No Shirts, No Shoes, No Problem

No Shirts, No Shoes, No Problem

In the Sunrise Restaurant at Dewey Beach, there is sign displayed which reads, “No shirts, no shoes, no problem”. I had to read it twice, because I am used to signs which tell you what you aren’t allowed to do, such as smoke cigarettes, or park in a residential bay. I looked around at my fellow diners, all of whom were wearing shirts. That’s a relief, I thought. The prospect of eating breakfast in the company of bare chested men held little to no appeal. 

On second thoughts, however, maybe there was something to be said in its favor – if it gets people through the door, then why not? I now imagine hanging this sign at St Martha’s, and seeing if we can attract a new type of churchgoer. 

Don’t worry, I am only joking. And yet, there is something within the nature of our organization which demands we open the door to all comers, regardless of appearance. That is what is meant by “catholic”, with a small “c”. Everyone who has been led by God to the church must be welcomed in the same way. The gospels provide us with at least three examples of persons we might hesitate to invite in. 

The first is John the Baptist, (Mark 1) who lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey. The people of his day recognized him as a prophet, but today I am sure we would cross the road if we saw him coming toward us. His plain speaking would have taken us aback, and his appearance – a coat of camel hair (which may or may not have concealed his bare chest) – would probably fascinate and repulse us at the same time.

The second example is that of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) Having squandered his inheritance in a life of debauchery, he limps home as a broken penitent and receives, much to his surprise, a loving welcome from a forgiving father.  Do we know anyone like the Prodigal Son? Bad people returning to church are easily judged and snubbed, but do we have the heart to welcome them back as though they were a loved and forgiven brother or sister?

The third example is Zacchaeus the tax collector. (Luke 19) He is despised by the people because of his profession, which makes him a Roman stooge, and permits him to prosper at the expense of his fellow Jews. A social outcast, he is called not by the disciples, but by Jesus, who alone reaches out to include him in their company. 

These three examples from Scripture attest to the identification of Jesus with the outsider. The Church which Jesus establishes calls for its members to not only tolerate those with whom we feel a lack of kinship, but welcome them as brothers and sisters.

Let me share with you a fourth example from my own life. Before I was ordained, I lived in Hove, England, and every Sunday I attended St Patrick’s Church (now sadly closed). Next to the church was a hostel for the homeless, many of whom would join the church on Sunday for Holy Communion. The priest, Father Alan, had a calling to serve the homeless and he did so with a mixture of love and firmness. The homeless were the losers of the world – most had psychological problems, many were alcoholics, and their experience of sleeping rough had blunted their sensitivities to the world around them. But Father Alan welcomed them all, and they were able to hear the gospel of hope and receive the bread of life. Jesus, after all, was among their number. 

At St Patrick’s church I had joined a family of mostly poor people, (including the monks who came from the monastery up the road), who had nothing to their name. Some of the men looked a little scary, but as my youngest son observed to me later, the people with scary faces aren’t always the ones to be afraid of. Although life had not turned out as any of them had planned, here they were, without means or status, and here I was, and all of us mattered to God. 

There’s nothing like having nothing to make you hunger for God’s favor. That, I think, is the lesson I learnt from my experience there. None of us measured up to the Jesus we had come to worship. However, Jesus did not keep himself aloof from us, but was in our midst, healing us, feeding us and building us up. Many of us would continue to stumble on the road ahead, but Jesus would always be around to reach out a hand and lift us up.

The Church is a hospital for the human soul, and God requires no dress code for those seeking to enter; only a penitent heart, like the Prodigal Son, and a hunger for God’s grace.

With every blessing

Father David

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