Livestreamed service

Matthew 10, condensed

         We take pride in being one of the first Open and Affirming congregations in the United Church of Christ, and we work hard to welcome all manner of people and every individual into our building and our church. Occasionally we have to make the distinction that while all people are welcomed, all behaviors are not—but that doesn’t happen too often.

         So much is welcoming at the center of how we see ourselves that when we created a capital campaign to make our building more accessible, we called it “Widening the Welcome.” So central is welcoming to who we are and our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus that we invited someone we didn’t know to take sanctuary in our building.

         All that is well and good, and I realize that we still have a long way to go understand the difference between being inclusive and being welcoming, between tolerating diversity and centering and empowering people who have been marginalized and oppressed—people whom we ourselves may have had a hand in oppressing and marginalizing.

         This is why we speak not of being non-racist but of committing ourselves to anti-racism. This is why the UCC’s pro-LGBTQIA ministry doesn’t stop at allowing gay, transgender, and queer folks to be part of our churchO but rather challenges us to celebrate and affirm their identity and to let the beauty and blessedness of who they are change who we are.

         Being Open and Affirming and extravagantly welcoming is not simply a matter of opening our doors to all, but of actively seeking the lost and the left out. It’s not only about offering everyone a seat at our table, but of making sure we all understand that it is God’s table, and that Jesus would seat the poorest, most disrespected person at the head of it. It’s about going out into the streets and sharing with our neighbors the abundance of life we have discovered in the Holy One, much as the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son runs down the road to embrace his beloved child.

         All this focus on active openness, joyful affirmation, and intentional centering and sharing of power is so important to our spiritual lives, all of it is so fundamental to how we think of ourselves as followers of Jesus and what it means to be the church, all of it is so reflective of our privilege and self-centering that it’s easy to completely misunderstand what Jesus is saying to his disciples as he sends them out on their first mission trip.

         After giving his disciples the authority to help people in all kinds of cool ways, after telling them what to say and assuring them that the Spirit will speak through them, after warning them that what they say and do will not always win them friends but will cause painful conflict in their closest relationships and get them in serious trouble with the authorities, Jesus does not tell them to be welcoming of others.

         To focus on welcoming others is to presume that we have the power and position to be welcomers.

         But Jesus knows that preaching good news for the poor will make the rich uncomfortable. Jesus understands that offering care to the despised will bring on the wrath of the powerful. Jesus fully expects that living out the love of God will make outsiders of his disciples, that they will have doors slammed in their faces.

         These are hard sayings. These are some of the harsh realities of being followers of Jesus. And yet if we let them, they will, like all of Jesus’s teachings, lead us on the path to life that really is life.

         “Whoever welcomes you,” Jesus tells his disciples, fully expecting that the welcomers will be few, “also welcomes me and the God who sent me.”

         And so the question I have for us on this Open and Affirming Sunday is not “how welcoming are we?” but “how un-welcome are we in the halls of privilege and power?”

         How much trouble are we causing on behalf of other un-welcome folks?” Are we willing to be looked down on because we’re so committed to lifting other people up? How unclear is it where “we” end and “others” begin? When will we speak less about being inclusive and more about sharing—or relinquishing—power? When is the last time our love for God and our neighbors led us to a place where we weren’t welcome? How often do we want to be at home among the un-welcome?

         I’m guessing that you, like me, were taught to be polite. I’m guessing that most of us were told we were not to cause trouble, not to be a nuisance, not to resist the way things are.

         When I was 17 and the editor of my high school newspaper, my mom and I were going somewhere in the car together and I told her I was writing an editorial criticizing the school’s grading system. I’ll never forget her response:

         “You can’t do that, Vicki,” she said. “That’s just the way things are. That’s just the way things are.”

         But Jesus calls us to be holy troublemakers—not necessarily about first-world problems like school grades, but on behalf of the least of these. Jesus calls us to fling open the doors to the realm of God and to reserve the best seats for hungry and the homeless, the queer and the transgender, the undocumented and the unorthodox.

         Maybe it was just my proper, white, middle-class imagination, but by the third time I went to the ICE office in Hartford to speak to the person in charge of Lucio Perez’s case, I thought I could hear the agents saying, “Oh no, it’s her again.” I didn’t feel welcome and I didn’t feel comfortable—and I wondered if that meant I was doing something right.

         I can’t help but wonder if we wouldn’t be much more welcoming and diverse if we didn’t have more experience in being excluded. I’m starting to think I need to spend less time declaring myself as welcoming and more time listening to my black, undocumented, poor, transgender and queer siblings.

         “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus tells his disciples. “I have come to lift up the lowly and set the captives free—and that always causes trouble.”

         If anyone does not welcome you and the gospel you live, if anyone refuses to consider your Open and Affirming position or listen to your Black Lives Matter protest, Jesus says, shake the dust off your feet and keep going. Keep following me. Keep sharing the good news of God’s extravagant love and equalizing justice. Keep walking with the poor and powerless and excluded, and let your mind be changed and your privileged life be transformed by their lived experiences. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and wherever there are outsiders and truth-tellers, there you will find me.

         Black Lives Matter protests are almost everywhere these days, and last week I went to one in Belchertown. I was attracted by the description of the event as “a Vigil for George Floyd and Black Lives,” reassured by the commitment to safe distancing, and encouraged by the promise that the speakers would be people of color.

         Well, let me tell you: It was amazing. The entire event was organized and led by the Belchertown Justice Collaborative, which seems to be a collection of mostly high school students. Every speaker, every one of them impressive and powerful, was a young person of color. Our own Monet, Xavier, and Maxwell Williams were, as ever, articulate, passionate, and powerful. Max’s remarks included a prayer by Melanie Blood followed by the Lord’s Prayer, and I was amazed to hear some people around me joining in. And between each speaker two young white women wiped down the podium and sanitized the microphone.

         Now, the audience was largely middle-aged and almost all white. We listened attentively and clapped enthusiastically. But over on one side of the crowd there was a handful of men who looked a little out of place and, sure enough, when it seemed the event was almost over, one of them yelled out, “ALL lives matter.” Then a group of young white people yelled back, lacing their remarks with profanities, and suddenly it seemed that this extraordinary event was going to devolve into ordinary division and hatred.

         But the 19-year-old black woman who had served as a kind of keynote speaker calmly returned to the podium and said simply, “We need to stay focused,” and proceeded to offer her closing remarks. And, just like that, the disruptors were silenced.

         How blessed I was to be part of that gathering; how blessed we all were to have been welcomed by young people who have already suffered because of white supremacy.

         On this Open and Affirming Sunday, may we have love enough to put down our privilege, step aside, and allow the previously un-welcomed to speak their truth, demand justice and respect, and, if they so choose, welcome us to the new world they are creating.