“What does it really mean to be a Welcoming Church?”
June 26, 2005
Dr. Jimmy R. Watson, St. Mark UCC
“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in the United Church of Christ.” That sentence is found everywhere in the United Church of Christ these days, from our national television commercials to church newsletters all over the country. Of course, all churches of every stripe wish to be seen as a welcoming church, but the United Church of Christ has elevated this to new heights in the history of American Christianity. John Thomas, the president of the United Church of Christ, refers to our new emphasis as “extravagant welcoming.” I like this new emphasis on being a welcoming church. But, as my sermon title asks, “What does it really mean to be a welcoming church?” Let me offer some points that need to be considered before we can honestly say that we are a welcoming church.
First of all, there has to be something of substance to offer people to whom we have extended an extravagant welcome. While in many other churches and denominations, extending a welcome to others is a means to an end, in the United Church of Christ, extending a welcome to the un-churched or “under-churched” has almost become the end in itself. In other words, I wonder if, in the midst of our welcoming frenzy, we have actually figured out why we should be a welcoming church. After all, any organization can practice “extravagant welcoming,” but the question is: what do we offer people beyond the welcome sign? We can make people feel welcome in an empty house, but what good is that?
One night many years ago I had supper with a co-worker who showed me a picture of himself sitting on a large pile of money. It turns out that he was a member of a mafia organization in Texas. He told me I would be welcome to join if I was just willing to kill people. I wasn’t exactly flattered by that invitation. Again, what is it we are welcoming people to in the United Church of Christ? That’s the real question. What do we have to offer people once they get here?
Other things we need to consider come from Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:40-42. These words may reflect more directly the situation in Matthew’s early Christian community than Jesus’ situation some forty years earlier. Here’s what was happening in Matthew’s community: families had begun to split over religion. As verses 34-38 indicate, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and other family relationships were strained because some members of certain households had decided to become followers of Jesus and some had not.
Welcoming other people, either into your house, church, or even your local bridge club, is much easier to do if there is little or no conflict. But once there is conflict it becomes much more difficult. Perhaps the closest thing we have today to the religious conflict in first century Palestine between Christians and Jews is our contemporary “culture war” between liberals and conservatives. Some of you may be experiencing the clash between “red state” and “blue state” family members right now. It’s really a lot of fun if you are a “purple state” person who always finds yourself in the middle of these arguments! Every time I attend a family reunion in Texas on my mom’s side of the family I have to avoid one of her brothers (my uncle) because he is extremely opinionated about politics. Unless you agree with him about everything, you cannot engage him in a conversation without him turning it into a heated argument.
Well, I can imagine that as heated as our conversations can get today about American politics, it was much worse in first century Palestine about religion. It was in the context of these intense religious disagreements that Matthew’s Jesus makes the following statement: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt. 10:40-42)
Clear as mud? The first thing this passage tells me is that it’s not just a matter of Christians welcoming others into the church or into the kingdom of God (as Jesus would have put it). It is just as important whether or not others will welcome us. We can put up signs all over town telling Terre Hautians that they are welcome in our church, but the real question is, “Are we welcome in Terre Haute?” After all, isn’t it a little arrogant to assume that we are the “welcomers” and everyone else needs to be welcomed? The “welcomer,” you see, assumes a superior position over the one who is welcomed. Yesterday morning George and Phyllis Hunter welcomed members of the Drumbeater’s Sunday school class out to their home for breakfast. Aside from the fact that George and Phyllis are superior people to the rest of us, they had the “upper hand” so to speak because it was their house and we were their guests.
When people come here for the first time we are the “welcomers,” and thus we have the upper hand. But again, one thing we need to understand before we can become a welcoming church is that it’s not just a matter of us welcoming others. It is also, if not primarily, a matter of this community welcoming us. We are in their territory. To be more specific, we shouldn’t just tell people in Edgewood Grove (our closest neighbors) that they are welcome here at St. Mark. We should also be about seeking their welcoming of us. I just think we need to remember that as we continue to claim for ourselves the title, “A welcoming church.”
Another thing we can learn from this passage is that it’s not as easy as we think it is to be a welcoming church. Jesus gives a few examples of people who may have had a difficult time being welcomed in that day. He says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.” There are not too many people who walk through our doors these days that we are likely to call a “prophet” or even a “righteous person.” We simply don’t use that kind of language today. But in Jesus’ day these two categories, “prophet” and “righteous person,” were fairly commonplace. A prophet claimed to speak for God. And a “righteous person” was someone who strictly obeyed the rabbinical laws. These were Jewish categories of people.
My guess is that neither one of these two groups of people were treated very well in the early Christian community. Because the Christians believed Jesus had “fulfilled the law and the prophets” they probably didn’t think there was any more need for either strict observers of the law (“righteous persons”) or prophets. In fact, the role of a prophet largely disappears in the Christian religion. Prophets were also high on the list of “those people who endure the most persecution” because they claimed to speak for God! And most of what they claimed God was saying through them was fairly harsh. “Woe to you . . .” was a fairly standard opening line in a prophet’s speech. That would not win them many friends. So if a wandering prophet shows up at church one Sunday morning and blasts us with harsh pronouncements from God, guess how “welcoming” we will be? Not very. And if we did welcome him, guess what our “reward” would be: Harsh pronouncements from God!
Likewise, if a “righteous person” or strict observer of the rabbinical laws shows up to church on a Sunday morning, whether in the first century or in ours, guess what kind of welcome they would receive? Imagine sitting there in your pew thinking this Jesus stuff is pretty cool because you no longer have to obey all of those rabbinical laws, and this “righteous person” that you’ve allowed to sit next to you in your pew starts telling you that if you don’t obey all the laws of Israel you cannot be a child of Abraham. Do you think you will want to be so welcoming next time?
It’s not as easy as we think it is to be a welcoming church. How welcoming will we be to someone who claims to speak for God, to someone who reeks of self-righteousness, to someone who is intolerant or bigoted, or to someone who has very different opinions about the Bible and theology? Isn’t it true that we are more likely to offer an “extravagant welcome” to those who will reward us in ways we appreciate, like those who can put a lot of money in the offering plate, those who can teach Sunday school or serve on a committee, those who have fresh, new ideas for making our church better, or those who can bring other new members in? We should be honest with ourselves about just how far our “extravagant welcoming” or hospitality really goes.
Finally, Jesus tells his followers that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Jesus is being ironic here, because if you need to welcome someone by offering them a cup of cold water, the only reward you will receive is the satisfaction of helping someone. This is the final point I want to make about being a welcoming church: the only reward we should expect is the satisfaction of being a welcoming church. It is its own reward. Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century founder of the Cistercian Order, said, “Love is its own payment, its own reward.” This was echoed in the 20th century by the great American Cistercian monk and writer, Thomas Merton, who said, “Love . . . is its own reward.”
At its base, welcoming is an expression of love. Perhaps it is love’s greatest expression, at least in terms of how we relate to those outside of our immediate families. So whether the one we welcome needs a cup of cold water or a warm pew, the most important thing we can do as a church is to open our arms and extend a welcome whenever the opportunity arises. We just need to make sure we have something of substance to offer them once they are here!