Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
1st Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9
2nd Reading: Romans 6:12-23
The themes of today’s readings are about welcome. I have had the chance to visit a variety of other churches during my vacation days over the years. I have been welcomed in many ways and really enjoyed the chance to sit and listen to the sermon, sit with my little boy, and sing hymns that are new to me, yet hold much meaning in their tunes and words.
I have felt the whole range of welcome, and I know I am privileged in that. When I go into a church, I dress appropriately, I know where to sit, I know how to find my way around a hymnal and bulletin, I know when to stand up and sit down, I speak the language, sing the hymns and communion setting really loud, and usually have a young child with me. I am welcomed and I wonder sometimes if that is because I fit in and I fit an ideal that a congregation expects and wants to fill its own needs. But am I welcomed for me? Does anyone care or want to know what would fulfill my needs and make my life easier even for just that one Sunday or that one week? Would I be welcomed if I was different, if I called out “Alleluia!” or “Amen” throughout the service, if I dressed in short shorts, or my kid had a kool aid mustache or ran around in circles during church? How would I be welcomed differently if I spoke Russian or Spanish? Would I be as welcomed if I somehow declared from the very beginning that I am just on vacation and I won’t be returning?
I don’t have the chance to visit King of Kings anonymously, and neither do any of you, to see what kind of welcome we offer and to whom. Those who stay usually say they have experienced us as welcoming and a few who haven’t, let us know in what ways they didn’t feel welcome. I wonder sometimes about who stays and who doesn’t return. I don’t usually take it personally. There are a lot of reasons that people might come or go and I’m glad we have lots of kinds of churches to fulfill the various kinds of needs that exist in this world. We are not a church for everyone, even though we would welcome just about anyone.
We see ourselves as welcoming here, yet I know there is more we can do. A few years back, one couple decided to try sitting in different pews. I hope they found themselves relating to different people, seeing things from different perspectives, and stretched and challenged in their usual way of thinking. It might be a fun thing to try during coffee hour. It becomes easy to sit with friends, but maybe each of us could challenge ourselves, even it if it was just once. Jesus welcomes us, and we get to welcome each other and especially welcome those who are new or different.
Welcome is the glue that holds a community together. We can add more glue to our existing relationships, but what about the new pieces that are trying to stick? They need some glue to get them going. They need some places to attach themselves. I remember another time when a couple invited other couples over to their home to get to know them. Bonds were formed and glue was applied that is still sticking to this day.
Think of the sharing of the peace. It is easy to greet those we know. But I love to see Kasen’s example, finding the person farthest from him in the sanctuary and going up with a hand extended. Here is a sight, this short little guy, looking up and confidently welcoming some tall, grown person. He is welcoming others as he has been welcomed. He is forming glue between him and other people. And when he goes to Karen to have a little lesson on the piano or organ after church, maybe he is mostly thinking of himself, but he is showing interest in another person and the gifts she offers and I love to see the smile on her face when she’s demonstrating her passion to him. It is a glue between the generations, between musicians, across a divide that we don’t normally get to cross in daily life. It is a true welcome, warm and beautiful.
I’ve been reading this article in the Women of the ELCA newsletter by Valora K Starr, Director of Discipleship for WELCA about hospitality. She talks about the usual way we see hospitality. It is all about the hostess and how she buys matching napkins and makes everything look pretty. The focus is on being the perfect hostess. But shouldn’t the welcome be about the other person and what they need? The guests are the most important part of the welcoming process. Without them, there is no welcoming to do. The author says, “Hospitality changes our hearts and actions so that we are available to meet the needs of others.” This kind of hospitality switches the focus from the hostess to the Holy Spirit as the one guiding the relationship and gluing us together in community.
The first step in hospitality is to make room, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for the other. We’ve made physical room in the sanctuary for guests with walkers and wheelchairs by moving the pews around a little bit. We’ve tried to make the bulletin easier to follow by putting all the words there. What if we each came to church on Sunday expecting to meet someone new, maybe even to sit with them and show them the way through the service? What if we made room at our table at coffee hour and invited a newcomer to sit there? What if we made room in our week to connect with someone we don’t know very well to get some glue going in the relationship?
The next step in hospitality is to make ready. We prepare ourselves to both serve the guest and receive the gifts the guest has to offer. We will want to engage a conversation with the guest to find out what is going on in his or her life, ways we might be able to help. But it isn’t about charity either. We have to be willing to receive the gifts the other person offers and that means being ready to share a little more deeply about ourselves.
Finally when we practice hospitality, we want to be available. We need to be ready to be fully present with the other person—engaged. That’s why I am so thankful to all of you, that on Sunday morning my boy can be flitting all around the social hall and you are his family looking out for him, scolding him if he is naughty and helping him if he needs more of something. That frees me up to focus on the needs of someone instead of constantly distracted looking for my child. Hospitality offers attention and focus.
The next frontier of welcome is in the larger community. Most people will never come through the doors of this church, but we know Christ is present in them, too. How do we extend hospitality out to a world that really needs it?
A few people from our church are volunteering with the summer lunch program at some of the area elementary schools. What an exciting way to take our ministry of feeding the hungry out into the neighborhoods! There are kids to meet and other volunteers to connect with. These relationships are the glue that connects our community in Milwaukie.
Lonnie and Karen are in Estonia connecting on a huge level in hospitality, both giving and receiving it, as they lead the Unistus choir in a choir of tens of thousands of people, and with a banner sewn by our own Susan Brooks who has provided many of our banners, here at church. They are both welcoming and being welcomed, providing a world-wide glue that can help bring the peace that the prophet Jeremiah tells of.
Christ welcomed us by becoming one of us, making himself available and present, spending time and focus with those in most need, and giving of himself in an ongoing relationship. He even opened himself to receiving from us. May we welcome one another as Christ welcomed us, in this church, in our homes, and in our neighborhoods.