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“Pastor, can I ask you a question?” Joe asked me less than five minutes before the worship service is about to begin.
“Umm, sure…” I rather hesitantly replied, choir members mulling about the narthex around us preparing to circle up shortly to pray prior to the organ prelude.
“Well, it’s sort of involved.” Joe responded (with respect to him, Joe is not his real name).
Jostled by one of the Sunday School teachers who has her own immediate concern to share with me I interjected, “Perhaps it can wait till the end of worship?” to which Joe is satisfied.
The Sunday School concern dealt with, the organ prelude begins, we join hands with the choir members as one of our elders leads us in prayer, and the last few stragglers get to their seats before the service commences. But now, rather overshadowing in my mind I wonder, “what is Joe’s question and why is it so important?”
Maybe a little background would help. Joe is what I can only describe as a true man of God and a blessing! He is kind and generous and was a tremendous support to me, his pastor in the previous congregation I served, although technically, he was not an official member of that church. His wife was, but he had what I would call “theological differences,” that in his mind, for the time being, precluded him from officially joining. But in practice—spiritual, financial, and physical—Joe is fully a part of that congregation. So much so, that he and I regularly met for breakfast at least once a month where we would share and pray for one another. It was during these times of sharing where we discovered—as much as we both love God and follow Jesus—Joe and I do not necessarily see eye to eye with one another. Joe is by his own account a fundamentalist in his Christianity, quite conservative, a devout evangelical with pretty solid Pentecostal beliefs. I on the other hand am not a fundamentalist but espouse a solidly mainline Protestant perspective. While I very much appreciate Pentecostalism and am glad for its contribution to Christianity and even in my own faith formation, I’m firmly in the Reformed camp. Whereas we both are evangelicals, I am unabashedly a liberal evangelical. Therefore, Joe and I have a differing of perspectives. But for all that we disagree about, we have far greater agreement in what we hold in common—the firm conviction of the power of the Gospel, of the way of Christ, and the reality of God’s grace and truth. And with the importance of the church living that grace and truth out!
Which brings me back to that Sunday morning worship service and Joe’s question. The morning went rather normally. Following the benediction I greeted folks as they left the sanctuary on their way to coffee fellowship and again met with Joe, having wondered in the back of my mind the entire time, “what is his inquiry?”
“So Joe, now that we have a little more time, what was your question?” I asked him.
He responded, “Oh, you already answered it!”
“Yes. During the children’s message!”
The gospel lesson for the day had to do with the Great Commandment. You know: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. In the gospel story according to Luke, reciting these commandments leads one of Jesus’ audience members to ask a further question, “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers that by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one about how some sad fellow finds himself robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Fortunately, you might think, two devout religious types walk past where he lays. But in seeing him, they purposely keep on walking and ignore him. Now we are aware, but it bears repeating that this fellow is—as is Jesus, as are all the folks in the crowd around Jesus—Jewish. This is important only in so far as the cultural contrast of the third person to walk past our poor beaten half-dead lying-in-a-ditch guy. Because the third person is a Samaritan—a people with similar religious and cultural background as Jesus and his people, yet generally disparaged by them. And yet it is the Samaritan who helps the poor beaten down Jewish fellow, going out of his way to provide assistance. And Jesus asks, who was a neighbor to the man who fell into harm.
The children’s message that day included the parable of the Good Samaritan and it also included how we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, including and especially those “neighbors” who are not necessarily like us. Kids may not understand all the complexities of what a Samaritan is, but they certainly understand that sometimes one kid will pick-on another kid that is different or that sometimes some children are excluded. Sometimes even, they have been the one excluded. As well, sometimes even they have been the one to pick-on the other.
Which brings me back to Joe. “What was your question, Joe?” I asked. He responded that his wife had a co-worker—let’s call him “Brian.” Brian had recently gone through some difficulties in his life. He had grown up in the church, but had not participated in organized religion for a number of years. And now at this point in his life, he felt he needed church again. The thing was, he had recently visited another local church where it was made blatantly obvious that he was not welcomed there. Brian was gay. Joe and his wife believing that all people need God in their life, and that all people need God’s people too—the church—they wanted to invite Brian to our church. But the question was, “Would Brian be welcomed here?”
In hearing the children’s message, in hearing the gospel lesson, Joe came to a conclusion on what the answer should be. Yes! We should welcome him.
Obviously, Joe and I would have further conversations and we would not always agree with one another and we would not always understand in the same ways. But what we both believed was that Brian—and for that matter, any and every person—should be welcomed in Christ’s church.