A Place of Welcome

The church I serve, St. Mark United Methodist Church, is not too far from Piedmont Park, the Central Park of Atlanta. Having grown up in the Atlanta area, I have known of Piedmont Park for most of my life. When I was a boy, you could drive through the park-not now allowed-and my family sometimes went that way on our way to see the Atlanta Crackers play baseball. This was long before the Braves came to town. In the 1960's Piedmont Park was near the center of the hippie movement in Atlanta, and the Allman Brothers Band and other groups would play there for free when they were just starting out in their musical careers. I once spent most of an afternoon walking around the park with a very depressed friend doing what I could to bring comfort in the midst of a profound darkness.

In recent years I have gone to Piedmont Park to walk for exercise. When I visit on these days, one thing that impresses me is the enormous diversity present in the park. You see that diversity in many ways:

* You see it in the varieties of trees in the park. I've seen magnolias, oaks of all kinds-including my favorite, the white oak-hickories, tulip poplars, and firs of several varieties.

* You see it in activities that take place in the park. I've seen people playing tennis, playing softball, rollerblading, playing soccer, bicycling, jogging, playing hackey-sack, fishing in the lake, walking dogs, and throwing Frisbees.

* People come to Piedmont Park to sleep, to read, to eat, to make out. I once saw a music video being shot by the lake.

* And there is enormous diversity in the people who come to Piedmont Park. There are infants in strollers or backpacks, young people, young adults, mature people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, straights, gays, short people, tall people, people who are in good shape and people who are overweight and out of shape. The park welcomes them all and has a place for them all.

There is a kind of judgment in the park. If it's been awhile since I last walked, my experience there will quickly let me know that I am out of shape and need to be more regular in my exercise. People sometimes get careless and have accidents on rollerblades or bicycles. And you sometimes see evidence of environmental stress, but my primary experience in Piedmont Park is one of forgiveness and grace. If I'm out of shape, the park will let me know it; but I am still welcome to come and get back in shape. If someone is hurt while rollerblading or bicycling, people are there to help and comfort; and that person who has been hurt will be welcomed the next day or the day after. It doesn't matter who you are, what your job is, how you are dressed, or what you've done. There's a place for you at Piedmont Park.

The park comes to my mind sometimes when I think of what the church looks like at its best-a community where everyone is welcome and has the opportunity for healing and renewal.

It's that kind of community that is missing in Simon's house in our text from Luke. Simon has invited Jesus to dinner, and while in Simon's house an unnamed woman comes to visit Jesus. Everyone present, including the woman, knows that this woman is a sinner. In her self-awareness she is drawn to Jesus as one who offers forgiveness and hope. Her actions towards Jesus show her joy at what he makes possible. Jesus evidently sees her as a child of God, and their encounter is an occasion for restoration in her life and a new relationship between them.

All of this is hard on Simon. He sees in the woman not a child of God but a threat to his goodness. She is someone to avoid. Simon is not a bad man. He is anxious to do right, to be right, but his goodness gets in the way. He is blind to the fact that he too is a sinner forgiven and healed by grace. He is blind to how he and this woman are connected at the deepest level. He does not offer hospitality to Jesus nor does he extend hospitality to the woman. In his goodness he shuts himself off from her.

Simon's story is too often the church's story. And persons like the woman in the story feel it. People who, like her, were drawn to Jesus too often avoid the church today. Phillip Yancey tells the story of a friend of his in Chicago who worked with poor persons in the city. He was visited once by a prostitute who was in dire straits. She had been renting out her two-year old daughter to men for sex in order to support her drug habit; and she was homeless, sick, and unable to buy food for herself or her daughter. Yancey's friend asked if she had thought about going to a church for help, and the woman seemed horrified. "Church?! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse." She had experienced church as a place of judgment and inhospitality.

In his commentary on our text Fred Craddock wonders where one goes when told to go in peace as Jesus instructs this woman to do at the end of our story. "What she needs," Craddock says, "is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. The story," he says, "screams the need for a church, one that says you are welcome here." She had such a welcome from Jesus. She would have it on the streets of the city. And she would be welcome at Piedmont Park.

What about my church?

What about your church?

There is an old legend about Judas that Madeleine L'Engle tells. The legend is that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent, he looked up and saw way, way up a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards the light. The walls of the pit were dark and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top and then he slipped and fell all the way back down to the bottom. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around the table. "We've been waiting for you, Judas," Jesus said. "We couldn't begin till you came."

So many people are looking for a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. They would find that community pointed to at Piedmont Park.

May they look to my church and to yours also to find it.

Let us pray.

Jesus, we ask that you would shape us by your presence among us that we might be a church that exhibits your hospitality and forgiveness toward others. May our life together reflect your great love for all people. Amen.