July 2, 2017
When I reflect on the word welcome, I think about my Grandma Hollie and her gifts of hospitality. Every summer, my family traveled to visit the grandparents. Grandma Hollie lived deep in the country, off the Chesapeake Bay—the Rivah they called it. Once the car wove around the corn fields and hit the long gravel driveway, my heart would start to beat faster. As my family drove up to her condo, she was always out on her porch, with a wide grin and arms outstretched, ready to wrap each of us in a warm embrace. And her warmth and kindness reached far beyond her kin. Grandma Hollie was known around the creek for her hospitality, her lemon squares, her jolly laughter, and her delight in a glass of red wine with one ice cube during happy hour.
Widowed at age 53, Grandma Hollie moved from Richmond, the capital city, to join the rural community of Cobbs Creek. After years as a homemaker, then teaching preschool, and working as a school secretary, she started a new chapter and career and became a realtor. Through her work, she found deep pleasure in getting to know other transplants or “come heres” while helping people find a new home. During our stay with her, when we made the trip into town, Grandma Hollie greeted everyone by name and caught up with the news and people in their lives. As president of her condo community she was the humorous peacemaker, smoothing over disputes about how low to cut the grass, who got which boat slip on the new docks, and the noise level at the community pool. She gathered the neighbors at odds on her deck, doing what she could to repair the breach with cheese and crackers, Fritos and French onion dip, and stories that left everyone in stitches. Even grumpy curmudgeons joined her in chuckling. My Grandma Hollie could write the book on joyful hospitality. When I imagine the warmth, the love, the affection of God’s welcome, my model is the vision of Grandma Hollie on her porch, arms wide, beaming with joy that her beloved family has arrived. We all need that kind of welcome, that kind of hospitality in our lives, that example of how it feels to be well known, fiercely loved, and fully welcomed.
The hope and power of such a welcome is central to our passage today. Jesus encourages the disciples that when they are welcomed, Jesus himself—and the very God who sent Jesus—are also welcomed. Jesus talks to his disciples, who themselves have been welcomed by God, and he sends them out to convey that divine welcome to others. They are sent to share the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Jesus sends them out to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, heal the lepers, and cast out demons. As followers of Jesus today, we too are sent out, to share the gospel and to extend the graciousness of the divine welcome to one another. This year UPC has a renewed energy to welcome and support our neighbors who are refugees and immigrants. Just last week, many of you gathered for a picture under the We Choose Welcome banner, and our newest build for Habitat began last weekend, building a home for a local family who now calls Chapel Hill home. I invite you to discern how the Spirit is calling you to further share the love of Christ. How is the Spirit leading you out of your comfort zone to welcome neighbors in the name of Christ? I realize it may not be convenient or comfortable. The disciples are warned that they will face persecution and opposition along the way, but the focus of their mission should not dim with such disappointment. When they are warmly received, the compassion of their hosts is reflected as service to Christ. For as the disciples are warmly welcomed, Christ is welcomed as well.
Such welcome extends beyond those who greet the disciples with hospitality. When prophets and the righteous and the marginalized are offered kindness, then Christ is welcomed in their name. We are familiar with how prophets can prove to be difficult company. Last week Elizabeth described Jeremiah as the weeping prophet, vacillating between “announcing imminent catastrophe and crying uncontrollably.” Jeremiah offers one example of how prophets were rarely popular conversationalists at parties. The confrontation, lament, and harsh truths of the prophets’ message were not welcome. Yet, Jesus declares that they too will be welcomed with the power of hospitality that will reap rewards for the hosts. Even a pushy prophet enjoys the power of welcome in Christ’s name.
As we look ahead to this holiday week, I expect many of us will have the opportunity to practice such hospitality. The Fourth of July is prime time for potluck picnics, crowds, and all sorts of company, and opportunities abound for simple acts of kindness. Some of you may be dreading passing the potato salad or corn on the cob to a nagging neighbor or your upsetting uncle. Some of you may be anxious about avoiding certain topics of conversation. Joining a picnic or waiting for the fireworks show with company who tap dance on your last nerve may be the perfect chance to practice the power of hospitality. Jesus made it clear that he was welcomed when the disciples were greeted with kindness. We are called to greet Christ in our family, friends, and neighbors as well. Just as the disciples were welcomed with the power of holy hospitality, we too are called to welcome family, friends, and neighbors as if we are welcoming Jesus himself. It’s a bold challenge. Henry Nouwen names this challenge; he was a priest, professor, and author who wrote over 40 books on spirituality and living faithfully. In his book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen describes the challenge of practicing such radical hospitality:
In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.
Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still – that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
So while you are out celebrating our country and our freedoms, consider how you can celebrate the grand hospitality of God. How can you celebrate gratitude for an inclusive community, where all God’s children have a place at the table, are known, loved, and welcomed? Even if you don’t see eye to eye on certain issues with your neighbor, look for the light of Christ in his face. Create the free and fearless space Nouwen describes, where true community can be formed and fully experienced. Pay attention to the people on the margins, those left out of the festivities, and extend acts of kindness, perhaps a cup of cold water, to share a sense of Christ’s welcome.
We know what that type of welcome and hospitality look like through the Biblical witness of how God welcomes the faithful and the fickle. The Israelites were instructed to love the stranger just as God loves the stranger and provided for them when they were strangers in Egypt. Paul encourages the church of Rome to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” The letter to the Hebrews teaches, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Yet, my favorite illustration of the power of God’s welcome is Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son, or sons, as the story goes. After the youngest son acts out in disgrace in a foreign land, he returns to ask for forgiveness and to become his father’s servant. The father races out to greet his lost son with joy, surprising him with a robe, ring, sandals, and a feast of the fatted calf, celebrating his return after his son’s insulting behavior. And just as the merriment sets in, the father greets his disgruntled elder son with gracious kindness, acknowledging his envy while extending his love and loyalty. Both sons act out of selfishness, yet the father responds with love and compassion. Both sons are welcomed home with kindness and hospitality.
God extends such compassionate hospitality to us all. Whether we have been steadfast and growing in our faith or realize we have been hardheaded and self-centered. God meets us right where we are and welcomes us to return to God’s heart. Like the saints before us, we know the power of the divine welcome and the difference it makes to believe that we are named, known, and beloved children of God. Believing that we are welcomed by a loving God can make all the difference when we find ourselves struggling in the darkness. Author, pastor, and artist Jan Richardson describes a time when she was reeling in grief after the sudden death of her husband, and she found refuge while writing and traveling in Ireland.
In a beautiful town on the southwest coast of Ireland, there is a magical restaurant. My sister and I discovered it last summer. It is a wondrous combination of coziness, loveliness, deliciousness, and friendliness. I couldn’t help but fall in love.
After our sister time, I remained in Ireland for two more weeks to work on the blessings for [my next book.] The restaurant became a regular spot for me. During that solitary time of working on these grief-borne blessings, it was an extraordinary gift to know I had a place I could go—a place where they called me by name, welcomed me to the table, talked with me, fed me in belly and soul.
I had left for Ireland feeling like a stranger in my own skin, so altered by the loss that was compelling me to make a new life. That new life is still in the making, but when I left Ireland, still enfolded in the welcome I found there, I felt less like a stranger to myself. When I returned to that coastal town this summer and walked into that restaurant once again, I heard a voice say, “Jan! You’re back!”
My experiences in Ireland gave me a new glimpse of the power of welcome, of what can happen when someone gathers us in and invites us to be at home when we are not at home, or have had to leave our home, or do not know where home is.
May we know—and create—places of welcome that help us become something other than strangers to one another and to ourselves. May we learn how to make one another at home in this world.
Richardson highlights our calling. We are called to create places of welcome that extend the hospitality of Christ. We are called to do what we can to ensure that everyone feels at home in this world. We are called to welcome one another with the love and joy of Christ, just as God welcomes us. God is here, with arms wide open to welcome us home.
 Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1975. 65-66
 Deuteronomy 10:18-19
 Romans 12:13
 Hebrews 13:1-2
 Luke 15:11-32