In the book, “The Idiot’s Guide to Christianity” by King Duncan, he writes about a neat encounter that I think speaks to today’s gospel:
As we come up on the fourth of July, we find ourselves surrounded by fireworks stands and American flags. Patriotism is at a high tide as folks across the country prepare to celebrate our country’s birth date. And as we look around at all of the excitement, as we look at all of the red, white, and blue surrounding us… it got me thinking about flags and the stories they tell.
A substitute Sunday School teacher couldn't open the combination lock on the supply cabinet. So she went to the pastor for help.
The pastor started turning the dial of the combination lock, stopped after the first two numbers, looked up serenely toward heaven, began moving his lips silently, turned to the final number, and opened the lock.
The teacher gasped, "I'm in awe of your faith, pastor."
"Really," he said, "it's nothing. The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling."
The flag from New Mexico is a rather unique flag—if you’ve never seen it before here it is…it’s a bright beautiful yellow flag with a red Zia Pueblo symbol on it representing the sun. There is much to appreciate about this flag—first the beauty of it… then how fitting it is to have a symbol for the Sun on a New Mexico flag… then also the recognition of the New Mexico’s history in the the Pueblo people. All good things.
—Story from King Duncan, The Idiot’s Guide to Christianity
Wouldn’t it be nice if being a part of a miracle were as simple as reading a piece of tape on the ceiling? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if doing God’s work could be done as simply as this?
And yet… there is actually some controversy about the flag. You see, the Pueblo people were never asked if this sacred symbol of their’s could be used for the flag when the design was drawn up in 1924. Instead, the symbol was taken from a pot that had been looted from a sacred Pueblo site.
In our Gospel lesson today, we hear a great deal about being “welcomed...” “Whoever welcomes you welcomes men, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… whoever welcomes a prophet… and so on and so forth.
Listening to all of this “welcome” can lead one to think that Jesus is encouraging us to be welcoming. And that perhaps we as a church—that we are are supposed to be about is welcoming those into our congregation who are seeking a safe place.. seeking refuge from the pains of the world… seeking help and perhaps even seeking new life.
And, in many way that’s a great goal for a congregation—to be a welcoming place. “Here, everyone is welcome!” is a truly wonderful line for people to aspire to within the church.
So for the Pueblo people, there is some pain that their culture—their sacred symbols--have been used without their permission.
We want to be a church that all people can feel welcome. Where company executives can sit side by side with the homeless or near homeless—and that all may feel equal. Where flaming liberals and ultra-conservatives can come together in peace to worship and seek God’s wisdom even as they disagree with one another on so many levels.
After all, when it comes down to it—each and every person:
no matter the color of their skin,
no matter the thickness of their wallet,
no matter the box selected for party affiliation
—each and every one of us is just as broken as the next… and each and every one of us is just as claimed by God as the next person. So yes, hearing and seeing this gospel lesson today in terms of a calling to be church where all people are welcome could indeed be a grand thing!
Or there’s the Minnesota flag— “Go Vikings!!”. The Minnesota flag is another flag that has some controversy around it. This time not for stolen images—but for speaking an uncomfortable truth. The image at the center of the flag depicts a native american on horseback fleeing westward from the farmers who displaced them.
While the flag is honest to the history, there is great discomfort at recognizing the pains that were created during the white settlement of Minnesota.
Except… well, except for one problem… that’s not what it’s talking about.
Jesus isn’t talking about forming an action plan on how to position greeters at particular doorways to maximize our welcoming coverage as folks enter the church on Sunday morning.
Jesus isn’t talking about creating a special training session to remind members not to kick visitors out of “their” pews or
In fact, Jesus isn’t talking about us as being the welcoming ones at all!
Instead, what Jesus IS talking about is sending his disciples out into the world and talking about how they will experience being welcomed.
It’s one thing to be in the position of welcoming others -- into your church, into your home, into your life. You have the power. You get to make the decisions as to whom you’ll invite and when. You can control the circumstances, the setting, and the surroundings. You are able to determine when the welcoming will come to an end.
Or perhaps we can take a look at our own flag for Oklahoma.
It’s a completely different situation, however, when find yourself on the other side -- the one being welcomed. The one at the mercy of another. The one wondering if the welcome will ever be for you as well.
From this brief and seemingly benign statement of Jesus, we realize another key component of the Kingdom of Heaven -- vulnerability. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” I’d like to think that Jesus knew the true meaning of vulnerability. After all, to be human is to be vulnerable and so therefore, we should expect vulnerability to be at the very heart of the incarnation.
Has anyone had the “book girl” visit them in the past week or two? She’s a 19 year old door-to-door saleswoman who is selling educational books and software for kids. If you have watched some of the social media groups in town, you may have noticed that she has made some waves.
Some people have welcomed into their homes and invited her to eat breakfast with her. Others have seen her coming, opened the door, and yelled at her with some rather strong language to go away before she could even knock on the door.
By the nature of her job she is put into the position of vulnerability over and over and over again. She drives up to a house that is completely foreign to her, walks up and knocks on the door without any idea of whether to expect lemonade and cookies or a barking dog and shotgun.
Whether or not she is welcomed is almost entirely out of her control—and yet making herself vulnerable again and again is what her job calls for.
It is indeed so much easier to be welcoming than it is to be welcomed. It is difficult to put ourselves out there in a way that makes us vulnerable. Society tells us that to be vulnerable is to show weakness.
God chose to be revealed to humanity through Jesus not from a place of power—but from a position of tremendous vulnerability—a place that many could mistake as weakness. “Jesus, show us your true power—call the angels down to rescue you from this death!” But instead of showing power—Christ shows vulnerability.
The church itself often mistakes vulnerability as weakness, it sidelines the very truth that could make it strong -- that God stands in solidarity with humanity and our fundamental need for connection, belonging, intimacy, and love.
We make church about going away feeling good about ourselves rather than letting church connect on a deeper level with issues that truly matter. The church avoids discomfort—it avoids difficult issues—it avoids realities that our neighbors face even in our own communities. And often, we avoid these things unintentionally. We avoid them through being a welcoming church rather than being welcomed disciples.
It is easy to forget that we have a God who decided to try to be in relationship with us—and not to force that relationship. We have a God who gives us free will to be in relationship with God or to turn away.
And then after giving us all of this freedom—God makes himself vulnerable by becoming human… by knocking on our door and entering into relationship with us.
We have a vulnerable God. Relationships, by definition, are vulnerable. By instigating a relationship with us, God decided and determined that vulnerability is at the heart of faith.
In the face of excuses and grumblings, disbelief and disobedience, refusal and rejection, God keeps coming back, adamant that reconciliation and renewal are possible, certain of love for us, willing to be seen over and over again even in the face of denial and betrayal. In the end, God had to trust in the welcome of the world to make a home here, to abide here, to make the Kingdom of Heaven be known here.
And now… now it’s your turn to take part in being welcomed. It is your turn to be sent out as the disciples were sent out into the world. It is your turn to be bearers and bringers of God’s love, grace, and mercy to your friends, family, and neighbors. It is your turn, to be vulnerable and… hopefully… to indeed be welcomed.
And when you wonder whether or not you can make an impact… remember Christ’s words when he says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
To be received, to be welcomed is indeed a thing that makes you vulnerable—but to the person who welcomes you that very chance to welcome you is a blessing in itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong—we’re Lutheran—and I know how hard this is for Lutherans… at least most of us anyway. We have a great tradition of being a welcoming church—both as a congregation here and as the ELCA throughout the country. But it is time that we begin to see how we can be welcomed. It is time to see how we can be sent out into the community and begin making an impact beyond our own pews.
We are already beginning that change.
One member told me recently that they plan on visiting people they know used to come to church but don’t any longer. Not to try to get them back in the pews—but just to know that they are still cared for.
Another member is working with the city of Perry to see if we can help organize and facilitate a large service project to help the community.
And there are many other examples of how we are beginning that change toward being not just a welcoming church but welcomed disciples.
So here is my challenge for you:
How can you help our congregation shift from just being welcoming into being welcomed? How can you help us be more involved and invested in the communities we serve? What ideas do you have that you have thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we...” or “I’ve always wanted us to do ____ for my neighborhood.”
You have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. You have been claimed and redeemed as God’s child. Now, let us work together in thanksgiving to God by following the call that Christ has given us to be sent into the world.