If you sort of cringe when you hear welcome, from me, I understand. I only arrived to St. Louis in January. This is my first Sunday sermon at the Cathedral. Who am I to welcome you? I learned to be careful with the word “welcome” at my previous church in Washington, DC. On one of my first Sundays as a priest there, I said “Welcome to St John’s” to a distinguished looking lady, who turned and said to me, “thank you, but I’ve been worshipping here for 50 years, my husband was the former rector.” I learned to be careful with the word “welcome.”
The word “welcome” at church can also be cringe-worthy because doesn’t mean much. Welcome has become a cliché in many churches and not much more. Churches love to say they are welcoming. Every church likes to say “we are a welcoming community.” But by and large churches are terrible at welcome. Historically the Church has been really good at making people feel unwelcome. We’re good at labeling insiders and outsiders.
So if my saying “welcome” at church makes you uneasy, know that I am with you. And at the same time, I think Jesus really valued welcome. In this passage we have from Matthew’s gospel he uses the word a lot. What does he mean? Spoiler alert: I don’t think he is talking about ushers.
But before we explore that word “welcome,” there’s this other word Jesus repeats: “Reward.” I have to admit I’m interested when Jesus uses that word: reward. Apparently if we welcome, we get prizes. Jesus sounds a bit like Oprah here, “you get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car.” I asked the Dean if we could put a certificate for a car under everyone’s seat this morning. He seemed to think it was beyond the budget. Sorry about that.
So what is the reward we get for welcome? You’ll have to wait until the end of the sermon for that. To get to the reward, we have to talk about what welcome means.
What is this “welcome “that Jesus talks about?
Welcome really is one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry, and I can’t spend all of the time that I want on welcome, because, frankly, I want to get out to the Pride Parade on time.
So here, in two points, are my thoughts on welcome.
Point one: Deep welcome transforms us. When we say “welcome” there is a power relationship at play. Think about it, the word “welcome” as we use it implies insiders and outsiders. “Welcome to my house.” “Welcome to our church.” Do you hear the dynamic? That power differential is what trips up churches. Churches are often “in crowds.” Historically the church has been a guardian of who is in and who is out. When we “welcome” without examining this history, this power dynamic, we can do violence. “Welcome” in the church has often meant, “you are welcome if you learn to act like us.” You are welcome if you talk like us, think like us, believe like us. You’re welcome if you stand up and sit down and sing and speak when we do. This has nothing to do with the kind of welcome Jesus is talking about.
The word we translate as “welcome” in Matthew is literally “to receive.” For Jesus,”to welcome” is not to try to make someone like you, it is to receive from them. Welcome is not about teaching the outsider when to stand and when to sit. To welcome like Jesus the “welcomer,” becomes the student of the welcomed. To welcome like Jesus is to invite the outsider into your life so deeply, to welcome them so profoundly, that we allow them to transform who we are.
To welcome, following Jesus, is to invert the power relationship. To make the insider the student of the outsider, to allow those who are welcomed to transform us.
We know this kind of welcome, but it is a rare gift. This kind of transformative welcome, welcoming someone into your life in a way that transforms you, this is a rare welcome, but we all know it. It happens to us on an individual level, a familial level, a church or community level, and on a society wide level. We know the welcome Jesus is talking about.
On the Individual level: We’re celebrating Alicia and Betsy today, a couple who have chosen to deeply welcome one another, to allow someone else into their individual life. Today we celebrate one of the church’s sacraments of welcome, of two people receiving one another, welcoming one another deeply. Alicia and Betsy are the sign and symbol of that beautiful gift, and that hard work of welcoming the other today. My husband Eli can tell you, it’s not easy to welcome someone into your life. Whether you are married or you have deep transformative friendships, you know that inviting someone into your life deeply causes you to learn, to grow, to change. This really isn’t easy, but it helps us to grow up. This is the individual way we practice the kind of welcome Jesus invites us to.
We also practice this welcome on the level of family. Eli and I just got back Friday from welcoming our new niece Claire into the world. My sister and her husband had a healthy baby girl on Monday. She is adorable, and she will change the very fabric of our family. Whoever she grows up to be, her personality, her passion, will cause all of us to learn. If she likes ballet, you can bet our family will start to like ballet. If she likes monster trucks, that would change our family too. Claire will transform us, and she has already transformed us. We all have to play new roles. Eli and I were transformed into uncles. My parents became grand-parents. Being open, vulnerable to this kind of change, that is the way we welcome as families, one of the ways we learn to welcome in the way Jesus invites us to welcome.
This Church also knows about what it means to practice this welcome as a community. I remember studying Christ Church Cathedral in seminary. When Dean Michael Allen proclaimed “This Church has AIDS” he, and you, took a bold step for the Episcopal Church. He said, along with St. Paul, if “one part of the body suffers, we all suffer.” The words and actions of this Cathedral showed deep welcome, transformative welcome. Christ Church Cathedral didn’t just tolerate the presence of people living with HIV. This community was transformed by the presence of those who were suffering. Welcoming people with HIV/AIDS changed who Christ Church was, for the better. This church became an example of compassion and of activism for the wider church and the wider world. That is what it means to practice Jesus’ welcome as a community.
We are also working to practice this kind of welcome as a Society: Did you hear about the mayor of St. Louis welcoming same sex couples to his office to marry them. Defying the State of Missouri he said, enough is enough. This welcome transforms our society. Those of us in same-sex marriages are often accused of wanting to change the definition of marriage. I’m here to confirm those fears. I think two people who are of the same gender marrying one another does redefine marriage for heterosexuals. It does challenge traditional marriage. Because when two people who are equal in terms of the power relationship of gender, when two people who are of the same gender marry each other, they are on equal footing. Two people of the same gender are equal partners. This messes with the inherited “power imbalance” our society has given opposite sex couples. Same-sex marriage causes us to reject the idea that one partner should have power over another. Welcoming same sex couples into marriage redefines marriage, transforms marriage, transforms us as a society.
That is what welcome does, at least in the teaching of Jesus. Welcome, real welcome, transforms us. Jesus doesn’t leave it there, which brings me to my second point about welcome: We meet God, by welcoming the other. “If you welcome in my name, you welcome me, and you welcome the one who sent me.”
In Jesus’ teaching, God is a god of welcome. Let me repeat that. The God of Jesus is a god of welcome. The God of Jesus is not a god of insiders and outsiders. God is the god of everyone. No exceptions. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “All, All! All! Black, white…rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful…All is radical…gay, lesbian, so-called-straight, All!” God doesn’t pay attention to our categories of discrimination, the God of Jesus is a God who welcomes all.
And God has a passionate desire that we know that kind of welcome, the love of God at is available to ALL of us. God wants us to know love, and we learn that love by welcoming those our world considers outsiders. That is what it means to know God, to know and love the welcoming God. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” God wants to be known, and we know God better when we tear down the walls that divide us.
This is the reward Jesus is talking about. We learn to know this embarrassingly welcoming God when we go learn from those who our society considers outsiders. We know God when we cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture and class, gender and sexual orientation. When we welcome one another deeply, when we look for Christ in others and let those who we think of as “other” become our teacher, we will learn to know God better.
This is the reward, relationships that will transform us to be more like the God who is truly catholic, in the original sense of that word. God is universal. God welcomes us all, and invites us to welcome those different from us. This is the reward, and trust me, from what I know, it is way better than one of Oprah’s cars. When we learn to welcome one another, we taste a fraction of the love God has for us. When we overcome our prejudices and welcome the other as our teacher, we can glimpse the kingdom of the God who welcomes us all.