“Welcome Home”Dr. R. Dale McAbee Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; 18-19; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3:1-12. Year A – Second Sunday of Advent.
Whenever I visit my friend “Aunt Beth” she always says, “Welcome, welcome, welcome, now you make yourself at home.” How good those words feel?
Paul knew something about how good the word “welcome” can feel.
Before he was “Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles”, he was “Saul, persecutor of Christians.” Acts reports that he was present holding the coats of the men who stoned Stephen to death and he also persecutes the church in Jerusalem, going from house to house, dragging men and women off to prison and calls for them to be stoned to death for blasphemy.
But on the road to Damascus everything changed when he encountered the risen Christ and he became a believer. Paul was grateful that he had been welcomed into the community and was accepted as a witness to the resurrection. Those who welcomed persecutor Saul were following Jesus whom the religious leadership denigrated with, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, Paul writes knowing what it has meant to be welcomed himself, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
When I was in seminary my pastor frequently said “We extend to you the glad welcome of Jesus Christ.” Something about the two words “glad welcome” touched me deeply.
I think the heart of Christianity is first, God’s choice to welcome us into relationship with the divine through Jesus’s first advent, his coming to us a vulnerable infant who grew up to welcome his followers into a life of radical hospitality. And then secondly, choosing to live life in union with Christ so that we can be his body on earth and participate in creating a Christ shaped community.
Richard Rohr has become one of my favorite conversation partners when it comes to recovering the religion of Jesus when the religion about Jesus has become too judgmental and too disconnected from that which is truly liberating. He ponders the future of Christianity and says
Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided actually changing lives. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history and still believe that Jesus is “personal Lord and Savior.” The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.
The suffering is too great, and we who call Jesus Lord must find a way to reconnect with the original vision that is always in danger of being lost.
Step One I think would be to notice the numerous ways “welcome of the stranger” is commended to us as a faithful practice for embodying the covenant.
Just the briefest survey of scripture yields
Deuteronomy 10:19 — You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:34 — The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am your God.
Hebrews 13:1 — Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Colossians 3:11 — In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.
Matthew 25:35 — I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Step two would be to develop a ministry to modern day strangers.
Many churches do that by declaring themselves a “welcoming and affirming congregation” and make it their highest priority to welcome all people, period! “In Christ there is no east or west in him not south or north but one great fellowship throughout the whole wide earth” says the him we sing with such energy. But making it real is the challenge.
At this present moment in our country and really across the world, welcoming the stranger is considered naïve at best and dangerous and foolish at worst. That’s because the stranger we first think of is the immigrant. The British Brexit vote some would say happened because “far-right populist leaders have stoked public anxieties and resurgent nationalism by lashing out against immigrants.”
The heart of Matthew 25 is to find Jesus in the other, the stranger. Find Jesus in the children in cages. Find Jesus in the eyes of those immigrants known as Dreamers and DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) who came as children and broke no law.
The Catholic Bishops have long supported Dreamers and TPS holders, (Temporary Protected Status), and they continue to do so.
As Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, Chairman of the Committee on Migration, recently stated: “As a nation, we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to Dreamers. These young people have steadfastly worked to improve themselves and our country and attempted in good faith to comply with the law as it stood.” Bishop Vásquez has similarly noted: “We believe our nation has a moral responsibility to provide continued temporary protection until TPS holders’ return and reintegration can be safely accomplished. TPS recipients are an integral part of the fabric of our communities.”
Regarding the Dreamers the Catholic Bishops have said,
“Dreamers are young people who include DACA recipients, as well as other undocumented individuals of a similar age group who were brought to the United States by their parents as children. They are contributors to our economy, veterans of our military, academic standouts in our universities, and leaders in our parishes. Dreamers are woven into the fabric of our country and of our Church, and are, by every social and human measure, American youth.”
I know I run the risk of being seen as naïve, dangerous and foolish. I imagine some would say, “That’s politics not theology.” But I believe the following: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Recent research tells us it is not an actual quote from Bonhoeffer which I had always believed.
But regardless who said it, it has the ring of truth. And it challenges me to open myself to try to make a difference when I see injustice. We will be studying the “Backgrounder on Deferred for Childhood Arrivals” as we prayerfully consider the truth of the Bishops conclusion
Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Matthew 25:35-43).
But closer to home and very much within our reach, I believe God might be calling us to welcome those struggling with addiction into the walls of our church. I have been reading about Celebrate Recovery and for years have believed in the spiritual power of the 12 steps and Recovery.
Gerald May, a therapist and spiritual director, defines addiction as “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.” (Addiction and Grace).
I know that sometimes forming a committee to explore starting a new ministry is the surest way to kill the idea. So, I won’t do that. But in January I will be preaching a sermon on addiction and throughout Advent will share materials that will continue to educate us about our excessive attachments that limit our freedom and capture our desire.
I’d like to try something. I’d like everyone who has one to take out your I phone or your smart phone or whatever electronic appliance you have and just hold it up. (Pause) I think that’s probably close to everyone.
Now I’d like you to imagine powering down your phone. I believe there’s a button you hold down and the phone is off and won’t make a noise. That’s called powering down and I believe when you power back up all your texts and phone messages will be there. Am I correct? You won’t miss a thing. I want you to just imagine doing that “power down” thing.
Now raise your hand if the thought of powering down made you feel worried or anxious. If you raised your hand, you have a little taste of addiction. You are suffering from an addiction and it is called “FOMO,” the fear of missing out. As we will learn, any substance or any process can become a “compulsive or habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.” By that definition we are all suffering from addiction.
And welcoming all addicts into our fellowship might be one way we flesh out Paul’s words from Romans …
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Amen!!
About the writer: For twenty-three years the Reverend Dr. R. Dale McAbee worked with Rehabilitation and Psychiatric patients at Baptist Health Louisville as well as those in treatment for Substance Use Disorder. He taught classes on the Spirituality of the 12 Steps and the Spiritual Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer. In March of 2018 he became the chaplain for Oncology and Palliative Care. He is a Pastoral Counselor certified by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. For the last nine years he has been Choirmaster at Concordia Lutheran Church.
A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dr. McAbee earned a BA in Music from Furman University, a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 and summer of 2017, he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music:
Psalm 72:1-7, R. 18-19
Hope of the World
Canticle of Hope
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hymn of Promise
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright
I Was Glad (Hubert Parry)
They Shall Know Him When He Comes (Hal Hopson)
Let Our Gladness Know No End (Herman Schroeder)
There’s A Song in the Air (Lloyd Larson)
Noel Nouvelet (arr. Richard Zgodava)
O Holy Night
Mary, Did You Know
Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth (Mendelssohn)
I Wonder as I Wander