All Are Welcome
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
September 23, 2018
Welcome! These were the sweetest words I ever heard. I had been traveling for 24 hours--in a car, a train, a shuttle, a plane, and a bus. I finally arrived in Taize, France. I was hungry and thirsty and tired. And I did not know a word of French. I was anxious. I was powerless. I got off the bus and I saw people holding signs reading Welcome in many different languages. One of the brothers of Taize came up to me and with a big smile on his face, he said in English, “Welcome!” He welcomed me with words and with food and shelter. I could relax. Everything was going to be alright.
Think about a time when you were a stranger...maybe in a foreign country, or in a new neighborhood, or a new job, a as a child in a new classroom and you didn’t know a soul. And someone came up to you and said,
“Welcome!” And you knew everything would be alright.
Welcoming is what comes from an ethic of hospitality, which is present throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the Bible we find clear admonitions to welcome strangers, which is easy to accept in the abstract. But, when it becomes a practical matter of opening the doors of our homes, or opening the budgets of our churches, or opening the borders of our country, then it gets complicated.
In the Gospel lesson for today, even though Jesus had just explained that following him meant the way of sacrifice and suffering and servant leadership, the disciples were still arguing with one another about who was the greatest. They just could not get what Jesus was telling them. Jesus didn’t give up on them, but he used an illustration. He took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus loves the little children, we know that. And so do we. They are easy to love. But this is not a sentimental lesson about cute kids. The word for child here is related to the word for servant, in other words, those who had low status, without honor or social standing, the outcasts, the ones no one would benefit from showing hospitality. They are the least and the lost and the last. Jesus is demonstrating a radical example of how he values every person, he includes and welcomes the most vulnerable and marginalized and rejected. This is upside down hospitality, that goes against the dominant values of society--then and now. By welcoming the weak and helpless, we welcome Jesus and further, by welcoming the least among us, we are welcoming God. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
“Won’t you be, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”
I grew up hearing this song sung by Mister Rogers, welcoming me to his neighborhood. As a child, I always felt welcome. As an adult, I watched with my children, so that they would feel that same welcome. Yhe recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, reveals Fred Rogers not just as a kind-hearted man, but as an activist for the common good. He welcomed children, and he also welcomed disabled people, he welcomed women as equals, he welcomed black people (at a time when they were not welcomed everywhere), and more.
Welcome comes from an early English word meaning “one whose coming brings pleasure.” Mr. Rogers showed us how to welcome people who were not like us, never forgetting that we might find ourselves strangers one day, in need of welcome.
It is easy for us to practice hospitality when we are safe in our homes watching Mister Rogers sing “Won’t you Be My Neighbor,” but when it becomes a practical matter of opening the doors of our homes, or opening the budgets of our churches, or opening the borders of our country, then it gets complicated.
Excerpts from “Separated at the Border: One family’s chaotic road to reunification” by Terra Brockman, Christian Century, August 15, 2018 (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/separated-familys-long-road-reunification)
Welcoming is what comes from an ethic of hospitality, which is present throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the Bible we find clear admonitions to welcome strangers, which is easy to accept in the abstract. But, when it becomes a practical matter of opening the doors of our homes, opening the budgets of our churches, opening the borders of our country, then it gets complicated. It may be complicated by politics, but who are we called to serve, ultimately? Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that when we welcome the stranger in need, we welcome God. The way of discipleship may be hard, but it is the holy way. The way of love may be costly, but that is what we are called to do. The way of welcome may be controversial, but it is the place we find Christ. But what can we do?
In a book I recommend called Dear World: A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace, 8-year old Bana Alabed writes “Did you know that the war in Syria has killed about 500,000 people and many more are still getting hurt and dying every day? Many families like mine had no choice but to leave the country we love to go to other places where we are refugees. Some people say they don’t want refugees in their country. They want them to go home, even though they have no home anymore. Or to go somewhere else, even though the people “somewhere else” might not welcome them either. But there is no place else for people to go. If you had no country or your parents or children were going to be killed, what would you do?
When you go to someone’ house in Syria, we welcome you as if you are family and share whatever we have, like tea and sweets. This is how I wish it could be if someone comes to your country--that you share with them and help them and try to understand what they have been through. It’s not right that people have to live in camps, or live in fear all the time, or see their friends or family die, or live without clean water or food or a home. And when you know something is not right, you have to fix it. We all have to help one another, no matter what country we live in. You could talk to other people in your country and write letters to your presidents, prime ministers, and politicians and ask them for help. Or you could be nice to a refugee family and see if they need help learning about their new country. Remember, they are homesick. You could also pray or make a wish, like when you blow out birthday candles or throw a penny into a fountain. I turned eight while I was working on my book, so I got to make a wish when I was blowing out my candles. I want there to please be peace. I am now eight years old, and this is my wish.”
It’s complicated. Or maybe it’s not as complicated as we think it is. Maybe it is simply asking ourselves What Would Jesus Do? Jesus took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
May we do the same.
Thanks be to God. Amen.