Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, "Welcome"

(Sermon 7/12/09, Mark 6:1-13)

Welcome

What does it mean to welcome someone? What do we mean when we say welcome, “you’re welcome”? It’s a word we use often, hopefully. My two year old nephew already knows how to say “you’re welcome,” although he occasionally confuses it in place with “thank you.” He has a sense that it’s a word he’s meant to use when he’s giving something, or that is said to him when he gets something, but I wonder what he really thinks it means. Do we know what it means to talk about welcome?

“You’re welcome.” I had to look up a little history of the phrase. After all, in many other languages, when someone says “Thank you,” the response is not exactly “you’re welcome” but something more like “it’s nothing, don’t think of it.” “You’re welcome” is a relatively unique phrase. I discovered that something like “You’re welcome” has been used for hundreds of years, with Shakespeare using something close in his plays, but as a standard response, only dates back to about 1907. But the word welcome on its own is from two words of Old English origin – willa – which means will or choice, and Cuma – which means guest. Welcome literally means then “one whose coming or arrival is in accord with another’s will.” (1) In other words, welcome means something like, “I’m glad you are here, because I think we want to go the same path together.”

Welcome. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, as you might imagine, in these last couple of weeks. I’ve certainly experienced many ways of welcome here already: I’ve had emails from people sharing that they’re excited for my beginning in ministry with you, I’ve had kind words and offers of lunches from clergy colleagues in the area, I’ve had an interim pastor willing to share and encourage me in the transition, I’ve had help preparing and arranging my office, and meetings to get to know people. I’ve had people showing me around the church, helping me to find the things and the information I need to get started. I’ve felt an eagerness from you to begin a new phase in the ministry of this congregation, an eagerness to begin our journey together, and it has certainly been a welcoming feeling to know that people are so ready to have me here. Welcome. “I’m glad you are here, because I think we want to go the same path together.”

We find this theme of welcoming in our gospel text for today, in our gospel lesson from Mark. Technically, this scripture was in the lectionary, the schedule of scriptures, for last Sunday, but when Rev. Johnson chose a different text, I decided to use this one for our first service together, because although it may not seem like it at first, I think it is a great text for getting started in ministry together. It’s a tricky text – Jesus’ teachings are always challenging to us. But in his words, as always, are life, abundant life, for us.

Our text begins with Jesus returning to his hometown after having been away for the beginning of his preaching and teaching ministry. He’s already been out healing and changing lives and going through the towns and villages. He’s called his disciples, who have followed him home. He’s already got a bit of a buzz about him, an excitement about his name, curiosity about what he’s doing. And on the Sabbath, he comes to the synagogue, the gathering place for studying God’s word, and he begins to teach. And the people are astounded, and begin to chatter about this Jesus they’re seeing in this role of power and authority. After all, they remember him as a child! They’ve known his parents – Joseph the carpenter, Mary, his mother, and his brothers and sisters. They saw him grow up – from a little child, as an awkward teen, as a young man. And now he’s teaching them? We read that “they took offense at him.” The word here is actually the Greek word skandalon, which sounds like our own English word ‘scandal’. It meant a trap or snare or a stumbling block. They heard Jesus preaching and teaching and since they couldn’t accept this message from one they knew as a boy, Jesus was like a stumbling block to them, to their way of life. He tripped them up. And so Jesus notes that prophets are never welcome in their own home town, and he heals some, but mostly is amazed at the unbelief he finds, and our passage continues.

Jesus leaves his hometown again, and now prepares to send out the twelve disciples into the area villages to teach about the good news that God’s kingdom has come near. He gives them authority over unclean spirits. He tells them to take nothing for their journey. He tells them if they don’t find themselves welcome somewhere, to simply shake of the dust from their sandals, and move on. And so equipped with Jesus’ words, but little else, the disciples go out, and call people to repent – a word we’ll talk more about later this summer.

So what does this passage mean for us? Well, even though Central New York is home to me, I don’t think we connect into the hometown part of this passage – after all, none of you ever knew me in my kindergarten days. And I don’t think this passage means that if I don’t feel welcome enough, you should expect to see me packing my office back up and shaking the dirt off my shoes. I think this passage says more than that if we take a look at the passage again. As Jesus sends out the disciples, we can take note of what he does to learn how we are called to live.

First, Jesus sends them out two by two. He sends them out in pairs, not alone. With such a small group of disciples in this first missionary journey, he could no doubt have reached more people with his message about God’s kingdom if he’d sent the disciples separately, with servants, with other recruits. But Jesus sends them in teams. They must work together. As we begin our journey together, we also must go together rather than each our own way, pastor and laity, or this committee and that, this group and that. We’re meant to go together, the same way, the same direction, with the same purpose. Remember, that’s at the heart of the meaning of welcome: people going together who have the same will, the same pleasure. For this congregation, you’ve already spent time figuring out your purpose in crafting your mission statement: "Growing together in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and sharing this with others.” Now, our task is to make sure that when we’re involved in different programs and projects, we can see how, at the center, they’re working to live out our mission of growing in and sharing this knowledge and love of God through Christ. We have a common purpose, and so we go together in our work, listening to each other, supporting one another, and encouraging each other to be servants of the living God.

Jesus sends the disciples with authority. That’s another powerful word that we’ll need to look at more closely down the road. Jesus gives the disciples authority. He gives them power to do things – we read that they, imitating Jesus’ own actions – bring healing and wholeness to many people they encounter. We, too, have different kinds of authority to be in ministry. When I was ordained as an a clergywoman, then-Bishop Violet Fisher laid her hands on me and said, “Take thou authority.” I was given the authority to celebrate communion and baptism, to care for the order of the church and to serve and lead in pastoral ministry. When you are baptized or confirmed, you are given authority as members of the body of Christ to use the gifts God has blessed you with. We minister with authority that we must learn to use as Jesus used his authority, with humility and confidence. We, like the disciples, must seek to imitate the Christ we serve, living as he lived, with an authority that seeks to serve the neighbor rather than rule over.

Jesus also sends the disciples empty-handed: He tells them not to take anything for their journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic. Imagine leaving for a long trip without packing a suitcase, making detailed plans of what to do and where to stay and how to get there, and making sure you had enough money and resources to make the trip! We’d consider it quite foolish to do such a thing. But this is how Jesus sends the disciples out into ministry, and it is certainly intentional. Jesus puts them in a position where they cannot rely on themselves and their own means. They must work with, interact with, depend on others in order to survive, in order to sleep, eat, and live through their mission work. We tend, particularly living in America, to prize our independence and privacy. We like doing things on our own, and not having to ask for help. But Jesus sets up a situation where the disciples must ask for help. They must trust God, they must be in relationship with those they serve in order for this whole plan to work, and they must be willing to risk setting out on this journey without having all the answers.

These same things are key for our ministry together as well. We must learn to rely on God, and God’s direction, rather than our own plans and desires. We’re disciples of Jesus Christ, and so we seek after where God leads us, not where we’d like to go ourselves. And we must be in relationship – really learn to trust and know each other – pastor and congregation, member to member, and member to those we seek to serve. And we must be ready to take some risks, even when we don’t have the answers and can’t see clearly how things will work out. If you and I are always comfortable and sure about how things are going to go as we vision and dream and hope for our future, then we probably are following our own plans, and not God’s. We have to be ready to be risk-takers, trusting that God who sends us out in love will give us a purpose worth serving.

In the end, when Jesus tells the disciples that if a place will not welcome them, to shake the dust of their feet and move along, he’s not telling them to make people either get with their program or forgot about them. Jesus, who was filled with such deep compassion every time he saw the crowds, certainly never behaved that way himself. What I think he’s saying is that the work he’s sending the disciples out to do is so important, so critical, that they can’t get bogged down when people are not ready to go the same way – they have good news to share, they have God’s love and grace to tell about, they have a message that’s waiting to get out. And so they need to keep at it, keeping working at it, keep following Jesus. And when they find those who are ready to go the same way – that is, God’s way – that’s a welcome indeed.

So friends, I’m glad to be here, to be welcomed here, because I think we’re ready to go the same path: God’s way – together. Welcome.

Amen.

(1) http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=welcome

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