We Welcome Everyone, Really


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World Communion Sunday

You are welcome here. No matter where life has taken you; no matter what you’ve done or left undone, you are welcome here. Come experience Jesus’ radical hospitality for you and for all God’s children on this World Communion Sunday. There’s a place at the Table for you. Join us in the feast!

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

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“We welcome everyone, really.” That’s what it says on the banner hanging outside of our sanctuary doors. “We welcome everyone, really.”

Now, I would say, that for any institution, that statement is much more aspirational than it is a reality. Even in the church, or perhaps especially in the church, because we are a body, made up of broken and flawed human beings, we don’t always get that welcome right.

Now, I do want to qualify that statement. As my colleague, Victor, often says, “We welcome everyone, but we don’t welcome all behaviors.”

This is so true. Each and every person who walks through these doors, each and every person we encounter inside and outside the walls of this building, is a beloved child of God, and they are indeed welcome. But not all actions or behaviors are of God, and any act that is violent or harmful or dehumanizing of others is, quite honestly, not welcome.

Robert Jones, Jr., a student of James Baldwin said it like this, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

In other words, yes, all are welcome. But if welcoming you is dependent on the exclusion and unwelcome of others, that’s just not going to work here.

Radical welcome, like the kind Jesus practiced, freed people from the burdens and oppressions of their current society. It received all people as fully human, created in the image of God, as a beloved and precious child of the Creator.

And to Jesus all were welcome, really. It wasn’t aspirational; it was lived and embodied and sometimes even learned.

But despite Jesus’ radical welcome, not all chose or could bring themselves to stay and receive that welcome. In fact, next week, we’ll hear about a young man who was welcomed and invited and loved by Jesus. But rather than embracing that welcome, he chose to walk away, for he could not accept the kind of change and transformation that welcome would require. Scripture says, “he was shocked and went away grieving,” (Mark 10:22).

Many others, however, especially those on the margins, did receive that welcome and were relieved and granted new life through Jesus. He sat with sinners and prostitutes, tax collectors and those in need of healing. He broke bread with those deemed unclean and unworthy. He was called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” by elite religious leaders.

Jesus chose welcome, such a radical welcome of all people, that it often offended those who held power and privilege, even when they were welcomed and loved just as much as everyone else.

As the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” (Unknown). Let me say that again, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” To be lumped together and treated as equals with those whom Jesus associated with was, to some, offensive and unacceptable.

So, some who approached Jesus, like the rich young man who we will hear more about next week, could not stand to give up the power and the privilege that the world offered to enter into Christ’s welcome.

But none of us here have chosen that path. We’re here because something about Jesus’ welcome has compelled us and convicted us. No longer will we be bound by the ways of this world. No longer will we be wooed by the halls of power and the pull of privilege.

While some of our elected officials and even some of our appointed judges may not be able to shed such temptations, we will not walk away from Jesus. And that’s why we will change the world. I believe that. Even in these times that seem so wrought with injustice, I believe that, that love and welcome will change the world.

You see, this radical Jesus even welcomed children.  And they never rejected that welcome. Children in Jesus’ day had little to no agency. They were basically the property of the patriarch of the family. And without that adult male to advocate on their behalf, they were voiceless, powerless, and very vulnerable.

When scripture tells us that we must “be like a little child” to enter God’s kingdom, it doesn’t simply mean that we must have some kind of childlike characteristic such as innocence or purity or receptiveness that gets us in. For a long time, that is how today’s passage was interpreted by most biblical scholars, with that focus on the characteristics of children.

But in the last thirty years or so, many commentators have changed the interpretive tune about the phrase, “as a little child” to focus not on a child’s traits but on their status in society.

Ched Myers argues:

…the child represents another category of those marginalized and dominated (like women, the poor, and the unclean); the child was, in fact, the ‘least’ in familial and societal structures; … Jesus is thus inviting his disciples into a new reality of community and family where the ‘least’ becomes the model for disciples, and this means the disciple takes up the powerlessness and vulnerability of a child.”[1]

So not only did Jesus welcome children, but Jesus expected us to become like a child, to give up power and to live in solidarity with the “least of these.”

Here we have this itinerant, homeless rabbi, who is gaining in popularity and fame, by practicing an upside down, backgrounds understanding of the world. People are hearing about his radical welcome. So, women, children, the utter outcasts of society come to him, hoping to receive a blessing, a miracle, daring to dream of a new life.

But Jesus’ network of male disciples just don’t seem to get it, do they? They are constantly guarding the gate, fencing the table, telling others to, “go away; you’re not welcome here,” trying to maintain their “good old boys” club.

But Jesus says again and again, to the contrary, “Yes, you are. You are welcome here. There is a place at the Table for you.”

Friends, when we proclaim that “We welcome everyone, really.” it’s aspirational. We’re really trying to live into that, but there are many human barriers that prevent us from embodying that fully.

Sometimes, we catch ourselves acting like those disciples than like Jesus.

The Rev. Lawrence Richardson is an educated, queer, Black, Progressive, Transgender pastor in the United Church of Christ. And when he sees churches with banners declaring, “All are welcome,” he wonders, “Would I, with all that I bring, be welcomed in that space?”

And he challenges churches to really think about what we are saying with such signage. He asks not only are we prepared for the beautiful tapestry of human diversity that might show up, but “how are we preparing ourselves to receive” all God’s people?

How might we extend welcome to those with differing physical and mental abilities? To younger generations or families with children? To people of different racial and ethnic groups? To those in the LGBTQI community? To seniors facing uncertainty as they age? To the survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault? And to the fullness of each and every person, beyond any label or demographic?

Richardson writes:

Doing life with people who are different from us, or who have had experiences different from our own, takes courage. It requires us to take into account the social dynamics that inform what each person brings to the table of our common life together …

…Genuine hospitality—true welcome to the table—involves more than inviting people into to our space. It requires that we all are open to transformation together. We do not offer full hospitality when we embrace those who are “new” or “different” by bringing them into a community that is marked by a fixed, rigid, unchanging identity. A truly hospitable community is marked by its willingness to change in response to the newcomer.

When we say, “All are Welcome,” we aren’t merely announcing that anyone is welcome to become one of us. Instead, we are proclaiming [or should be proclaiming] that we want others to come in and help all of us change—to help all of us grow in love, acceptance, and community.[2]

And let’s face it, that’s hard, to be open to that kind of transformation, to be willing to become a new and growing and changing community that is marked by those who are here. That is hard work.

So, when we, Calvary Presbyterian Church says, “We welcome everyone, really;” I think, if we’re honest, we mean, that we’re really trying. But that change is hard, and we’ve become accustomed to the way things have always been done, and that we are creatures of comfort who often mistake our own preferences as the “right” way.

But, we are trying.

Listen, back in August, we gathered around the Lord’s Table, as we do every first Sunday of the month, as we will later this morning.

And back in August, some disorderly child felt like he could just come up on the chancel with the pastors, spin around in circles and stomp his feet as we presided over communion. He smooshed his body in between me and the Table as I said the words of institution, making me spill the juice all over everything. And then he thought he could just stand up in front and help serve the elements.

I’m sure his parents were mortified (I know because I’m his parent, by the way), but the community welcomed him nonetheless. I didn’t hear from a single person who was appalled or disgruntled at his behavior. I’m sure they exist because I was appalled and disgruntled, too, but they didn’t say anything to me. In fact, I actually had a few who encouraged me and shared their delight at his presence.

Something about this church, this community, all of you, signals to my four-year-old, that he is welcome here, really, even at his worst behavior.

And I know, that’s just one, small example.  But the thing about hospitality and radical welcome is that it’s like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it gets. The more we practice it, the better we become at it.

And the good news is, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed because God has welcomed us.

So, what we can say, without any hesitation or any qualifiers is this: “God welcomes everyone, really.” And we’re trying our best to do the same.

Once a month, here at Calvary, we are invited to come and dine at the Welcome Table, the Lord’s Table, invited by our host Jesus the Christ. Sometimes, children and youth help welcome us to that Table, either by design or because their parents can’t seem to stop them.

This ritual, this sacrament in which we partake, it may seem like just getting in line to eat a piece of bread soaked in grape juice. But I believe something happens in this moment, something life-transforming, something earth-shattering, something that aligns our world to be a little bit more like the kin-dom God intended.

There is an in-breaking of the radical hospitality of Jesus Christ. And we are united with believers in every time and place, with those who’ve gone before us, with those on the other side of this globe who began celebrating World Communion last night in Asia, Africa, Europe, and all around the world.

And we are united with one another, with those sitting in our pews in this sanctuary, some of whom we know nothing about, and some of whom we know way too much about.

And somehow, through Christ’s welcome, we become one, and we are changed, made a little bit different than when we came because we are fed and given a place at the Table.

Sure, it’s symbolic, that’s what the reformer Zwingli said. But it’s more than that, too, that’s what Calvin argued: It’s transformative because Christ is here, not necessarily in the elements of the bread and wine as our Catholic sisters and brothers believe, but Christ is here presiding at that Table, in the act of communing with one another, breaking bread with sisters and brothers, that rabble-rousing Jesus is here with us. And we will never be the same because of it.

As we prepare our hearts to receive this meal that will not leave us the same as when we came, I invite join me in singing a statement of faith, one that I believe through and through. The words are as such: “God welcomes all, strangers and friends. God’s love is strong, and it never ends.”

Sing with me if you know the song, and if you don’t, sing even louder.

 

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988) 266-271.

[2] https://www.thebtscenter.org/all_are_welcome/ by The Rev. Lawrence T. Richardson

 

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