and hear Paul faithfully throw in the towel and surrender in awe to the mystery and grace of God: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

As strong as these two readings are, however, it’s in Matthew that things really get cooking. We have the quintessential insider/outsider story here, as Matthew reshapes a narrative he has inherited from Mark to break open the idea that some are chosen and some are not. Keep in mind, while reading, that in many ways Matthew’s Gospel is the most “Jewish,” the most interested, that is, in demonstrating that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy, righteous according to the law, Moses’ successor, and so on. In that context, listen to Jim Boyce’s excellent summary of matters as Matthew pits the insider disciples against the outsider Canaanite woman:

So stretch your imaginations to entertain the scene. Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, now leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts, as it were self-styled guarantors of the holy tradition, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff.  On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become as it were a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew’s careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. “Lord, have mercy,” the dog’s solo bleating cry. “Get rid of her,” the “lost-sheep chorus” barks back in reply.

And into this fray strides the shepherd, who not only welcomes this newest and most unlikely of disciples, but praises her great faith!

Yes, all are welcome. All. Everyone. All.

Third, the Challenge

Who knows why people don’t always feel welcome. Maybe they’re present on Sunday as reluctant spouses or children — that is, people who would choose to spend their Sunday mornings another way if it didn’t matter so much to someone they care about that they come to church. Or maybe they’ve never really understood all the things we say and do at church and it’s all just a little confusing. Or maybe they had some bad experiences of the church as a child and it’s hard to ever feel comfortable. Or maybe they just can’t figure out this whole biblical-story thing and just wish the pastor would reference a story they understood. Or maybe they’re intimidated because all the “regulars” seem to know what they’re doing. Or maybe they have a hard time believing that pastor would want them there if you really knew the problems they have. Or maybe….

But that’s the point. We don’t know. And we won’t….

…Unless we ask.

So that’s my challenge, Working Preacher. Talk about these texts. Talk about what it’s like to feel welcome or unwelcome at church. And then ask. You’ll phrase the questions that will work for you better than I can. But here are some suggestions: Do you feel welcome at this church? What makes you feel welcome? What has made you feel not welcome? What do you most love about being here? What’s gets in your way?

Have pieces of paper in the pew. Invite them to write their answers out — they can be anonymous — and put them in the offering. Have them text or email you right there, right then — because we all know if they put it off ’till later they probably won’t do it. And give them your email address, too, for good measure.

You can decide what to do with the responses. Maybe you’ll take them up next week when we talk about the church Jesus has promised to build on those as unlikely as Peter. Or maybe it will stimulate the next pastoral letter you write for the newsletter. Or maybe it will shape your evangelism campaign or your preaching this fall. Or maybe it will just be really, really interesting and give you insight into the people you’ve been called to lead, and love, and welcome in the name of Christ. If so, that will be enough.

Thanks for your faithful labor, Working Preacher. I know it’s not always noticed, let alone appreciated, but it is so very important!

Yours in Christ,

PS: And now a word from our other sponsor:
Walter Brueggemann, Will Willimon! Great worship! Stimulating and practical workshops! Live Sermon Brainwave! All this and more at the 3rd Annual Celebration of Biblical Preaching, Oct. 3-5 — please don’t miss it!