Sunday, June 15, 2008

Radical Welcome

Do you know what it is like to feel accepted and affirmed? Do you know what it is like to walk into a room and feel wholly loved…not for anything you have done or said, but simply for who you are? Do you know what it is like to be completely, absolutely, unconditionally welcomed?

I suspect there are a few, special moments in all our lives we can remember of just such moments of unconditional love, acceptance and welcome. For me, this memory comes early. I was no more than 3 years old when my mother’s friend Brenda took me to church for the first time. It was a Halloween party for the Sunday School and I was dressed up in a frilly white dress and bonnet with my grandfather’s cane wrapped in blue crepe paper disguised as a shepherd’s crook…I was Little Bo Peep.

I remember walking into the church fellowship hall still apprehensive of being far from home and in a new place. I did not know any of the kids and I was afraid no one would like me. But my fear of the unfamiliar did not last long. The moment I stepped in the door I was overwhelmed by attention from all the sweet old church ladies. They fawned and fussed, hugged and kissed. They took me by the hand and led me inside. All day long I passed from lap to lap and lavished with attention and love and of course, my fair share of candy!

Now, I am sure, since this was in fact a Sunday School party, that there must have been other children there that day, but in my memory I feel as if I was the only one! Why else would I have felt so loved and special, so welcomed and accepted? The women did not need to tell me about Jesus, they showed him to me with their affection and care.

Over the years as I have thought back on this day, on my first introduction to the Church, I never fail to be amazed at a love of this community to welcome a child they had never met before, whose parent’s did not go to church, and who had never heard of Jesus. None of that mattered. They loved me because I was God’s child and that’s all they needed to know.

This is the memory that comes to me every time I hear the scripture we read this evening from Mark.

“Then Jesus took a little child, lifted her up and put her among the disciples, saying to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…’”

That day in the fellowship hall of this church, I knew what it felt like to be that child welcomed by Jesus, lifted up among many and lavished with unconditional love.

It seems a little odd to preach about welcome in this particular congregation. After all, it is here in this community where every Sunday at 5 PM for the past four years we have heard these words: “At Cambridge Welcoming Ministries all are welcome…whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight or questioning, you are welcome here!” Talk about preaching to the choir!

We are indeed a ministry founded on this notion of God’s unconditional welcome for all, particularly for those, like that little child, left at the margins of society. Over these almost six years we have welcomed all sorts of people into our community. We remember that first group of daring disciples gathered in the upper room, praying and planning and preparing for our very first service. We remember the great crowd who gathered on September 29th , 2002 as we inaugurated our ministry and the brave 11 souls who came the following week. We remember the solitary visitors to our first bible study, “Religion is a Queer Thing.”

We remember the homeless, those both literally and figuratively without a home, who found warmth and welcome at CWM over the years. We remember the anonymous guests who have come and cried among us, finding refuge for but an hour. We remember the young and the old who found love here…the youth mission team who celebrated God’s inclusivity with us in song and Betty, our 80 year old member, who when she was told we were gay church, said, “well, that’s just lovely!”

Over the years, we at CWM, have worked diligently to witness to the welcome Christ extends to all through our ministry from the margins. In this way, this passage suits us well.

But if we were to read Jesus’ proclamation here in Mark as only a mandate to welcome those at the margins, we would be missing much of his point. For Jesus, is not simply concerned with welcoming the outcast and marginalized, though that is the beginning point of much of his ministry. Rather, Jesus is concerned with subverting the entire social system that creates categories of outcasts to begin with.

When we read this passage, we must be careful not to overly romanticize the scene with notions of cute little children and loving disciples, turning it into a safe, sweet sentiment of generic love. Jesus is talking about more than tolerance, more than acceptance, more than mere invitation. We cannot forget that this entire scene is prompted by the disciples’ argument over who is the greatest.

Jesus is talking about power.

In answering the disciples’ question about greatness, Jesus confronts popular notions of power. Then, just as now, power in the world is defined by domination and hierarchy. It is coercive power over others, whether through physical, economic, political or social means, that benefits few while subjugating many. This type of power creates divisions and categories, allowing some in, while keeping others out.

In this passage, Jesus is clear that these definitions of power are ultimately false. True power is not grasping for domination or maintaining a socially constructed hierarchy. Rather, true power is reaching out in love on behalf of others. True power comes from compassion, care, and concern.

Jesus’ re-definition of power is shocking. When he says the greatest is to be the servant, that is a startling contrast. To find power in the weakest and lowliest of social statuses is radical!

Let’s be clear, it is not that being oppressed and dominated brings salvation, but rather the willingness to give of one’s self that leads to the realization of God’s vision of peace and justice.

Jesus turns our social perceptions of power on their head, revealing power in vulnerability, compassion, and caring, rather than in brute force, coercion or sheer might. True power in God’s commonwealth is rooted in love and service.

This passage calls us not just to welcome those on the margins and in our own communities, but, like Jesus, to subvert the very structures of the social hierarchy that oppress and divide God’s people. If we merely offer a welcome to others without challenging the systems of power that keep them on the margins, we do nothing to further the vision of Christ in the world.

As people at the margins, we often find ourselves struggling to be let in. Banging on the doors of the institution, we long for full inclusion.

Yet, we must be careful, lest we fall into the very systems of oppression that keep us on the fringes and do nothing more than substitute one privileged group for another. Jesus taught us that vengeful retribution does not bring forth the kin-dom. We cannot win our place at the table at the expense of others. We cannot simply replace the ruling class of the rich, with the ruling class of the poor, or the ruling class of the conservatives, with the ruling class of the progressives.

When we allow ourselves to be caught up in these retributive, apocalyptic images of a vengeful God exercising the ultimate power over of destruction, we give in to a lack of faith. Retribution comes as a last resort when we abandon the belief that God’s vision of peace and justice can come through radical love, inclusion, compassion and service.

Jesus is calling us to dismantle this whole system that includes one group only at the expense of another. We cannot use power the way it has been used against us. Like it or not, we are called to a vision of power rooted in love and service that does not allow us to exclude others for our own benefit, not even the ones who despise and demean us. And that, by God, is not easy.

As I think about that early welcome I received as a child, that welcome that embodied for me the love of God and set me on a path to follow Jesus, I am reminded that the women who welcomed me that day, are the same women who now sit on the opposite side of the picket line from me at state houses, at general conferences, at judicial councils. You see, the church that first showed me Christ’s welcome is a member of the southern Baptist convention, a denomination that not only excludes GLBT persons, but also does not recognize my orders as a woman. While so wonderfully welcoming of me as a child, I wonder if this congregation would recognize my new flock.

Yet, it was there where I learned what it meant to be welcomed. Our faith lives, whether I like it or not, our forever intertwined. We have been knit together in the Body of Christ and I cannot, no matter how tempting, cut this congregation off from my faith journey.

I believe that we are each called to wrestle with the complexity of life in the Christian community. It is messy. Lines of division break down when we no longer cling to definitions of power based on domination or hierarchy.

How do we relate to one another with this new definition of power? What does it mean for us to be connected to the very people who seek our humiliation and exclusion? What would it look like for the welcome to be turned on its head? For us to welcome the ones who hate us? How do we teach lessons of welcoming in the context of our lives????

It is not in embracing our victimhood, or allowing ourselves to be martyred, or even in tolerating hateful theology and policy in the empty name of “inclusion,” rather, it is rooted in this radical re-definition of power that calls us to extend an irresistible welcome of compassion and service that breaks down the barriers between us, fostering unimaginable reconciliation and peace.

Christ is calling us beyond our welcoming to witness to a new way of being, a new way of living and loving that subverts old systems of dominating power and ushers in a future community marked by radical inclusion, service, compassion, justice, peace and the power of love.

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