James 2:1-10, 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
2:2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,
2:3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”
2:4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
2:5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?
2:6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
2:8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
2:9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
2:15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever had an experience where you were pretty sure people would rather you not be around? Or, at least, they didn’t seem too happy that you were there? I think all of us at some point in our life have.
When I lived in Provincetown there was no UCC church in town, but there were a few others. I wanted to go to church while I lived there, so I checked one out. I got there, parked, went inside, sat through the service, and the left. With the exception of the pastor, who quickly shook my hand at the door on the way out, I don’t think anyone said anything to me the entire time. I felt pretty unwelcome. I left wondering what I had done wrong.
A couple years later I was talking to someone I know who visits Provincetown frequently. He asked me if I had ever found a church to go to there. I told him I’d tried this particular church, and that the service was okay, but that no one had talked to me at all. He then told me that he had too and that the exact same thing had happened to him.
I felt a little better. It wasn’t about me. But I hadn’t known that at the time. And, even worse, it seems like a lot of folks had left that church feeling that way.
You probably have a story like that somewhere in your life. Maybe not in a church, but somewhere. None of us likes to feel like we are not welcome, and, hopefully, not of us intentionally tries to be unwelcoming to others. And churches should be places that “get it”. Churches should be places where all who come through the doors are welcome. But the sad thing is that many people have at some point in their lives experienced churches as an unwelcoming place.
The text we read today is from the Epistle of James. The writer is essentially talking about how to treat people who come to church. He gives the readers an example. He talks about two people who will come into their church: one is wearing expensive clothing and gold rings and the other is poor and in dirty clothes. And he tells them that if they take the wealthy person and give them the best seat in the house, and then take the poor person and make them stand in the back, that they have no clue what Christianity is all about.
He goes on to tell them that at the end of the day if they will send the one who has nothing back out into the world and they say to them “take care, keep warm, don’t go hungry”. But if they the church does nothing to ensure that they actually stay warm and aren’t going hungry, then they just don’t understand the Scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I used to attend a church in Atlanta that had a big meal on Sundays after church. This is more common down South. Church starts at 11, so by the time it gets out everyone is hungry. And they had a chef who cooked, and it was always pretty good. It didn’t cost a lot. Maybe $5. Cheap enough that I could afford it as a grad student, and certainly cheaper than eating a meal out.
But this church was also located in an area where a lot of folks lived on the streets. And to be fair this church did a lot to help those folks. And they welcomed them into worship. But on Sunday afternoons, that meal that only cost me a few dollars became a feast that was out of reach for them. If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t eat. And they’d go back out onto the streets hungry.
I wonder what James would have said about that? More importantly, I wonder why it took me so long to notice that it was happening for myself? I was comfortable and fed, but I never noticed that none of our homeless guests were staying for lunch, or that there was no system to allow them to do so, until someone pointed it out.
I wonder how often I miss that. I wonder how often I overlook the fact that while I might be feel welcome, others may not. One time in Georgia I was talking with a friend about this small barbecue place about an hour outside of Atlanta. I’d gone there and really liked the food. And she was from the same area originally, so I suggested that someday we try it. She agreed and asked me the name. And when I told her, her face sort of sank. And she said, “I can’t go there…I wouldn’t be welcome.”
I said, “What do you mean? Of course you would.”
And she shook her head and said, “Emily, you don’t get it…I grew up here, and I know that place. Black folks like me aren’t welcome.”
Of course I didn’t get that. I hadn’t had to even think about the color of my skin when I went there. I just went in, paid my money, and got a plate of barbecue. But she did. I had no idea how much I was taking for granted just being welcome in certain places.
Now, we hear that story and we all realize how horrible it is. But what I want to stress here is that unless she had told me she was unwelcome there, I never would have known. And I believe that she genuinely was unwelcome. This is an area that still had Klan marches when she was a kid. But the take away for us today, and for churches everywhere, is that there are some folks who are sure they will be unwelcome in this church because they have genuinely been unwelcome in other churches. And as much as we genuinely want to welcome them, that’s keeping them from coming through our doors.
It might be surprising to hear the questions I have had from people in this valley who have met me and found out I was the pastor at this church. They’ve been curious about coming to church, but they’ve had bad experiences other places and they just assume that they will be unwelcome here as well.
A few have been members of the 12 step groups who meet here regularly. They actually spend more time in this church every week than just about anyone else. And they wonder whether someone like them, a recovering alcoholic or addict, would be welcome here.
Some have been folks we as a church have helped financially. They wonder if they are allowed to come here after receiving help from us. A few have asked me whether they would be welcome despite the fact they really have nothing nice to wear or nothing to put in the plate when it goes around.
Others have told me about how they or there families were judged for who they were when they tried to go into other churches.
We hear these words from our neighbors, and we say “of course your welcome. Everyone is welcome here.” We are appalled to think that there is any question. I can truly tell you that you are a warm church when folks walk through the doors. I hear that all the time. But this is not about you, or who you are. It’s about the fact that unless we make our welcome explicit, they’re not going to walk in the doors.
We might not realize that because we’ve never felt anything but welcome from churches in our lives. But for those of us for whom that is true, we are very lucky. For some people walking through the front doors of this church, of any church, is more than an act of faith. It’s also an act of courage.
So, we try to change that. We try to be explicit about our welcome. And we often reinforce it by using the slogan from the United Church of Christ that so many of you have told me you like so much: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
I love that slogan. But we can’t just give it lip service. We can’t just say it or print it on our letterhead or have it on the bulletin. We have to live it.
The church is not a selective club. We’re not a place where eligibility for membership is determined by someone’s bank account balance or the car they drive or where they went to school. It’s not determined by whether they can put “x” number of dollars in the collection plate. And it’s not determined by whether or not they’ve made some bad mistakes in life or whether they’ve ever been down and out. It’s determined only by this: that the person loves Christ, no matter how imperfectly, and wants to be a part of this community of disciples. All are welcome here because we don’t own this church. Christ does.
That’s good news. That’s really good news because it doesn’t just mean that others are welcome here. It means that you are welcome here too. And not just the best version of yourself. Not the part of you that cleans up well and says the right things and has it all together.
It means all of you. The part that has doubts. The part that doesn’t have things quite together. The part that yelled at your spouse or kids when you know you shouldn’t have this week. The part that deep down you would rather no one else knew about. That part is welcome here too. All of you is welcome here.
We are welcomed here because we have been welcomed extravagantly by God. God loves us so much, that the doors of God’s heart are open to all of us and to us all. Even the parts we’d rather hide sometimes. That’s the beauty of grace. That’s the beauty of what God has done for you.
And that’s the beauty of what those of us who are already here can do for those whom God wants to be here. That’s the beauty of being extravagantly welcomed by God. It makes it possible for us to extravagantly welcome others. We don’t do it because we want our church to keep growing bigger, though, make no mistake, an unwelcoming church is a dying church. We do it because if God’s grace is real, than we can do nothing other than this. We welcome others because God welcomed us first.
This week, as you go about your usual life and work, who could you pass that welcome on to? Who could you assure that God’s love and grace for them is real? And how can we as a church make our welcome more explicit to our neighbors? If God’s grace in us is real, than these are the questions we can’t help but ask ourselves. You can’t truly understand that you have been welcomed by God without in turn opening the doors of welcome wider to others.
May we as a church keep striving to live into what we proclaim: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Really. Amen.