14 Jan God Welcomes Us.
Forgotten Words Lead to Warm Welcome
On my first day as a pastor at Good Shepherd, which also happened to be my first day as a pastor ever, I was welcomed into the office with flowers from the call committee. A staff member had decorated my door with sheep and a welcome sign and as many staff as could make it met me that day at our staff meeting. It was great to be welcomed into this community with open arms. A memorable welcome happened when during my first time leading the 6:00 evening service at Verona campus (The Deep)- I had had a long weekend having attended 5 worship services that weekend to get a feel for them and I was presiding over communion— and the Words of Institution just left my head. I couldn’t remember what Jesus said or what he did, the words vanished from my mind. I stumbled and stopped for a second and then called out to the crowd— hey- can you all help me out here? And the gathered congregation that night said the Words of Institution together. That was the moment that I knew I was truly welcomed here. As a pastor I have been called to this place with the main duties of preaching the Word and presiding over the elements— and when I really screwed that up and people were able to help without judgment, that’s when I knew I was going to be okay here. Not every community accepts us like that. As a recovering perfectionist, I want to be a part of a community that loves me and welcomes me and my whole self- whether I am tired or forgetful, grieving, or hurting, joyful or hopeful. I need to know that those parts of me that aren’t perfect are still loved.
You are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. We believe Jesus is mistake-free. His identity as the Son of God and the savior of the world was what he was called into this life to be. He didn’t need to be baptized like us, because he was already free from sin. He didn’t need communion like us, because he was the elements of the meal. But God in all glory- came into this world to share fully in the human experience. The experience that is full of tiredness, grief, hurt, joy and hope. All of it. And God looked at Jesus fully divine, but also fully human and said- You are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. This human form of God in the flesh was what God loved and claimed. In the waters of baptism, Jesus shares in our human experience of needing help, needing forgiveness (not because he needed it, but because we do). In baptism we share in the gifts of grace and belovedness that come right from God. Baptism is how God welcomes us into God’s family- it is the promise of new life and hope -once and for all, but renewed every day.
God Calls Us Beloved
This is how we are welcomed- with a new identity that gives us the freedom to shake off all the old ones that this world uses to define us. A part of our new mission statement is to welcome as we have been welcomed. If we break that down even further- we can see that the welcome we are talking about is bigger than the welcome you received when you arrived at Good Shepherd. Maybe you were welcomed through the waters of baptism- whether it was your own baptism or it was the baptism of a loved one. Maybe you were welcomed by Lynne Kroger and a loaf of bread. Maybe you were welcomed by a friend or neighbor who invited you to this place. Whether you were church shopping and felt at home here or you came to this place by accident- together we form the community of believers called Good Shepherd and we hope to welcome one another the same way Jesus welcomes us. And it probably will look more like a new pastor forgetting the words of institution than a bouquet of flowers- but we are claiming that our mission as the Body of Christ in the people of God here at Good Shepherd is to welcome not as we welcome one another- which can be messy and full of mis-steps, but instead looks like reminding one another that God calls us beloved and those parts of you that are proud of and those parts of you that your try to hide— God sees it all and says, with you, I am well pleased.
I know, we know that welcome in a church doesn’t always happen the way we hope. I have heard countless stories about people who felt excluded, hurt and ignored by their church, even by this church. And we certainly know that welcome can be a hard thing to come by out in the world. We aren’t perfect, that’s why we turn to God for our understanding of welcome.
Growing up, I was a part of a great faith community, my parents were active in my home church and made sure I was too. It was a place I always felt safe and welcomed. But that is not how everyone views church in general. That is not how everyone viewed my church. During high school, a good friend of mine called me and asked if I wanted to take a drive with him and get some ice cream. I said of course- I mean, I can’t say no to ice cream! But anyway, we were out for awhile talking about school and friends. And then he got really serious and told me he had something important to say. That’s when he told me he was gay. And then he said that out of all of our friend group, he was most afraid to tell me. Not being the most intimidating person in the world, I had to know why. He said he was most afraid of telling me because he knew I was a Christian and he knew how important faith was to me. You see, he had grown up in a church that regularly preached about the sin of homosexuality and made it clear that LGBTQ+ folks were not welcome in that church and they believed, were not welcomed by God. But that wasn’t the God I know. The one who calls us beloved and says that with you- with your whole self, nothing hidden- with you I am well pleased.
We just passed our welcome statement this fall and our mission includes the words to welcome as we have been welcomed. We don’t all have to agree on the details, but we can agree that the most important identity we have is as a beloved child of God. It is more important than our political identity or sexual identity or any other identities the world puts on us. The waters of baptism together with the word of God make it possible for us to share in our identity as children of God- a true gift of grace. When we talk about welcoming as we have been welcomed- we aren’t talking about the way we welcome people with our biases and judgments, we are talking about welcoming people the way God does- with compassion and care and unconditional love.
Welcomed into a new Family
In our service of baptism there is a list of promises that baptismal parents and sponsors take on, if the child is young or the newly baptized person takes on for themselves- these promises are really responsibilities to teach (or learn) about our Christian faith. Included in these are the way in which we will share our faith with others through how we live in the world. These very same responsibilities are the ones that Confirmation students take on during their Confirmation- or Affirmation of Baptism service. They are affirming their part as fellow members of the Body of Christ. And the whole congregation responds with “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share, join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” Baptism and affirmation of baptism holds within it the beautiful welcome of God and the calling to share that same welcome, that same mission out in the world- that same light of Christ.
There is an old advertisement for Motel 6 that talks about the simple amenities that they offer and it always ends with “we’ll leave the light on for you.” It always made me think of my parents leaving a light on for me when I was arriving home late at night. A light left on says, we are expecting you and we hope you are safe. To welcome like God welcomes us means we will keep the light of Jesus on in our words and our actions so that others will recognize it and know, know that they too are welcomed into God’s family. The kingdom of God must be as bright as the morning sun with all of us shining with the light of Jesus himself. Hear God’s words of welcome today, People of Good Shepherd, you are God’s beloved children and with you, with all of you, God is well pleased. Hold on to your identity as beloved children of God and then use that identity to shine with the light of Jesus Christ.
If we welcome as God welcomed us, who knows where God might lead us into the world where that message is needed most.