Stephanie Spellers, from Radical Welcome
Stephanie Spellers is an Episcopal priest, currently Canon for Missional Vitality in the Diocese of Long Island. She is a well-respected writer and speaker.
For millennia, Christians have spoken of God’s plan to draw all of creation back into union with the
divine will. That requires movement. And movement of any kind is change. If our natural orientation, or certainly the orientation of our institutions, is to resist change and movement, then something has to give. Metanoia—that conversion or radical turning toward God—is the necessary breaking and turning of whatever inside us is resisting the movement toward God. Our will toward stability can turn into idolatry, or displaced attachment to a symbol or idea that cannot possibly hold the fullness of divinity.
Metanoia is the opposite force that frees our bound, trussed limbs for movement toward God. God needs a free church that defines itself as a community of humble, courageous, flexible disciples who are truly willing to surrender all. Why? Because God is a God of surprises, and our best posture in
following and serving God is one of openness and receptivity.
I chose as a theme this morning, a phrase from an excerpt from my friend Stephanie Spellers’ book Radical Welcome: “God needs a free church.” I intend to ask two questions this morning: “Why does God need a free church?” and “Why does God need a free church?” But first just a touch of history.
In the history of the Episcopal Church and of St. Luke’s Church, the words “free church” meant something very specific. When the Rev. Samuel Tyler was called to be the rector of this parish in 1916, agreed to come on one condition, that St. Luke’s complete its journey to becoming a “free church.” That is to say that he wanted St. Luke’s finally to end the practice of pew rental as a means of raising income.
That’s what the numbers were for that are still on our pews. The system was simple, you paid an annual fee for your family’s pew. This was common in 18th and 19th century America. It led, of course, to the social stratification of the world being applied to where people sat in church. One of the purposes of the balcony in this church was to provide a place for “low rent” and free pews for those who were poor or socially marginalized, including, by the way, widows. Those folks looked down on their social betters worshipping every Sunday.
In the 1850’s and 1860’s the practice began to be debated and by the time St. Luke’s ended its pew rental system in 1917, most churches had become “free churches.” Thank you, Dr. Tyler.
I remind you of that history because it is in the same spirit that Stephanie Spellers writes that “God needs a free church,” only, of course, she is talking not so much about money as about the title of her book, Radical Welcome.
First the important question about God. Why does God need a free church? The answer is found in our first reading this morning, and that is that God is a free God.
This is basic stuff. It is about the first three of the ten commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not use God’s name (and therefore God) with malicious intent.” These boil down to: “One God. No Idols. God is not to be used for your own purposes.”
The story this morning from Exodus is a great story. Moses has gone up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, but God is taking his own sweet time (as he often does) to give them. A month passes, and the people get restless and at least some them decide this passage of time must mean that Moses was a fraud and the One God a fantasy.
So an idol is made—the image of a real god. Idols were and are wonderful things. They are always pleasing to the eye, and, more importantly, they are always there when you want them and they always do what you want them to do. Some people talk about God himself in this way, as if God were a combination of their social secretary, economic advisor, and chair of their political party. That’s idolatry also.
These three commandments are all about two things, really. God is One, and God is free. Free, even, to change his mind, as Moses is successful in getting God to do.
So the answer to the question of why God needs a free church is simply because God is a free God, and being free is at least one of the things it means to be made in God’s image.
If you think about it, however, a free God does not necessarily need a free people or a free church. In fact, having a free people and a free church might be quite problematic for God, because, among other things, our freedom means the freedom not to obey God. Because we are free we can choose to use God or hurt God and use one another and hurt one another, even ourselves.
So why does God need a free church? Because freedom is God’s vision for the partner he has made—that is, us. If God is obsessed with anything, it is that he wants every last human being to choose to love him and choose to love one another. That is at least part of what Jesus means by the two parables this morning. God is the one who will search out even the last one that is lost. When any shepherd looking for a lost lamb and every woman searching for a lost coin would have given up, deciding to live with the loss, God does not.
And God does not want us to stop either.
The set up to these two parables, plus the Parable of the Prodigal Son which follows them in chapter 15, are the first two verses this morning.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The now the picture you might have of Jesus here is that he sits at table and these so-called tax collectors and sinners knock on his door and he says, “Come on in and sit down.” But the Greek word translated “welcome” here means more than that. Its root is the verb that means “to seek” or “to search,” and it would be a fair translation of the religious authorities grumbling to say, “This fellow seeks out sinners and welcomes them.”
Jesus’ welcome is not a passive one, it is an active one. He searches for people to welcome. He does this because he does not have any restrictions on who receives his message and who he welcomes to his presence and to his followers. No restrictions whatsoever. And the religious authorities are, frankly, appalled, because isn’t that what religion is for? Isn’t the purpose of religion to be able to distinguish between the righteous and the sinners?
It is not, Jesus said, about as emphatically as he could. And they were so appalled that they had to get rid of him before he completed turned their need a tidy system upside down.
So to be a “free” church is to be a “no restrictions” church. Becoming and being a free, “no restrictions” is one of our primary purposes. Ending pew rentals was only the beginning of what was to come. If only those 19th century reformers knew where this would lead, we might still be using the numbers on the ends of the pews to distinguish between ourselves. Dr. Tyler could never have seen the church we are today. Black and white, rich and poor, trying hard to make no distinctions between themselves, sometimes led by women as well as men and sometimes led by men who are married to men. How radical can the welcome get?
It can get a lot more radical. We have done a lot, but it is actually only a little. We still fight that old human religious tendency to divide the world into the sinners and the righteous, the black and the white, the women and the men, the gay and the straight, and the successful and the losers, and the beautiful and the ugly. This tendency still thrives among us, both inside and outside the church, and it does a whole lot of hurt.
We talk a lot more about hospitality and welcome in the church these days, although I remain convinced that it is primarily motivated not by God but by our own need to put more butts in our seats in order to keep paying for the golden calves our ancestors built for us. We have not yet made the clear connection between the act of welcoming and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his good news that God does not distinguish and seeks out every last one of us. We are still unclear that welcoming another, truly welcoming them, is an act of freedom on our part, and it honors the freedom of the other, and goes a step further and enables its continued growth.
The free God needs a free church because he needs partners who agree to live in covenant with him, a covenant that is meant to be ever-widening, not by happenstance or by compelling programs or buildings, but by a radical desire to search the land and sweep the house and find those who are not free and make them so. This means being, in Stephanie Spellers words, “humble, courageous, flexible disciples who are truly willing to surrender all,” which is to say, I think, who are truly willing to believe that freedom and salvation are the same things in God’s eyes and he wants them to be the same thing in the work of our hands and hearts.
“Open and receptive,” Spellers says, which means vulnerable also. Why do you think the church’s traditional stance of prayer is this [what we call the “orans” position]? Standing like this to pray is like what the police have you do so that they can arrest you. It may be the most physically vulnerable position in which we can be. Why was that the stance of prayer in the early church? Because they understood what the Gospel was and what it called them to be. It was literally their stance toward the world, even when that world was devastatingly hostile toward them.
I invite you to join me today in that stance of prayer, and always. It does not belong to priests; it belongs to the free people of the free God.