Today we are starting a new exploration. We’re all rested up from our month spent on Sabbath and we’re ready to explore the next good thing. So here it is: we’re going to look at our mission statement. Sounds exciting right? For this year our mission statement is to welcome everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods.
I’m going to give you some background on this mission statement before I read the scripture for today. This mission statement was birthed out of the discernment team, a small group of people who are committed to laying the groundwork and caring for this new community of faith. Late last spring and into summer we spent hours on Wednesdays in each others’ homes--praying, drinking wine, talking about what church is. Who God is. What does it mean to be a neighbor. In the end, we articulated this mission statement as really our best attempt to say what it is we’re doing here. Why start a new church? Why gather in community in this way?
As we started to articulate what we felt called to do, many themes and commitments began to surface from our lives. When we finally got them all down on paper we had this commitment: Welcoming everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods. We decided we’d try it on for size for the upcoming year--would let it guide us as we made decisions and explored our new life together: welcoming everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods.
So here we are. We’re going to spend the next 3 weeks examining three different parts of this mission statement. This first week we’re going to look at the idea and commitment of “welcoming everyone.” Next week we’re going to look at what it means to be a community committed to exploration, to exploring and being curious and open and full of adventure. The last week we’ll look at what it means to believe that there is a living, active God in our neighborhoods--not just in the church, not just in our homes, not just in the places we expect it, but all over this place and all over southeast atlanta and in the people and lives we encounter every day. The who, what, and the where of our mission statement.
After that y’all--it’s advent and Christmas. So let’s get going.
What does it even mean when we say we want to welcome everyone? Everyone?
Our scripture for today is from the book of Romans which is a letter to the groups of Christians meeting throughout Rome in the late first century. We’ll be reading chapter 15 verses 2-7. Most likely, this is one of the last letters we have from Paul. He hasn’t actually been to Rome yet, that will come later when he’s a prisoner, but there are people he loves in Rome-Priscilla and Aquilla and some relatives of his who he mentions in ch. 16. And they’re struggling integrating the Jewish and Gentile Christians in a unified community. They’re struggling with being welcoming to everyone.
The passage we read today is part of a section of the letter dealing with difference and diversity. How do you live in community with others who act differently, think differently, value different parts of their religious life--how do you dwell together in peace and unity? Is that even possible?
Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but as it is written, “The insults (or disgrace or shame or abuse) of those who insult you have fallen on me, Jesus.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Welcome. Welcome. I don’t know about you, but I have had a hard time thinking about being welcoming for about a year now. I mean, Chris and I have always loved opening our home for parties and gatherings. And I love when neighbors cross the threshold of the sanctuary or my office door or the fellowship hall.
I love the idea of a large Thanksgiving dinner where everyone finds their favorite foods and giggles as we think about the last year. I love the Southern welcome of hugs and food. I grew up in a colder climate where you didn’t really see your neighbors for a good 3 months of the year. No one wanted to linger outside. Down here in the South I rarely have to rush from my car to my front door--perhaps only to avoid mosquitos. That kind of welcome and hospitality, I love.
And I wish that was the kind of welcome we were going to talk about today or that we are called to as Christians. I wish that was it. So much, I wish that was it.
But we know it is not. No one here probably has to be convinced that right now pleasantries and social graces and good food is not going to cut through our divided country, divided families, divided neighborhoods, even divided churches. In my previous congregation last Thanksgiving no one’s Thanksgiving, no matter where you landed politically, was nearly as pleasant as the one I just described. What I just described was the polite, fuzzy welcome and that isn’t enough. We need to talk about a different kind of welcome.
We’re going to talk about the kind of welcome Paul was talking about in Romans. The kind of welcome that extends across difference. The kind of welcome that might have “insults” attached to it. The kind of welcome that needs some “endurance and encouragement” from God as Paul writes. That’s the kind of welcome we’re going to talk about today.
But we’re not going to start off talking about being welcoming with a list of “shoulds” or imperatives. I’m not going to preach a sermon that says, “be a good Christian and welcome those who are different from you no matter what and at whatever cost.” I’m not going to tell you to muster up some humility and join hands across the aisle. I’m not going to shame you for hunkering down in this political climate.
I’m not going to preach that sermon because I can’t. All of those imperatives haven’t worked for me. Some of them have failed miserably this year. And perhaps they are starting to ring hollow for you too. You can tell me 10,000 times that I have to love those who vote differently than I do, but this year I may be able to understand that command in my head but I’ve had a very hard time pushing it down to my heart, for reasons that are both deeply personal and deeply communal.
So I’m not going to tell you today to buck up and do it.
Instead, we are going to first start this journey of exploring welcome by deeply interrogating how well we feel and know and believe or have faith in our own welcome by God. Please hear me, we are not going to talk about welcoming others until we’ve done the hard and faithful work of believing in our own welcome in the family of God.
Because as some of us have seen this year, our welcome can’t be based on how much conflict or crazy we can stomach or not. It can’t be rooted in our own ability to be selfless or not. It cannot be rooted in our ability to “put ourselves out there” or our ability to have hard conversations or not.
Our ability and capacity to “welcome everyone” is grounded in the fact that we know (or are always having to remind ourselves) that we are fundamentally, to the death and in all of life, welcomed by God. We are accepted by God, by name. Our welcome to others is because we are confident in our own welcome by God--for all we are, for who we are, even if our neighbor doesn’t like it!
And this is exactly what Paul is reminding the church in Rome to do.
Yes he starts out with the imperatives: build up your neighbor, please your neighbor, welcome your neighbor! This is our Christian vocation--it’s what Jesus did--he even died doing it. But how do we do it?
We welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us--we welcome each other when we remember and live in our own welcome by Christ.
Paul helps us understand just how big this welcome is earlier in Romans, in Chapter 5.
For the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For when we were still weak, even then Christ died for the ungodly...God shows love to us in (the fact) that Christ died for us even when we were still sinners.
I think this verse has been preached too often to say “you are a sinner, thank goodness God died for you.” But instead I think what Paul is trying to tell his readers is that God does not love us only when we’re good and perfect and right. God’s love is such a big love that it’s unconditional at all times.
If you need to know or be reminded of the fact that you’re loved, Paul tells us to remember that others might die for good people but God dies for all people. God doesn’t wait for us to agree or be perfect or be exactly like Jesus. God risks loving us at our best and our worst.
This radical welcome doesn’t make God’s love cheap or costly, it makes it transformative and powerful. It is the type of welcome and love that enables us to love ourselves and each other. Welcome others from the depth of your own welcome.
So the thing you have to know about the Christian call to be welcoming and to put others before ourselves is that that call to be welcoming to others is rooted, it must be grounded in, God’s love and acceptance of you. It must be rooted in our belief and faith and realization that we are fundamentally loved ourselves, that like Isaiah 49 says, God “has inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
Jesuit theologian Peter van Breemen says that being loved fully is the dream we all share. To be accepted and welcomed is one of the deepest needs of the human heart. And when we feel we are not welcomed or accepted that experience can leave a “deep, unnamed emptiness [that] pervades [our] being” and affects our lives and relationships (40).
Until we know intimately that God loves us and accepts us and welcomes us, welcoming the neighbor is far too great of a risk, it’s too scary, it’s too vulnerable, it’s too hard, it’s too, too, too.
You cannot welcome others until you know deeply that God welcomes you.
If you’ve struggled this year, like I have, to be welcoming, to be loving, to be open to those who are different from you, perhaps it’s because you aren’t on the most solid footing of your own welcome and acceptance and love by God.
Brene Brown, professor and researcher, has spent her life exploring what makes people resilient and welcoming--what makes them able to love even when that love is vulnerable. And her research points to the fact that those who can extend love and acceptance to others feel and are confident in their own innate love and worthiness--usually in a spiritual relationship with the Divine. They are rooted in the ground of knowing the themselves are loved.
She also acknowledges that when we are not confident in our own welcome and acceptance, when our needs to be loved and to belong are not met, “we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others.” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 26)
Perhaps welcoming others is hard because part of who I am or who you are still feels acutely vulnerable to the unwelcome of others--we haven’t been fully convinced that we are loved and accepted fundamentally and completely by God.
So if we are going to be a community that claims to welcome everyone, we need to remind each other and know from the get go that we don’t welcome people from our own strength or from our own convictions or from our own ability to be welcoming--we welcome everyone because we promise to each other and to this community that we are a place that believes (on most days) we too are welcomed and accepted by God.
We don’t welcome everyone because we’re Gandhi or are particularly good at it, we welcome everyone because God loves us and we are confident enough in that to put ourselves out there for each other. We can take the risk of welcoming others, even the stranger, because our worth is grounded deeply in God and not in them or in anything we do.
The person I know who lives this the best is my friend Maria. Maria grew up in the woods of southeast Texas. They were a close, Christian, full of love, and outspoken type of family. Maria was full of love and sass--those are not mutually exclusive--in fact, it helped her to love more daringly and bravely, to be a place of welcome to her aging grandfather AND her complex family system, bi-ethnic, intercultural, having experienced its fair share of discrimination.
She went to Baylor for undergraduate and then Duke Divinity School for her Masters in Divinity, seeking ordination in the Baptist church. She was loved, praised, gifted, affirmed and more.
And then she met Sally. And Sally is amazing. Beautiful. One of the most sincerely loving thinkers that I know. If you get into an argument with Sally she will not only prove you wrong, she will also give you amazing pastoral care while she’s doing it.
And they fell in love. This was not acceptable to a whole swath of Maria’s family members and back in Texas. It was even hard for her to understand herself. Many of those family members , even to this day do not accept her marriage to Sally. Did not come to her wedding. Her community that shaped her in the deep abiding love of Christ no longer wants her to visit--it’s too complicated. She is not welcome.
Maria has every right to question the validity and authenticity of being welcoming. She has every right to be shaken to the core with anger, bitterness, resentment, to have her self-worth be questioned and crumbling. Her efforts for reconciliation have been declined.
She has been told the most atrocious things about herself. She has every reason to build walls and hunker down in protection and defensiveness. Who she is as a person has been rejected by those who she thought loved her the most. As Brene Brown says, with human relationships “love and belonging will always be uncertain.” (25)
And yet, Maria is the most welcoming person I know. She was a chaplain for many, many years at Furman, a baptist college in the heart of South Carolina--a place where she was called to love the least of these and the lost, with whatever politics or theology they had. She has placed herself over and over in conversations and debates regarding things like immigration or human rights, with the grace, calm, and passion of Nelson Mandela. I might be exaggerating, but I also might not.
She engages people with love, welcome, acceptance and truth. And she’s not wishy-washy or lacking convictions. She has deep ones that have kept her alive thus far. BUT, she lives in the joyful confidence that God loves her--nothing at her core is at risk because God is that core--so she can step into relationships and spaces where deep disagreement abides. She is able to be both welcoming and prophetic because she knows that all the change and all the transformation and all the “progress” (whatever that is) in life is nothing if we do not start with the conviction that we are loved and belong to God.
I am not going to lie, I’m not as good at this as Maria is, especially this year. But I’m slowly starting to realize that my inability to be welcoming to those who are different from me is not going to go away by exposure or by grit or by practice or by my efforts--I’ve tried and have been burned and bruised deeply in the effort.
What Maria and what Paul teaches us in Romans is that if we’re going to be able to live in community, to bear one another’s burdens, to allow for transformation to happen, if we’re going to be able to be welcoming to everyone we must do the heavy lifting of accepting that we ourselves are accepted--all the parts of us, in our core, as we are, maybe not by everyone around us, but by God and then by ourselves.
It’s kind of like putting on the oxygen mask on an airplane first before we offer help to the person next to us.
Or maybe it helps to think of it like a tree. A tree is a beautiful sign of welcome--it’s even compared to the kingdom of God. There are branches for birds to sit on. There is fruit for animals to eat. There is shade for those who are weary. But what allows a tree to do all of this? Deep roots. Healthy roots. We must have deep roots in God’s love before we can chance letting something perch on our branches that could knock us over otherwise.
We are called to risk relationships. We are called to welcome the stranger. To be around and next to people who are different than we are. This is not a new Christian practice. It’s at the very heart of the Letter to the Romans from the first century. We are called to welcome everyone, but please hear this one thing today if nothing else, if being welcoming is hard or confusing for you right now, you’re not alone. Re-ground yourself in the faith that you are fully loved and accepted by God--then go out and try again.
Paul Tillich, a well known 20th century theologian claims that faith “is the courage to accept acceptance.” It takes courage to believe we are welcomed and loved. It takes faith because it feels risky--we don’t earn it or prove it or maintain it ourselves. But faith of our acceptance is what can transform our own love and welcome of others.
And as the Holy Spirit is wont to do, we have the best example of this unending and unapologetic love today: baptism.
Baptism, in our tradition, is a sacrament...Sacraments are outward and visible signs of an often invisible divine reality or grace. They are moments, rituals, or actions of grace that break the barrier between the physical and spiritual reality.
The water of Baptism symbolizes the many ways God has come close to us and loved us through water--the waters of Creation, of the Flood, and of the Exodus from Egypt. In his ministry, Jesus offered the gift of living water.
Baptism is our participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection, rising to new life through the waters of Baptism. It is a powerful and rich reminder of God’s presence with us and throughout history and throughout our lives.
Baptism is also a Christian practice that unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. It is a community commitment. It calls us to live as baptized followers of God together through repentance, faithfulness, and discipleship. Our baptism invites us into the church family and also sends the church out for ministry to the world.
At our church adults and children are included in God’s covenant love through baptism regardless of age because we believe that just as Romans told us today, nothing keeps us from God’s love--not age or understanding or death. God is always choosing us before we could ever choose God. God’s love is faithful from day one--and we celebrate that as we welcome our kids.
I’d like to welcome the Traber and Calhoun family up for the baptism of Finnerty Lyle Calhoun and Duke Traber Calhoun.
Today you all are bringing your kids to be baptized and it says something about you--that you too love God and know God’s love for you. So I’m going to ask you a couple of questions.
Do you profess your own faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? (I do.)
Do you renounce evil and affirm your reliance on God’s grace? (I do.)
Do you commit your time and energy to actively and responsibly participating in the life of faith in this church? (I do.)
Do you commit to providing for the faith-filled nurture of these children? (I do.)
Now they do not do this alone so I invite all of you to stand and make the following commitments written in your bulletin:
Do you profess your own faith in Jesus Christ and your commitment to living a life of faith and love? (We do.)
Do you support Finn and Duke and are you willing to take responsibility for showing them, in word and action, the Christian faith? (We do.)