On Sundays, set 'leaking toilet' talk aside, attend to business of newcomers
This Lent, our church is focusing on welcoming the newcomer. A television ad will come out soon, and some of us have signs up around our church to indicate that we are a part of that welcoming movement. Perhaps people will see the ad, connect it to our churches, and venture in on a Sunday in Lent. Are we ready?
Are we ready to greet the stranger with the same love and attention that Jesus did? That's a very high standard. But one common theme in the Jesus stories is the time and care he gave to total strangers. Imagine how the gospel would have changed if our savior had been cliquish or only interested in his own kind. What if Jesus had been more interested in popularity? He might have avoided crucifixion, but there also would be no church 2,000 years later.
The very fact that Jesus ate, socialized and worshipped with strangers both angered people and challenged them. By watching Jesus reach out to the stranger, we remember that God reaches out to every one of us. A Christ-like welcome trumps conventional cliquishness. Thank God.
So what would that look like in our churches on any given Sunday? Well, we'd spend more time speaking to people we don't already know. We'd be on the look out during the passing of the peace for people who might be standing alone while others around them are talking and greeting one another warmly. We'd allow time when dropping off our own children at Sunday school, to see if another parent needs help or directions. We'd make sure that a social conversation with a friend does not prevent us from making a new connection with someone who might be standing alone at coffee hour.
And here's a radical notion for hard-working church people: We'd stop doing any internal church business on Sundays, and instead ask all lay leaders to focus on the needs of the newcomer instead. Conversations about leaking toilets, teacher recruitment and by laws revisions would have to be set aside for the Sabbath, so that before and after worship, our full attention could be given to seeking out the stranger. Keeping our Sunday attention off of ourselves and our own community might even help us during worship, when we could focus entirely on God.
In Hebrews 13:2, the early church was reminded, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
As followers of Jesus, we all need an occasional reminder that the stranger is the most important person in church. After all, every church member was once a stranger who decided to stay.
So don't be a stranger. Be an angel.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel is the senior minister of the First Congregational UCC of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and the author of "Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony" (Alban Institute).