Monday, September 11, 2006

Sermon: "The Importance of Being Welcoming" (Delivered 9-10-06)

"If indeed we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength, we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls, whether our years are three score and ten or not yet twenty. God cannot lodge in a narrow mind. God cannot lodge in a small heart. To accomodate God, they must be palatial." William Sloane Coffin

Reading and Commentary
This past week I had been looking for a reading to go with this morning’s sermon. I decided to select a passage from the Bible, but which one? My topic was welcome, invitation, and hospitality, and I considered the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son. Then I remembered the passage in Matthew about a king throwing a wedding banquet. I looked it up and it was awful. So I chose it. I consulted with a friend of mine who attends a quite moderate Christian Church, asking her if her church has ever taken up this passage. She told me her church doesn’t take on difficult passages from scripture. Next, I wrote to a liberal Christian minister across town and asked him, “If you were preaching on Matthew 22, what would you say?” He replied, “I avoid that passage like the plague. Seriously.”

The reading this morning is not intended to give you inspiration. In fact, the material is troubling and loathsome, rather than heartening and sublime. To understand it, you may wish to consider that many people make the mistake of thinking a passage of the Bible is prescriptive, when it is really just being descriptive. I think this passage should be read this way, not as saying how things ought to be, but rather how things tend to be.

So, without further ado, Matthew 22:1-13:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen, and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But the invited guests made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while others seized his slaves, mistreating them, and killed them. The King was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

The kingdom of heaven is like this?!? The reading may be a little odd and certainly disturbing, but the message of the sermon is straightforward, simple, basic, fundamental, elemental, foundational. The message is this: that being welcoming, being inviting is not just a good thing. Without it, all the other good you do is not as good. Being welcoming and inviting is the indication – it is the proof – of the condition of your heart. It is the test of your soul.

Being hospitable, inviting, and welcoming is not just some abstract, perennial, universal religious virtue – it is also something that our church has explicitly taken as our central mission. “To invite everyone into caring community.” The invitation is primary. The other parts of our core mission – inspiration and involvement – would be less if we bypassed the original invitation, if we skipped over the welcome. That’s because being welcoming is not just a good thing. Without it, all the other good you do is not as good. Being welcoming and inviting are the proof of the condition of your heart and the test of your soul.

And now for the bad news. To some degree we all fall short in this business of invitation. Now of course, most of us don’t fail as badly as the king throwing a wedding banquet. Let me count the ways: First he invites many guests to his wedding banquet. But, let’s face it. He doesn’t seem to be friends with a good crowd. Not only do his friends make excuses, they kill his servants! As retaliation, the king proceeds to destroy their city. Having killed off all his friends, the king decides to turn over a new leaf. He casts a broad, generous invitation, and then, when they arrive, the King finds some of his guests undesirable and wanting, so he has them removed and cast out.

The traditional interpretation of this passage is that God is highly selective. It reads the passage allegorically, where the King is God, the groom is Jesus, the good guests are those who accept Jesus, and the bad guests are those who reject Jesus. Many are called; few are chosen. The proverbial narrow gate. But I’m not sure this interpretation stands the test.

To Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven did not mean a foreign place that you needed a special VIP ticket to enter. Jesus might as well have invented the phrase, “You can’t get there from here.” Because for Jesus there was no there, there’s only here and you are here. The Kingdom of Heaven is all around you. You hold the ticket. We just fail to accept the invitation that is ever before us.

Now our everyday inhospitalities are not as severe as the King’s, but the welcoming business is hard work. The narrow gate of which Jesus spoke is really only as narrow as we make our own hearts.

And if I might follow this line of thought for just a few more moments, I might say that the interpretation of God as this highly selective person doesn’t make a lot of sense. If there is a God, clearly that God has got to be more welcoming than I have the capacity to be. If this were the not the case, then that would make me more welcoming than God is. And that would in turn make God no God at all. If there is a God, clearly that God has got to be more welcoming than I have the capacity to be, not less.

A classmate of mine from seminary became an Associate Minister at an Episcopalian Church in Boston. The title of her position: “Minister of Radical Welcome.” That is the best job title ever! (But the title of her position is not “God of Radical Welcome” because God’s welcome ever exceeds the capacity of our own imperfect, less-than-fully radical, welcome. But we’re working on getting better.)

I want to talk about a few examples of welcoming. The first that comes to mind is the Welcoming Congregation program within our own Unitarian Universalist Association. This program focuses on helping congregations to become more informed and more welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. For the past twenty months, we have had a Welcoming Congregation team that has put together a survey, workshops, classes and a forum. The board voted to endorse the process. There will be a congregational vote for our congregation to be recognized as a Welcoming Congregation on October 15.

The Welcoming Congregation program has existed in our faith since the early nineties. There are only a measly 1,000 UU congregations in the United States, but over 500 of them are Welcoming Congregations. When I say that, you may wonder why only 500? You need to take into consideration that in our movement, the median church is only one hundred and twenty members. (We’re two and a half times the size of the median UU church.) That means that there are hundreds of tiny UU congregations with only a few dozen members. As you may guess, it is difficult for a congregation of a few dozen members to put together a Welcoming Congregation committee. Of UU Churches 500 members and more, over 80% are Welcoming Congregations. The same can be said for congregations closer to our size of which about the same percentage are Welcoming Congregations. [Here is a story from the UU World magazine.]

If you grouped all five-hundred plus of the welcoming congregations together and all four-hundred something of the ones that have not been through the Welcoming Congregation process together and you compared the two groups in the most general way possible you would find that the Welcoming Congregations tend to thrive, tend to be future-oriented, tend to have visibility and impact in their communities, tend to look beyond themselves, tend to be leaders in our UU movement, and tend towards health and creative vitality.

On the other hand, these words would describe (in the most general of ways and there are exceptions) congregations that aren’t Welcoming Congregations: declining, struggling, impotent, conflicted, unhealthy, inwardly-focused, difficulty retaining clergy, invisible in their community, failing, and dying.

Now, I am not saying that there is a cause and effect relationship here. If anything, I would say that it is the opposite: that healthy, thriving, visible, future-oriented, successful, clergy-retaining, and vital congregations are more likely to successfully go through the welcoming congregation process. But that just confirms what I said: Being welcoming is an indication of the condition of your heart. It is a test of your soul.

This has been the case not only for our Unitarian Universalist movement. It has been the case for our nation. From the Puritans – who sent Quakers to the gallows, accused witches to the stake, Anne Hutchinson to the wilderness and Roger Williams to Rhode Island – to slavery and the civil war, to the civil rights movement, to the internment of Japanese in concentration camps, to the women’s rights movement, to the marriage equality movement, to the current issues of immigration and citizenship, welcoming and the idea of how broad an invitation to full participation and humanity is extended to each person in society have been questions that have gone to the very fabric of our national identity. It has been a test of our very heart and soul. Invitation lifts all boats. The wider the invitation, the better our nation. As I have said before, it is no coincidence that health and welcome go together. They’re interconnected.

You may have wondered, as I wondered when talking with my friend across town who is a minister of a liberal Christian congregation, why I didn’t pick a safe parable about welcome, invitation, and hospitality. The Good Samaritan… now there is hospitality. The Prodigal Son… welcome home, the invitation is yours. But these stories are awfully convenient, perhaps even cliché. After all, these stories portray the outsider as down-trodden, needy, even immoral. Either a victim or a lost soul who has given in to vice and bad choices. These parables make the other person, the one receiving the invitation, a charity case, a recipient of our own gracious benevolence. But welcome doesn’t really work that way. For one thing, often it is the one holding the power to invite (the Church, the club, the government, the institution) that has been guilty of sin.

Marge Piercy writes in her poem, “The Low Road”, that,

Alone, you can fight…
but they roll over you…
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support…
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say “We”
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

Without welcome, what are we left with? “Alone, they roll over you.” Marge Piercy’s poem inverts our normal conception of welcome and invitation, from being something we do for someone else’s benefit and something we, the insiders, can choose to do or not to. This she turns upside down telling us that being inviting is what moves us from aloneness, powerlessness, and self-pity to leverage and possibility. Piercy’s poem says that being welcoming and inviting is our great need. Being welcoming is the indication of the health of the condition of your heart. It is the proof of your soul.

It goes without saying that it would be wrong to take an overly idyllic view of welcome and invitation. Invitation does mean utopia or anarchy. Welcome is not the same as anything goes. Welcome does not guarantee that we will agree. It does not mean the absence of limits or boundaries. I think sometimes we become confused on this subject.

Perhaps we could rewrite the Marge Piercy poem, “With two you can have disagreement, with three you can triangulate and take sides, with four you can each have an advocate. With twelve you can have a hung jury. With one-hundred, a whole number disapproval percentage.”

I jest… probably the single best piece I’ve ever heard on the subject of welcoming was a sermon delivered at the last General Assembly by Gail Geisenhainer. (I also got the great Marge Piercy poem from this sermon.) In this sermon she details the risks she underwent to enter community, the breaking of community with a moment of ugliness, and the discovery, in the aftermath, of an even deeper community through covenant, engagement, refusal to dehumanize one another, and a spiritual discipline of remaining open in a way that doesn’t mean giving in or being inauthentic. Real welcome doesn’t remove our own agency. It places our own agency in a creative tension with others beyond ourselves, and in so doing, creates possibility.

Some people, even some of us who are Unitarian Universalists, tend to perpetuate the understanding that because we are such a broad faith, because we are so theologically diverse, because we are such a welcoming and inviting faith, we must be pretty vague and a bit shallow. A half-way home for the orphans of organized religion. A theological Triple-A for spiritual seekers. And this misunderstanding always bothers me a great deal. This always gets under my skin because my experience tells me the opposite: I have always felt that welcome and invitation are at the very core of what is necessary for spiritual depth and growth. I’ve always felt that broad theological engagement is at the very core of what is necessary for true wisdom. And, I’ve always felt that it is possible to be as theologically serious, as Biblically-literate, as spiritually developed, and as practiced in your faith here as anywhere.

If this is not the case, then that is a big problem. Plenty of religions have their own self-righteousness. A lot fewer have their own inferiority-complex. What is needed is a good medium that eschews both the self-righteousness and the inferiority complex.

I will end by reading a passage from Victoria Safford’s excellent meditation manual, Walking Towards Morning. [I only give you the out-line version here.]

The story involves John, a parishioner of Rev. Safford’s. John is an elderly man, fairly typical of a Unitarian in that he is extraordinarily involved in his community. John also attends church every single Sunday, always sitting in the first row because he is hard of hearing. Asked why he comes every single Sunday, John replies, “Someone might miss me if I wasn’t here.”

Safford describes that John is the epitome of welcoming, always helpful. He isn’t this way because he wants more friends (he has more than he can manage.) He isn’t some driven evangelist (in fact, he misses the small church his church once was.) He is welcoming because, well, because how else can one possibly be when guests are in your home?

On the Sunday after John’s memorial service a new family who never knew John and will never have the chance comes into the sanctuary and sits down in John’s seat as if they own the place. If he could have been there, John would have been delighted.

Indeed, welcome is foundational. It is the test of the condition of your heart. It is the proof of your soul.