February 4-5, 2017
7 Epiphany A – February 19, 2017 – Matthew 5:38-48
In 1979, Tim Hansel published a book entitled "When I Relax I feel Guilty". Included in the book is this provocative tidbit.
"I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please."
As we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount during these weeks of Epiphany, Jesus says some things that make us uncomfortable. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is one of those things. If we just select only $3.00 worth of God, we can skip over these things, but, as Jesus explains, anyone can do that; we are called to do better.
During my meetings in Florida, we spent a lot of time talking about immigration and refugees because we were all from denominations with long histories of assisting those who come to this country with little or nothing. Mariah, an Episcopalian from Pennsylvania, serves a small parish that is totally committed to refugee resettlement. She told us the way it works for them: she would receive a phone call, and the parish would have 48 hours to fill an empty apartment with furniture, bedding, dishes, food, clothing – everything the new family would need to get started. Then another agency would help that family, and they would wait for the next phone call. In most cases, her congregation never met the new neighbors they were assisting.
Mariah also served on the Episcopal-Mennonite dialogue and, through that connection, had offered her congregation these signs from the Mennonite denomination which read, in three languages, “no matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” If you want one, we can get you one. There’s a sign up sheet in the narthex.
Signs like this one are part of a movement called “radical hospitality.” The concepts aren’t new – they come from the Bible – but the awakening that we need to welcome and be hospitable comes at the same time that we began to realize that the world has been changing. It is no longer “open your doors, and the world will come to you” but rather “go out and be the church in your neighborhood”. The United Methodist Church has worked with this concept for many years. They say: “Radical hospitality” requires intentional invitation and welcome. It goes beyond greeters at the door and handshakes during worship to welcome every person as an honored guest.
As individuals and as church together, we are great at radical social ministry and radical mission support. As attested by our Sunday School’s sponsorship of a whole barnyard of animals and our donations to cover Steven Woelk Junior’s funeral, we are radically generous. But for those traveling on 13th Street, there are simply a bunch of beautiful church buildings with different architecture and different names and nothing to let those passing by know that strangers are welcome here. The Mennonite signs got me thinking and, with the Council’s permission, we’re going to get a sign to make certain that people know that they will be radically welcomed in this place. Watch for it to appear this week!
Thinking back to Jesus’ words, I know that he would welcome everyone (because he did: outcasts and sinners as well as the religiously-rigid). Many congregations now have a mission statement, a vision statement, and a welcoming statement. And, because I am always interested in cutting-edge ideas, I read them. Here are some excerpts from the Welcome Statement of First Christian Church in Portland:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, (widowed), gay, straight, filthy rich, dirt poor….
crying newborns, broken hearted, or in need of a safe place.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or (if) you can’t carry a (tune) in a bucket.
You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up, or just got out of jail….
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.
We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, …latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters….
We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the (casino) you’re welcome here.
We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church….
We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.
We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
You probably saw yourself in that list, and you probably also were a little uncomfortable with other parts of the list. If it were not so, we wouldn’t be following the call of Jesus out of our comfort zone. (Incidentally, forms of the word “complacency” occur in the Bible seven times and and it’s never used as a compliment.)
Putting together a welcoming statement like that is no small task. Unedited, it is a full page in length. That’s not going to fit on a readable sign. And no matter how long it is, someone will be left out. Our welcome sign will have significantly fewer words but will convey what this congregation has said for many years, that all are welcome here.
Wanting just three-dollars’ worth of God may be easier and certainly more comfortable, but we can do better, and we are called to do better. Amen