“All are welcome does not mean that anything goes.”
A pastor-friend of mine said this to me once in my first call. He probably heard it from somebody else but it is such brilliant wisdom that I wanted to pass it on to all of you.
St. Peter’s has a strong tradition of “All are welcome” because of course, St. Peter’s is rooted in the gospel and the gospel makes clear that God goes out of God’s way to ensure the welcome of those that are so often not welcome in society, let alone in the house of God. It is such a worthwhile thing to say in an exclusionary world: All are welcome here.
Except, to only hear the invitation, “All are welcome” leaves the church vulnerable to becoming, as contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas called it, “a quivering mass of availability.” So often this leaves us vulnerable to believing that anything but the word “yes” is unacceptable in our Christian ethic. Quickly then, we find ourselves overextended, emotionally if not financially broke, sometimes resentful and overrun as we have oriented ourselves around whatever needs and behaviors (acceptable or not) that come through our door!
I recently had a gentleman come to the door of our church on a Thursday and he asked, “Am I welcome here?” To which, I replied, “Yes. You are welcome here!”, because ALL are welcome here, right?
But welcome to do what? Welcome in what way?
If welcome is undefined, it’s probably not a very welcoming welcome anyway.
My preaching professor in seminary is a legally blind man. He talked about welcome and hospitality and said, “People think they’re being hospitable when they say, come on in! Make yourself a sandwich! Anything in the fridge is yours!” He remarked that while that sounded nice and everything was available to him, he is blind! Which makes it pretty hard for him to navigate a refrigerator and a kitchen that’s isn’t his. From his position as a blind man, he is uniquely positioned to see that true hospitality requires boundaries. In this instance, it looks like asking him if he’d rather have a ham sandwich or a salami sandwich and then making it for him, pulling out a chair and sitting down with him to eat.
In our culture today, availability has become synonymous with welcome but this is not our heritage. As people of faith, you do not have to tolerate any old thing that comes your way. You are allowed to use the word “no” and not only is this acceptable, sometimes it is in itself an act of hospitality, pointing people to a truth that they need to see about themselves, a truth that will help them find a wider welcome in the world.
We are not a quivering mass of availability, we are Christ’s church. Let us enter into the hospitality of Jesus: “All are welcome does not mean anything goes.”