Monday, June 27, 2011

What Does Welcome Look Like?

Posting these Sunday thoughts on Monday night for Michelle DeRusha over at "Graceful" for her weekly "Hear It, Use It" meme:

"You're Welcome!"
As predicted, we did make it back to church this week. And we were glad to be there. It still feels a little strange, a tad awkward. It's tough to move from being a leader in the service every week, to coming in just before things begin so that we can slip in quietly and sit near the back. Here's hoping we get used to it, because this is the only church we've ever called home in this place. Starting over is tough, but sometimes it's required. Time and experience will tell.

The quote-for-reflection-before-worship printed at the top of the worship folder on Sunday was this one from Arthur Sutherland:

"Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls."

That is a big statement. And I think an accurate one. This author goes on to say that our communal worship of God is not intended to be a time for either entertainment (where our every wish for lovely performances and personally acceptable preaching/teaching is met) 
or for some kind of perverse competition (where we try to out-sing, out-pray, or out-anything the guy standing next to us). 

It is not a 'natural' thing at all. It is rather that time and that place where we together are bound to one another and led by the Holy Spirit - led into joyful celebration of God's truth, love, joy and welcome. In fact, God's goal for us is always homecoming; God's deepest desire is to give us a new name and to call us by that name - beloved. Our worship is a response to this beautiful truth. 

And when we open the doors of the sanctuary (or the doors to any church-related activity), we all need to be welcomers - welcomers of one another, welcomers of the stranger, welcomers of the little ones in our midst.

The text for the day is at the end of Matthew 10, three short verses which follow a relatively long stretch of red letters, consisting of Jesus' instructions to his disciples as they head out on their first missions trip.  (Which was a perfect text for the morning, as we prayed for and commissioned 12 high school students and two adult leaders who flew out of our local airport Monday morning for 17 days of service in Thailand.)

These instructions are sobering. Jesus prepares his friends for a whole lot of rejection and conflict and then he completes the lesson with these words about welcome. The word is used six times in these short verses and with them, Jesus clarifies the truth that every one of his disciples heads out into the world as a personal representative of Jesus himself. So, Jesus says, when the going gets tough - remember, they're rejecting me, not you.

And when we're in tune with the Spirit, and things are ticking away to the rhythms of grace, this is somehow easier for us to believe. The other truth, of course! is that, much of the time, we're not actually living in tune with the Spirit. So we make mistakes, we say or do stupid things, we are overly sensitive about our own feelings and numb to the feelings of others. In short, sometimes we make it about us instead of about Jesus. And how welcoming is that? Ouch.

In this brief passage, Jesus addresses not only his motley little band (whom he calls 'you' here) but also three other groups, groups that sound a lot like the assorted parts of a believing community in any age, including today: those who are like the prophets, speaking truth in new ways and new places (maybe current-day missionaries or teachers/preachers); those who are 'the righteous ones' - the faithful, committed members of any congregation, the ones called saints in Paul's epistles, the 20% who do 80% of the ministry in almost any church in the world today; and the 'little ones,' those who are wounded, broken, on the road to recovery, needing extra love and attention. 

But no matter which group we fall into, our call is to stay on task - to be worthy representatives of Jesus, the one whose name we carry,
and whose mercy carries us.

All are welcome at the table of the Lord. And all of us are called to spread that welcome into the world, bringing a sweet aroma of gracious acceptance, loving accountability, genuine service, and joyous community.

That's a tall order, right? But such a loving mandate: to welcome people to the love of the Lord, to invite them into genuine kingdom living, to love them as Jesus does. And it's about welcome.

A brief P.S. with a few additional thoughts as I have continued to prayerfully mull over this passage this week: 

As Jesus talks about those three groups of people the disciples are going to meet in the process of being his representatives, there is the promise of 'reward' when true welcome is given. That's sometimes a hard concept for us when many of us are still struggling to truly believe the good news of the gospel. You know what I mean - that great good news that tells us there is nothing we can do to earn membership in the kingdom of God - it is only possible because of Jesus and it is in his grace that we stand, his grace alone

I need to remember that Jesus addresses this promise of reward to those who have already stepped into grace, to those who are already folded into the kingdom of God. It's after we receive the gift of grace that our behavior needs to be examined in light of the model of Jesus himself. 

And so the question I am left asking myself is this one: Do I welcome everyone I meet as if I were welcoming Jesus himself? Because, according to this passage, not only am I a representative of Jesus Christ, but there is a reflection of the image of God, the radiance of Jesus, even the presence of the Holy Spirit to be found in each and every person I meet in my day. 

Now those persons may or may not have 'activated' that image by saying 'yes' to God. But they are still carriers of the divine imprint, they are still to be viewed as ones in whom Christ is met. THAT's where the rubber meets the road for me in this text. Am I consciously aware, from moment to moment, from person to person, that each encounter is an opportunity not only for me to image Christ to another, but for them to image Christ for me?

What do you think about this idea?
Is it helpful as you think about welcome, about true hospitality??