The Welcome Table
After serving as a missionary for forty years in Africa, Henry C. Morrison became sick and had to return to America. As the great ocean liner docked in New York Harbor there was a great crowd gathered to welcome home another passenger on that boat. Morrison watched as President Teddy Roosevelt received a grand welcome home party after his African Safari.
Resentment seized Henry Morrsion and he turned to God in anger, “I have come back home after all this time and service to the church and there is no one, not even one person here to welcome me home.”
Then a still small voice came to Morrison and said, “You’re not home yet.”
Well, we’re not home yet, either. But we’re close – as close as we can get in this life. And not because we’re here in this holy parking lot right next to the church; nor because next week we will be in the sanctuary. No, we are close because together we are the church!
And, as Luther would say, what does this mean. It means that we have received an invitation by God’s grace that makes us children of God. And, by the way, the primary definition of “church” is not those who are pure but those who belong to God. One of the words used to describe the church in English is “ecclesiastical,” which is a direct derivative from the Greek word meaning “called out” to live as those who belong to God.
So, let me talk about church for a few moments. We are to be a community of profound love with the gates wide open and the welcome mat always out. But, in the Gospel of John we hear of a church with nothing to offer. At it’s earliest beginnings, we find a community of believers barricaded in a house with the doors bolted shut. They were to be the kind of people who stride boldly into the world to bear fruit in Jesus’ name, a people full of the Holy Spirit performing even greater works than Jesus himself (John 14:12), but here we find them cowering in fear, hoping nobody will find out where they are before they get their alibis straight. In short, we see here the church at its worst — scared, disheartened, and defensive. If this little sealed-off group of Christians were to place one of those cheery church ads online, what could it possibly say? “The friendly church where all are welcome”? Hardly, unless one counts locked doors as a sign of hospitality. “The church with a warm heart and a bold mission”? Actually, more like the church with sweaty palms and a timid spirit.
Indeed, John’s gospel gives us a snapshot of a church with nothing – no plan, no promise, no program, no perky youth ministry, no powerful preaching, no parking lot, nothing. In fact, when all is said and done, this terrified little band huddled in the corner of a room with a chair braced against the door has only one thing going for it: the risen Christ. And that seems to be the main point of this story of the church. In the final analysis, this is a story about how the risen Christ pushed open the bolted door of a church with nothing, and how the risen Christ enters the fearful chambers of every church, including this one, and fills the place with his presence.
And the church grew as God called, and still calls, all sorts of people to God’s Welcome Table. And every person at God’s welcome table had, and has, some special reason to be there.
For we all bring special gifts as we discovered in our workshops here at Peace.
Some bring the gift of listening and perception. Any team of healers, which we are as the “church”, can use that to good advantage. Some bring patience and endurance. When it’s going to take a while to get the job done, we can use a few like that, too.
Some bring nerve, tenacity, good courage, and great fortitude. And every winning team, including one whose task is healing, needs the “tough guys” who can hang on when some others of us would drop back in fright.
Some bring imagination, new ideas, strategies, alternatives. Imagine dealing with this pandemic if we couldn’t bend or readjust as rapidly as possible! We need such members on the team – folks ready with a new approach when what we’ve done before is risky and inappropriate.
Some bring a compassionate, forgiving, healing spirit. What a gift! Not all of us have sensitivity like these folks. God knows we need them in our midst, as well.
And that’s God’s plan. God calls all of us!
God calls the seasoned, nurtured, well-prepared members as well as new and unseasoned that bring a satisfying sort of freshness and openness into our midst so we don’t miss out on new opportunities to share the Word of God. There’s incredible potential in such individuals, those who once were on the outside looking in.
Come to think of it, in important ways we all were new at this, at one point in time. Until God grasped us and said “Yes!” we too were on the outside looking in. Until we were baptized, we were yet-to-be-adopted candidates for God’s embrace. Even though we may have come from old-line Christian families (and, increasingly, a lot of us have not), our roots most likely go back to the “old-line” Christian families lived in southern Europe. At one time they were new and their roots did not run back to Israel, God’s first Chosen People.
The text that I am using this afternoon tells of God’s invitation that went out to all. The invitation that said: Come. You are welcome here. Come, be strengthened in the fellowship to lend your skills and gifts in service of God in Christ. Let your answer be, “Of course I plan to be there!” when you hear God in Christ say: “Come! Come, to the welcome table.”
And so today, this afternoon, I welcome you, not only to the welcome table – but also to the starting line.
Strange words perhaps with which to welcome you back to church this day. But the words are quite appropriate for the occasion.
You’ve seen races run: the runners line up, and someone says, “On your mark, get set, go!” In another text in our scriptures, Hebrews 12:1-2, we read: “Let us lay aside all the weights, and the sins which beset us, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…”
Here this day, we start out on a new day, a new week, perhaps a new way of living. Here in worship, this day, we square off with life once again, pause to catch our breath and start over. So, I do indeed welcome you to the starting line.
Let us put aside, then, all the things that weigh us down, that hinder us, that shackle us to where we are. And, looking to Jesus, let us be off! With unimpeded faith, with courage and a heart for running, let us be off into this next segment of the course which lies ahead. . . finishing this interim period of transition, calling a new pastor, facing the changes of living into a world which will continue to offer new challenges as we learn to live in the “new norm” . . . all the while being God’s people grounded in, and sharing, God’s Word, Baptism, the Welcome Table, the starting line and “the church”.