It was the 1991 World Series of Baseball, and my Minnesota Twins were playing the Atlanta Braves in what would become one of the greatest World Series played in history – 5 games decided by one run or less, 4 games decided on the final at-bat, and 3 games going into extra innings. To add to the drama, both teams had gone from “worst-to-first” – from last place the year before to winning their divisions and leagues, and now faced each other in the World Series.
The Twins had won the first two games at their home field, and now they headed to Atlanta to play in their stadium. And Atlanta’s stadium was known to be a really tough place for visiting teams to play. Their fans were loud, heckling the players….and their most notorious cheer was the “Tomahawk Chop” where every time the Braves would make a great play, would rally at bat, or when the visiting team struggled, the fans would rally together, waving their hands like a chopping tomahawk, and chanting in unison. Sports commentators and other visiting teams called it one of the most hostile, intimidating environments to play in…..created especially by their new tradition, the notorious cheer, the Tomahawk Chop.
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” Yesterday, I was at a Ministry Conference gathering, and in the workshop I led we read today’s text. One woman from a different translation of the Bible – the Good News Translation. And it translated the word stranger as visitor.
I think there’s something to that….there’s a difference between strangers and visitors in our minds. Strangers aren’t always welcome. We tell our kids to remember the old saying, “stranger danger!” or tell them “don’t talk to strangers.” Strangers have the potential to cause hurt and harm, not only to our kids, but to us as well.
Visitors however…..we talk a lot about visitors in the church. We talk about them, and usually in more favorable terms. We want to welcome visitors, make them feel at home, make them feel like they belong…..and we want them stick around.
The visitor asks the disciples, “What are you talking about?” And they respond, “Do you not know what’s been going on?” This visitor, asking a simple question out of curiosity…..and he’s met with hostility and condescension and disbelief…all because he doesn’t know what’s been going on the past couple days.
I wonder if we don’t unintentionally create a hostile environment in the church for visitors. At worst, we think of them like strangers – a threat, not to be trusted, not to be welcomed. But perhaps more common is that visitors come in – and immediately we start to notice things about them. They don’t know our traditions and rituals. Things we find typical seem foreign to them. They certainly don’t seem to know what’s going on in OUR church. We have this expectation that they ought to know, and that in order for them to truly belong we have to train and correct them on our ways. And I wonder if such a move on our part – whether we mean to or not, creates a hostile environment for visitors to walk into.
Here’s the thing: those visitors, it isn’t that they don’t value our traditions or even seek to change them. Rather, as the story tells us….they’re simply curious. They want to know what’s going on…..and yes, their questions will challenge us. But they will also hold us accountable to what we confess about God, our interpretations of the Bible and Lutheran tradition. And their presence and curiosity perhaps awaken and spark something new in us when we’ve lost hope, even though we’ve heard the Good News of Jesus Christ……the story of resurrection and new life…over and over.
Visitors…..the very presence of the risen Jesus, in the flesh, walking among us and alongside us on our own walk to Emmaus.
Throughout our Easter season, I’ve asked you to consider what it means to be a welcoming church – a church that loves, listens, and shares leadership – ownership – of the church with newcomers. I’ve asked you to consider what it means to be a church that welcomes newcomers in this way for no other reason than that by the grace and love of God shown in Jesus Christ for all people – these newcomers belong, they have a place in the church. And even more than that, a welcoming church invites newcomers into the community because in them, they see the very presence of the crucified and risen Christ.
And this text ask us two simple questions this morning: what sort of environment have we created for visitors to enter into, and what do our attitudes towards visitors communicate to them? We have a choice….continue to hold expectations and attitudes that create – unintentional or not – hostile environments for visitors, or we can welcome them into the community, to “stay with us,” and experience this thing we call church alongside us, sharing these communal practices that have shaped faith and brought meaning and hope into the lives of Christians for ages.
When we choose the latter, something happens, and our gospel story highlights that. The disciples welcome the visitor to “stay with them.” And in the communal practice of blessing, breaking and sharing bread, they are able to see the real presence of the risen Jesus, in the flesh, among them. In the same way, when we share in the experience of our communal practices in the church with visitors – worship, study of scripture, prayer, fellowship, ministry and service – we too, together, see the risen Christ.
And something else happens too. Those visitors tend to stick around.
Another pastor, a mentor of mine, likes to tell this story of how the church he served really tried to reach out to the youth in their neighborhood – they hoped kids would come to church, for much of the same reasons you hope as well. One Sunday, a young boy came into the church in the middle of worship….eating a bag of potato chips. And as the worship service went on, that boy kept on munching on those potato chips. And my mentor started to get annoyed…..it was distracting, disrespectful. “I should kick him out, or at least stop him” he thought. But then it dawned on him: if the boy felt comfortable enough to come into church in the middle of a service, a room full of strangers, and felt comfortable enough to eat potato chips without fear of judgment, wasn’t that what they had hoped for the church all along – to be a place of welcome, free from hostility and criticism, where people simply felt like they belonged?
I think I’m just going to leave you with that…..because I don’t think I have to go into what your deepest hopes for this church are: you know them, you’ve shared them with me. What I want you to consider is this: in being a welcoming church, those things you hope for: are they worth dealing with the occasional mess, the occasional disruption to OUR ways of being church? May our “home field” be blessed by the gift of the risen Jesus – by the visitor we welcome to walk alongside us in our journey of faith. Amen.