To Welcome

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

This past weekend my wife Olivia and I travelled to New York City to visit my sister and her fiancé. While the number one thing on my to do list for the weekend was to watch the Knicks play Phoenix at Madison Square Garden, which of course we did, there were many other highlights from our trip, maybe most significantly, time spent at the 9/11-memorial museum.

While the events of September 11, 2001 have judged the day as one we will “never forget”, it’s safe to say, as life’s moments so often do, it’s minor details and our subsequent emotions, fade with time. As you make your way through the museum, situated in the archaeological foundation of the World Trade Tower site, suddenly these details and emotions come back. Over the audio system, the names of the almost 3,000 victims are read as you look over their photographs, men, women, and children. And then there are the rooms situated in corners with signs warning of graphic images that cause you to wince and force you question whether you would choose an open window over the alternative had you been caught on an uppermost floors prior to the towers collapse. Fear, anger, uncertainty…

And then, in one of the final rooms of the museum you find a display dedicated to religious artifacts. The famous steel beam cross, lost jewelry found on site, and then, something that seemingly defies the laws of science (at least to this non scientist), a bible fused to a section of metal from the frame of one of the towers. The paper in tact and unburned, opened to Matthew chapter 5… the legible text reading “an eye for an eye… resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” A powerful message of forgiveness, hospitality, and welcome from Jesus on any day… One proclaimed following deadliest recorded terrorist act in world history… well… you argue God isn’t still speaking to us…

As Pastor Mike shared during our announcements, our focus for this weekend’s services here at St. James is hospitality. Not just on how we provide a place of welcome for visitors, but also for each other.

On paper, throughout our St. James welcome statement, we express words of welcome to just about every group of people that one could think of. Long-time Lutherans, Christians from every tradition, people new to faith, those who have no church home, those who want to follow Christ, those who doubt and those who don’t believe, people of every age, size, color, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status, and marital status.

We invite them to celebrate and to sorrow, to rejoice and to recover, and to come and to listen for the Spirit calling to love neighbor wholeheartedly, to seek justice, to create peace, and to practice compassion.

A welcome statement we should certainly be proud of, yet one, like most things written, easier said than lived out. As we focus on our welcome statement, our challenge is to reflect on how we feel welcome here at St. James, and too, how we live out our welcome statement as individuals and as a community as well.

Maybe the boldest expression of which, for us as a community, was our becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. While this weekend focuses on the broader theme of hospitality, it also marks the 1st anniversary of receiving our certificate from Reconciling Works, signifying St. James as a Reconciling in Christ congregation.

In conversation with the staff, our Reconciling in Christ Task Force, suggested that our preacher for today, (Me), spend some time in their sermon discussing what it has been like to be a pastor at a Reconciling in Christ congregation.

Truth be told, in many ways, Pastor Mike would be the more equipped pastor to respond to this task. By the time I entered into the call process with St. James, you all were well on your way to becoming a RIC congregation. The taskforce had been formed, our elected congregational council had taken the vote, and all that was left was to receive the official seal of approval from Reconciling Works.

When Pastor Mike shared that St. James was becoming an RIC congregation in one of our first meetings at the very beginning of my call process, as you might expect, I had some questions. I wanted to know how the process unfolded, what conversations had been like within the congregation, and what is was that ultimately led St. James to make the decision.

His response, was that the concerns of Reconciling Works, those things that become so much a part of a community in becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation, somewhere along the line became deeply personal for St. James. That extending a deliberate invitation to the LGBTQ community was no longer simply a social justice issue or some kind of theological debate, but rather one of family and of friendship… one of daughters, sons, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, and life-long friends… one of fellow members of the Body of Christ.

In our Gospel text for this weekend from Matthew, we hear Jesus’ famous words known by most as the Beatitudes. Here, Jesus speaks about blessings from a far different perspective than that of those to whom he spoke. Much like our world today, the world in which Jesus lived, preached, and taught believed the blessed were the wealthy, the powerful, and the privileged. Here Jesus proclaims the opposite.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”, “Blessed are those who mourn”, “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, “Blessed are the merciful”, “Blessed are the pure in heart”.

As Jesus so often does throughout our gospels, here he shares a message that goes against society’s norm. He proclaims blessings over those whom we would least expect. Those, the world typically gives little regard. Those we rarely think of as being blessed. The poor, the meek, those who mourn… those alone and forgotten…

For those of us who have found ourselves in one of these places at one time or another, they aren’t exactly a place where one feels blessed. Yet, as Jesus so often does, he seeks to change our interpretation of the world.

In our reading from 1 Corinthians Paul draws our attention to the power of God made evident in the cross of Christ. Throughout Paul’s letters, he uses the word power in a variety of ways, yet, maybe the most significantly in regards to resurrection, both Jesus’ and ours.

For Paul, through resurrection, given to us in the cross, God transforms all things. Through the resurrection, dishonor is transformed into glory, weakness into power, foolishness into wisdom. Or, as Jesus taught: Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… the meek…  those who are persecuted… Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you because of me.

As we focus our attention on hospitality this weekend, we do so through this lens. That through the power of God, we are freed from captivity to sin, justified by grace through faith on account of Christ, and given the freedom to respond to God’s mercy through love and service of neighbor. This is our holiest vocation. It is what we promise to do in Baptism side by side with all that God promises to us.

Today’s Gospel guides our focus to those neighbors who find themselves in a position of need. Jesus gives a lesson in order to shift our focus from what the world deems as blessed to what God deems as blessed.

In the midst of this lesson we find all kinds of people. People certainly included in our welcome statement: those new to faith, those who have no church home, those who want to follow Christ, those who doubt and those who don’t believe, people of every age, size, color, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status, and marital status.  And truth be told… we find ourselves as well.

For each of us, you and me, are at times people poor in spirit, who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who are at times, persecuted and insulted by the ways of the world around us, and the counter cultural  faith we have in Christ and our attempts to love neighbor wholeheartedly.

The Good News this day, is that in all of these moments Jesus blesses us. With this we can rejoice and be glad, for great is our reward. With this we do our best to turn the other cheek even in the most difficult of times as Christ calls us to do, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation as Christ did for us. To look to all as neighbor regardless of how different we may appear. To love each other as God loves us. To boast in the Lord, as St. Paul writes, the source of our life who came to die for the sake of all the world, that all may be welcome into the Body of Christ regardless of who we are, how we look, what we have done, and what we have left undone. For in it all, we are all blessings… you and me. Thanks be to God. AMEN.

~Pastor Andrew Geib

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