Eating with outcasts – The Inclusive Church journey to radical welcome

Mementos of my first service as a trainee Methodist preacher – The sign I made for the children’s address which says ‘All Are Welcome’. The word ‘But…’ is hidden, as we reflected on how some churches say all are welcome but they don’t really mean it. Below is a copy of Singing The Faith, the hymnbook the church uses which I now have on loan, a crocheted ‘preaching scarf’ in rainbow colours and a loaf of fresh bread made for me by the music leaders, and a collage of the story of the lost sheep from Junior Church.

TODAY in the community where I joined the Methodist Church last year, I led the morning service for the first time, as I am now training as a local preacher.

A national Methodist Church resource called Justice, Dignity and Solidarity inspired the theme for the service. It invites us to commit:

‘to becoming a church that prioritises justice and dignity for all, especially those who have previously been excluded, and which stands in active solidarity with them.’

Justice, Dignity & Solidarity User Guide

It defines being Christian as:

  • celebrating God who made each person in God’s own image
  • being disciples of Jesus who treated each person with dignity
  • rejoicing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to all people.

This strategy is one of the reasons why I felt moved to become a Methodist. So it was a privilege to be able to shape a community celebration around it.

I won’t share the whole of my reflection here, as I am likely to use it again in other contexts. But I also shared an extract for a short telephone service this afternoon. The telephone service began in 2020 to enable isolated community members to connect with the church, and the church has kept it going as it continues to meet a need, especially for folk who can’t get to church on a Sunday morning. Here is my brief reflection, on the parable of the lost sheep [Luke 15:1-7, Good News Bible].

‘This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!’

That’s what the critics of Jesus say. What a scandal!

The ‘outcast’ is important to Jesus. He’s being hounded by the legal specialists of the religious establishment, the ‘informed lay people’ of his day, known as the pharisees and the scribes [the equivalent in our national churches might be delegates at the Methodist Conference, or the United Reformed Church General Assembly, or the Church of England’s General Synod.

The word ‘grumbling’ indicates that these people kept sniping away at Jesus’ habit of dining with tax collectors and outcasts. Luke mentions ‘tax collectors and outcasts’ ten times in his Gospel. Some translations say ‘tax collectors and sinners’. The Good News translation says ‘Tax collectors and outcasts’. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m reliably informed that in the original text of Luke’s gospel, the term for ‘sinners’ or ‘outcasts’ referred to those deemed to be outside of Jewish law – people who were no longer allowed to be part of the synagogue. Perhaps we might think about who is missing from our faith community?

Jesus’ practice of keeping ‘bad company’ in the eyes of the righteous is an important tradition. But Jesus doesn’t attack the nagging faith leaders; he tells a story which reflects the overwhelming joy in finding that which was lost. The joy was expressed in celebrating with friends and neighbours. Fellowship around the meal table is a sign of God’s abundant, unconditional hospitality.

The single lost sheep is sought until found. The ninety-nine were not left in safety but in the wilderness. That is the measure of love for the lost: a willingness to risk everything, even life.

The lost sheep has to be carried – perhaps it is frightened, or wounded, or simply bewildered at having lost its way. The climax to the story is the joyful shepherd calling the community together for a celebration of wholeness restored. Jesus’ vision of the perfect community rejoices in being restored to wholeness. He speaks of the completed flock of one hundred instead of the ninety-nine.

Who might be today’s equivalent of those whom society regards as ‘outcasts’ – a family seeking asylum, someone who is homeless and sleeping on the streets, a person with a different coloured skin, someone addicted to drugs, or living with HIV?

You may think of your own examples.

There are many examples where Jesus states his mission, to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. Who are the people today who actively work to make the world more inclusive – a world where everyone is valued equally and is entitled to basic human rights?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said,

‘Don’t let anyone tell you that God doesn’t take sides. I believe God is always on the side of the poor, the powerless, the marginalised, the outcast.’

Jesus treated no-one as an ‘outcast’. Not only did Jesus tolerate these ‘unacceptable’ people – he actually welcomed and ate with them! We are the ones who create ‘outcasts’.

No-one is excluded from God’s love. God takes the initiative to restore wholeness.

When we read this  story, we may recognise that we are the ones who are sought out and the ones who are welcomed. If we do, how can we be as welcoming as Jesus?

The educational charity Inclusive Church, has a free course called Radical Welcome, which includes an exploration of the journey from inviting, through inclusion, to radical welcome. In my role as  Coordinator of the Open Table Network, I recommend the Radical Welcome course to churches to help them explore what it means to be inclusive. Around 140 churches have contacted me to discuss this since Open Table began in Liverpool in June 2008, and began to multiply and become a network in 2015, so I have some insight into what they are already doing that works, and what more they can do to make a difference. I discussed this with a church leader in this interview from June 2020.

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  2. […] February 2023 I led my first service as a trainee local preacher. To be considered for ordination, it used to be necessary to complete local preacher training […]

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