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Some of you know that I just returned from a trip to Germany and Sweden. For about a year, members of my extended family on both sides of the Atlantic had been planning a reunion in Sweden, a gathering of the descendants of my great-great-grandparents. As the details of that trip started coming together, Oby and I thought, as long as we’re going to make the trip to Europe, we might as well add on a tour of Germany, on this 500-year anniversary of the Reformation, to visit all the places that were significant in the life of Martin Luther. So I went online and searched for a Germany-Reformation tour scheduled around the time of our family reunion. Right away I found a trip that would fit perfectly with our itinerary, a tour that was being organized by four pastors in the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA.
Now, I try not to be the kind of person who buys into stereotypes about whole groups of people—like people who live in eastern North Dakota. But I wondered, is this a trip where we would be welcome, a married gay clergy couple? I did some research on Facebook and found out that I and these four pastors who were leading the trip had dozens of mutual friends. So I contacted some of those friends. “Oby and I are thinking of going on this trip—do you think we would be welcome?” All of them assured me it would be fine and even said we would have a blast with them. So we signed up and made our down payments.
I’ll just skip to the end of the story and tell you now that the trip was great and the entire group was fantastic. But a few days before we left for the trip I started to panic. It dawned on me that there were going to be a lot of other people on this trip, too—people from eastern North Dakota. Sure, it sounded like the four pastors leading this trip would be great, but what about the other people? Would we really feel welcome, or would our presence on this trip make everyone else uncomfortable?
When we arrived in Germany and met our fellow travelers we quickly discovered there was nothing to be worried about. Our whole group—34 of us total—got along wonderfully. By the end of the trip, a few of the sweet, older women in our group had begun referring to Oby and me together as “the boys,” and we had developed something of a reputation as the social coordinators. “Hey folks, tonight Oby and I are going to check out the beer garden down the street. If you want to join us, meet in the hotel lobby at seven.” That was a fairly typical evening. Despite our concerns before the trip, it turned out Oby and I were very welcome. It was actually healing for us to realize our fears had been unfounded.
There’s really not that much risk involved when we are the ones doing the welcoming. We get to decide the terms of admission and the rules of participation. We get to decide when the welcome is over and it’s time for others to leave. When we are the ones doing the welcoming, we get to be in control. But seeking a welcome, wondering if and how you will be received and whether there will be a place for you when you arrive—that’s always risky and makes us feel vulnerable. When we take that risk and allow ourselves to be welcomed, we experience grace. That is when we begin to let go of our fear that we aren’t good enough or likeable enough, to jettison the voices inside us that make us believe we are unworthy to be received.
In her book Breathing Space, Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark writes about her ministry in a congregation in the South Bronx, a part of New York City that has been ravaged by poverty and violence. Shortly after she was called to be the pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church, Neumark set out to build relationships in the community. She began visiting people in their homes to hear more about their lives and get to know them on a more personal level. She describes the time she went to visit Ruby, whom she first met at the church’s food shelf. Neumark says that after knocking on Ruby’s door she could hear movements inside until a shadow passed over the peephole, and she realized the woman was on the other side contemplating whether to open the door. Once inside the apartment, Neumark understood why there had been such hesitation. She describes piles of garbage; heaps of old takeout containers overflowing with chicken bones, cigarette butts, and balled up napkins; a small child sitting on the floor in his underwear plucking bits of soggy pastel cereal out of a bowl; and a rat scurrying under the couch upon her arrival. “I knew I would never, ever have the courage to open that door,” Neumark writes. “But Ruby did.” Ruby went on to open more doors, as she shared with Neumark the story of her depression, drug abuse, domestic violence, HIV diagnosis, and a whole host of other challenges and concerns. At the end of it all the woman clutched Neumark’s hands and begged for a prayer. How could Ruby have known that the woman who showed up at her door would accept her with such grace, that this stranger would see the mess in that home and in her own life and treat her with such dignity and compassion? Being vulnerable enough to allow herself to be welcomed into another person’s life and really, truly known made it possible for Ruby to receive a taste of God’s grace and mercy, and to discover that she, too, with all her warts and wrinkles, is a beloved child of God.
Usually when we as a church or as a society have conversations about welcoming we focus on what it would mean for us to invite or allow others into our space. We have discussions about the costs and benefits of admitting others and the focus is on us. Less often in these conversations about welcoming do we consider what it’s like to be on the other end, to be the one seeking a welcome. To be welcomed into another person’s life means we have to be vulnerable and allow ourselves to really be known. And after all that, there’s no guarantee we will find a welcome.
Throughout the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been giving his disciples some instructions, preparing them for the ministry he will entrust to them. If you’ve been in worship the past couple weeks you’ve heard some of these instructions. He tells them to go to the lost sheep of Israel and proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. He says they are to receive no payment, and they should take nothing with them. In fact, they should rely on the people they meet to provide for their basic needs. They will likely face persecution, Jesus says, but do not fear, God is watching over them. Jesus warns them that the message he will ask them to proclaim is a hard one. It will disrupt the status quo and cause division even within our own families. This ministry Jesus is giving them is no easy task. And then we come to today’s reading, which concludes Jesus’ instructions: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In other words, showing hospitality to one of the disciples is the same thing as showing hospitality to Jesus himself.
I think the message for the disciples is this: You may not receive a warm welcome as you go from place to place proclaiming the gospel. In fact, people might chase you out of town. But know that wherever you go, you go bearing Christ. You carry Christ with you; Christ is in you. When people welcome you, it is as though they are welcoming Jesus himself. So remember this: When the going gets tough, when you feel despised and alone, Christ is with you. You carry all the love of Jesus. And anyone who doesn’t see that? They are missing out on an opportunity to glimpse the kingdom of God through you. But when people do welcome you, that is pure grace. That’s when you can set aside your fear that you’re not doing it right, or that you’re not good enough, or that you’re not worthy of the mission I’ve given you. That’s when you will understand why I chose you.
Maybe these are words we can carry with us today. Allowing ourselves to be welcomed and known is always a risk. But when others welcome us for who we really are, that’s when we can set aside our worry that we are unlovable or unworthy, and we experience grace. Whatever happens, remember this: God chose you, and you carry all the love of Jesus inside you. When people welcome you, it is as though they are welcoming Jesus himself.
Karoline Lewis, “Welcome,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4931.
Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (Boston: Beacon, 2003).
Emilie M. Townes, “Matthew 10:40-42: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
The featured image for this post, “Welcome #typography” is copyright (c) 2012 Jared Zimmerman and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.