Not in My Pew

It’s amazing what you unearth in looking through the history of a church. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, for example, in 1957 there was much discussion about whether or not to provide coffee refreshment after services. The discussion ended without a decision. A month later, the Session received a letter from the Atlanta Christian Council letting them know of their intention to reduce the number of grocery stores that would be open on Sundays. The community Easter Sunrise Service that year was held in the stadium of Oglethorpe University. The times have changed a bit since then in the world around us. The Session minutes of 1959 contain two single-spaced typed pages outlining the flower placement policy for the Sanctuary. And later that same year, as we celebrated our tenth anniversary, a guest preacher brought a message entitled “The Church Looks Forward.” Maybe things haven’t changed as much as we thought…

The 1950s and 60s brought some challenging times to Oglethorpe Presbyterian, as it did for most predominantly white churches in the South. In 1957, our pastor Fitz Legerton was one of the 80 signatories of what came to be known as the “Atlanta Ministers' Manifesto”. A copy of it is just outside the doors here. At the time, the City of Atlanta was planning to shutter its schools in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the integration that was quickly coming to schools throughout the nation. In the open letter, the ministers appealed to the moral conscience of the City, imploring leaders to trust the wisdom of the constitutional process and allow for the implementation of school integration.

The statement, by today’s standards, is pretty mild, it’s even a little embarrassing, if we’re honest. Most importantly, though, it had its intended effect, sending ripples far beyond the doors of the churches and out into the broader community.

It was not long before African-American church leaders decided to test these churches to see whether they practiced what they preached. A couple of them would come to worship at a white church to see whether or not they would be allowed to enter the sanctuary. This happened all over the Southeast, in fact.

In 1963, Sam Oni, a Ghanaian whose family had been converted to Christianity by Southern Baptist Missionaries, arrived on the campus of Mercer University in Macon as an incoming freshman. Instead of rejoicing at the fruit of their labors, however, many saw this as their worst nightmare come to pass. A divided Board of the University reluctantly supported the President in allowing the admission to take place.

The real test came when Sam Oni went to worship at the Baptist Church just off campus. Though he was their spiritual child by virtue of their missionary work, the deacons of the church prevented Oni from entering the church – not just once, but on multiple occasions.

Similar events were taking place all over the Southeast, and our congregation’s leadership met to decide what to do just in case it happened here. In 1960, the Session met and decided that they would “continue the present policy of seating anyone presenting themselves for worship.” There would be no effort to decide whether or not someone had come for worship or to test the church. And in Fitz Legerton’s own recollections, this moment established a tone of welcome and openness that remains a defining characteristic of this church.

It is one thing to make pronouncements about the way society ought to work. It is another thing altogether to live out those pronouncements. And yet, that’s exactly what our text this morning from First Peter calls us to do. This lesson, by the way, contains our verse for our stewardship campaign this year. Peter says that when we speak, we should speak as those who speak for God. When we serve, we should do so as those who serve on God’s behalf. And when we do so, Peter says, we act as good stewards of the grace of God. If God is a God that welcomes, then we should be extravagant in our welcome. If God is a God that loves, then we should love beyond limit. And if God is a God that forgives, then we should be a community of grace.

There is the story of another church that struggled with this lived faith. Recognizing their location in the urban center, they decided to begin a Sunday morning breakfast to feed the homeless. It was a wild success, with hundreds of people fed every week. They were never short of volunteers, as the members of the congregation were eager to put their faith into action. But after a while, some problems began to arise. Some of those who came to the breakfast started staying for early worship. They tended to sit in the back, but it began to distress some members of the church. They complained – of the way these folks looked, the way they smelled…what would visitors think? This was not going to make the right first impression.

The decision was made to begin an alternative worship service that would dovetail with the breakfast. It was held in the Fellowship Hall (where the breakfast took place), rather than the Sanctuary. Crisis averted. But was it really?

At the risk of playing armchair pastor here, I think there was a bigger question at stake. Yes, the hungry were being fed – both the literal food of a Sunday morning breakfast and the spiritual food of a worshiping community. And that is good and noble. And yet, there had been this momentary possibility that this church could look a little bit more like the kingdom of God with rich and poor worshiping together, all at home in the family of Christ.

That, I think, is what is at work in the parables we find in Luke today. The lost sheep is reunited with the 99 who stayed behind. The lost coin is put back with the nine that never rolled under the table. And in both instances, the finding is marked with full-on celebration. It’s the next parable, the one we didn’t read today, which brings the lesson a bit closer to home. No longer are we dealing with inanimate objects like coins or non-human animals like sheep. Instead, it’s the story of a man who has two sons. One goes off to the city, squanders his inheritance, and then comes home. Even though his father orders a feast and a celebration, the son who stayed at home is furious. “I’ve been here the whole time,” he says. “Where is my party?”

The challenge is not in the decision to welcome, though that can be a painful moment in its own right. The real challenge is when those whom we decided to welcome actually call our bluff and show up. The temptation is to say “yes, but not in my pew.”

My friends, that is where I have seen us at our best. I could lift up numerous examples of times where I have witnessed the transforming love of Christ at work through you – a hug, a handshake, a seat at the table next to you. You make complete strangers feel as though they are at home. And in a world of hopeless wanders, that is a greater grace than we can possibly imagine.

Why do we do that? Because it’s who we are! It’s in our DNA. It’s who we have always been, as I think our history demonstrates. Most importantly, though, it’s who we want to be when this table is spread before us.

You see, we’re not the sheep who never left. We are the one who wandered away. And this celebration happens because we have come home. We are welcomed here not because we are righteous, but because the one who welcomes us is. We feast at this table not because we deserve it necessarily, but because Christ himself is here, and he is the one who gets to set the guest list. And guess what? He wants to hang out with the riff-raff! The Lord Jesus himself is the one who welcomes tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, sinners of every walk of life as citizens in this kingdom.

Our call? Our call is to cultivate that kind of chaos within our pews. Being a faithful steward means that we are inheritors of the manifold grace of God, speaking and serving on behalf of God – not just here in this place, but wherever it is that we go. May it be so, now and always.