A Sermon about What It Means to Be Welcoming

Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
28 June 2020 + Lectionary 13A
Matthew 10.40-42
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching

There’s always a catch. Or at least that’s the message I had come to expect growing up in the church as someone who happens to be gay.

I didn’t come out until my senior year of college, but I knew there was something different about me for a while – even if I didn’t have a name for it yet.

In the narthex of the church where I attended youth group when I was in high school, I remember this display with various short pamphlets on social issues. One of them – on “homosexuality” – always caught my eye and made me uncomfortable. Its message was basically: God loves me…but only if I changed who I was.

Later in college, when I was a part of the pre-seminary program, our cohort would meet weekly for dinner and conversation. One night – which I couldn’t attend due to work – our topic, led by our program director and campus pastor, was to be “What is our pastoral response to the sin of homosexuality?” This was still some time before I actually came out, but I remember how deeply uncomfortable and shameful that email announcement made me feel.

There’s always a catch. That’s the message LGBTQIA+ people in the church have felt and continue to feel even today. “All Are Welcome,” the sign reads or the hymn declares…but does that really include me?

When I began the process of coming out late into my senior year, I knew the church body I had been raised in didn’t have a place for me – but I knew there were, theoretically, churches out there that did. I had heard of them, but never experienced them for myself. So I took to Google and searched: “gay friendly churches in Chicago.”

When I found Urban Village Church – a new church community in Chicago – I walked through the doors and took my seat in the pew…with deep skepticism. Even after the welcome statement at the beginning of the service, still I wondered: What’s the catch?

If you listened to last week’s Unity podcast episode, you know where this story is headed. Urban Village went on to become the church community that reshaped my perception of what Christianity could be like. Bold in its proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. Inclusive in its radical welcome. Relevant in the way we live our Monday-Saturday lives. More than words in a bulletin or on a website, this was a church community that actually lived out its welcome. And that made all the difference for me. It’s a large part of the reason I’m even standing here today as a pastor.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus declares.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about welcome and what it means to be welcoming. At a basic level, we know that everyone longs to feel included, to be valued and accepted for who they are, to have a sense of belonging. Some people have never had to question that – hallelujah! But for others … it’s not so easy. As a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, signs out front of churches that read “All Are Welcome” still give me pause. Does that really include me?

Recently, I was having a conversation with some pastor friends in a weekly text study group, and we were talking about the recent protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. There’s no doubt that “Black Lives Matter” has become a politically charged phrase. Often the “critique” has been summarized in the phrase “All Lives Matter” – which is technically valid and true – but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

No one who says “Black Lives Matter” believes that other lives don’t matter. But that’s not the point. The point is that, right now, it’s black lives that are at risk, black lives that are being taken too soon, black families that are afraid to let their kids leave the house for fear that they might not come back home. Those of us who are white, who live our lives in predominantly white spaces, will never know that reality – the daily reality of fear and exclusion.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…”

Black Lives Matter is as much a statement of welcome and affirmation as welcoming LGBTQIA+ folks in our pews. “All Are Welcome” and “All Lives Matter” are simply not enough. Welcoming people as Jesus calls us to welcome them means that we need to be specific and name those who have historically not been welcomed. Specific welcome leaves no room for questioning – “What’s the catch?” Because people are afraid and people are dying and people need to know that yes, that welcome includes them, too!

Being welcomed as Christ welcomes us is powerful because there is no catch. In Christ’s welcome, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ lives are affirmed without exception, and anyone who has been marginalized and excluded has a place at the table. Period.

We all yearn to be welcomed, affirmed, included, and have a sense of belonging in community. And I think that we all also yearn to share that sense of belonging with others – to extend welcome as indeed welcome has been extended to us.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus declares.

That kind of welcome is more than words in a bulletin, or on a church sign, or in a hymn. It has to be. Jesus’s words are the church’s call to action. Welcome is a verb, and if “all are welcome,” then we need to prove it.

To welcome our siblings who might look or love or believe differently than us is to welcome Christ, who welcomes us first, unconditionally. To welcome “the least of these” is to welcome Christ himself and to invite and recognize the presence of God in our midst – the God who welcomes and loves us all with a love that will never let us go. A love with no fine print, no asterisk, no catch.

Thanks be to God!

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