September 14, 2008
September 14, 2008
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a young man who lived, for the most part, alone. He lived near his family, but he did everything he could to keep himself isolated from them. He refused their dinner invitations, he hid from them when they came to knock on his door. He did much the same thing with his colleagues at work and the people at his church. He went about his life as quietly and anonymously as he possibly could. People’s reactions to him ran the gamut from concern, to worry, to amusement, to shaking their heads in puzzlement. They didn’t know what to make of him. They didn’t know how to make him feel welcome in their everyday world.
One day, the young man showed up at the home of his brother and sister-in-law, smiling with excitement. He told them that he had met a young woman through the Internet, and that she was coming for a visit. Her name was Bianca, and she was a half-Brazilian, half-Danish missionary. He explained that he was anxious to make her feel welcome, particularly because she was confined to a wheelchair, and he asked his family to be sensitive to her feelings. The young man, whose name was Lars, was clearly thrilled, and his family caught the excitement from him. They readied a room for her. They set an extra place at the table. They waited with big smiles on their faces. A few hours later Lars showed up for dinner, with a life-size doll in tow. This, he proudly told his family, was Bianca.
Of course, I’m telling you the plot of the recent film, Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of those small movies you may have missed when it was in theaters. The story of Lars is a compelling one, told as much by landscape and scenery as by character and plot. The town where Lars lives is snowy and dreary; every day is a cold, grey day. You can feel his isolation, and you can feel the anxiety of those who love him. And when Bianca comes to town, you enter into everyone’s shock. What shall we do now? Shall we welcome this person Bianca—whom we’re fairly sure isn’t even really a person? Shall we have Lars committed to a mental hospital? Shall we have a knock-down, drag-out fight with Lars, to convince him of his delusion about the big silicone mail order doll? How does a community deal with something that seems almost certain to divide it?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul deals with a situation that is not quite as whimsical, and which is far more loaded. Paul is engaged in the rather tricky business of helping two very different communities figure out how to live together as one church. And he is doing so with two communities that are each certain they have God on their side. One group is focused on following rules found in traditional readings of scripture—dietary rules, rules about the Sabbath, and rules about circumcision. These people are convinced that followers of Jesus need to also adhere to all these things from Jesus’ religious tradition, which is, of course, Judaism. The other group believes that God is saying and doing a new thing. They believe that God has revealed the saving news to those outside Judaism, and so, those rules no longer apply. This group refuses to follow dietary rules or to circumcise, and has started advocating that worship be held on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection.
How do people live together when their beliefs are different? Is it possible to be one church with two—or more—ways of believing in God? And if it is possible, how do we do it?
The key word in this portion of Paul’s letter is “welcome.” “Welcome those who are weak in faith” (Romans 14:1), Paul says, and it’s not immediately apparent to the reader from this first sentence which of the arguing groups he is calling weak. Is it those who abstain from meat, for fear it may have been ritually offered to Pagan gods? Or is it those who eat the meat, and don’t worry about it? Which group would be weak in faith? It turns out, the ones following the most stringent rules… Paul calls them weak in faith, the abstainers. And he reminds the Romans that no one in either category should judge the others, because it is God who has done the welcoming. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Paul continues. “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:5). Because God has welcomed, we must welcome. For Paul, it’s simple. For us, it’s not always that simple.
It seems like there are always times in the life of the church when this question burns in our hearts. Who is welcome? Are all really welcome, as it says on the sign out front? Or do we put conditions on our welcome? I knew a church once where the people who favored the choir and the music program were in a constant state of conflict with those who favored the Christian Education program. Everyone had an idea of what was most important in God’s church. Everyone jealously guarded their own turf when it came to which programs were supported. These people eventually had to ask themselves, who is really welcome here?
A hundred and fifty years ago the church in the United States was influenced by the temperance movement, so much so that most mainline Protestant churches no longer serve wine, the drink preferred by Jesus according to the scriptures, but rather serve unfermented grape juice (which just happens to have been manufactured by a good Northeastern Methodist named Thomas Welch). Even after all these years, this is a hot button issue for most Protestant congregations, and yes, has even split congregations right down the middle. Churches still are asking themselves, when it comes to their ritual practices. who is welcome here?
Today our church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is struggling with issues of sexuality. Who may serve God as ordained deacons, elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament? May gay and lesbian people serve? On both sides of this issue you will find people who love their church passionately. On both sides of this issue you will find people who are convinced that God is with them, and both sides claim the authority of scripture as they understand it. Today, this very moment, the church is asking itself: Who is welcome to serve God in the church? Who is welcome here?
And just so that we realize that these issues are not limited to church… our society is constantly struggling with this question, too. One of the burning political issues of the last 8 years has been the matter of undocumented visitors to this country. And just to make things more complicated, this intersects with issues of the economy, of global terrorism, and of human rights and dignity. On both sides of the issue are people who believe they have the best interests of the country at heart. On both sides of the issue people are grappling with that question, who is welcome here?
Paul suggests what has to have been a challenging program of unconditional welcome. All who are called by Christ are welcome. All whom God has welcomed, are welcome. And to each group, Paul gives the instructions: whatever you do, do it in honor of God. “Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God” (Romans 14:6). Whatever we do, we should honor God in that doing.
What, you may wonder, happens with Lars? Does that community make Bianca welcome or do they haul Lars off to the nearest asylum? Lars’ family does take him to see the good town doctor, under the guise of having Bianca examined. The doctor diagnoses Bianca with low blood pressure, and asks Lars to bring her in for weekly treatments. In this way, Lars and the doctor can talk, and maybe she can gain some insights into the workings of his mind. As for Bianca? The doctor urges Lars’ family to respond to Bianca as if she were a real woman.
It is one thing for a family to go along with what clearly smacks of mental illness. It is quite another for an entire community to join in, and that is exactly what happens in this film. This little snowy town welcomes Bianca with open arms. They have her to dinner, they invite her and Lars to parties. She goes to church with Lars, and someone holds a hymnal up for her. The hairstylist gives her a makeover, and the owner of the boutique asks her to model clothing. Bianca attends school board meetings and “volunteers” at the hospital. And in the meantime, Lars, by taking Bianca to these places, suddenly has more interaction with his family and neighbors than he has in a long, long time. The welcome mat looks as if it’s been put out for Bianca. In reality, it’s Lars who is being embraced by his hometown. When this town asks itself, “Who is welcome here?” they decide that life sized silicone dolls and young men who might be seriously mentally ill are included, not excluded.
What about us? What are our boundaries for welcome? Is the welcome we extend truly unconditional? Should it be? These are questions every community has to grapple with, questions of who’s in and who’s out. The thing I think we have to remember is this: not once, anywhere in the gospels, does Jesus ever side with those who are trying to exclude someone. Not once. When the question, “Who is in and who is out?” is asked, Jesus’ answer is always, I’ll stand with the outsiders, thanks.
Paul is working as hard as he can to see that a community of unconditional welcome comes to birth in the church of the Romans. His message is clear: it is God who extends the welcome, and we who either confirm it or stand in its way. Here at our beautiful church, I believe the welcoming community is already here: it’s on the sign outside. All are welcome. So let’s catch the excitement and be ready for all the new faces that might come our way. Let’s ready rooms for them. Let’s set an extra place at the table. Let’s wait with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts, ready to share God's unconditional welcome with them. Thanks be to God. Amen.