I recently attended the MAPS conference in Denver, Colorado. That’s the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. It was the largest psychedelic research conference in history, celebrating the fact that after nearly 40 years of hard work the FDA will soon approve certain psychedelics to be used for mental health therapy. One of the major things that struck me about the conference was the incredible diversity of people who were welcome there. People came from all over the world and from a wide variety of disciplines. Some looked like they were ready for a musical festival. Others wore suits and ties and presented on their university research and clinical trials. Others were indigenous leaders sharing their wisdom about plant medicines. Others were celebrities and millionaires sharing stories about how psychedelics had changed their lives. And others were people who grew up in poverty or those in recovery from addiction, sharing their stories as well. Still others were religious leaders sharing their perspectives about the implications these medicines have for spiritual practice in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.
Perhaps the most striking was the bipartisan political support that was evident. After MAPS founder Rick Doblin’s opening address, the very next speaker was former Texas Governor Rick Perry. He made it clear he was a conservative Republican and that he supports the work of MAPS to help people with PTSD and other mental illnesses. Next up was the liberal Democratic governor of Colorado Jared Polis, the first openly gay man to be governor in US history. He also spoke of his support of this research and therapy. There was certainly a wide variety of people there, all welcomed to be part of the same movement.
This theme of inclusion and welcome was certainly a highlight of the MAPS conference. And it is also the focus of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus instructs his disciples on the need to be welcoming. Jesus tells the disciples that whoever welcomes them welcomes him too. And that even giving a drink to little ones in Jesus’ name is following God’s will.
At times following Jesus’ call seems really demanding. At times he tells us to take up our cross and follow. At times he tells us to be ready for persecution and suffering. At times he tells the rich to give everything away and follow him. Those all sound like enormous demands! Those take great commitment. Those sound like scary things to enter into. But today Jesus’ command is simple: show acts of simple kindness, be good to people, be welcoming in his name.
It’s not nearly as heroic or dangerous as Jesus’ teaching sometimes can be. It’s just a call to be decent, loving, welcoming human beings to those who are outcasts. To those who are in need. To those rejected by society. To those who aren’t on the inside of your group.
The early church did a pretty good job of welcoming. They welcomed diverse groups of people, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor. They welcomed women into leadership roles. They welcomed people of different cultures and religious backgrounds and incorporated various spiritual traditions into early Christianity. Of course the early church had its problems too: reading any of Paul’s letters reveals this fact. But by and large they embraced people from all walks of life and sought to establish radically welcoming and revolutionarily inclusive communities. The early church wanted to be known for its welcome and inclusiveness, for its kindness and love, for its service and care for those in need. Those were the hallmarks of being a Christian, what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Being a helpful, kind, and welcoming community was the primary way the early church spread and gathered such a large following.
Unfortunately as the centuries progressed, this simple command to be welcoming became apparently hard for Christians to do. As the church became more emmeshed with the power structures and political hierarchy, the church stopped being so welcoming. Holy wars replaced interfaith dialogue. Women were banned from leadership roles. More rules were added to control who was in and who was out, developing theologies about what was needed to be a true Christian, what was necessary to avoid God’s wrath in hell and earn the reward of heaven. And it’s sad to say that all this led to the church becoming a rather unwelcoming community. Being a Christian became something you did out of fear and obligation, not out of a sincere thirst and love for the divine. And even while the Protestant Reformation fixed some major theological inconsistences, Protestants can be just as unwelcoming as any other branch of Christianity.
However, there is certainly hope for us. You see, despite our human tendency to be unwelcoming, Jesus always welcomes us. And there have always been pockets of the church that embraced his radical welcome. In recent times, as church membership and relevance has declined, the church has been forced to ask ourselves if we’re truly the type of communities Jesus calls us to be. This need for self-reflection has led to an emphasis on returning to our roots of radical inclusivity and unconditional welcome. The church has been forced to confront ways in which Christianity has been unwelcoming and used to abuse those on the margins. We’ve come to recognize the church’s complacency in oppressive systems. We’ve come to recognize the church’s justification of war and violence. We’ve come to recognize the ways the church used scripture to justify slavery and colonization—while at the same time recognizing that there were always voices using our same scriptures to condemn such sinful practices.
Perhaps more than ever, today’s churches recognize our need to be intentionally welcoming communities. Rather than seeing other religions or denominations as competitors to attack, we now recognize the need to work together for peace and justice and the good of God’s world. Rather than rejecting women leadership, we now recognize the gift female leaders can be. Rather than cherry picking Bible verses to condemn LGBT people, we now recognize the overarching message of scripture to be welcoming and inclusive. Rather than focusing on drawing lines in the sand, we now recognize our call to broaden the circle with grace and love.
So while the church clearly isn’t perfect when it comes to following Jesus’ simple command to be welcoming, we see that the Holy Spirit is actively transforming each of us as individuals and the church as a whole to be welcoming. God begins this transformation first by welcoming us. By allowing us to experience the tremendous grace and love of God. Welcoming us into being more welcoming. Loving us into being more loving. Including us so that we may be more inclusive.
And once we have been welcomed, loved, and included by God, then it’s our turn to share that welcome, love, and inclusivity with others. The church is a community founded on radical welcome and it is what we should be known for. Not the opposite. And so, while some churches may still preach in ways that exclude, we at St. Matthew Avon recognize God’s call for us to be a place of welcome, of grace, of love. There’s always room for improvement, but there are many examples of how this spirituality of welcome is present here. We’ve collected items for neighbors in need. We’ve cooked meals for our friends in Hartford. We’ve donated money to world hunger and other great causes. We’ve supported ministries that work for justice and peace. We strive to be a welcoming and inclusive community through events and outreach. And we’re (hopefully) open to recognizing what we’re not doing well and how we can change and grow.
And so let us make Christ’s call to be a welcoming community the gold standard of what we do. Let us never forget how we are called to the radical welcome and inclusiveness that Jesus taught. And let us dedicate our lives to following his call to include, to love, to welcome all people.
Pastor Brian, July 2nd, 2023