Rev. George Miller
Feb 20, 2011
Jesus ate. A lot. And with everyone.
It has been said that Jesus was crucified for who he ate with.
Jesus ate with Jews and Gentiles. Jesus ate with rich and poor. Jesus ate with the religious elite and Jesus ate with notorious sinners. Jesus ate with men, Jesus ate with women.
Jesus ate the night before he died, sharing the table with the very person who would betray him.
Jesus ate after he was resurrected.
If we were to remove all the scriptures that involve Jesus eating or talking about eating, we would have very little left.
Jesus ate with every body, which is important, because when we eat with someone, our actions say “I like you.”
…Allow me to share a story, one of the most powerful childhood memories I have.
On the block that I lived was a woman named Marty who taught catechism classes. Kids would go there after school for their lessons. Some days Marty had them over just for fun.
One of those days everyone was invited to Marty’s for popcorn and to play in her basement.
Everyone, that is, except for me.
Marty gave me a bowl of popcorn, closed the door, and like an idiot, I sat down on her stoop, and ate it.
There are other memories of being made to feel like an outsider. Trying to find someone to sit with during school lunch; graduation parties not invited to.
Each slight a not so subtle message that said “I do not like you and you don’t belong.”
It’s a story that everyone shares at some point of their life, no matter if you are the star quarterback or the class geek.
We all want to feel welcome; we all want to be liked.
Now, my 30’s brought some healing. I attended seminary and had a core group of friends I hung out with. We were active in everything, hosting dinner parties and going to cafes.
One day someone said “You’re part of the popular crowd.” That made me feel good… until I realized that what they were really saying was that some people were feeling left out.
As you see, you can not have an “in” crowd unless if there is someone to make up the “out” crowd.
And that is where hospitality becomes so important. Perhaps more then any other act, hospitality is the way in which we say “You are welcome and you belong.”
Think about it, isn’t there a thrill to being invited to something, the chance to feel like you are part of a group?
In today’s reading there is a sense of hospitality that runs throughout, a radical sense of welcome that speaks in impossible-to-match hyperbole:
giving someone not just your coat but your cloak as well. Not refusing someone who asks for help. Even loving your enemy; the very person who would do you harm.
Jesus challenges us to show compassion and mercy and to always act with love.
Is there any wonder why he was seen as such a threat?
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This is one of the most difficult scriptures to hear, agree upon, and to act on.
Jesus expects us to treat everyone as a child of God and to welcome them into our lives.
But the notion of welcoming is so complex.
Here at Emmanuel UCC we have a saying that is stated every Sunday:
“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
And as wonderful as it sounds, as simple as it may seem, we have found ourselves challenged as to what that idea of welcome should look like and if we actually practice what we preach.
After all, what does this word welcome mean?
Does it mean that someone can bring a pet to church, even if it poses a safety risk to the rest of the congregation?
Does it mean that we provide financial assistance to a family, even if we know they will squander it on their addictions?
Do we extend the hand of fellowship to a former pastor even though ethics may say otherwise?
These are questions we’ve had to ponder over the years.
In fact, the whole reason why the title of today’s sermon has an asterisk is because some people have asked if we truly do welcome everyone.
One parishioner bravely suggested that perhaps we need to put an asterisk after our welcome statement so we can make a disclaimer on who we do not mean.
As Christians we should be thankful for these observations. They help to keep us honest and to prayerfully consider just what the idea of welcome means.
After all, the definition of everyone and welcome has expanded throughout the years.
There used to be a time when everyone meant men and women. Then it grew to mean black and white. Then it became Christian and Jewish. Then it became gay and straight.
But have you noticed how lately the categories have exploded?
Race now includes Hispanic and Asian, Haitian and Hmong, Indian (both Native American and from India).
Religion now includes Muslim and Buddhists, Wiccans and atheists.
It’s no longer just about being gay or straight but bisexual, transsexual, asexual.
Issues of being ageist against children or the elderly.
Those living with a physical disability, such as those who are deaf or blind or in a wheelchair.
Someone who has a mental illness.
Or a prison record. Or committed a crime.
Just what does welcome mean? What does welcome look like?
These questions are raised with each new instance of what welcome can mean.
For example, many churches are dealing with the reality of registered sex offenders joining them in worship.
Are they welcome to sit in the pew? Are they welcome to teach Sunday School?
Or say if someone like Bernie Maddoff moved to Sebring and wanted to join Emmanuel?
Do we welcome him with open arms? Do we let him be in charge of balancing our books?
How does welcoming look? When does caution and wisdom come to play?
These are all questions for us to wrestle and think about, to engage in theological conversation, because the truth of the matter is that Jesus calls us to welcome and to love,
not just our neighbor and those who are just like us, but to show welcome and acts of love to everyone, even those who we may fear or think will do us harm.
And as long as we are church, as long as we state these welcoming words, we will always be challenged.
We will always find people who are on the fringe, who are part of the unpopular crowd, who are sitting on the doorstep waiting for a chance to come on in.
Since I can not provide the answers, I’d like to end with a true life story.
In Texas there was a football game between Grapevine Faith Academy and Gainesville State School.
Gainesville State is a maximum security correction facility. Their team is made of 14 teenagers who’ve been convicted of crimes ranging from drugs to assault and robbery.
Most of their families have disowned them. They wear outdated helmets and shoulder pads. They play every game on the road. Their record: 0-8; they've only scored twice.
The other team, Faith Academy, has 11 coaches, 70 players and new equipment.
Chris Hogan, their head coach, realized that Gainesville had no fans or people to cheer them on, so he thought, "What if half of our people cheered for them?"
He sent out an email asking people to do just that. Some thought he was nuts.
Hogan said "Imagine you have no one to pull for you. Imagine that everyone has given up on you. Now, imagine what it would feel like to suddenly have hundreds of people who believe in you."
The idea took root. On the night of the game, the Gainesville players took the field. There was a banner for them to crash through, the visitors' stands were full, cheerleaders cheered for them, and the fans were calling them by their names.
Isaiah, their quarterback, said, "I never thought I would hear parents cheering us to tackle their kid. Most of the time, when we come out, people are afraid of us. You can see it in their eyes, but these people are cheering for us. They knew our names."
Gainesville lost the game, but when the teams gathered, it was Isaiah who led them in prayer: "Lord, I don’t know what just happened…but I never knew there were so many people…that cared about us."
On the way back to the bus and under guard, each player was handed a burger, fries, and a Coke with an encouraging letter from the players from Faith Academy…
… Members and dear, dear friends of Emmanuel United Church of Christ: could this be the very thing Jesus meant when he called us to love everyone, even our enemies?
Is this what your idea of welcome looks like?
How can we find ways to welcome everyone in, and help the Kingdom to grow?
After all, no one should be made to sit on the outside, to feel as if they are not liked, eating their popcorn all alone.
All honor and blessing be to God who calls us to welcome our neighbor, to Jesus who ate with everyone at the table and to the Holy Spirit that breaks into our world in the most unusual of ways.
Amen and amen.