Extravagant Welcome”

Sunday, June 5, 2016

 

You’ve heard it said many times over, the phrase made so popular by Gracie Allen:   “Never place a period, where God has placed a comma.”   The red comma I often wear on my lapel and stole is the symbol of that super-wonderful phrase.

To those in the know, that comma is an immediate symbol of what we in the United Church of Christ unabashedly call “Extravagant Welcome.”   And as your Deacons, and your Christian Education Committee, your Settled Pastoral Search Team, and your Church Growth Team are getting more and more excited and passionate about their work in growing our congregation in both faith and in numbers, the idea of extravagant welcome becomes more and more – not just an idea, or a hope or a dream - such welcome is becoming more and more a reality.

red apostrophe

So just what does it mean to "place a period?”   It means you’ve come to the end. The road has a stop sign. There is no place to turn around.

On the other hand, what does it mean to “place a comma?”   It means there IS someplace to go, there’s something beyond the turn, there’s hope ahead.   It means that “God is still speaking!”   God is not done with us. And that no matter who we are, no matter our station in life, no matter whether we’ve failed or triumphed, or whether we consider ourselves sinners in the eyes of God, we are nevertheless God’s people, and there is HOPE!

Now THAT’S “extravagant welcome!” if ever there was any.

 

With Arms Open Wide

Let’s take for a moment your own congregation’s way of extravagantly welcoming folks into your midst.   How did Diana and I first meet you all?   At a marvelous Sunday morning reception with a great big cake with our names and picture on it, a bag of gifts to welcome us, some improvements to the Parsonage, and a fresh coat of paint to the Pastor’s study upstairs. You’d thought of everything and more.     Now of course we don’t do those kinds of things ALL the time – we’d go broke, and we’d put on the pounds.   But it is not unlike the biblical story of the father who thought his son was lost, but when he saw that son returning home from indulging in the big city, what did that father do? Yes, he ordered a party, prepared the fatted calf, bring my robes for my son, and put my ring on his finger.  

You certainly remember the story of how the son had descended into the pits, and his only food had been what the pigs themselves had discarded as disgusting.   So with his head in his hands, the forlorn son walked the dusty miles back to his father, who instead of yelling at him, or chastising him, or mocking him, or throwing him back to the city streets - what happened?

YES!   With arms wide open, he welcomed his son home to an extravagantly welcoming party.   “For my son is not dead, but ALIVE!”   Let the rejoicing begin!

Now the story of the Prodigal Son is an extreme case, of course,   and most of us are not in the same position as the wealthy father whose son had been lost.   And yet, when the daughter or son returns from months far away at college, or a friend or relative has returned from a major hospitalization, or someone has had a particularly precarious journey, there is often a celebration – perhaps more subdued than our biblical story, but yet celebratory nonetheless.

I never stop filling up - perhaps you are the same - as I witness our soldiers being greeted at the airport by their jubilant little children.   Dad or Mom is home. We’re a family again. Now that’s the present-day “extravagant welcome.”

 

Finding a Spiritual Home

This morning, we formally welcome four new members into the life of the Atkinson Church.   Not long ago, they were visitors in our midst for worship.   Looking for a spiritual home. Seeking a place where they could grow their child into Christian maturity. Or to sing in the Choir!   Or to discover new friendships.   No matter our station in life, everyone has an inner yearning for a spiritual home.

So to be welcomed in, to hear someone say, “Here’s your seat, we’ve been waiting for you to appear!”   is a wonderful greeting, an affirmation that I made the right choice, that it was all worth the effort to find this place ,   an affirmation that there was a seat waiting for me at the welcome table.

Let’s turn to this morning’s scripture story, and examine it’s lesson for us. It is the little-known account of a centurion who had a slave who was very ill, apparently close to death.   Now it would have been very precarious indeed in those days, for a Roman government worker, a centurion, to send for Jesus, but he did anyway, because his valued slave was dying, and he’d heard that Jesus was a healer.

Above all, the centurion holds his slave in such high regard that he says, “He Is Worthy!”   My slave is WORTHY of being healed.   Just like the words of the famous hymn – “Thou Art Worthy, O Lord!”   So Jesus is summoned, and he begins to make his way to the centurion’s home.   And even before Jesus reaches the house, as scripture tells it, the centurion sends notice to him that he doesn’t have to make the long, arduous travel, but rather, “just say the word, and he shall be healed.”

And so it was, for scripture says:   “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at the centurion, and said, “I tell you, not even in all of Israel have I found such faith.” So it was that because of the extravagance of Jesus’ willingness to heal the slave of a centurion, the teaching of a welcoming faith is recorded for all time.

You know, as well as I do, that it is NEVER easy to walk into a place where you don’t know a single person. Every single one of you, I am sure,   has experienced it before. It is a feeling of terrible unease.   Anxiety is rampant. Our heartbeat goes up. Some might even become sick to our stomachs. Walking into a roomful of strangers is one of the hardest things for many people to do.   And there is a delicate balance between being overly gushy in our welcome, and being totally aloof.  

 

Am I Invisible?

I want to tell you a story of a man named Paul.   He was a man in our own new church in Pennsylvania - perhaps 25 years or more ago, who had just moved into town, following the death of his wife.   He was a UCC person, and searching for a new church home.   He was an elderly man whom our family and our congregation grew to love and admire.

He arrived at our modest rented schoolhouse in the Lehigh Valley one Sunday and was greeted by Diana at the door, who asked his name so that a nametag could be quickly made by one of our boys.   And he was handed a cup of coffee, for in those early days, we had TWO coffee hours – one before worship especially for greeting newcomers, and one following worship for everyone.  

As Diana recounts the story,   The first words out of Paul’s mouth were totally astonishing. He didn’t introduce himself or tell me his name, or even ask if he were in the right Church.     “Am I invisible?” he asked. “Tell me please, am I invisible?”   “Well of course not,” Diana replied to this stranger, who had such a different approach to anyone who had ever previously walked in the door of our makeshift sanctuary. “You are very much VISIBLE to me. And we’re glad you came by to see us.” With that, she introduced him to Duncan and Andrew, and to the two women – Betty & Gladys - ready with a cup of coffee for him.

“When he finally told us his name, Paul Evans, our boys made a name tag for him, and I showed him to a seat and I sat down beside him. Before Worship began, announcements were made, and words of welcome were extended.   I stood and introduced Paul to the congregation of about fifty people, explained that his wife had died, that he’d moved into the neighborhood, and he was looking for a friendly place to worship.   Paul joined Shepherd Oaks UCC the very next week.”

“And here is Paul’s story, which is such a sad commentary upon so many church organizations today.   Paul told us that he had recently visited a few other Churches in the area. And when he entered, no one greeted him, no one asked his name, no one invited him to coffee hour. It was as if he were “invisible.”   But the next Sunday, he thought he’d give it another try. Perhaps it was an aberration, and perhaps he wasn’t as “invisible” as he had thought.   And yet, the VERY SAME experience happened on the second visit! No greeting, no one inquired of him who he was, no coffee hour invitation.”

“Now the next Sunday was going to be different, he said. Because he decided upon a different church to try, and surely he was be noticed.   But no!   Exactly the same experience! He was beginning to believe that perhaps he was indeed invisible. But true to form, Paul was going to give this second church a second chance, as he had done with that earlier first congregation.   And it was to no avail. Paul struck out once more.   People seemed to be giving an “extravagant welcome” to all their friends, and those they knew, but NO ONE seemed to notice this dear, elderly man, who just wanted someone to say “hello.”   Just once!”   And that is how Paul Evans found his way to our church’s front door that morning, and when just out of curiosity, he asked us, “Am I invisible?”  

Paul became one of our most VISIBLE members, much valued, and dearly loved. And listen to this. We just don’t know who it is when a stranger walks through our front door.   For you see, Paul had been a prisoner of war, captured by the Germans in WW II.   And he had a purple heart and “POW” on his car’s license plate. And one time he took a trip to Europe to attend the summer Olympics with his son and granddaughter.   It turns out that Paul Evans was the grandfather of a multiple Olympic gold medal winner in swimming, by the name of Janet Evans.   You just never know who will be walking in your front door.

In some churches he had visited, the people had myopia or something, and they could not see the invisible stranger in their midst, so they missed out on the friendship of a wonderful man.

 

Everyone is Welcome

EVERYONE is entitled to an extravagant welcome. EVERYONE should know that God continues to speak to them, and is NOT silent!   EVERYONE deserves to experience the COMMA, rather than the PERIOD!     EVERYONE ought to hear – like the slave in our scripture - that they are WORTHY of God’s love, and of Jesus’ gift of healing.   EVERYONE is entitled - no matter who they are or where they may be on life’s journey - everyone is entitled to be VISIBLE and affirmed and appreciated, as a child of the living and eternal God.

These are the marks of a truly Christian congregation, who open themselves up to the stranger who becomes a friend, to the seeker who finds a spiritual home, to the newcomer who becomes part of the family. Yes, each and every one is entitled to be visible - visible by us as Paul Evans was visible by his new congregation, visible by Jesus as was the Centurion’s slave, visible by God who continues to speak words of love and encouragement, offering extravagant welcome by placing a comma instead of a period.  

 

- The Rev. Robert B. Macfarlane, Interim Minister