A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on June 26, 2011.
The Second Sunday After Pentecost
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23
There’s not a more intriguing word in church lingo than “welcome.” No surprise, but we’ve been using that word abundantly in the church and there’s not a generation of church member here this morning who hasn’t used it themselves or worried about what it meant. But to be honest, the word today is a bigger word than we’ve used or even meant to use it in the past. It’s been a mostly polite word in the past. We’ve said it, but we’ve not always meant it. Let me explain from my experience of being raised in the South. We might say, “Welcome! Come on in!” That’s a typical welcome and it’s a part of our genteel way of life that welcomes others. But do we always mean it?
Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter promised during his election campaign that he would never tell a lie to the American people (remember this was right after Watergate and Nixon’s lies). A reporter from up north (a New York reporter as James Dunn tells this story) went down to Carter’s hometown in Plains to do a story on Carter’s background and set up an interview with Carter’s colorful and intelligent mother, known simply as, “Miss Lillian.” Miss Lillian greeted the reporter at her door and said, “Oh how are you! Welcome to Plains! So nice to see you! Why don’t you rest your things? Can I get you anything? Would you like something to drink?”
The reporter proceeded with the interview. A little while later the reporter asked, “Jimmy says he will never tell a lie. Now, Miss Lillian, is it true that he never lies?”
Miss Lillian replied, “Oh Jimmy tells white lies all the time.”
“White lies? What do you mean ‘white lies’?”
“You remember when I said, ‘Welcome to Plains! So nice to see you!’? That was a white lie.”
But to be honest, to claim we’re “a welcoming church” has a strong meaning we should consider today and it’s grounded in a widely accepted notion that God’s church should be an open, life-affirming place where people are invited to meet God, receive the reconciliation God offers, that’s theirs as one created in God’s image, and where they can be welcomed as a community with a wide and diverse clan of folk we love so much we want to call them “our brothers and sisters”!
Remember the original setting in which these words of Jesus were spoken? This is the end of a larger section where Jesus was busy preparing the disciples to send them out to the world as his representatives. Remember how he described them as apostles (meaning, “sent out ones”) and not merely disciples (“learners”)? Consequently, they were on assignment; they had work to do, sent to adopt Jesus’ agenda to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, (and) cast out demons” (Matt. 10:8, NRSV). They were to announce the good news to the world: “The kingdom of heaven has come near!”
This is big picture stuff! God was on the move! God was acting in human history by introducing Jesus as the one who had come to take those that were broken and to bring healing. Nothing humankind can do on its own behalf will bring about a reconciliation of the rift created by human sin. God had to intervene and when Christ came to the world, God was announcing that good news so all those trapped in their sin could be reconciled by attaching their lives to Christ and becoming part of the community of God’s sent ones that go announcing the good news.
Hospitality is about how people are received by the world they are born into. It’s the difference between being a visitor, an intruder, and the feeling of home. It’s about being an unwelcome intruder in the world that senses they are not welcomed. It’s about their attitudes in being the ones who went out. Hospitality is the kindness God wants us to express … to one another, and to every person with whom we come into contact. Read the Bible closely on the notion of the stranger, the alien, the visitor and it is a golden theme of God’s love woven into the whole of Scripture.
Perhaps we should be clear … what would a “welcoming church” look like? In order to fully answer that, we have to hold in our minds’ eye. A welcoming church does God’s work in the world by offering a welcoming gospel so good it’s almost too good to be true. We should have a word of affirmation only God could offer. We serve up a truth so wildly true and so radically true that we can’t help but share it with others.
Look around … there are signs and symbols here in this room of that kind of welcome, but we mostly overlook them because we’re not paying close attention. There’s a baptistery where folks who come to accept their place can offer up their stories and can stand in solidarity with Jesus who was baptized. The table before this pulpit is a table whose purpose isn’t as merely decorative furniture – it’s a table meant for a meal. At dinner we look around to see who’s there and who’s missing. We should do that at this table too when the bread is broken and the wine is poured and we’re all called to holy memory about that time when Jesus and his followers shared a meal together and this meal was served for the first time and we were all called to “do this in remembrance of me.” The table asks one more question of pertinent value: Who feels excluded? Strangely, there are folk who don’t feel particularly welcomed and they are those I want us to think about.
Over the years, I’ve come to meet a good number of the friends of my adult children, Ben and Alex. Their friends are about as mixed a group as I could picture and they’re all bright and lively and they’re all children of God. But there are some who don’t feel welcomed when they come to church. Interestingly, they know I’m a Baptist pastor and that’s not a good thing when they first hear it. As a Baptist, if they’re gay or lesbian, a quick assumption is that I will reject them. My kids assure them I won’t do that and I don’t. I’ve come to know some who’ve suffered terribly from the sting of “unwelcome” from the church that would shame them or deny them God’s great welcome. A surprising number of them are children of the church. They long for the comfort of the hymns and the chance to pray to God and worship but the pain of rejection stings mightily and they stay away as though they’ve been banished from the place where hospitality ought to flow freely.
I’ve come to the place where I cannot sit back and merely apologize. I’m saying honestly and openly with you that God’s great welcome has no boundary to these kids. We’re the ones who put these boundaries up and we should stop. Let’s call discrimination what it is and let’s explore our faith so we can join God in loving others in God’s name.
Remember the “No separation” words of Paul in his letter to the Galatian church? No separation due to gender; no separation because of class or economic concerns; no separation because of religious purity laws. By naming Jew and Greek, he says there is no clean or unclean in God’s all-seeing eyes otherwise none of us would enjoy God’s love.
This week several Holmeswood folk attended the 20th gathering of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship – this is a group supported by this church since the beginning. Lorie Skoog was there along with Kathy, Kate, Parker and me. Holmeswood members have attended many of the meetings over the last two decades and we’ve played and continue to play a significant role. My predecessor Greg Hunt was a leader and is still well respected among Fellowship people. “The Fellowship,” as CBF is frequently called, has led the way by blessing the notion of God’s Great Welcome and by carrying it out by policy and in practice.
We have focused our work in the following areas: racial and gender diversity, honoring younger CBF’ers as future leaders of the church through seminary education and preparation for ministry in the local church; and, by honoring the wider world of Christian groups and with respectful relationships with persons of other faiths.
We minister among what are called, “language people groups” that cross borders spread over multiple countries. We minister by creating global micro-loan programs to stimulate economic security and support among the poorest of the poor. Most recently we’ve worked together for disaster relief typified by our own efforts of service in Joplin. Pastor Kathy Pickett has previously served as the coordinator for disaster relief with CBF of Missouri and that work of preparation has been called upon to guide what we do so we do in Joplin.
In the CBF, we’ve encouraged and resourced students and young leaders who want to serve God in significant parts of the country and around the globe with programs such as Student.Go and other similar programs that allows our young adults to experience directly ministry and to explore calling. Bailey Durbin is in Helena AR this summer. Lilli Pickett has served in this kind of program recently. Parker Artz is in a similar program serving here this summer. Remember Joey and Stacy Pyle? They are serving a good church in Oklahoma after having served here a few years ago. Through the years we’ve had a great number of students who are finding their way to service of this kind. This week on the way home, I suggested to Kathy Pickett that this kind of ministry and particularly her involvement as mentor (boss, friend and mother) may be the single ministry that lasts longer than anything else she does as it holds as a seed the possibility of wide and wonderful things for God’s work in the world.
At the General Assembly, I was elected to serve a three-year cycle of duties to serve beginning this year in the position as Moderator-Elect. I view my work as a stewardship of what we’re doing together as churches in the world and as a direct stewardship of our work here at Holmeswood in seeking to serve as the presence of Christ in this community. As Darwin Johnson, our Deacon Chair, told me when I broached the possibility of agreeing to serve and in discussing what it would mean, “We’ve been a CBF church from the beginning. Your work in this position is an extension of that and we can view at as our part to play in helping CBF.”
Hospitality is not just about being nice. It’s about a spirit of hospitality that has the power to change the nature of the world from cold indifference to the warmth of God’s care. Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple … truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Such a simple thing, but what profound power it unleashes in the world! When we give a cup of cold water to one who is thirsty, both of us are replenished.
The amazing thing is that when we extend God’s love by offering a cup of cool water, God’s well-spring of life is tapped and gurgles freely in the world where the hurt ones exist, parched and dry, thirsty for meaning and significance and healing. Hospitality at its core is being the presence of Christ in the world.
 Galatians 3:28, NRSV
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).