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Welcome to Love 1
“Gate A-4,” by Naomi Shihab Nye 2
I am not a big fan of the art of Norman Rockwell. Like many art snobs, I find his early 20th-century depictions of American life over-stylized, parochial, unrealistically innocent, and way too white.
Yet this past Friday morning found me with a day off, a house crawling with painters, and a long list of Massachusetts cultural institutions, including the Rockwell Museum, that were offering free admission for the day. And on the day after our president employed the power of his office to bully-tweet a couple of cable-news hosts, I decided I could use some old-fashioned civility.
So to Stockbridge I did go.
And I’m so glad I did. I discovered that some brilliant curator had thought to pair some of Rockwell’s paintings with the contemporaneous art of Andy Warhol. More than that, I was reminded that even Norman Rockwell was changed by the Civil Rights Movement, that both his world view and his art broadened to include people of other races and religions. There is his famous “The Problem We All Live With” painting, of course, which highlights the courage and dignity of Ruby Bridges, a 10-year-old black girl, as U.S. Marshalls escort her to school, and “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” which has three white kids and a dog greeting a couple of black kids and a cat as their moving van is unloaded. There’s his “Golden Rule” painting, a human tapestry of different ages, skin colors, and faiths, and another that pays homage to the dream represented by the Peace Corps.
And I don’t recall ever having seen Rockwell’s homage to the civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Had I seen the stark realism of the painting anywhere else, I never would have taken it for a Rockwell. Yet there it was, mere feet away from what curators have made the centerpiece of the museum: the paintings Rockwell created to represent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
They are powerful paintings that put faces on bedrock American ideals. In a 1941 speech to Congress, FDR had named these freedoms as inherent rights of people the world over.
As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, I was struck by our narrow appropriation of these freedoms and so many other things about our history. In celebrating and idealizing a fledgling nation’s struggle for independence from King George, for example, we have made independence more honorable than live-giving interdependence. And as part of our more general retreat from the very notion of a shared world, we have tended to make FDR’s four freedoms all about us. Instead of considering the welfare of all, many of our national and international policies focus only on our rights and what is best for people like us.
And yet. (I need you to pivot with me here).
It seems to me that we progressives, particularly we progressive Christians, sometimes forget that things are also about us, that God’s blessings are also for us, that the radical love of Jesus is not only for the least of these but also for those of us who may not always recognize our own brokenness or honor our own needs.
Oh sure, we talk a lot about God’s extravagant welcome, and we try to live it out. We commit ourselves to welcoming others to our church and to the fullness of life with God, and we try to discern what that means in this time and place. True welcome, for example, is not a matter of inviting people into our way of doing things, but rather encouraging them to bring the fullness of their lives and experiences into our midst in ways that we know will challenge and change us.
This is good. Continuing to open our hearts to the “others” in our community and our culture is both important and essential to being faithful followers of Jesus. After all, all people are created in the image of God, and God’s love is for all.
It is particularly important that we live out this truth in these days of revived refugee bans, beefed-up immigration-control forces, border walls, and at least one mayor’s threats against a sanctuary church.
But I wonder if we sometimes forget that “welcome” is more than simply something we are supposed to do. I wonder if we realize that “welcome” is also God’s ongoing invitation to us.
Well, here is some good news: “All” includes you. God’s welcome is for all of us. And we experience that life-changing, heart-healing welcome whenever we become instruments of the love, peace, and power of the Spirit, when we let it flow into us as well as through us.
Jesus is sending the 12 disciples out to change lives—to heal the sick, raise the dead, restore outcasts to community, and cast out evil. He’s been pretty blunt about what they’re likely to encounter: resistance, rejection, division, even persecution. He’s also told them they need not fear a thing—because the Holy One is with them.
Finally, he tells them: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” This is a corollary to Jesus’ statement that whenever we serve the least of these we are serving him. Now he says that whenever we are served, whenever we are welcomed and given something as simple, something as essential, as a cup of water, he, too, is being served. We, too, are the Risen Christ.
We can talk about welcome all day long but we cannot share what we have not received. The way I am coming to understand it, Christ is served not only by what we do but also by what we open ourselves to receive from others. God is glorified not only when we welcome others but also when we can fully receive the extravagant welcome God extends to us.
This is the divinely ordained dance of community and interdependence. This is the “shared world” of Nye’s powerful poem. “Not a single person in that [airport] gate,” she says, “seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies.” When the Palestinian woman accepted the help of the poet, she lost her anguish and gained understanding and community. When the non-Muslims accepted the hospitality of the “other” in their midst, they lost their fears and were changed. They were in communion. They were healed. Their shared world grew smaller and safer.
This is the welcome Christ offers us. This is the security that allows Muslims in Syria to sit down at a feast-laden welcome table in the midst of bombed-out buildings. This is the love that casts out fear, the acceptance that heals us, the grace that saves us, the freedom that unites us. This is the transformation that occurs when we realize that we belong to God and we belong to each other, every person a welcomer, each one a holy guest, each act of kindness a miracle, God’s love made flesh in all.
“This can still happen anywhere,” says the poet. “Not everything is lost.”
So let this welcoming and receiving of welcome happen here and now: in your heart, in our relationships, in our divided nation, in every kind of suffering and need. Begin by letting yourself be welcomed to Christ’s table, which has been laid out with love amid the heartache and hope of your life.
Here is bread, beloveds. Here is wine. Break the bread; taste the wine. Christ is with us here. Here is grace, here is peace. Here we are joined in one, at home in God’s heart. In this bread there is healing. In this cup there is life abundant. In this moment, by the Spirit, Love is with us here. 3
Come and receive God’s welcome. Come and receive God’s love.
1 Portions of this sermon were inspired by a sermon called “The Shared World,” delivered June 25, 2017, to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly by the Rev. Mara Dowdall.
2 You can read the poem here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/gate-4
3 This is an adaptation of words to the Graham Kendrick hymn “Here is Bread, Here is Wine.”