Once upon a time, in a land far, far away there was a church. A nice, pretty church, St Exaltus The Great in the nice pretty village of Higher Exclusive. Look, the parishioners are gathering for their Sunday morning service. The surrounding lanes are chock-a-block as every neat and nice family wants to show off their expensive car on a Sunday morning.
But what’s this? How unpleasant! What a dreadful sight! They have to walk past a beggar (with his dirty dog on an old piece of string) who is sitting in the church gateway. How dare he, the cheek of it. “Don’t worry,” reassures Mr We’ll-have-none-of-that, the churchwarden, “I’ve called the police – they will move him along.”
Inside St Exaltus The Great, everyone is singing sweetly, “All things bright and beautiful … The rich man in his castle the poor man at the gate, God made them high and lowly, each one to their estate …”
But what’s this commotion at the door? Who’s that trying to get in? She’s upsetting Mrs Keep-that-child-quiet and Mrs Don’t-sit-there of the Welcoming Committee – well there’s a turn up for the books! A big black woman trying to get into St Exaltus The Great! Here in Higher Exclusive! We don’t see those sort of people in this village. Some of the stronger men step forward, we can’t have her disrupting our service, she’s got rainbow coloured hair, for goodness sake!
“Let me in! I know I am a sinner but I want to praise God for making me as I am, I want to come to God, I am a child of God!”
“She’s as mad as a hatter! Got no business upsetting The Welcoming Committee. Look at her in that shoddy, flimsy dress – she looks like a street-walker.”
“Wait a minute …” Mrs Nosey-parker is looking more carefully at the woman, “ … I know that one. You’d never guess that her real name is STANLEY! Yes, she was a boy when she was born.”
That’s too much for Gloria as she is now, not Stanley any more. She runs from the church in tears.
“Now vicar, where were we … oh I know, let’s share the peace.”
The next week, all the lanes are blocked with the posh cars, there’s no beggar in the gate and no sign of the dog, just a uniformed local bobby greeting the parishioners as they arrive. All seems well. But there is a stranger in church. A smartly dressed, elderly woman sitting quietly praying near the back of the church. Mrs Get-everyone-on-the-rota has already spotted her: she looks like she might be good at flower arranging. The choir sings and the vicar walks in, “Good morning and welcome one and all!”
“There was no welcome for my son last week was there.” What’s this? The smartly dressed old lady is walking down the aisle toward the vicar. She turns at the chancel step to face the congregation. “Yes, my son who was sitting with his dog at the church gate. You all pushed past him.”
“Come on, sit down now, don’t cause a scene, we want to get on with the service, we’ll talk about it afterwards …”
But the old lady was having none of it. “What about my daughter Gloria? You were very cruel to her. How do you think she felt?”
The people looked at the little old lady, clean, neat and white – how could she be the mother of the tramp at the gate and the woman who was born a man and black? Mrs Don’t -sit-there was already regretting that she had given the woman a hymn book. The vicar stepped forward, he knew his scripture, “’Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?’ Jeremiah 7:9-10”
The woman smiled, “Who are the ones needing our Lord’s forgiveness and mercy? Do you remember in our reading today when the woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter and she will not take no for the final answer? I have come to your church today to remind you that all are welcome in God’s house … even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. And we are all human beings: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ Just because these people are not like you, they think differently, they dress differently, they have less money than you, they may do outrageous things and scare you … are they any less the children of our same heavenly father?”
Let’s close the window onto St Exaltus The Great and come back to St Mark’s here today.
I would be ashamed to call myself Christian if I went to a church like St Exaltus The Great. This is God’s house and we are only passing through. Everyone is passing through and everyone is equally as entitled to be here as we are. We are the current custodians of our church in this community and we have the God-given task to extend God’s welcome to all.
I love St Mark’s precisely because we don’t have The Welcoming Committee of Mrs Don’t-sit-there and Mrs Keep-that-child-quiet.
Finally, let me remind you of the words we speak at each baptism: “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism: by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body. We welcome you into the fellowship of faith; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.”
And let us pray that all find welcome in our church today and always.