+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A/Lectionary 13A) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on June 28, 2020 +
Text: Matthew 10:40-42
When have you felt welcomed?
How do you know you are welcome?
Is it through the words someone has said to you?
Is it through actions that you have experienced?
Now, I admit, it may be difficult at this point to remember what a real welcome actually feels like, right?
In these days when we’re actively trying to stay physically distant from other people, crossing the street to avoid each other, even putting masks on to protect each other.
But in non-pandemic times, how do you know that you are welcome?
How does that feel to you?
Or, on the other hand, how do you know that you’re not welcome?
How does that feel?
Have you ever gone somewhere that seems like it should be welcoming and wondered, “Am I in the right place? Is this meant for me?”
Maybe you’ve stumbled into a fancy restaurant or found yourself feeling underdressed or out of place at an event.
Maybe you’ve expected an intentional welcome and arrive with the feeling that you’ve been forgotten or overlooked and wondered, “Am I really welcome here?”
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me,” Jesus tells us today. “And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
This is the conclusion of what’s been called the missionary discourse in Matthew’s Gospel.
Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus commission his Twelve Apostles, and us along with them, to go throughout the land to heal the sick, resist the forces of evil, and proclaim the nearness of God’s Reign; to generally do the work of Jesus in the world.
Last week, Jesus warned us how risky and costly this work is and how not everyone will appreciate the work that we do in Jesus’ name.
But in today’s short gospel reading, we have some nuggets of hope and assurance to hold onto as we go out into the world, living into the work Christ has called us to.
We hear that even though many will reject us, even though times will be difficult and the work challenging, we will find welcome.
And what’s more, we hear that we, the ones who have been sent out, are bearers of Christ and therefore bearers of God.
That we help bring God’s love to the world. And that when people receive us, receive Christ’s apostles, they receive Christ himself and they receive a reward.
Now to be clear, I don’t think that Jesus means that they get a gold medal or something, nor do they receive some kind of bonus points in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Nothing like that.
But in the act of receiving, in the act of welcoming, those who welcome will hear, will see, will experience, will live into the coming of the Kingdom of God in their midst and gain a wider understanding of Christ’s good news of God’s love for all people.
That the act of welcoming is in itself a reward.
Now, while Jesus is telling these words to his Apostles whom he has commissioned and sent out to enact God’s Reign in the world, perhaps it’s also helpful to remember that Matthew is writing this gospel to a community that has already been established.
Sure, those early Christians had also been tasked and commissioned as apostles—just as we have—but like us, they were also a faith community who would be receiving messengers, welcoming people to join this new movement and live into this new Kingdom.
So perhaps we are intended to hear this message both as those who are seeking welcome and those who would offer welcome.
Perhaps Jesus is calling us to create a community where everyone finally feels so welcomed and accepted and embraced by God that they can’t help but run out into the community to proclaim that welcome, to expand that community, and in so doing, to open ourselves to new and unique perspectives, to a wider understanding of God, to a clearer proclamation of the gospel.
And through that welcome, you will receive, you will experience, the reward of Christ in your midst.
In many ways, both the act of being welcomed and offering welcome require a certain vulnerability.
Going out into the unknown, hoping to be welcomed and embraced for who you are sure takes a lot of risk, of opening yourself up to rejection and hurt.
But so does offering a real and authentic welcome.
Sure, we can say that we are welcoming, but if we’re merely expecting a newcomer to fit into our pre-set mold, how welcoming is that really?
If we’re expecting someone to come and see things the way we do, to think the same way we do, to have the same experiences we’ve had, how does that broaden our perspective, bring us any reward?
Rather, true welcome requires work, it requires commitment, and yes, it requires the vulnerability to admit that we may not have it all figured out.
To critically examine our preconceived notions, our internalized biases, our systems and our customs.
To open ourselves up to something new and see the face of Christ standing in our midst.
Right now, I sense a desire in this community of faith to expand our welcome.
Not merely in an attempt to expand our membership (though I think we all agree we’d love to have a larger congregation), but to establish Holy Cross as a beacon for our neighborhood, a signal to the whole world, proclaiming the expansive and abundant love of God that we have experienced in Christ Jesus.
To welcome others as we were first welcomed, not only by this community, but by the God who created each and every one of us.
The God who welcomed us through baptism into God’s family and proclaimed us as God’s beloved children.
The God who fully embraced and loved us exactly as we are, celebrating us for our uniqueness and gifts that we bring to share.
The God who lovingly welcomes us to the lavish feast of life and love each time we come to Christ’s Table.
And I think that we as a congregation have a desire—as well as a calling—to fully embody and proclaim that same welcome for our neighbors around us.
But my friends, that welcome requires work.
It requires commitment.
It requires vulnerability.
In the past few weeks, we have been learning or re-learning that it is not enough to be passively non-racist and assume that our work is done, but instead we are called to engage in the difficult but essential work of anti-racism.
To listen to our Black Siblings, our Indigenous Siblings, our Siblings of Color about the systemic racism that has been baked into our society and our church institutions.
To allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to critique for ways we can be better allies.
To actively work to break down any barriers within our congregation so when a Person of Color walks through our doors they feel truly welcome, that they truly belong.
In the same way, being a congregation that embodies Christ’s call to welcome can’t be a passive thing, but an active and intentional commitment.
Today, on this Pride weekend when, in most years, our LGBTQIA siblings would be gathering in downtown Seattle right now, eagerly awaiting the start of the annual Pride Parade that joyously and defiantly proclaims that we have a place in our society and that we will make space for us to belong, I am especially reminded that the Church still has a long way to go to provide a true welcome.
Even as we at Holy Cross are intentionally examining our congregation and asking ourselves how we can be more welcoming and inclusive of queer people and voices, I am reminded that we have work yet to do to be a truly welcoming place.
But I also know that it’s possible for us to be just that.
In the Netflix series “Queer Eye,” a group of queer hosts known as the Fab Five go around and work with people who, for whatever reason, could use some extra help gaining self-confidence or seeing themselves as beautiful and beloved.
As a big fan of the show, I was especially excited when the fifth season premiered earlier this month and featured a fellow gay pastor named Noah Helper in the first episode.
Pastor Noah and I happen to be in the same queer Lutheran clergy group called Proclaim and he serves at Atonement Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, a congregation that has made a concerted effort to truly welcome members of the LGBTQIA community—and they’re doing an amazing job.
But Pastor Noah admits there is more work to do. “We want to create friendship with the community that we’re in,” he said. “That also means having honest conversations. The church is quick to try to fix things without owning the damage that was done…let’s own those moments that we’ve hurt people. And we need to do some real apology and real reconciliation around that.”
Well, the episode was absolutely beautiful and I highly recommend you watch it—maybe with some tissues.
And it was fun to see all the buzz this episode generated: the ELCA posted about it on social media, Living Lutheran magazine wrote an article about Pastor Noah in their June edition, and folks have been talking about this episode all over in and out of the Church.
But I must admit how bittersweet it was for me to see the reaction of so many queer people who have been so deeply wounded by the Church when they watched this episode.
These are people who have been loudly told so many times by the Church that they are broken and unloved because of their sexuality or gender identity.
These are people who have been burned, who have been rejected, who were uncertain if they could allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to walk through church doors again.
These are people that have been told explicitly or implicitly that they are not welcome, that they don’t belong.
It’s a pain I and so many people in my community know all too well.
And with the loud denunciations and messages of hate we so often hear from the Church ringing in our ears and in our souls, the relative silence of those congregations who passively consider themselves ‘welcoming enough’ frankly speaks volumes.
So while it certainly feels refreshing for this community to finally see a congregation that is trying to be truly welcoming featured on such a big stage, a faith community that has such a clear and intentional welcome to the LGBTQIA community, I just wish that the Church could finally step up and be the clarion voice of welcome that Jesus has called us to be.
One of the Fab Five members named Bobby Berk is very open about how he was deeply hurt by the Church and was condemned as a child because he is gay; he has since left religion altogether.
But in the episode, Bobby expressed hope for Pastor Noah and Atonement Lutheran to be a place of welcome. “You have the opportunity to be that voice,” he said, “to be able to be that beacon of light. Keep doing what you’re doing, but I want you to do it a little louder. The people in the back row need to hear it, not just in here, but the back row of the world.”
Or as another Fab Five member, Karamo Brown, put it, “For you to have a space that’s open to everyone, that’s God’s work.”
Dear Church, Jesus is calling us today to offer the welcome that we have received.
We, who have been commissioned as Christ’s agents in this world have been tasked with doing God’s work, with proclaiming in a loud voice the expansive and abundant love of God that is for all people—especially the what Jesus calls “the little ones,” those the Church has outcast and marginalized, the people relegated to the back rows of the world.
And as Jesus has reminded us, this is not easy work—it may bring us scorn and contempt and it requires a vulnerability that may be uncomfortable for us.
And while we may feel like we are already welcoming, while we may say and sing “All Are Welcome,” there is a reason we have intentionally been engaging in the Reconciling in Christ process during the past few months.
And it’s exactly so we can be active in continuing the work, to be vulnerable with ourselves, to see what we have taken for granted or the places we can still grow.
To prepare ourselves so we can name a specific welcome to those who have been excluded for so long that they wonder if the words “All Are Welcome,” really mean that they are welcome too.
And in doing the work, in extending a explicit welcome, we not only offer a cold cup of water that so many queer people have been craving from the church—an institution that has for so long given us only contempt—we also open ourselves to the new and beautiful perspectives of people who have a unique view of God.
We allow ourselves to learn from a community who has been pushed out of the Church and has experienced the wildness, the wideness, the beautiful audacity of a God who formed us exactly as we are and who has never abandoned us even when the Church has.
We welcome a people who have been forced to find their own place in the world and add their unique voices, their innovative harmonies to the songs of praise that we sing and perhaps even allow ourselves to learn new songs with new and exciting tunes we couldn’t have sung without them.
We experience a fuller and more colorful picture of the Reign of God as we welcome Christ among us.
And in that welcome, we realize we are seeing a Christ we could have never imagined on our own—a gay Christ, a bisexual Christ, a trans Christ.
And Church, in that welcome we receive our reward.