June 26, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42 1st Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 2nd Reading: Romans 6:12-23
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me,” Jesus says. The good news for this morning is God’s welcome and our welcome. I was pondering this week so many times I have been welcomed throughout my life. And I was thinking about the kind of welcome I do and don’t extend, the kind of welcome I want to extend and how God wants that for me.
I have a confession to make, and that is that even though I have preached probably 40 welcome sermons, I have been challenged in my welcome this year. It wasn’t anyone who hurt me or my family. That would be more about forgiveness, one side of welcome. My grandma wrote me in December to tell me in advance of our Christmas celebration that two of my cousins were getting married to each other. Yes, I told you I am from a hick family. Yes they are first cousins. No that is not legal in Oregon, but California is one of two states where it is. The border is not too far from here and Oregon honors those marriages performed there. I confess that when I heard the news I immediately called each of my three siblings and snickered and cackled with them about how messed up our family is and had quite a good time gossiping. My sense of welcome was challenged.
Although I still struggle with it, I mostly got over it, so that when my brother called me a month later to tell me they were expecting a child, he was disappointed I didn’t get worked up into a tizzy again. Some in the family have shunned them—won’t come to family gatherings where they show up. It is sad to miss out on family time because of something like that. I guess I focused on the question—what does it hurt us? It is really none of our business.
What about their child, you ask? Doesn’t it hurt their child? They did their research. Children born to first cousins still have a really low birth defect rate. It is only when cousins marry cousins marry cousins that you start getting into trouble. They’ve had all kinds of genetic testing and so far so good. So as long as their child marries outside the family, which is the usual trend, everything should be fine.
So what does this have to do with the Gospel—it has to do with welcome. Christmas at grandma’s was quite sparse this year and I know it has something to do with those two cousins being there and others staying home because of them. I was shocked when grandma told me two days before the gathering, but I was planning to go to grandma’s anyway and see my mom and family. I wasn’t about to change my plans because my cousins are weird. And I even managed to croak out a “congratulations” to them. Yesterday my cousins had a baby shower and I went. You need family and friends around you, even when they do things you don’t understand, and my family falls into that category all the time. What does the shunning accomplish—nothing. It mainly hurts the one doing the cutting-off. Some of my other cousins missed seeing grandma—and who knows how many more Christmases we’ll have with her? They broke a family connection. I still hope they’ll eventually come around and get over it for their own good. I don’t advocate cousin marriage and I have to look inside myself for my more kind and welcoming side when it comes to this situation, but when I think of how I want my family and friends to treat me when they disagree with something I do, I have to treat my cousins like I’d want to be treated and let it go.
Welcome is one thing we can offer each other—no matter how poor we are, we can give a glass of cold water. We can share what little we have. We can open up our space to others, whether it is our home, our church, or a spot at out picnic table at the park. I have a stack of books in my office from one of my favorite homeless people, Michael. He shared with me even when he didn’t even have a pair of socks to wear or a place to lay his head. I have a devotional given to be by Lennie, another homeless man I met in this area and I use it often at meetings and when I need a word of encouragement—and it is by Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite authors, and Lennie knew what I would like and what to give me. Others have shared a song or a prayer or a story. In all these ways I have been welcomed by people who had seemingly nothing to give. Yet they had a welcome to give. And I think many of them knew the meaning of hospitality because they had experiences of receiving it and knowing how much it meant, and of not receiving it and knowing how much that hurt.
Most of us are not living hand to mouth. We live in relative comfort. Maybe the question of whether we will be welcomed or not is not foremost on our minds. We may take it a little bit for granted. We don’t expect to be thrown out of a store for our appearance or scent. We expect our pew in church. We expect people to talk to us instead of standing apart and staring. Yet, when we think about it, we know about welcome and we have experienced its opposite both for ourselves or for a loved one. Some of us have struggled with depression, anxiety, and mental illness and probably all of us know someone who has. How can we be more welcoming to people going through that kind of hell? Some of us are divorced, have tattoos, are bald, are getting older, have been considered too short, struggle with hearing or vision loss, have struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, have been put in categories because of our gender or appearance. Many of your children and grandchildren are estranged from church, they just don’t see the relevance. They don’t see the welcome, only the judgment they’ve experienced. It is too bad because it only takes one bad experience to ruin all the good ones. Some of us here may be gay or lesbian and have family members and friends who have known the pain of rejection because of their sexual orientation. How can we be more welcoming to all people who have known the pain of being left out or shunned?
God says to welcome. Jesus showed us that he really means everybody. The good news is about welcome. I think it is partly because we know the pain of being left out and we have felt it for our friends and family, that we want to be sure that everyone knows they are welcome here. And many of us know what a comfort a congregation can be, how much it has mean to each person here, to be able to grow and learn and share and know God’s love and generosity. We want other people to have that experience. That’s why we became a Reconciling in Christ congregation, a welcoming congregation who puts it out there that this is a welcoming place.
Now when I first read the second lesson for today, I found it a little discouraging. I even joked with Gordon about putting “The Wages of Sin is Death” on the sign board outside! “Sin” is mentioned 10 times in that reading, as well as wickedness, shame, slavery, death, iniquity, and all those downers. I’m not opposed to downers. I can be a pessimist with the best/worst of them. But I am opposed to discouragement. I think when Paul wrote this, he was trying to show them the reality of where they were and what the consequences would be if they kept up the same old ways. And he was trying to show them their freedom now that they had Christ and his free gift of eternal life.
So I was pondering all the meanings of sin: our actions, motivations, thoughts, selfishness, brokenness, limitations, attempts to prove that we are good enough, etc. But I think for today, a good definition for sin is a lack of welcome. It is denying a relationship. It is pushing people away. It is pushing God away who is coming to us in that other person. It not only hurts them, but it hurts us because we lose out on that interaction in which we might have learned something or been able to share what we have with them. And the wages of that lack of welcome is death. It is a loss of hope for growth. It is the death of a relationship. A little of us dies when we don’t have those interactions that God is trying to give us by throwing people on our path, in our faces.
But the good news is still the welcome. My cousins took the risk to invite me to their party this weekend. Certainly people refused their invitation, but I know I need my cousins and family. I may need their help someday. And I can learn how to be a more welcoming person by being with them and welcoming them. Jesus took the risk of welcoming us by coming among us and spending time with those we normally wouldn’t welcome. His welcome was offensive so we gave him the boot. We crucified him on the cross, hoping we could shun and ignore him and get back to business as usual—welcoming only those who could so something for us. But Jesus came back from the grave to say that even killing him couldn’t kill his welcome. God is love. God is welcome. We are God’s children, and it is up to us to spread that welcome for our own good and the good of a hurting world.