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Jun 21, 2020

Welcomed In

Welcomed In

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: June 2020

1. Recall a time when you were shown grace by someone who had no stake or interest in you? 1. 1. What did it feel like? How did it move or change you? 2. When have you offered grace to another, an outsider from your group? What compelled you to do it? How did it feel? 3. Why do we do for others? Is it merely transactional (that they might do for us) or is there something more? If there’s something more, what is it? 4. What do you believe about ultimate accountability for how we live our lives? What do you hope/fear?
Today's Scripture

Matthew 10:40-42

40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

“Welcomed In”

I was out on a run a couple weeks back when I heard just a barrage of honking in the distance.  Instantly, I recognized the sound that has become commonplace these days, a car parade.  Sure enough, once I crested the hill, descended into another neighborhood, I ended up running right down the middle of the parade route, which was for area high school graduates.  I sort of pretended they were lining the streets for me (how nice of them to come out!) and it boosted me a bit down the road.

Actually, if I’m honest, I had two distinct experiences of the parade.  From a distance, to put it bluntly, I found it annoying—the noise, the prospect of traffic.  I’m not proud of that reaction.  I’m not defending it.  I’m just telling you how I experienced it.  But, when I was in it, and I saw the looks on the students’ faces, and their parents, and just the well-meaning neighbors who came to support them in what must be a terribly disorienting and disappointing time, I totally got it.  It was joyful and profound.  Everyone showed up to make the best of a bad situation, leaning together against the tide of the isolation spawned by the virus.  I’m feel blessed to have stumbled into it.

There’s a lesson in that.  Well, there are a number of lessons in that, but among them is the lesson that when you’re on the outside, things feel exclusive, disruptive, disrespectful, unwelcoming.  When you’re allowed on the inside, that same experience feels amazing, celebratory, joyful, even reverent.  This is true whether the exclusion or inclusion is intentional or not.  How we experience things depends on where we are positioned.  When we’re left out, when our access is limited, or we you feel as though it is, it’s alienating.  When we’re in the middle, it’s hard to know what that’s like.  When you look at it this way, it’s pretty easy to see people have a hard time understanding each other.

The irony of this example, of course, is that young people have been excluded from so many of their usual experiences this year, key rites of passage—proms, senior seasons, and of course graduations.  I’m not losing sight of the very real losses and potential losses that have created the need for us to shelter in place.  My heart just also goes to those who have suffered losses directly from the coronavirus.  What’s been remarkable is how adaptable and resilient our young people have been.  One of you who lives near the civic center where many of the local high school graduations ceremonies were held in drive-in fashion shared just how creative and joyful they have been.  The virus has made the world a pretty inhospitable place in some ways.  At the same time, the attention given to police killings of blacks has reminded us that our world has long been unequally hospitable to people. 

Jesus holds up hospitality as a one of the ultimate values.  Now you wouldn’t know from the way religious people sometimes talk, but theology and spirituality are supposed to be ways of dealing with very practical questions.  One practical question Jesus, and more likely his followers, had to deal with was what to make of outsiders, people who weren’t part of their religion or way of life.  They could damn them all to hell, as later Christians would do.  They could say if you don’t follow our way, you’re not good or “in” or “saved” as later became popular to declare.  Jesus doesn’t do that, however. 

Here in this passage from Matthew, Jesus offers a very simple standard.  If others are welcoming of us, it’s as good as being welcoming of God.  Wow.  That’s the entire passage.   That’s the standard.  You can judge people on the basis of how well they welcome others. 

How well would we hold up to that standard, as individuals and as a people?  In our Session meeting last week, we were talking about race and what work we should be doing as a congregation.  One of the elders suggested we do some surveying of the church building to see what unintentional messages of unwelcome we might be sending to persons of color.  Are all our dolls of white people?  What about the books on our shelves?  Do they feature diverse populations?

Self-examining is hard and can lead us to become defensive.  Another way of getting in touch with this value of hospitality is remembering when we have experienced hospitality and welcome?  Sometimes visiting another culture can provide the starkest examples.  I can remember a time when I went with a group of Christians to the U.S. – Mexico border to explore our border issues.  We spent time on both sides of the border, and I remember being welcomed into people’s homes in Mexico, including some with only dirt floors and being offered meals and equally hospitable kindness.  I can recall similar experiences from going to West Virginia with another church. 

Church mission trips can be excellent vehicles for finding hospitality.  Yes, there’s plenty to be criticized about them – the money spent getting somewhere else could be more efficiently put to use locally where there is plenty of need, the way such trips can cultivate unhelpful dependence the way charity can, the way they can become Christian guilt-freeing tourism rather than real relationship and impact.  This is why we’re careful about how we do our trips here.  All of this said, one of the undeniably good things about church trips is how they put us in positions to receive hospitality, often from those we think have far less than we.  Have you noticed that Jesus so often sends his disciples out not just to do good, but to experience good others do for them?  It’s as if that’s a vital part of their training, to go and feel what it’s like to be welcomed in.

Hospitality is often in borne out in material ways – the sharing of food, the sharing of a roof, the welcoming in to a physical space – but it’s not always so.  Sometimes it’s the inviting into one’s experiences.  When someone shares their story or invites you to share yours, and makes it feel safe to do so, that’s one of the greatest acts of hospitality there is.  A safe space to share is as good as a home-cooked meal. 

I experienced what I would describe as a form of this kind of hospitality recently.  In preparing for two upcoming discussions we’ll be hosting on race, I was to listen to an interview Brene Brown did with Ibram Kendi.  Kendi is an award-winning author, a history professor, and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.  His notion of being “anti-racist” is predicated on the belief that an act or thought or policy is either racist or anti-racist.  There is no neutral.  People, of course, of mixtures of both.  I know I am. 

If I am totally honest, I wasn’t entirely looking forward to listening to the interview.  I’m not proud of that, but I like to think of myself as reasonably aware of prejudice in society and even in myself.  I think there was a piece of me that wasn’t looking forward to being indicted by the reality of our problems.  However, I found Kendi’s way of being on the podcast totally inviting and disarming.  It was truth-telling to be sure.  It didn’t sugar coat reality or black experiences, but it was gentle and I would say hospitable. 

Upon reflection, my expectations are telling.  What was I expecting to hear in Kendi?  Some stereotype of an angry black man, tired of explaining to white people what it’s like to be black?  My own biases and assumptions started to rise to the surface.  Frankl,y with what’s been going on and with our history in this country, I would understand why a black person would be both angry and exhausted.  That made the experience all the more remarkable, to be invited into a conversation in a way that felt totally unloaded.  That felt above and beyond.  I am committed to do my own reflection and education, and would have been regardless of how gracious others are with me, but I will say the grace has encouraged me to step into that process with even greater energy.  If he granted me this kind of grace, what more did I owe him?

What’s tricky about grace, though in a practical sense—and we’re always trying to be practical—is that it can cut either way.  Grace can inspire change, the way getting a second chance can.  Grace can also bolster the status quo, letting people off the hook, giving them the impression that they don’t need to change.  Part of what’s hard is learning when to hold to real accountability and when to extend grace because both are forms of love.  Accountability and grace can both be expressions of care.

One thing that makes each form of care possible is relationship, community.  Without it, it’s very hard to make much progress, and we’ve seen an erosion in community, and we must lean against the wave of our common soil washing away.  That’s why I want to tell you about the importance of having pie for breakfast…In Vermont, there’s something called “Town Meeting Day.”[1]  Town meeting day is when Vermonters gather in schools or halls to speak for or against local proposed policies, budgets, personnel and to vote on them. It’s no more idyllic than our national political scene has been.  Hot on the docket in one area one particular year was the proposed merger of rural schools to save money.  You can imagine the fight.

One woman in the middle of the battleground had an idea.  She said she wanted to bring the community back together.  Note, she didn’t say, “get them to agree,” or “get them to avoid the very real issues facing their community.”  No, bring them together.  She had a vision, as naïve as it might sound to us, that if she could get people back together as neighbors, something might happen, and if it took pie, well the Lord’s work sometimes demands sacrifice.  Her point is not that we’d lost the ability to agree – disagreement has always been around and will always be around, but perhaps that we had lost the ability to trust, to maneuver disagreement, to offer opposition and receive opposition in way that doesn’t only yield defensiveness and has the potential to spark real change.  Her plan – a pie for breakfast event.  Who wouldn’t want to go to that?  She thought maybe one sugary bite at a time, she might just do her part to rebuild community.  If you know the other.  If you trust the other, it’s easier to know when and to whom to extend the benefit of the doubt and when to offer firmer accountability.  Both are forms of care, remember.  

Marin is no small hamlet in Vermont, but we are plenty segregated and plenty unequal.  Did you know Marin tops the state of California in terms of racial inequality?[2] There can be, at times, a lot of patting ourselves on the back here about how progressive we are, but have we really created a community that is functionally welcoming to all? 

That’s why the church still matters here, not because it’s a refuge for what’s happening out there, but because we can build up the kinds of relationships that allow us to engage all that stuff with a different level of trust and relationship.  So, the question is will we be the church that’s making noise off in the distance that must be fun for its insiders but annoying to everyone else, or will we be the one that people can run right through and get a boost to get them a little farther down the road.  Maybe we could discuss it over pie.  Amen.

[1] This story appeared in an article of Presbyterians Today|+February+20+2020