Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Creating a Place of Welcome" - Sermon, July 2, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
July 2, 2017
“Creating a Place of Welcome”
Pastor Andrew Davis
Romans 15: 1-13
Matthew 10: 40-42

            Up until 12-13 years ago, one of the highlights for me each summer was my family’s annual Fourth of July BBQ party in our backyard.  Now while many kids would eagerly anticipate Christmas morning, I absolutely loved the Fourth of July, since it was warm out, we could go swimming, fire up the grill, and watch the fireworks, both the safe and sane kind and the big fireworks from Cal Expo in the distance.  When we started hosting the party in the late 80’s/early 90’s, it started with mostly family, then evolved into friends of our family, our church family, and many others.  But like items in the grocery store that have a shelf life, the party began running its course and like seasons of life, people passed on or moved away, and the amount of work that went into hosting and preparing for the party would take its toll on us.  Nevertheless, reflecting on those years when we had our Fourth of July Party, it was more about about creating a place of welcome in our home for those near and dear to us to enjoy, to celebrate our country, and enjoy some good food, fellowship,  and camaraderie with one another. 
            As my family created a place of welcome each Fourth of July, we hear the message about creating a place of welcome from Paul and Jesus in both texts that we just listened to.  In our text from Romans, Paul is instructing his people to welcome one another; particularly the Gentiles who had ordinarily been shunned and excluded by the greater community of faith in Paul’s time.  But we also hear a powerful message of welcome from Jesus, saying that whoever welcomes the ones who have been sent by him, welcome Jesus as well, as these are also Jesus’s final instructions to the Twelve as he sends them out into the mission field. 
               At the heart of our texts is a message about the importance hospitality and the need to create places of welcome,  which is especially relevant today here in the church and can be rewarding in itself as it gives us opportunities to create new relationships as 21st Century disciples.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans in chapter 15,
So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! Jesus, staying true to God’s purposes, reached out in a special way to the Jewish insiders so that the old ancestral promises would come true for them. As a result, the non-Jewish outsiders have been able to experience mercy and to show appreciation to God. Just think of all the Scriptures that will come true in what we do! (Rom. 15: 7-9, MSG). 

            Paul is basically saying that the Gospel needs to be accessible for EVERYONE throughout ALL the world, as it is a source of hope, of mercy, and a source of light which people can experience whenever we create a place of welcome, both then and still today.  Hence why it is important to welcome everyone to take part in God’s glory, and to keep in mind that whenever we welcome people into our church on Sunday morning, at the community supper on Wednesday evening, or anytime we welcome people into town whether they're attending the music festival or Joshuafest, or those who are passing through from the Pacific Crest Trail, we are welcoming Jesus Christ too!!  We never know who we may see the face of Christ in, as the face of Christ can be seen in people we would never expect to see.  We also see Jesus focus a lot on the vulnerable within society in this morning's Gospel lesson and all throughout the Gospels. Yet in particular, he emphasizes the poor, the outcast/outsider, or the children when he says “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded” (Matthew 10: 42, NLT).  Kind of hearkens back to everyone he names ealrier on on The Sermon on the Mount.  Essentially, it’s all about creating a place of welcome for EVERYONE, regardless of where they are in life or whatever situations in life are going on.  It’s about practicing hospitality at its best, just like my family did when we hosted our Fourth of July parties each year and something we need to keep striving for here in the church.   
              Plus now that our wheelchair lift is operational as of this past week thanks to the diligent work by the Trustees and Council, it’s one of the ways that we are practicing radical hospitality and creating a place of welcome, as our sanctuary is now more accessible without having to navigate the front steps or go the long way around to access the ramp. And, maybe I’m dreaming some here, but I hope to see the rest of our building become fully accessible someday too!!  Having the lift helps us to welcome those who have mobility issues by making it a lot easier to come and participate in worship, but as we face the realtity of an aging congregation, it is part of considering our future too.  As another means of radical hospitality, we have also begun making large-print bulletins to make it a little easier to read, as text can be small otherwise.  These are a only couple small ways of how we are creating a place of welcome, and there are always more ways how we can create such a place, as it’s a continuous process and do feel free to share with me your ideas too how we can take creating a space of welcome to the next level.  And let's be radical in our hospitality too, although not too aggressive or pushy either. Like Goldilox and the three bears, we want it to be just right, not too hot, but not too cold. ---
In his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase writes that
Christian hospitality refers to the active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.  It describes a genuine love for others who are not yet a part of the faith community, an outward focus, a reaching out to those not yet known, a love that motivates church members to openness and adaptability, a willingness to change behaviors in order to accommodate the needs and receive the talents of newcomers.  Beyond intention, hospitality practices the gracious love of Christ, respects the dignity of others, and expresses God’s invitation to others, not our own.  Hospitality is a mark of Christian discipleship, a quality of Christian community, a concrete expression of commitment to grow in Christ-likeness by seeing ourselves as part of the community of faith, “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20: 28).  By practicing hospitality, we become part of God’s invitation to new life, showing people that God in Christ values them and loves them.[i]

            --- As I reflect back to year ago when I was just moving in, I got to experience this sign of hospitality from you, as you warmly welcomed me to Quincy as your new pastor, helping me settle in, preparing my house for me to move into, and hosting neighborhood gatherings so I could get to know you more.  Usually, I am nervous as heck when in a new setting and can be shy and reserved, yet your hospitality, showing God’s love in Christ in each other, and creating a place of welcome for me left a big impression, as there are some churches who may view a brand-new pastor right out of seminary as if they were fresh meat in front of a lion’s den.  Thankfully, not here!!  Even when I visited Glide Memorial in San Francisco in May, I received more hugs from complete strangers, and while I admit I was personally a little uncomfortable with that being an introvert who also likes my personal space; yet it was clear that EVERYONE, even pets are welcome at Glide. However, that's one means of radical hospitality which works in their context.  At the same time, hospitality can be a challenge at that requires us to step out of our comfort zones and sometimes might even test our desire to show that Christ loves everyone, and in reality, we sometimes don't always want to extend a welcome to everyone, let's just be real.  Sadly, I have even heard some pastor's say there isn't room at the table for everyone except for the righteous, which I dont think Jesus or Paul are saying in our two texts this morning.  Yet at times, we are faced with situations, maybe even people that put us on edge or make us nervous, testing our Christ-likeness and testing us in creating a space of welcome.
I remember while growing up, our church was located a couple blocks from some group homes and would occasionally have some of the residents show up to church, particularly on potluck Sunday or during coffee hour (in retrospect, we did heed Jesus’s command when he told the disciples grumbling about the crowds to ‘give them something to eat!’).  It oftentimes made people at the church and myself uncomfortable because many of the people at the group homes struggled with past addictions or were in the midst of mental illness beyond their control, and given the high stigma towards addiction and mental illness at that time, I would often get caught up in saying some some not-so-Christ-like things about our brothers and sisters even when all they may have been searching for was a sense of community.
Perhaps out of fear and inexperience with life in general, I often felt the people from these homes weren’t welcome in our church because they weren’t like the rest of us and because I also allowed my own self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude to prevent myself from possibly seeing the face of Christ.  However, looking back, I was very wrong in my attitude, and I’m still repenting for some of my own behavior at that time, and even for some blips I've made in my first year here as well.  But, I’m also not going to lie that I still struggle at times, and even struggle when I read stories about or when I've encountered people who come to take advantage of the church, but God’s still working on me and I'm working towards training to be better equipped in my ministry with ALL people.  Because I failed to welcome everyone at that time, I failed to welcome Christ, but I also failed to do my part in helping to create a place of welcome and in turn, failed at being a disciple.  Yet, it’s a struggle at times because it’s easier for us to hang out and associate with people who look like us, think like us, or even people who vote alike, even though we are called to love God and love our neighbor, as when we welcome others, we also welcome Christ.
When we come through our doors here, we are likely seeking different things as to why we are here in the first place.  Maybe some of us are Fourth or fifth generation who have always gone to church.  Some of us are here because we are genuinely seeking to know God better and grow in our faith and love.  Some of us are seeking a sense of a loving, grace-filled Christian community of disciples, and in turn, want to be a disciple too as we take our personal discipleship to the next level.  And, some of us may be here because our lives are in crisis and have nowhere else to turn to while trying to seek hope and guidance, as we do have several individuals within our community who have the gift of walking alongside those who struggle.  No matter what reason we are here today, there is an amazing richness of life in Christ that Bishop Schnase mentions that is available through the community of faith, regardless of where we’re are at in life, which is why we need to keep striving to create a place of welcome just like Jesus and Paul called their communities to do two millennia ago. 
As we begin our second year together and this new week, I encourage all of us us to keep thinking of how we can take it to the next level in making this church a place of welcome, a place where we can experience new life in Christ, but a place where ALL (and I mean ALL) of God’s children can come to know God’s love,  grow in Christ, and become one of Christ’s ambassadors by finding great joy that life in Christ and discipleship offers, even amidst the challenges or struggles that all of us face along the way.  Yes, it does take stepping out of our comfort zones a little bit, as stepping out of our comfort zone is necessary and healthy since Jesus was always challenging the disciples to do the same and still challenges us to do the same today, as well as Paul challenging his people.  Regardless of why each of us are here, let’s welcome one another, let’s create a place of welcome for everyone because we never know whose face we may see Christ in.  Because when we create a place of welcome in this church and create a place of welcome like my family did each Fourth of July, we especially welcome Christ into our midst. 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN!! 

[i] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 11-12. 

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