We just returned from traveling in Europe and in each airport we landed there was a sign that said: Welcome. In Frankfurt, “Willkommen”; in the U.K., “Welcome”; in France, “Bienvenue.” And when we arrived back onto U.S. soil, each customs officer said, “Welcome home.”
Every language has a form of the word “Welcome.” The word in Old English is a combination of “wil,” meaning “pleasure or desire,” and “cuman,” meaning “come.” We are pleased to have you come. The expression is always a warm invitation.
This past Fall, I was pouring over welcome mats at Target. Who knew that it could be so complicated choosing the right mat– particular colors, fonts, sizes and textures. Which mat would communicate the right welcome at our doorstep? Did I want a pineapple on it? Should it match my door color? It is a futile exercise, though. After all, in Cleveland the mat is covered in mud after the first snow.
Last summer, our son worked as a lifeguard at a golf club. Each time I dropped him off at work I was aware of the sign at the entrance that read: “Members Only.” Occasionally I would feel self-conscious that driving through people knew that I did not belong there. (Of course, I WAS driving a Honda.)
Our family belongs to Lifetime Fitness out on Richmond Road. (It’s the Walmart of gyms.) I am conscious of the sign that says “Members Only” each time I walk through those doors.
How does it feel to read or hear the words “Welcome”? How about “Members Only”?
Churches are always in danger of communicating a “Members Only” message, even though that’s not what we mean. I know people who are afraid to walk through the doors of any church because they are self-consciousness. Whether it’s true or not, they perceive that they are not welcome–just as they are.
I remember when we first visited Forest Hill Church in 1999. Marilyn Gifford greeted us at the door with a huge welcome, as she did countless other people over the years. She learned our names; Sophie and Seth were 8 and 5. Because our kids were adamant about wanting to return to “the donut church” the next Sunday-when Tim and I were going to be out of town-my in-laws brought them to church. When they walked up to the door, Marilyn greeted them with her warm smile and said, “Sophie and Seth, these must be your grandparents.” That sealed the deal for us. Forest Hill was our new church home. That’s the power of welcome.
In the Advent season, we should be putting out the welcome mat. We should be inviting friends, strangers, colleagues to church, not because we are telling a nice story here that will make them feel good around the holidays. (Although, God knows, we all need a little more joy.)
No, we invite people to join us here in this place because we believe God is here, and this is holy space, and being in this community, even with our imperfections and foibles, we will meet our long expected Divine guest, Jesus.
The paradox is that it is God who is actually inviting us. God is the one standing at the door welcoming us in when we arrive. That’s what the coming of God in Christ means. Jesus is God’s WELCOME to everybody!
The story of the coming of Jesus essentially began with one angel and two women.
I was amused when one of my friends said that she’s not fond of the story of Elizabeth and Mary because, as she put it: “It’s just about two hysterical pregnant women. ” Well, I hope to think it’s more than that.
Elizabeth, like her foremothers Sarah and Hannah, was childless. She and her husband, Zechariah, the priest, could not conceive a baby, and thus had given up hope for a child.
Knowing many women who have had difficulty getting pregnant, I believe that grief ranks right up there with some the most difficult pain in the human experience. Ancient women and modern women who experience infertility seem to be connected by invisible bonds of grief and disappointment that transcend time.
Zechariah was doing his duty in the Temple and there appeared the angel Gabriel. Gabriel said, “Elizabeth is going to have a child-an important child who you’ll call John.” Zechariah– instead of being elated by the news– expressed his doubt, his disbelief, his skepticism toward the angel’s good news. It was not reasonable or probable, Zechariah said. So the angel shut Zechariah’s mouth for the entire length of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. (And people think that the Bible isn’t funny?) Zechariah was not laughing, but I suspect Elizabeth might have been smiling for those nine months.
Six months later, Mary received her own visit from Gabriel who told about her unusual impending pregnancy. Mary questioned the angel too, but in dramatic contrast to the response Zechariah received, Gabriel gently explained how it would happen and told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary welcomed the news, at great risk to herself. She offered her “Yes” to God. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; Let it be. I welcome God’s child.”
Mary left hastily for her cousin’s house, perhaps out of need for safety – she was a teenage unwed mother. Perhaps she wanted to find out the truth about Elizabeth’s pregnancy to see if the experience she had had with the angel wasn’t in her adolescent imagination. Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house and when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, a radical welcome filled Elizabeth.
The baby leaped within her, Luke tells us – so full of unexpected and startling life was Elizabeth, that what sprang from within her was a joy unspeakable at her young cousin’s news.
Elizabeth and Zechariah extended a safe and hospitable place for Mary to stay for the next three months. (Not that Zechariah could object.) Maybe Mary was there to see John born.
Contrary to traditional views of Mary, she was not a meek and mild girl. After she welcomed the message from Gabriel that she would carry God’s own son, she welcomed the most radical call to God’s social order. A world in which older women get pregnant against all odds, and young virgins do too. Nothing is impossible for God! Age clearly doesn’t matter to God! There’s a lesson for us. As a youth, you might be called to serve God in a surprising capacity; or you might be getting up there in years and think that your years of valuable contributions are over. Watch out. The value of your gifts are not determined by your age, but by how God chooses to use them.
What an odd song for a young mother to be to sing. The Magnificat is one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew bible, one that Hannah sung when she found out that she was pregnant with Samuel. The song proclaimed the radical reversals that would take place in God’s kingdom. “God would scatter the proud in the imaginings of their hearts. God would bring down the powerful. The rich will go away empty. The hungry and lowly will be lifted up.” All will be turned upside down.
Mary’s song foretold the ministry and vocation of her son. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18 in the synagogue? “The Spirit of the lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; to make the blind to see; to set the captive and oppressed free.” Jesus turned out to be the One who would fulfill the prophetic words of his mother.
In their book, “The First Christmas,” John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg argue that the nativity story is “not simply tidings of comfort and joy, the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth are also edgy visions of another way of life, confronting the status quo and demanding personal and political transformation.” (SoMa Review/Interview with John Spalding)
In Jesus, God said I am doing a radically new thing. I am coming to you so that you can see who I am – in warm flesh, up close, personal, grounded in the world I created. Jesus was the ultimate reversal in God’s order – for Divinity came in human form. If we accept the words of Mary’s song, if we accept the coming of the Christ child into our lives, we too are receiving into ourselves God’s vision for the world – a world that currently and clearly is NOT the way it’s supposed to be.
In our economy, the rich get priority seating. The wealthy get the luxury boxes at the stadium. The rich – that means most of us according to the world’s standards – are well-fed. We have the opportunity to choose the food we eat, and how much of it. The super rich get taxed less than the middle class. Mary’s song not only calls all of that into question, but proclaims that God judges the values and priorities of that kind of economy.
It is quite surprising and discomforting that the prophetic words of the Magnificat are set in the middle of the beautiful story we tell each Christmas. We sneak around it though because frankly it does not fit into the lovely manger scene we construct with the angels floating above and doughy shepherds stable – side with a few wise men traveling with gifts.
Mary’s song challenges us to take risks. To be a radically welcoming people who take personal risks and risks as a body. Remember the stories of the safe houses in the Underground Railroad? Radical welcomes to persons escaping slavery.
Remember stories of churches and families that took in and hid Jews during Nazi Germany? Radical welcomes.
What about churches who voted to be Sanctuary Churches supporting and offering safety to Central American refugees? Radical welcomes.
What about churches who voted to be called Welcoming Congregations, or More Light, or Open and Affirming, depending upon the particular denomination? These churches stuck their necks out to put up a sign that says clearly, “All are Welcome Here, regardless of sexual orientation.”
I believe that any time we witness a sign of welcome-material or symbolic – we can be certain of the presence of God. God is always pushing to enlarge horizons, moving tent stakes to fit more people inside the tent, opening up the tabernacle, taking off the roof so that all can come in.
The paramount Divine Welcome Sign is Jesus Christ. “Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, but that the world MIGHT BE SAVED through him. ”
God came in the flesh – Emmanuel – as the most radical welcome of all. In God’s kingdom, it’s NOT “Members Only;” there are no longer barriers to God. The way has been opened wide, the paths have been made straight.
So, come in!
Our long expected guest has come. Thanks be to God.