Matt 11:1 and 25-30
When we walk into a room full of people we usually gauge, on a sub conscious level, what the social temperature is. In short, we calculate whether this is a friendly crowd or not. It happens instinctively.
Perhaps its due to our evolutionary past when threats were real and constant. You had to decide in an instant whether to flee or fight for survival.
People felt safe when in Jesus’ presence.
In a patriarchal society where women were not permitted to engage in conversation with a man in public women found safety in Jesus’ presence. There was a special place for children in his presence. Prodigal sons and daughters were welcome with him.
In a segregated society Samaritans were drawn to him.
In a religiously rigid society exposed and convicted sinners found welcome with him. Prostitutes were welcome. Tax collectors were welcome.
No one was excluded.
That did not mean Jesus would not speak truth to them or call them out to change their lives when needed. But the essence of his ministry was his unconditional welcome.
In today’s reading the following words describe that welcome in the form of an invitation.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
The world is a harsh place to live in. It’s a hard world. Life is tough. Who among us does not appreciate a place of unconditional welcome?
Most of us have experienced that awkwardness of being in a space where you felt out—unwanted or unseen.
The unconditional welcome Jesus offered those who approached him was the foundation of his life and what he taught about God. It was based upon his belief that each person has great value. Each person has a right to the basic dignity ensconced in Godly love. No one is too poor, too sick, too rich, too sinful, too anything to be excluded from his attention and care. This is the Good News—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And how did this not change the lives of the people he encountered.
Sinners changed their lives. A tax collector and cheat paid back what he had stolen and transformed his entire life.
A woman of questionable morals was offered forgiveness and she involved her whole village in her transformation.
Ordinary, rough fishermen become apostles of hope. Everywhere Jesus went people either accepted his welcome and enshrined it in their own lives or they rejected him and walked off. Those who followed him found their lives changed forever.
His life was built upon the principle of welcome, of acceptance, of valuing the other.
He schooled those who chose to follow his path in two things—
one; “love your neighbor like you love yourself” (Matt 19:19)
and two; “Go and make disciples of all people” (Matt 28:19)
These two foundational requisites are two of the most difficult things to achieve in life. It takes practice. It takes courage. It takes commitment. But not only does it change the lives and hearts of others, it also changes ours when we practice it in our everyday lives.
This is especially true of the faith communities we create. A congregational must be a microcosm of Christ’s vision of welcome.
It is fair for every person who walks in on a worship service or who encounters the congregation in any capacity, to ask this question; “AM I WELCOME HERE?” They will do it in any case.
We have all had different experiences when visiting other congregations. I have experienced the overkill. The overkill is when you walk through the door and before you get to your seat you have been hugged by at least three people. You are layered in multiple colognes and perfumes and for the rest of the service you try your best not to go into a sneezing fit.
This is not what Jesus had in mind.
Then there is the cold-fish experience. As a stranger you feel a little out of place and people look past you. A person rushes up to you and just as you brace for a hug they miss you and hug the person behind you. At the hospitality hour you seem to be invisible—no one sees you.
In the congregation I served before coming here we had a couple announce to new visitors; “you are sitting in my seat”.
The greatest focus of the church today should not be our preoccupation with dwindling numbers. Our collective focus should be on growing our welcome.
For the past 25 years I have listened to countless lamentations about the absence of younger people and families. I have attended countless numbers of church revitalization seminars. I have participated in numerous strategic planning events. All with little to no affect.
Without a passion to be transformed by Christ’s love and without a commitment to practice Christ’s welcome nothing will change. Where I have seen congregations take a turn is where there was a commitment from a large proportion of the membership to be willing to change the way the church thinks about the way people are welcomed and incorporated into their life.
The question is not how to grow one’s membership but how to grow in one’s welcome.
Jesus commissioned each and every one of us—made it our task—to be God’s repository of love to be shared with all whom we encounter.
There is something therapeutic about growing one’s unconditional welcome. Not only do we grow in our own spiritual awareness but we also grow as human beings.
I hope you feel the welcome of Christ every time to enter these buildings or experience the church at work. I hope that you and I can work in our own personal lives to broaden our daily welcome of those we encounter.
Jesus invites us into his life with these words; “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
May we share this welcome with all whom we encounter. Amen.