[Jesus said:] “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.”
In this time of covid-19 and in this season of unrest on our streets, protests, rallies, marches—against racial injustice, police brutality, lifting up the lives, beauty, resiliency, courage, and gifts of Black people in this country and around the world; in this month of Pride, lifting up the bravery and resiliency of those who identify as LGBTQ+, the beloved queer communities…
In this season that feels both unprecedented and also more of the same for those who have been marginalized, we have this opportunity—either to go back to where we were in January or to build beloved community and a new reality. A place in which all people feel like they can be their whole selves, not targeted for their skin tone, gender, expression of sexuality, religious background, or cultural background. A society in which saying Black Lives Matter is not political but prophetic and loving and necessary. A world in which pride flags are flown proudly [not just in June], not because they represent any authority or power, but because they represent welcome and healing and peacemaking.
Yes, this is a season of opportunity. As the prophet Isaiah would be known to say: Do we not see it, perceive it? Do we not recognize it?
And so, friends, I am grateful to have this opportunity to share with you and I hope that you will find some meaning on a personal level, but also that this will inspire to examine how you can be an agent of extravagant welcome in your community.
Think of a time in your life when you were in need of hospitality, in need of welcome. What were you feeling/going through? What gifts did you share with those who welcomed you?
Now think of times and opportunities when you had the chance to welcome others. What gifts did they bring to you, how did you partner with them?
You know, I’m very grateful to have been part of the creation of The Welcome Project PA, a new community-based non-profit, with its flagship program, SAGA Community Center. It’s incredible to know just how many children, teens, and adults have participated in some SAGA program, support group, or event and how it has changed their lives. Consider that there are more LGBT+ identifying individuals in your community than you know. Many have various reasons why they have not publicly come out as LGBT+. In our experience, when someone finds a community where they can be wholly themselves without judgement, it can be life-changing. Because sadly, there are transgender youth who are unsafe at home. There are transgender people of color targeted in our cities and communities. There are folk who are afraid to go to a doctor or a medical clinic because they have been misgendered so many times, they just don’t have any strength left. And these are human beings who deserve dignity, love, and community. SAGA is a home for them. The space that we have created is not perfect [welcome is always a work in progress] but we strive to always circle back to our commitment to welcome.
Jesus of Nazareth knew all about this commitment to welcome. In fact, in this Matthew snippet we see the word “welcome” 6 times in 2 sentences. As always, the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels is represented in nuanced ways. Here in particular, we are in Matthew’s version, a version that follows the Gospel of Mark relatively closely, but at times has unique words and stories. In this case there is a similar passage in Mark in which Jesus says that if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to those following the Jesus Way, they will receive their spiritual reward.
The symbol of the cup of water is as simple as it sounds—it is surface hospitality. Someone enters your home after a long trip, what do you offer first? A glass of water. And here we see that welcome as reciprocal, similar to the reciprocal way that Love is given and received in the vine and branches metaphor of John’s Gospel. Whoever welcomes followers of the Jesus Way welcomes Jesus; whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes Yahweh. And there are levels of welcome: the entry level: the glass of cold water. The next level: welcoming a righteous [a person engaged in justice work]; next level: welcoming a prophet.
And so the first thing that comes to my mind here is that extravagant welcome is something that continues to mature over time. Initially, we can welcome people with the glass of cold water. I have certainly seen that here in Philly the last month. Many people of all ages and different walks of life have offered water and food to protestors, marchers, those in the streets speaking out against racial injustice and white supremacy. They went out of their way, took the time, spent the money in some cases—to provide glasses of water for complete strangers.
And these acts are absolutely valid, and kind, and they lift the spirits of people. But they are not enough, if we wish to move towards the extravagant welcome that Jesus taught and lived. See, after the glasses of water are empty and the protests, rallies, and marches are over—does our welcome end? Does the work of radical hospitality end? No. We must continue to deepen the welcome, and to make it last. So we must welcome people into our comfortable places—be it our homes, our congregations, our gathering places. We need to show hospitality to people. And I don’t mean “come to my church on Sunday” or “come meet my pastor” I mean hospitality not based on adding another member to a church but hospitality based on extravagant welcome, that we celebrate who people are, invite their perspectives and giftedness, and learn from them. We can hoist pride flags and post Black Lives Matter signs, but are we willing to do the hard work of day to day hospitality? Are we willing to invite community partners and leaders into our spaces, so as to learn from them and to be challenged? Are we willing to listen to feedback from others who don’t always feel welcome in our spaces? Are we willing to invite prophetic voices into our lives and spaces, people who may make us uncomfortable and may challenge our perspectives and beliefs?
Extravagant welcome requires us to look in the mirror, to ask ourselves beautiful and challenging questions. So pause for a moment and ask yourself:
What does it look like for you to carry welcome with you [not bound to a building or a program or a church? What does it look like for us in our churches to host “and” carry that welcome? What changes need to made? What obstacles stand in the way?
Friends, in order to curate extravagant welcome, we must be welcoming wherever we are, and with whosoever.
And as Jesus taught and lived, welcome relies on trust, courage, and vulnerability. We will not participate in the extravagant welcome if we give in to fear, fragility, and privilege. And so, Extravagant Welcome requires us to be less trustful of empires that rely on authority and brute strength and fear. Instead, beloved community born out of extravagant welcome stands up to empires, topples tables, stand in the margins, and crosses over to the other side of the lake.
In the end, friends ,we welcome people when we say: “You are valued as you are” but then, the follow-up isn’t just another affirmation. The follow-up is “what giftedness do you have?” “how can you enhance this community?” For extravagant welcome leads to community nurture, leads to empowerment, leads to shared leadership and new vision and tangible action. In short, if we commit to extravagant welcome as a lifestyle both as individuals and as congregations, our policies and procedures and worship services and meetings and events and service-learning projects will all reflect that. We will check ourselves and reassess, noting if we truly are participating in that extravagant welcome and if all our programs and actions and words reflect that.
And yes, to continue to extravagantly welcome people, we will have to let things go—systems and dysfunction and all that causes fear or mistrust or divisiveness. We can be open and affirming communities of faith and offer such a welcome to LGBT+-identifying folk, but are we also extending such a welcome to others who don’t look like us, speak the same language, newcomers to the U.S., or those who practice another faith tradition? Are we welcoming the material poor into our spaces without judgment?
Friends, we have to create a space so that others considered “strangers” or “other” before will now feel welcomed. It’s like Henri J. J.M. Nouwen talks about in his writing, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen states:
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring people over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
Truly welcoming people means allowing people to be welcomed on their own terms.
And so, friends, how will you carry extravagant welcome with you wherever you go? And how will you as a faith community embody such an extravagant welcome to anyone who comes your way? May it be so.