One of my mentors used to say “The Gospel does not teach us how to get to God; it rather teaches us that there is no way to get to God; God must come to us.” Another said, “The message of the Gospel is not that if we’ll go fifty miles then God will come 450 miles; in Jesus Christ God comes the whole 500 miles!”
Much of what is styled as “The Christian religion” is concerned with that fifty miles: If only I will do this, then God will do that. But the Christian life is not “if-then,” it is “because-therefore:” Because God loves me unconditionally, therefore I seek to live my life in response to such love. And this is not some airy message from the celestial heights. It is as true as any family: A parent, receiving a child in her arms through birth or adoption, does not look into the child’s eyes and say, “As soon as you grow up and become the person I want you to be then I will love you.” (I acknowledge there are families like that – they’re called dysfunctional!) What the parent says, in fact, is, “I love you – because you’re my child.”
A law-based Christianity (and most other religions, come to think of it), cast God as the dysfunctional parent. The religious leader, then, becomes like that torturer-in-chief General during Argentina’s “dirty war” who informed his victims, “Only God can give life and only God can take life, but God is busy elsewhere now, so he left it up to me.” Religion, even if not quite as alarmingly applied, is always used to decide who is in and who is out. (And the one applying the rules is, unsurprisingly, always “in.”)
The old gospel song declares, “This train don’t carry no gamblers, no crap-shooters, no midnight ramblers….” So, apparently, God loves you unless you’re a midnight rambler (!), or (depending on who’s writing the song) gay, or a doubter, or an unwed pregnant teen (a young girl, pregnant, once told me, “My mom says I’m going to hell now, so it doesn’t matter what I do”), or….
This song (and these ideas) came to me as I was listening at full volume to Bruce Springsgteen’s fantastic corrective take on “This Train,” in his “Land of Hope and Dreams,”
Carries saints and sinners
Carries losers and winners
Carries whores and gamblers
Carries lost souls
Dreams will not be thwarted
Faith will be rewarded
Hear the steel wheels singin'
Bells of freedom ringin'
Thieves and sweet souls departed
Carries fools and kings
(Springsteen includes this song on a number of recordings. The best is “Live in New York City.” Here it is on YouTube. If you’re connected to a good set of speakers, may I suggest you crank it up!)
Thirty years ago, visiting a church in western South Dakota, I read this remarkable welcome in the worship bulletin:
WHO IS WELCOME HERE?
We want it to be of public record that those of different colored skin and heritage are welcome here.
We want it to be known that those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether recovering or not), and their families are welcome here.
We want it to be known that women and children are welcome here and that they will not be harassed or abused here.
We want it to be public record that in this congregation you can bring children to worship and even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcome.
We want it to be known that those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through the death of a spouse, are welcome here.
We want it to be known that if you are promiscuous, have had an abortion, or have fathered children and taken no responsibility for them, you are welcome here.
We want it known that gossip, cheats, liars, and their families are welcome here. We want it to be known that those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcome here.
We want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here.
Let it be public knowledge that we at Custer Lutheran Fellowship take seriously that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The young and old, the rich and poor, all of the broken are welcome here.
We want it to be public knowledge that we are justified by the grace of God, which is a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. We offer welcome here because we believe that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. That’s us. Christ did not die for us after we showed signs of "getting it all together." Christ loved and still shows love to us while we are yet sinners. Sinners are welcome here. Sinners like you and me, and like our neighbors.
Let us not condemn the world, but let us proclaim to a broken and hurting world, God's forgiveness and grace.
We want it to be public record that since we are a sinful people that we will not always be as quick to welcome as we should. Let us be quick to admit our sin and seek forgiveness. May God give us the grace to welcome and forgive one another as Christ has welcomed and forgiven us.
* The welcoming church is Custer Lutheran Fellowship, a congregation of grace and social action and great preaching in Custer, South Dakota. The document was penned by (then) Pastor Chuck Hazlett, but adopted by the whole congregation. (We might edit or state some of it differently today, but this was thirty years ago!) Thanks, Chuck.