Too Busy To Welcome – Advent Homily on Romans 15.7

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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When Bob Sharp was sent to Marquis Memorial, I know that he was welcomed because it didn’t take long for the church to paint his office burgundy and gold in honor of his dedicated devotion to the Washington Redskins.

When Courtney Joyner started at St. Paul’s, I know she was welcomed because she is a triple-threat: She can sing, she can jam, and she can preach.

When John Benson first preached at Augusta Street, I know he was welcomed because his people haven’t stopped shouting “Amen!” since his first sermon.

When Won Un showed up at Central, I know he was welcomed because their entire church community has developed an affinity for Kimchi and they know that if they can’t find Won on a nice day, it’s because he’s out riding his bike.

When Janet Knott arrived at Jollivue, I know she was welcomed because she preaches with gifts, and who doesn’t love presents?

When Clayton Payne began at Cherryvale, I know he was welcomed because people keep showing up week after week even though he keeps preaching the same sermon over and over again.

When Bryson Smith was appointed to St. Paul’s, I know he was welcomed because they know if the sermon falls flat, he can always sing a solo and get the people to shout “Praise the Lord!” and “Mercy!”

When Sarah Locke was sent to Christ, I know she was welcomed because people started showing up in her kitchen while she was still unpacking boxes. I know that because I was there!

I know the United Methodist churches of Staunton are a welcoming bunch because you have so warmly welcomed your pastors. But I wonder, do we welcome everyone to our churches in the same way we welcome the pastor when he or she first arrives? Do you really welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us?

When I arrived in Staunton, Won and I got together and thought it seemed about time to resurrect the Lenten and Advent luncheons. We were not here when they used to happen and so we were able to tweak the schedule and the organization a little bit. Important for us was the shifting of host churches and guest speakers so that everyone got a chance to welcome, and every preacher got a chance to preach.

Fun fact: As of Christmas day, I will have preached in every single United Methodist Church in Staunton. And it only took me three and a half years!

Anyway, we got the Lenten luncheons started again, and the first time I was invited to preach we were gathering at Central UMC. At the time, I was young and naive, and I thought it would be a good idea to wear my Carharrt Overalls when I preached from the pulpit in order to really drive home the message. Maybe you were there. Maybe you even remember some of the things I said.

I poured out my heart and soul from the pulpit at Central UMC and I did my best to make the people of St. John’s as proud as possible. Afterwards, during lunch, after the tenth or so person made a comment about my attire, an older woman came up to me and asked if we could talk (I won’t say which church she was from).

So we moved to the corner of the social hall, and she gingerly placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I understand that you’re new to town you might be looking for a church home, so we’d love to have you join us for worship on Sunday.”

I remember just standing there stunned. I mean, it was a kind gesture for her to invite me to church (particular when the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 33 years). But going to another church on Sunday is impossible.

She welcomed me, but she didn’t listen to me. I suspect that she was more concerned with having people in the pews, than with knowing who the people are in the pews.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.

How did Jesus welcome? Well, he certainly didn’t wait for people to just show up because he was having a service on a Wednesday afternoon, or a Sunday morning, or even on Christmas Eve. Jesus welcomed others by showing up in their lives, he met them where they were and ministered to them in terms and in ways they could understand. He told stories that connected with their daily living, stories about the soil and the birds of the air. He welcomed them in the midst of their suffering and isolation. He welcomed the very people who would abandon him to a table without cost.

At St. John’s we have a Preschool and I spend time every week leading the kids in what we call chapel time. I’ll take a lesson from scripture and try to rework it in ways that can understand and apply to their life.

Last week, after practicing the Christmas pageant for what felt like the thousandth time, I set up a small table near the altar and I invited the kids to come sit and listen. The thirty minutes prior to chapel time were filled with pushing and tripping and laughter and debauchery, but when they sat down around the table I started speaking in a soft voice, and they all started to listen.

I said, “My friends, I have something I want to share with you. This is bread and grape juice, but it is about to me much more than that. For this is a gift that Jesus gives to us. Some of you might do this in your church on Sundays, and whenever we sit at the table we are remembering Christ’s love for us. At this table, all of us are welcome no matter what. So let’s pray… God thank you for loving us so much that you welcome us no matter what we’ve done and no matter who we are. I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us and make us more like Jesus so we can love others. Amen.”

And then one by one I called them by name, I gave each of them a piece of the bread, they dipped it into the cup, and the received communion.

Unlike us, the preschoolers have the benefit of not rushing around through this season of Advent endlessly crossing items off our to-do lists. Unlike us, the preschoolers don’t feel burdened by the tyranny of things and can sit quietly for a moment to receive a gift better than anything under the tree.

It often happens around this time of year that we feel too busy to welcome. We become more concerned with the wrapping paper and the ornaments and appearance of things than with the welcoming love of the Lord who was born into an unwelcoming town. When our sanctuaries fill up with more people than usual on Christmas Eve we are more often burdened by making sure everything is in the right place, than we are by making sure we are in the right place to welcome and be welcomed by the Lord.

And it is at the meal, the Lord’s Supper, the thing that most of us do on the first Sunday of the month, where we learn what it really means to welcome like Jesus. For Jesus is the one inviting you to the table, not merely hoping that you will show up to fill an empty place in a pew, but earnestly and truly yearning for your presence. You are invited because you are unique, you are wonderful, and you are a child of God. There is a place for you at the table no matter what.

Can you imagine what our churches would really look like if we welcomed others as Christ welcomed us?

Amen.

Devotional – Romans 15.7

Devotional:

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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It is hard to welcome one another, until we ourselves know what it means to be welcomed. We can imagine what we need to do and how we need to behave, we can get out the best silverware and the matching dinner sets, we can fill everyone’s cups to the brims, but until we have experienced being welcomed, we will struggle to welcome others.

I spent the last week in Orlando, Florida with my in-laws for the Thanksgiving holiday. They were forced to practice a new type of welcoming and hospitality because they hosted their 7-month old grandson for the first time. In addition to the normal preparations for people visiting, they had to procure a stroller, pack-n-play, diapers, wipes, and an assortment of other necessary items. Moreover, they had to adjust their schedules to the sleeping habits of our son and reorient all of their plans around his general disposition and mood.

And while we sat around the dinner table on Thanksgiving I was struck by how welcomed I felt throughout the week. They could have made assumptions about what we needed and then acted on it, but instead they approached us and asked what they could do to help. They could have become quickly frustrated with Elijah changing their plans but they adapted and made us feel comfortable. They could have expected us to change to fit into their way of life, but instead they changed to fit into ours.

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One of the most brilliant aspects of the Advent season is our anticipation of the way God fit into our way of life by taking on flesh and being born as a baby in a manger. Rather than giving up on humanity’s inability to repent and turn back to God, God comes down and meets us where we are. God, in Christ, welcomes us into the kingdom of God by connecting with us in ways that we can perceive and understand.

The same holds true for the life of the church, and for us as individual Christians. We welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us, for the glory of God. When we encounter those for whom the church is a strange new world, we don’t just wait for them to “catch up,” instead we adapt our ways to meet them where they are. When we welcome people into our homes for food and fellowship, we don’t dominate the conversation with whatever we want, instead we seek to invite all present to shape what we talk about. When we discover new people sitting in the pews near us, we don’t make quick judgments about who they are based on their appearance, instead we remember how the Lord welcomed us and we do the same toward others.

Dinner in the Kingdom – Sermon on Luke 14.1, 7-14

Dinner in the Kingdom

Luke 14.1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

 

A few years ago, I sat in the depth of a couch listening to one of my best friends named Josh [you can check out his blog here] talk about our assignment for the week. A number of us had been gathering on a regular basis in a sort-of “spiritual discipline accountability group.” Every week we read through a chapter from James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Life, discussed what we had learned, prayed, and then talked about our assignment for the next week. To be honest, the assignments were what I enjoyed most about the group because every week we were given a new challenge regarding our faith lives that we could live out.

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For instance one week we discussed the super-abundance of technological distractions in our lives and our challenge was to go on a “media-fast.” This meant that for 48 hours we were to try our best to put our cell phones away, rid ourselves of Facebook and twitter, keep the television turned off, and the magazines closed. For those two days we would distance ourselves from the distractions in our lives.

Most of our assignments were straightforward, and the results predictable. By fasting from media, we would inevitably spend more time with God and realize how much time we waste every single day. When we spent the week praying for our enemies, we would realize how connected we really are as the body of Christ, etc.

However, when I sat on the couch that night a few years ago, we were given a task that I thought would be too easy. “This week,” my friend read aloud, “you are to give away possessions to people. (Easy, I remembered thinking to myself) But here’s the catch,” he continued, “you have to do it in secret. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy something nice for someone, but truly give away something that you love without any expectation of receiving anything in turn.”

Giving and receiving gifts can both be a joy and a challenge. We live in culture so saturated in capitalism that nearly everything we do is based on a “giving-receiving model.” When someone offers to pay for our lunch, the conversation usually continues with, I’ll get the next one. When we give someone a gift, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we hope that we will receive something just as nice in return, eventually. We no longer know how to receive gifts with true gratitude because before we even enjoy whatever has been given, we feel indebted and begin to plan on giving something back in return.

And so it came to pass one evening that Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat dinner. As everyone was getting settled, sitting down in their chairs, filling up their glasses of wine, Jesus looked around and noticed how the invited guests were choosing the places of honor. He cleared his throat, and started to tell those with ears to hear, a parable: “when you are invited by someone to a banquet, do not sit down in the best places, in case someone more distinguished than you arrives and then the host will have to tell you to go sit somewhere else. Instead, you should sit in the lowest place, so that when the host sees you they will say, “my friend, move up higher, take one of the better seats.” For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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Jesus loves to use the mundane, the everyday, to help convey the depth of God’s kingdom. He uses the common experiences of people, the home or marketplace, farms and fishing boats, to reveal aspects of the character of his listeners, while also demonstrating the way of life in the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the Kingdom is like a sower going out to sow, the Kingdom is like a dinner party. So the first part of our passage today is therefore fairly straightforward: Stay humble. When you get invited places, do not assume that you are worthy of the best seat, but seek the lowest.

But Jesus continues on beyond the parable by addressing the one who had invited him: “When you have people over for a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, who can all return the favor of your invitation. Instead, when you’re hosting a party invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

It is very easy to read this passage from scripture and limit the meaning to social justice and ethics. In fact most of the commentaries written on this part of Luke 14 constrain the interpretation to simple ethical contributions. However, Luke gives us plenty of evidence to show that the real subject at hand is the Kingdom of God.

From the beginning of the passage Luke has given us a clue that there is more at stake here than etiquette; Jesus is telling a parable; Jesus is calling for kingdom behavior.

For the first part of the parable we do well to remember to resist the temptation to use humility as a means of receiving benefits. Taking the low seat because one is humble is one thing; taking the low seat as a way to move up is another. This is about maintaining our humility so that we embody the kind of life Jesus led and therefore receive exaltation in our humility.

As Jesus continues by addressing the host we can all imagine the wonderful elements that come with hosting a party. Inviting others embodies friendliness, generosity, graciousness, and concern for the comfort of others. However all of us know the ugly face of generosity that binds us when gifts come with strings attached. Just as in Jesus’ time, hosts often expect a return on their generosity toward others and therefore only invite people who are able to return the favor. But in the kingdom, God is the host, and who can truly repay God?

When we started our week of giving away possessions I was truly excited. I love giving gifts to people, and like the host in our parable I love inviting people over for dinner. I started scheming and planning on how I could start to give away my things to my friends. I analyzed them individually and started to think about who could use certain things. I went first to my collection of vinyl records and books, pulled out some of my very favorites, wrapped them up, and delivered them in secret without any indication that I had been the one to do so. I hid their gifts by their front doors, in the academic boxes at school, and I even left a few on the hoods of cars. Now to be clear, these were not just simple things that I had collected and would be willing to give away, but they were truly sentimental items that I had grown very attached to. I can remember wrapping up my first iTouch, my favorite Jazz LP from Dave Brubeck, and the first theological work I ever read from Karl Barth. These weren’t just  “things” but were part of who I am. In the days that followed after the surprise deliveries I felt absolutely miserable.

The hard part was not parting with the objects, but it was doing it in obscurity. I wanted all of my friends to know that I was the one who gave them their gifts. Keeping my mouth shut was so very difficult for me, because I wanted credit for the good deeds I had done. I thought that I wanted them to know how much time and energy I had put into their surprises, but what I really wanted was a little praise for what I had done. I realized that I was just like the host of the party in our scripture today; I was doing something nice to mask my own desire for affirmation.

But in the kingdom of God, things work differently.

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The story from scripture today is about God’s continued commitment to make us into people who can be depended upon to love strangers since we have learned, in Christ, what its like to be a stranger and be loved, even when we least deserve it. Preachers often list off virtues for people to emulate but there is only one true virtue: the lowly acknowledgment of God. Preachers also often list off sins to be avoided, but there is only one true sin: self-worship, our attempt to set ourselves at the center of the world, and the center of God’s table.

Jesus confronts us this morning: Who are you inviting over? To whom are you showing hospitality? Are you having over the same old people who can continue to pay you back for what you’re doing? Or are you reaching out to the last, least, and the lost?

To entertain for those with whom we are most comfortable is to set one’s own circle as the center of the universe; it is selfish. To entertain people beyond our comfort zone is to remember that God sees humanity as one family and that his love runs most quickly to those who are most in need.

Jesus is the one who chooses us, not the other way around. Jesus is not calling us here to provide for the needs of the poor and the disabled; He very simply asks us to invite them over for dinner. True hospitality is not having one another over on Friday night, but welcoming those who are in no position to host us in return.

This week we cannot rationalize ourselves out of the text and we cannot use metaphors or other interpretative elements to make it say something different. Luke 14 is not just about “loving” people, because Jesus didn’t get killed for loving… a lot more is at stake than just being nice. God is pulling us out of our comfort and complacency to live radically transformed lives. It does not matter whether you 71 or 17, our lives have been transformed in Jesus Christ and it is never too late to rediscover that transformation.

Christ is the host of this party. This is not St. John’s table, or my table, or even our table, but it belongs to Christ. None of us deserve to be invited. We regularly forget the goodness of God in our lives, we ignore the commands to love the unloved, and we fall short of his glory over and over. Yet, here we are. We come to this table with empty hands and hungry hearts, needing God to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.

Christ freed, and continues to free us from the expectations of the world. We no longer have to follow along with everyone else but instead get to live new and exciting lives. Who do you know that needs to feel a little more love?

Christ has invited you to his table. Who are you inviting to yours?

Amen.