The Gracious Act of Welcoming
7-2-17 Scripture: Matthew 10:40-42
Theme: We know what it means to be welcoming in general – but Christ invites a deeper understanding of what it means to be authentically welcoming according to faith.
Awhile back, I went to a coffee shop in town that I had never gone to. As I entered the shop, I noticed I was the only one there, other than an individual behind the counter, looking intently at his iphone. He didn’t acknowledge me until I approached the counter, whereupon he looked up, gave an audible sigh, stood slowly, came to the opposite side of the counter from me, and looked up at a slight angle as he asked me, and I quote, “Wha’ dya want?” I said I wanted a mirror, to show him how amazingly rude and disrespectful he was being to a potential customer – no, I didn’t really ask for a mirror. I asked for a coffee, which he sluggishly put together, with body gestures that seemed to speak of his sense of being tortured from being so rudely interrupted from his previous engagement with his phone. I received my coffee, paid my bill, and said, “Thank you,” to which he replied “uh-huh” as he returned to his previous interracton with his phone.
Has this sort of thing ever happened to you? An experience where you were made to feel unwelcome? It’s a very unpleasant thing, to feel as if you are intruding, or that others wish you weren’t there. One is made to feel less than valuable, less than worthy of someone else’s time and attention – as if they wished you would just go away.
There are many ways in which people make each other feel unwelcome – some are fairly indirect, such as side-ways glances of impatience, half-hearted listening, or body language that shouts tolerance of your presence. But some ways are painfully blunt — a direct comment of someone’s displeasure of your company, or exaggerated hostility about some difference of opinion. Perhaps the strongest experience of feeling unwelcome is the most subtle — that of being ignored completely.
If you have experienced the feeling of being unwelcome, then you understand just how powerful and challenging its opposite can be – which is the main point of our scripture lesson today. Jesus is speaking about the practice of welcoming others or being hospitable to them, as a mark of closeness to God. This is a rather difficult text in and of itself, for Jesus is speaking to his Disciples about them being welcomed by others, but the overall meaning seems apparent – as we show hospitality towards others, we are somehow embracing God.
Now, we may think that welcoming is a fairly direct subject – to make someone feel welcome, shake their hand, ask how their doing, smile at them, and invite them to join you in whatever is going on. Simple, right? Perhaps it is simple if we look at the typical practices of social interaction. But we’re not talking about social interaction here; in these words of Jesus we’re talking about faith application, an invitation to a radical kind of hospitality that sees welcoming someone as a first step towards a progressively meaningful relationship in the Body of Christ. Jesus is not talking about conversational pleasantries; he is speaking about the intentional intersection of lives in search of what those lives need most.
I haven’t found it yet, but I believe that there should be a course taught on the basics of authentic welcoming as outlined by our faith. This is quite different from making people feel welcome at worship, or in a class or a group in our church; this kind of welcoming reflects a profound hospitality which is open to wherever love will lead us. If there ever was such a course, I believe the syllabus would include what I have come to experience as the four essential areas of Jesus-style welcoming.
1. For one, to be welcoming in the manner of Jesus, we must practice the Art of Authentic Inquiry. This arises when we are tempted to use a commonly used social convention employing a pseudo-compassionate inquiry to engage in casual conversation. You know what I mean? When we approach someone we know, we ask “How are you doing?” with the expectation of a universal response of “Fine.” The problem is when the answer is not “fine,” but something more problematic, something more difficult, something more uncomfortable to discuss. To be authentic in our inquiry, we need to be ready for the unanticipated response beyond “fine” – to take the time and make the effort to truly hear and understand what the person is saying, what they are experiencing.
I love the story about an elderly woman who always went to a branch post office in her town because the postal employees there were friendly. She went there to buy stamps just before Christmas one year and the lines were particularly long. Someone pointed out that there was no need to wait in line because there was a stamp machine in the lobby. “I know,” said Mamie, ‘but the machine won’t ask me about my arthritis.”
To be authentic in our inquiry into the lives of others, when we ask, “how are you?” we need to be ready for any response; interest must be genuine, listening fully engaged, and we must be open to seriously explore wherever the person
needs us to go responsively. This is not an easy thing to do; yet, this is the invitation of Christ himself.
2. To welcome others in the manner of Jesus also needs to assume that there is a Universal Need for Affirmation. I don’t think we’re very good at this, generally, for we have come to share our affirmation of others only if we are in agreement over life’s essential matters. Affirmation is quite different than agreement, however. The need for universal affirmation assumes that every person we meet, every soul that intersects with our journey in life, every individual that we connect with, no matter how casual or intimate, no matter how superficial or profound, has, by definition of being human, some sort of brokenness, darkness, challenge, pain, struggle, or misalignment in their life. Everyone needs to be affirmed by a love that isn’t controlled by that brokenness, that has no conditions or no requirements to be received – and we are the ones to give it in the spirit and manner of Christ.
I remember reading about a room-service waiter at a Marriott hotel who learned that the sister of a guest had just died. The waiter, named Charles, bought a sympathy card, had hotel staff members sign it, and gave it to the distraught guest with a piece of hot apple pie.
The guest later wrote to the president of Marriott Hotels; the letter said this: “Mr. Marriott, I’ll never meet you. And I don’t need to meet you…. because I met Charles. I know what you stand for. … I want to assure you that as long as I live, I will stay at your hotels. And I will tell my friends to stay at your hotels.” — Roger Dow and Susan Cook, Turned On (New York: Harper Business, 1996).
Everyone needs to know the kind of unconditional love that is available in the midst of life’s brokenness – and we, as providers of Christian hospitality, are the ones to share that love without restraint. Everyone needs the gift of universal affirmation, whether they recognize its source or not.
3. Welcoming others Jesus-style also involves making things positively personal. What this involves is the search for the specific and the unique in the other’s experience, personality, need, interest, and situation, and let the other person know that you know. Learn about who they are as distinct among all other human beings; search for the defining characteristics of their individuality, their priorities, their battles, their context, their family, their faith understanding or lack thereof. Seek out who they are as they are, and realize this brings us closer not only to how they see themselves, but how God sees them – and how God loves them.
In our church, I am blessed to receive these kinds of personal affirmations regularly. I have Facebook postings sent my way, with a note saying, “Pastor John, I thought of you when I saw this,” and there’s an article about something close to my heart (and, no, it’s not always about motorcycles!). In the early service, receive items from an individual which tells me that they know me – awhile back, I received the book Not in God’s Name – Julie knew it spoke to what I believed, to what I personally, faithfully thought was important for the application of our belief in life – a personal gift I have now shared with our entire circuit clergy……I receive thoughtful cards and e-mails that tell me the other person knows me beyond my name and position – and this lifts my soul. We all need to have others share the positively personal – it is how we each feel understood and affirmed.
4. Lastly, to be welcoming in the manner and style of Jesus means to practice caring beyond our comfort level. This one may be the most difficult to embrace, for we are naturally inclined to what makes us comfortable in life. When something is uncomfortable to us, even if it seems to speak of God’s will for our lives, I think we are quick to rationalize that option out of our lives – we are too limited, too busy, too involved in other areas of faith, too uncertain about how effective we would be in that particular situation. Practicing care beyond our comfort level may be the most sacrificial part of authentic, Jesus-style welcoming. Yet, we all know that any loving relationship depends upon our willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of that love. It is no different for our love of God, and our love for each other.
Caring beyond comfort can be very unpleasant. I remember when I used to work with developmentally disabled young people in a recreation program called EXPAND in Colorado. For a few years, I was assigned to accompany a young man named Andy, who wasn’t able to speak, and didn’t seem to understand conversation. Andy stood out from the crowd, for the main reason that he was profoundly averse to water – which meant he never bathed. Ever. I do not know the details of his condition, nor how he could manage without ever bathing; all I know is that this young man always smelled horrible. And I was assigned to accompany him every Saturday, all day, for the activities of this program. This meant guiding Andy by holding his hand and working with him to engage in arts and crafts, hiking, visiting museums and libraries, and things like this. After a day spent with Andy, I smelled like Andy – which was not pleasant.
I was never comfortable around Andy, for the reason of his horrible smell. It was something that was impossible for me to get used to; I spoke with our
director several times, to ask if there might be something we could do to change this situation. No solution was found; I remained uncomfortable around Andy for the three years I worked with him.
But here is my point – I learned to tolerate my discomfort. I learned to handle my unease. Andy could not help it; and, after awhile, I learned to concentrate less upon my discomfort and more upon Andy’s need, who Any was as a person. Andy needed guidance, safety, and attention – and I learned that I could give these things even in my discomfort. I will never know if Andy benefited from my care, but I hope so; but I do know I benefited greatly by working with Andy, learning about him and his needs, addressing them as I was able, but more importantly, learning about the powerful effect of loving beyond our comfort levels. We are all capable of caring in this way; and it is something our world desperately needs more of, this love that risks discomfort.
I’d like to share one last thought with you today about when it can be very hard to embrace another, to welcome them into your life with unconditional love. This occurs when somebody we just can’t stand comes our way, and we hear the appeal of Jesus to welcome them into our midst with unconditional love. Think for a moment – is there someone you can think of who you just can’t stand? Think of neighbors, relatives, extended family; think of people in the news, the rich and famous, the violent and confrontational; think of people in politics, or on the global scene. People you just can’t stand, whom you would least like to invite to your home for coffee.
Now, with that person or persons in your mind, repeat after me: “Jesus died for this person.” “Jesus died for this person.” No matter what they’ve done, no matter how they behave, no matter what they say – “Jesus died for this person.” God so loved even them, that Christ came sacrificially for their sake, as well as mine. “Jesus died for them.” Not an easy thing to say, is it? And yet, this is the kind of love God intends for all people to experience…..and we each have a part to play.
“Jesus died for this person.” It tempers my tendency to judge, and opens my heart to embrace, even the most difficult person to love. Realize, and never forget, that Jesus died for this person in front of me. Whoever it is. Christian, atheist, agnostic; enemy, friend, stranger; Republican, Democrat, independent; Methodist, Baptist, Catholic; Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu; Gay, Straight, questioning; rich, poor, obnoxious, or nice. God’s love was meant for them. God’s love, given to me, is to be given by me, to all, without restraint, to the best of my ability.
We receive most fully what God offers when we offer ourselves in the same way. Loving without condition, helping without counting the cost, caring beyond our own comfort, these are evidences of the love God has for us, of the life Jesus shared with us, of the love Christ gave for us. As we live in these ways, moving from welcoming to relationship, moving from informal to intimate, we live into God’s love – and more deeply into God’s presence. As we have been welcomed into the family of God through Jesus, we are to welcome others; as we have been loved by God, may we seek to love others.