Luke 15: 11-32
There is a church in Tennessee. Heartsong United Methodist. In 2009, when they heard that a local mosque had bought the property across the street, they erected a huge sign on the lawn of the church: “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.” That simple, basic act of hospitality laid the foundation for a deep friendship and collaboration between the two congregations, including Heartsong allowing the Islamic Center to worship in their sanctuary while the Center was under construction. When critics commented on this, the pastor said, “Jesus told us to love our neighbors. These people are actually neighbors” (Sojourners, September-October 2011, “Peace Be Upon Them,” p. 16).
The story reminds me of our collaborations with the Muslim Student Association here at UVA. And it reminds me of this parable, believe it or not. It reminds me that the parable is not only about welcoming home the people we already know.
I have tried to see myself in the shoes of the different people in this parable – father, elder son, younger son. I certainly know that I have been in each of their shoes. I have come home, tail between my legs, undeserving. I have watched with a sour look on my face while someone who hasn’t followed all the rules I have followed seems to be rewarded all the same. And on occasion I have been open enough to allow God’s grace to flow through me like it does through the father, running to meet an estranged family member, regardless of where he’s been or what he’s done.
But I find that my default position is the elder son. The one who played by the rules. The one who feels a bit slighted now. What about you?
Earlier today I went with our worship troupe to Gordonsville United Methodist Church to share in their Homecoming worship. Homecoming is a tradition in many churches, where former members and those who’ve moved away are invited back to celebrate and see one another again. It’s like UVA homecoming, without the football game and with a lot of good food afterwards.
What if homecoming is not only about a family reunion with all the folks we already know and love? What if it also looks like Heartsong church welcoming its neighbors and inviting them in? Or the Wesley Foundation cooking breakfast for Muslim students during Ramadan? Or extending a warm welcome to the QSU to meet in our building? What if every congregation celebrated homecoming every week?
What if we went so far as to say “Welcome Home” when people came into the dining room for worship here each week? No matter whether we’ve ever seen or met or lost touch with them, no matter whether we’ve passed them in Newcomb a thousand times or they just arrived last month as a first year. No matter if they have ever come home to any church anywhere. What if, no matter what, we say “welcome” with the love and grace and recognition the father gave the prodigal son – and our Father gives us? What if?
It must have been tempting for the father in the parable to be distant, to pay back separation with separation. To hold himself back until he saw what his son was coming back for (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 305). But as soon as he can make out the shape of his son coming toward him, it’s “sheer grace. No penance is required; it is enough that the son has come home” (NIB, p. 305).
That can be our temptation, too. Who is right here on Grounds, looking for their proper home and family of faith? Who might we be tempted to hold ourselves back from until we know what they are really after? What would it look like for us to make out a shape on the horizon and run towards the stranger we see, as if we are welcoming home someone as dear to us as a long-lost child?
As I told them in Gordonsville this morning, one of the great things about working with students is that you know you are pilgrims. You know you have 4 years at college and then you’ll be moving on. You know you are in need of love and support and grace and you come hungry for it to the Wesley Foundation. This translates into a community of faith who truly expects other pilgrims to show up. You expect to have to move over and make room because you won’t be physically in the community forever. You want to welcome new folks and teach them how to make room, too. You’ve turned a fact of college life into a powerful position of mission and outreach.
It’s something for the rest of the church to learn. We’re here for a while and during that time we are on welcome duty. We’re to keep the doors open and show folks around. We’re to greet them as brothers and sisters in Christ and show them around their home.
But even with me bragging on y’all and even with our loving friendships with the QSU and the MSA and others, there are still people who are hungry around here. There are people eating the pig’s food because they aren’t sure that we have a place set for them at Thursday night dinner or at this Table. There are people who have never come here because they think church is not for them. Maybe some of them are here today and I hope that if you are here, this feels like homecoming.
Today when we pass the peace or as we stand around after worship talking, who will you welcome? And, like the father running out from the house to meet his prodigal son, who will you run out to and invite to come with you next week? Who will you take by the hand and show them around in this family home they never knew they had? How will you do it? How will you pilgrims say “welcome home” to other pilgrims you meet, inviting them in as someone once invited you in? How will you make a place for them just as God makes a place for you at a Table where there is room for all and none are left out?
The people who look like strangers, the ones who have left and aren’t sure how to come back, the ones who feel like they have more doubt than faith, the ones who are your neighbors. The ones who seem busy with their fraternities or their double majors. The ones who you talk to about everything but faith. The ones who you keep thinking about inviting but you hold yourself back…The pilgrims out there who are waiting to hear “Welcome home.” You never know who will walk in the door or into your life, but you do know how to recognize them as the brothers and sisters Christ gives us and to welcome them home.
Who’s ready to throw a homecoming at Wesley?
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2011