February 2, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Deuteronomy 10:12-19, Matthew 10: 40-42

The Work of Welcome

Wherever you were born. Whatever you have lived through, and wherever you have traveled, I hope there has been a moment in your life when you have experienced welcome. I don’t mean a time when someone shouted at you a cheery “Welcome!” from across a room. I mean a time when you knew deep in your bones that you are exactly where you need to be.

It could be that you had one of those moments here about forty-five minutes ago…

Or maybe one evening you go to a party. You haven’t been to this house before and it was a little hard to find in the dark, but you can tell by the line of cars that this is the right place. A little part of you is wondering whether coming to this was a good idea, but hey, here you are.

As you’re walking up to the door, all the lights are on inside. You hear music and that familiar din of laughing and talking wafting around like cartoon smoke. You think, should I ring the bell or just go in with the people? Then a voice calls out, “It’s open, come on in!” You go in, and take off your shoes, and throw them in the pile of shoes at the bottom of the steps, and that’s when it happens.

Your host comes to greet you. She calls out your name and says, “You found us! I’m so glad you’re here!” There are big unhurried hugs and maybe air kisses if you do that sort of thing. “Let me take your coat. We’re putting gifts on the table. The food is in the kitchen, help yourself. Oh and there’s somebody here you just have to meet. Come on, come on!” Dogs and toddlers are roaming around, the introductions begin, and you find yourself home. You think, I’ve never been to this place, but there’s something I know. Here you are welcome, undeniably unashamedly welcome.

Now it is easy to overlook the work of welcome; sometimes we do it like a reflex. If someone’s at the door, you open it. If someone hands you a baby, you take the baby. It could seem so simple. Actually, a whole lot is going on in the exchange of greeting. It’s never just about learning names and finding the bathroom. It is honoring the question, can I really be here?

Today is the third Sunday in our series, Seven Sundays of Strangers. In these weeks, we are remembering what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land and we’re imagining what it is like for those who are new. Our scripture from Deuteronomy comes on the heels of Moses receiving a duplicate version of the Ten Commandments to store in the ark that would be carried with the Israelites as they traveled. Moses stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, and here he receives the law from the LORD our God.

Our passage begins like this, “So now O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?” In our English translation, the very next word is: “Only.” What does God demand? Only this. It could seem so simple. Just answer the door, or take the baby. You want to obey the LORD? Just do this… “Fear the LORD your God, walk in all his ways, love him, serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and keep the commandments…”

The instructions continue and get more specific: “The LORD your God executes justice for the orphan and the widow and loves the strangers providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

There are several places in the Hebrew Bible where we hear about God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant (or the stranger). What these three groups have in common is they are most vulnerable in the economic system of the day. If you are a woman with no husband, or a child with no father, or a person who just arrived with no land, it is likely that you are pushed to the edges and left with no livelihood. There is no social safety net, no foster care or World Relief. If a woman in your village is a widow, who is going to help her?

Now you’ll notice this covenant calls upon the people to love the LORD our God. In order to love God, the people must love the stranger, because God loves those who are strangers. But the kind of love listed here is a little different than the way we often think of love. Here love does not mean sweet butterfly kisses or even tender feelings of warm affection. Love is a legal concept. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Love is a contractual obligation of loyalty and commitment.

If we are going to love God, we have to love the people who are left out, whether or not we like them. If we are going to love God, this takes giving actual food and actual clothing to people who are in need. Because we know what it is to be in need. This is what our God requires, and there you go.

And the truth is, we know this already. This isn’t one of those perplexing parables that leaves you walking away asking, “What did Jesus mean when he was talking about the leaven or the workers who get hired late in the day?” If you like things simple and clear, you have to appreciate the directions in our scripture today. Seems like this section of Deuteronomy could end with the words, “Here’s what to do. Deal with it.”

And here’s the thing. Knowing we’re supposed to welcome is fine, but the rule is not enough. The work of welcome is an ongoing process, and we never get it all the way done. It’s not just putting out a sign and turning on the lights. It’s putting out a sign, then turning on the lights, then thinking, “I wonder if that sign needs to be in several languages.” The work of welcome means constantly encountering our own blind spots, and you know how it is. There are times when expanding our welcome is threatening.

I think part of the challenge comes in that we don’t always feel welcome ourselves, especially as new people start to arrive and things begin to change. If you find yourself pushed to the edges like those widows and orphans and strangers, how can you be the one who welcomes? You might even think, “If they’re going to be here, maybe I’m the one who doesn’t belong.” We all know what it is to be strangers in a strange land.

But much as it might seem like it, this is not our liability. This is exactly the position of our faith.

Friends, we are not called to stay settled at the center of the party, happily nestled in the living room, or seated solidly at the table while others come and go. Instead, we are a people who keep moving from the kitchen to the entry way, who keep an eye on the door. You might go outside to help somebody out of their car. We hold open the door, and say, “Come on in! I’m new too. I’m glad you’re here, and I can show you where we’ve been putting our coats.”

If you are not sure whether you fit in here, you are not alone. We are all seeking welcome and working to welcome each other. Now if you are pretty sure that you fit in here, that’s fine too, but please don’t get too settled in the center. Your help is needed at the doors. If you have lived through something that saved your life, your help is needed for those who haven’t yet made it through.

The good news is we can see this work of welcome happening in our world. I think of veterans’ groups designed to help those returning from tours in Afghanistan. These groups have people who can say, “You’re dealing with PTSD and you need a job? I know what that’s like.”

I think of Twelve Step groups which are not run by clinical experts but by the “old timers” who say “You think you can’t get through this without a drink? I know what that’s like.” I think of a chef who hires a cook for his restaurant even though he’s a convicted felon. Chef says, “I’ve been locked up too, and I know what it’s like to get out.”

We know that in many places in America, being a gay teenager is just as dangerous as it was to be a widow, or an orphan, or a stranger in Bible times. In Chicago, I met youth who were homeless because they got put out of their homes when they came out as gay. Activist Dan Savage was deeply moved by the suicides of several teenagers who were bullied for being gay. In 2010 he created a website called the It Gets Better Project[1], a collection of short videos made by people who have a message of hope for gay teens. Celebrities have uploaded videos along with groups from colleges and corporations. Some of the most powerful videos come from ordinary people who have lived through their teens and come to see that it gets better.

If you can see hope, if you know that it gets better, please tell someone. Not everyone knows this. If you know how to get in and where to find the food, if you know you will find welcome in this place, please don’t keep this to yourself. Not everybody knows.

In just a few minutes, we will share the sacrament of Holy Communion. Something we value deeply about our practice of communion is that it invites you to come closer to God —even if you’re not all the way sure of your place in this body, even if you’re not all the way sure what you believe. Sharing in communion isn’t an idea we mull over from the place of being safe in the center of the room. Sharing communion is the work of welcome that happens on the edges.

So today we will be serving from the narthex and the steps. As we say to each other, “I’m glad you’re here. Come on in!” As we renew our commitment to welcome groups who are left out. You know what happens. We welcome the LORD our God. See we are exactly where we need to be. Amen.

[1] http://www.itgetsbetter.org/

Sermon in pdf/e-reader format work of welcome 2-2-2014

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