Being a Welcoming Congregation

14th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 13, Romans 14 & 15, Luke 14 
25 August 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert    

If you have glanced at your bulletin insert, you will see that we are reading four different scriptures.  Short ones!   Two of them – Hebrews and Luke were actually on the schedule for next Sunday but I brought them forward.   Romans 14-1-15:13 is a whole unit on being welcoming and understanding of others.   I excerpted just a few verses from each chapter.   Listen for common themes about what it means to welcome another and about who should be welcomed.    The Greek word for welcome is deeper than our usual meaning.   It means to accept as a partner or close friend, not just to be warm and friendly.
Hebrews 13:1-2
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Have you ever had a friendship that was a one-way street?   To achieve real mutuality each person needs to have the five C’s.   Curiosity enough to ask good questions.   Tell me about your family.   How long have you been in Florida and from where did you come?  Concentration enough to listen well and to ask follow up questions.   Control enough to let them have their own perspective, without trying to force them into your mold or to try to fix them according your own perspective.   Clarification to clear up misunderstandings.  Compassion enough to care more about them that about yourself.  
Have you ever noticed how some people turn the conversation right back to themselves, after you answer one small question?  Mutuality involves both people utilizing the five Cs – Curiosity, Concentration, Clarification, Control, and Compassion to make the relationship work.    Now the other point from Hebrews is that we welcome/show hospitality to strangers – not just the people who are familiar.   It is so much easier to talk to your friends.    Take the path less traveled – reach out to ta new friend in coffee time.  Entertain an angel.
Romans 14:1-3
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.
Romans 15:1-3a
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself;
For the early Church, the great divide was between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.   The weak in faith are those rule-bound folks, who believe all must agree with them to be the true church.   The strong understand grace but grace is not grace when it is thrown in people’s face.   So those who have moved beyond being rule-bound to the higher ethic of love should not offend the ones who still are.   They should respect them.   God has welcomed them all.    We do not welcome people into the church to quarrel with them over non-essentials.  As the old saying goes:  In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, charity or love.   What are our essentials at Peace?   Trust in Jesus Christ is the only faith statement required – define it as you will.   Beyond that we try when we chartered as a church to articulate simply our core beliefs as these:
  • God is clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.
  • Worship honors God.
  • Prayer is a vital part of our relationship with God.
  • The Spirit of God speaks through Holy Scripture.
  • The sacraments of Baptism & Communion seal our relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • The Church is the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
  • All people are created in the image of God.  
  • God loves all people and expects us to love one another.
  • God is compassionately involved in the world.  
  • God expects us to work for peace and justice for all.    

So we respect differences of opinion on political, theological, and social matters, as long as those positions are in line with this simple set of affirmations.

The question I have about respecting and articulating differences of opinion is this: when does your advocacy for a particular point begin to exclude someone?   When does your strength of opinion, wound the weaker in faith?  For instance, how can we have honest dialogue about what does it mean to say that “God expects us to work for justice and peace for all” without stepping on each other’s political toes.
The Apostle Paul, himself a Jewish Christian, seemed more interested in removing the “hot button” issue, in avoiding damaging conflict in the life of the church than he was to have the so-called weak, corrected.   He puts the burden on the strong in faith, those who know better, to bear with the weaknesses of the weak – not to look down on them.

And finally we turn to Jesus’ teaching of those who were powerful, respected, and rule-bound.    At a dinner party, to which he was invited by the Pharisees and lawyers, Jesus challenges the status quo, the Eastern culture, which placed high value on social strata.
Luke 14:12-14
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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."                       (New Revised Standard Version)
A meal is not usually the place where you challenge the host.   No, usually guests are exceedingly polite to their host.   Jesus did not abide by this social custom.   He challenged host of the dinner to be invitational to those he would have preferred to avoid.   Indeed the rules of a Pharisee or scribe’s religious and social existence demanded that he avoid these people.   Who do you avoid?   Who do the rules of the world tell you to avoid?   Who would you find it least comfortable to invite to dinner?   That may be the very one Jesus would have you welcome.    Who are we inviting to church?   Who are we welcoming?  I have always liked the United Methodist slogan:  Open hearts, open minds, open doors.   I hope we believe in our heart of hearts that all people are created in the image of God and are loved by God.   Neil MacQueen sent me an interesting article Friday on being invitational instead of welcoming.   The point of the article is that we should not be sitting on our backsides, waiting for people to come to us, but going to them.   We should not be welcoming them because it is good for us, welcoming them because they can help us build a sanctuary on our new property.   No, we are invitational because we too are the unlikely dinner guests of Christ.   We have been graciously welcomed, loved, renewed.   Christ has included us, so we in his name include everyone who wants to join us in seeking him.   Every conversation and every meal becomes an opportunity to be welcoming toward those whom Christ loves.   Every Sunday after church my mother and brother share their best meal of the week with the most irritatingly needy person in the Faison Presbyterian Church, not because it is fun, but because it is right.   I can remember in my childhood how much I hated that she would come over and spoil an hour of our Christmas morning.   But I learned by painful repetition what it means to welcome the weak.   Through the mutuality of our love, centered in Christ, we will all grow into the likeness of Christ – together. 
 So let us dine together at Christ’s table as friends, different from each other, but one family, united in love.