On the Road: Who Decides Who’s Welcome?

October 15, 2017
Reverend Brennan Blue

Luke 15:25-32; Luke 24:13-27

This morning we continue our month long sermon series exploring what it means to be “the church reformed and always reforming” as our team of associate pastors are exploring what the demands of the protestant reformation mean for you and I and the Church of the 21st century.

Despite the personality of our pastors, I’ve been assured that this sermon series is NOT a competition. In fact, we’ve even agreed to preach our way together through the Road to Emmaus story in turn, and I’m pleased to pick up Sarah’s thread this morning and continue onward from our opening verses.

We left the disciples on the road to Emmaus, discussing the confusing, distressing events surrounding Jesus’ final days.

As they walk along, deep in communication, Jesus comes near and joins in their walk, but their eyes are somehow kept from recognizing him. What will unfold is a touching story of Christ being revealed in the breaking of bread, but here and now, we know that though this saving grace is already present – already closer than they could ever have imagined – these disciples are downcast and kept in the dark.

This is where I want to dive in. As I consider that ways that God is reforming the Church, I’m drawn to one of the most fundamental aspects of the gospel of grace: the very experience of welcome and inclusion.

And I’m left to wonder how many people through the years have been kept from recognizing Jesus because they’ve been unwelcome in our midst.

When it comes to this wonderful experience of faith, home and community that we share in the Church, who gets to say who’s welcome?

This theme was brought to life for our youth on that cold, rainy marathon Sunday two weeks back, as Tim joined our high school Ed Hour lead us on a surprise walking tour of the our church block, interpreting what the pull of our reformed and reforming Spirit means for the Open Doors, Open Futures project.

What unfolded was a practical theology lesson, as we considered what our spaces say about us and how do they shape our perceptions of the world. Are we fundamentally welcoming or guarded? Fearful or joyful? Are we a fortress longing for dominance, or a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city?

As we reflected upon the journey that we’ve shared together, it was clear that there is new sense of opening and welcome unfolding before us:

Locked iron gates are giving way to gardens and glass

Accessible entrances ramps are sprouting up around the building

The youth up and out of the basement

A new large motor and movement space in the new Marquette Hall

And finally, more women’s restrooms than men’s, and more non-gendered restrooms than ever before

Showers and new storage spaces, so Westminster can finally host mission trip groups and reciprocate the welcome we’ve received from others for so long

…there is a beautiful reforming grace sweeping through our midst. It’s inspiring to envision the day when all may be welcomed home to the heart of grace.

Yet, huddled together in the cold, we also questioned one another about why it took so long for Protestants to return to such as a simple idea as all are welcome here. Wasn’t that what “grace alone” was all about? Did we somehow lose sight of this along the way? If so, are we doing the work that we need to do, here and now, to be sure our hearts and lives are opening as swiftly as we are opening our doors and futures?

Now, when it comes to welcome and grace, one of the most celebrated teachings of our faith is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In its most direct interpretation, we are invited to celebrate the surprising gift of God’s grace for all people, particularly those who are lost. We are invited to cheer onward those who’ve wandered away, and to perhaps even recognize our own wandering hearts in the Prodigal’s return.

But where does the reformed and reforming church enter this parable?

As Tim shared in his recent sermon, author Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years the Christian Church holds a giant rummage sale. It throws out what it no longer needs or wants – doctrines, creeds, assumptions, structures – and replaces them with new things.[1]

Though it is painful to admit, this tendency to clear house of things deemed unworthy has often included people.

There are prodigal sons, daughters and persons; entire prodigal people groups who have left their would-be faith home not because of selfish greed, but because of they’ve been told you are not welcome here.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they have been kept from recognizing Jesus; kept from seeing and sharing this great gospel of love and. Whatever happened to “grace alone?”

In many ways, mainline Protestant Christianity in the 21st century Church is reaping the ill rewards of its exclusion. In numerous demographic studies, the Pew Research Center has found that people are leaving Christianity because they view the church as hypocritical, judgmental and insincere.[2] And this is particularly true for our younger generations.

We have embodied the judgement and jealously of the older prodigal’s older sibling for too long, trusting in the power and influence that came with our position of privilege as a white mainline Protestant denomination. Throughout history, our inability to welcome others has betrayed the fact that we are far more broken, far more fearful than we realize.

We know the story. We know the sins.
Racism, sexism, homophobia.
Ageism and ableism.
Colonization and forced assimilation.

We have spent precious centuries validating credentials at our doorways while God’s grace is busy, all the while, throwing a raucous feast of welcome. We have missed out because of it. We have tried to be the gatekeepers, but it is we who need God’s grace and forgiveness.

If the question is who gets to say who’s welcome, I believe that the answer is finally returning to its rightful place:

It is the One whose welcoming love has called us home from the beginning.

The One whose grace alone is the impetus of our salvation.

The One who is calling us, even now, to join in the joyful feast of welcome.

If the church is having its annual 500 year rummage sale, then may God help us to let go of our desire to control who is welcome, where, how and when. As we open doors and open futures, may God grant us the courage to open our hearts, as well, trusting that the more sincerely we welcome others, the more sincerely we will be able to welcome ourselves.

It will be hard, perhaps even scary, to be this open: let go of control and trust so deeply in the grace and welcome of God. But consider that joyful feast.

Consider the day when all are known and loved and truly welcomed home.

I had the privilege of glimpsing this beautiful promise a few months back, as two of the best theologians I know – my wife and our dear five year old neighbor – were working together in our backyard. They were joining in that hopeful work of spring, transplanting the small lettuces starts we’d grown in our basement into the raised beds that line our yard. It was a beautiful day and as they worked together – scooping aside soil, exposing the young roots of plant starts, gently settling them into the garden – I overheard this perfect piece of multigenerational meaning making, as Myla asked “Is this scary for the plants?” And my wife responded in comforting tones, “No, it’s like coming home.”

Thereafter, with each and every plant they transferred, our dear 5 year old neighbor whispered welcome home, welcome home, welcome home.

Can we simply imagine what it would be like if, after a long history of exclusion, the Church can finally become a place of fertile, welcoming soil; a place of radical inclusivity in which all find a place of welcome, love and value? Think of what it would mean for our neighbors. For all those who’ve been kept from recognizing Jesus by Jesus’ own followers. Think of what it would mean for us, if we could finally lay aside the stubborn jealousy of the prodigal’s older sibling and find that we too are being called to the joyful feast.

When we trust in God, we find that grace alone can bring us together and welcome us home. This promise echoes in the breaking of bread to the pouring of our baptismal water; it calls forth in the cry of the prodigal’s father and the joyful whisper of a newborn’s mother, “welcome home, welcome home, welcome home…”

So, friends, may we embody this great hope.

May God bless us with the day when you, when I, when all may feel and know the welcome that comes with God’s grace.

Welcome home, children of God, welcome home.

[1] See more in Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  

[2] There are several iterations of these studies lead by the Pew Research Center, including the recent study found here: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/

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