“God Between Us”

June 26, 2011; Matthew 10: 40-42

Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

“Compassionate welcome means approaching each other through God…” writes theologian Emilie Townes. Compassionate welcome means approaching each other through God. (Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year A, Volume 3, p. 190)

A small encounter this week at the Y reminded me that compassionate welcome is no simple task. On the seat of the exercise bike sat a water bottle. The man on the next bike said it wasn’t his, and he hadn’t seen the owner. So I set in the floor, adjusted the machine, and began pedaling. At just that moment a young man walked up. “Oh,” I said, “were you using this machine?” “Yes,” he answered. “Would you like me to move? I would be happy to…” Before he could respond, someone else spoke: “no, no it’s fine. We’ll just set up over here” – gesturing toward another bike he was already adjusting. I said “OK” and went back to pedaling. A conversation ensued between the two of them. The young man confronted his helper with words slow and strained. “I’m feeling upset” “What’s wrong?” “I don’t like it when you speak for me.” “What do you mean?” “Just then, you answered for me. You told that lady it was Ok for me to use another machine. I had it all adjusted and ready. It takes a lot of time and effort for me to figure out the seat and I don’t like to have to do it all over again.”

The helper was only trying to facilitate inclusion and full participation. He said, “I was just trying to help you” and clearly he meant that. But what the young man felt was a loss of dignity and voice. He was being helped and welcomed in a way that diminished, rather than empowered him. And because the helper was in the position of greater power, he hardly even noticed what he had done. He had to be told, and even then, I’m not sure he completely understood.

Today, our scripture focuses on the question of what welcome truly means. Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Compassionate welcome means approaching each other through God. God is in the space between us. When we honor the dignity of another person, whether loved one or stranger, we honor God.

In Jesus’ ministry, in his Jewish heritage, and in the middle eastern culture in which he lived, hospitality was a big deal. Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed 3 strangers, who turned out to be angels, who just happened to share the news that Sarah, after many years of childlessness, would become pregnant, that this child, Isaac, would bring the two of them many descendants, and be a sign of God’s love and welcome for all people for generations and generations to come? It was no small effort to welcome a guest in that desert culture. They invited them into the shade of their trees, washed their feet, brought them fresh cold water to drink, baked them cakes, killed and roasted a calf for them to eat. And what if Sarah and Abraham hadn’t taken the time, or the risk, to greet those strangers? What if they had missed these messengers of God’s hope and promise? Centuries later, the book of Hebrews refers to this encounter, reminding the early Christian community, prodding them: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13: 2)

I celebrate the gift of welcome at First Church. In particular, this being Pride Sunday, I lift up our embrace of the GLBT community. Next year, we celebrate our 25th year of explicit, official welcome, of being what is called an Open and Affirming Congregation in the United Church of Christ. Not bragging or anything, but we were the first UCC congregation in Minnesota and the 3rd in the nation to take this position!! Can I get an amen? Or a cheer?

And when I met with the Search Committee before coming here a year and a half ago, they asked me about First Church’s position on marriage. They explained that the church does not perform legal marriages for straight couples since we cannot do the same for same sex couples. As a member of the clergy serving this congregation, I would of course be encouraged to officiate religious weddings for gay and straight couples, but would be asked not to sign marriage licenses. What did I think about that policy? they asked. Could I embrace it? I am truly moved by this decision you made about marriage equality. It expresses real solidarity. It means that you are willing to share in the pain of exclusion, thereby helping to ease its sting and heal its injustice.

So many have worked so hard to make this church a welcoming community. But my friends, with much love and appreciation, I say, there is plenty more more work for us to do. Returning to Jesus’ injunction toward welcome, I notice something striking. It is not the disciples doing the welcoming. They are being welcomed. Receiving hospitality. It took me a few readings to realize this simple fact of grammar and sentence construction, which says something about my own assumptions. I would venture to suggest that in the church, as a whole, we are conditioned to make a similar assumption. We usually talk about how we (in the community of faith) are supposed to welcome others. Newcomers to worship, folks (out there) who might join our church, people we serve in our social justice work. It is our job to do the welcoming, to give the cups of cold water and embrace the little ones of the world.

Emilie Townes says that compassionate welcome means approaching one another through God. She also acknowledges the complexity of such a stance “in a world shaped by varying oppressions and inequalities” a world in which “human relationships of closeness, warmth, depth and durability are also tinged with alienation from each other”. In this world, she explains, we suffer from superficial hospitality in which “The one who welcomes often continues to be at home and retains a good measure of control; this causes us to welcome those who are dispossessed, the little ones, into our own worlds on terms we ourselves have crafted. It is impossible to develop the reciprocal relationships expressed in this passage, for the host has near absolute control.” (Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year A, Volume 3, p. 188-190)

We will continue to grow in our capacity for welcome if we can acknowledge the ways in which our hospitality is superficial, the times when we fail to uphold the dignity and power of all, the moments when our good intention creates alienation rather than healing. If we are to be people of real hospitality, we must commit ourselves equally to the humble work of relinquishing control, releasing power, and seeking to not only to give, but also to receive welcome.

In many ways, our lives and the life of our church could not be further from the original context of this morning’s passage. Jesus is sending out the disciples into the world as missionaries – they are to knock on doors, share the good news with strangers, and ask to receive the hospitality of their homes. We just don’t do that. Scholars puzzle a bit over the reference to “prophets” the “righteous ones” and “the little ones”. Most seem to conclude that Jesus was speaking poetically of the disciples, giving different names to the roles they played. Of particular importance is the idea that these disciples are themselves “the little ones” – the poor, the marginalized. Or that if they aren’t they are called to identify with such ones – to stand and walk and pray and work in solidarity with all whose sacred worth is challenged, whose voice goes unheard, whose basic needs are unmet.

Compassionate welcome means approaching each other through God. Though we may not be missionaries in the same way as those first disciples, I believe that we, too, are called to preach their.  We are to share the news that God’s loving welcome is at the center, not only of our relationships, but of the universe itself. We are to approach everyone we meet not with our own expectations and hopes and desires, but through God. Is that a mission we can accept, a journey we can live, a Gospel we can preach? Amen.