Welcome One Another
There’s nothing like the love and welcome of a grandmother. I think of times as a kid going over my Nana’s house or my Grandma’s house. Whether it was sitting on the picnic table in Nana’s backyard or the big rock out in front of Grandma’s, my brother and I always had fun and felt the warmth of our loving grandparents. There was never any doubt we were welcomed and loved.
Then there’s times I was welcoming to others. I think of visiting my Uncle Dave and Uncle Jack in the nursing home they lived in. They both had a unique genetic disease that left them physically handicapped by the time they were young adults. Growing up I would visit them every Sunday afternoon. When I was young I was a little nervous walking through the nursing home, seeing all the elderly people in wheelchairs in the hallway. But I quickly learned that just by smiling I could make their day. I was the only kid in the nursing home and as I made my way to my uncles’ rooms I recognized I had the power to brighten people’s day just by smiling or saying hello. Them welcoming me, and me welcoming them back.
And then there’s a story of being unwelcoming. I remember I was in 3rd grade and my brother in 4th; and he wanted to invite a friend over. The last time this friend was over I hung out with them and we played around the yard together and it was a lot of fun. Most of my brother’s friends didn’t mind me tagging along but this one apparently did. So this time, our parents arranged for his little brother to come over to play with me. This kid was a 2nd grader and I did not want to play with him. So my brother and his friend went off, and I was stuck with this kid. I don’t remember too much about that day, but I do remember that I was extremely unwelcoming and did not want him there. He ended up going home early. I still feel bad when I think about it.
I’m sure we can all recall stories of times when we were welcomed by others and when we were welcoming to others. And I’m sure we can all recall stories of when we were unwelcomed or unwelcoming. We all probably have some stories we’re proud of and some we’re not so proud of. We’ve all been givers and receivers of welcome and rejection.
In this text Jesus emphasizes the call to be welcoming. This call to hospitality and welcoming is one of the major themes in scripture. Hospitality and welcome are foundational for community, for living together with others. The Old Testament prophets told the people of Israel to welcome the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the refugee. Abraham showed hospitality to three visitors from God. And Jesus demonstrated a life of welcoming sinners and outsiders, prostitutes and tax collectors, foreigners and Gentiles. All over the Bible we hear the call to welcome others. We simply can’t get away from it.
Despite all this, the church has a history of being rather unwelcoming. Since the time of the legalization of Christianity in the early fourth century, the church has tended to side with empire; and to be a structure in the system of power rather than a welcoming community for outcasts. We can look at all the wars with pagans, or the crusades, or how the church treated supposed heretics—including Martin Luther. And from the time of Luther until pretty recently the feud between Catholics and Protestants could be violent and deadly. Nowadays, Christians might tolerate other Christians well enough, but some still have a hard time being welcoming to certain groups like the LGBT community or practitioners of other faith traditions.
And it’s not just Christians who are unwelcoming. It’s part of the human condition, and it becomes a lot more pronounced when your group’s in the majority. We need look no further than news about racial injustice or the disdain for immigrants in our country today to see signs of the unwelcoming nature of humanity.
Whether we want it to be or not, it’s human nature to fear strangers or people who seem different. Our ancestors needed to fear people of other tribes to protect themselves. But this evolutionary defense mechanism in the modern world easily leads to racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. We must be vigilant to recognize how our old defense mechanisms lead to the suffering of others. Whether it’s toward other groups, or our selfish drive to feel superior to those in our own group which leads to bullying in schools and all kinds of drama and hardships in adult relationships.
It’s important to recognize how we ourselves can be unwelcoming. To search out in ourselves the roots of our unwelcoming nature. And to strive to cultivate our welcoming nature. One of the keys to Christian spirituality is learning to look at yourself with humility, to discover your shadow side, specifically to discern the ways in which you are unwelcoming. Does your heart harbor even the tiniest bit of unwelcome, of resentment or rejection of others? Is there anything in you that might lead to you denying a stranger a cup of cold water, or a cup kindness and hospitality? We are called to do such introspection. To explore what is inside us. To be brutally honest with ourselves. To sink into that uncomfortable self-knowledge and confess it to God. And then of course, we invite God to change us.
Because that’s the good news in all of this. That no matter who we are or what we’ve done—God has welcomed us. Even in the midst of all the evil we do to each other, all the ways we reject each other and are cruel to our fellow human beings—Christ welcomes us into relationship with God. And this relationship transforms us. As we mature on our journey like trees planted by
God, we bear the good fruit of hospitality and welcome. As people growing in relationship with God, we should expect to have our hearts transformed. By experiencing the welcome God gives us and encountering the shadow of unwelcome in each of us, the Spirit cultivates hospitality and welcome in our hearts and calls us to be a people of welcome to the world.
So when the world sees us, let them see Jesus welcoming them. God’s hands outstretched to the world through our welcoming presence. Let us each as individuals, as St. Matthew Lutheran Church, and as the church universal be a welcoming place of sanctuary for the entire human family. Thanks be to God for welcoming us, and for making us a welcoming people. Amen.