June 28, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
We are a welcoming church. We’re pretty good at it. People who have visited, family and friends, and newer folk who have joined have expressed gratitude for our welcome and hospitality. The position of Greeter is almost a formality, because a guest will see many smiling, helpful folk the moment they come through the doors. Most of the time we have food to share, too.
We are welcoming of all sorts of people. I say a welcome phrase from our denomination almost every week at the beginning of worship: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here!” We are an Open and Affirming congregation, and we welcome into the full life and ministry of the church persons of every race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification, age, physical ability, and economic status.
Some time ago I read a great welcome message from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community. It says, in part:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail, or could afford to lose a few pounds. We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up, or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism… We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.
The list goes on, but you get the gist. Imagine a few members getting together and saying, “Let’s invite everyone to come meet Jesus!” And then they started writing their list. And it got long. Why? Because everyone needs Jesus. And they wanted to make sure everyone knew they were invited.
Why is it important to be welcoming? In practical terms, hospitality grows churches. A cold reception or a side-eye look would send a newcomer down the road to the next place. Authentic, genuine hospitality is the easiest way to show everyone who the church really is and how serious the church is about following the mandate of Jesus to reach out and make disciples. “Welcome to our church. We’re glad you’re here and we look forward to getting to know you. As you learn about us, we hope you’ll travel with us on the journey of faith.”
It is also theologically important to be welcoming. In our scriptures, when we see reference to people who are strangers, the affirmation of God is to welcome, protect, and share with the stranger. God teaches us to identify with the stranger because of the shared experience of God’s people having been strangers themselves. From Deuteronomy: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And we are called to be welcoming because we have been welcomed. As Paul wrote to the Romans: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Welcome is part of our mission as Christians. Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The Mission Statement of the United Church of Christ reads: “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” The Mission Statement in the Constitution of this congregation includes the phrase: “We seek to include in our joyous venture all who wish to find, learn of, and love our Lord.” Welcome is part of how we live our faith. It helps us fulfill Jesus’ commandment to “love one another.”
Christian hospitality differs from generic friendliness. Hospitality is more than acceptance and affirmation of the presence of the guest. In order to be truly hospitable, we need to understand ourselves and the distinctive nourishment and refreshment we have to offer. We need to be able to demonstrate the core beliefs and values which make us the people that we are, because we are inviting the stranger to become family.
Christian hospitality is not a simple agreement to live-and-let-live, nor is it a relativistic toleration of all ideologies and value-systems that we encounter. We have a unique heritage which has been passed on by our forebears in the faith. We have engaged in careful discernment of what we respect and what we reject. We follow the teachings of Jesus the Christ, to love God, love our neighbor, and even to love our enemy. We reject hatred and violence and evil which harms the children of God. We welcome into our family the same family that Jesus welcomed: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
When strangers come through our doors, no matter how similar or different they may be, Christian hospitality requires that we see them as God sees both them and us, as creatures created in the divine image. We must regard both them and us as worthy of love and forgiveness, recipients of the promise of grace, and blessed by the Spirit who extends gifts of mercy, comfort, and peace.
Now, it may be some time yet before we open our doors again to welcome friends and strangers alike. As Illinois has entered Phase 4, Church Council will consider the new guidelines when we meet on July 21st. We will review our Returning to Church Plan and whether we are ready to move to our Phase C. We will need to prepare to welcome in a new way. This is a little bit of what that will look like.
If you have symptoms of COVID, such as a cough, fever, or difficulty breathing, we will ask that you stay home. Those who have been unable to view the live-stream of worship will be invited to return first, if they feel safe to do so. We’ll have to greet one another from a distance and remain spaced apart as we worship. And we’ll have to wear our masks. In order to be truly welcoming, we’ll provide masks, and hand-sanitizer, and guidance on what to do about singing and communion.
Our welcoming will look different, but by showing that we care about the health and safety of others during this pandemic, we will also be showing that we care about the well-being of others after the pandemic. By wearing masks and keeping our distance, we will demonstrate that the hospitality we offer isn’t only a smile and a handshake. We will demonstrate that we value the presence of the stranger, that the guest is as important as family, and that we really mean it when we say, “you’re welcome here.”
As a conclusion, I’d like to offer a blessing for your face masks, so if you have one handy, grab it now. Wearing a face mask during this time is not only a practical consideration, but an act of love. It demonstrates that we care enough about the health of others to protect them from any contagion we may have. This was written by Mary Luti, a professor at the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary. I’ll post this on Facebook if you want to bless your masks on your own later.
Blessing for a Face Mask
God of health and wholeness, of neighbor love and kindness,
bless this mask, my slight shield against great ills:
Bless the fabric that repels the drops, the ties that go
behind my ears,
the wire that fits snug against my nose, the folds that cup my chin.
Make me grateful for my mask even when it makes me hot,
even when I look funny in it, even when I’m dying to take it off.
Bless me also, and everyone who for their own and others’
put on this holy inconvenience every day, our minds made up to love.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Deuteronomy 10:19.
 Romans 15:7.
 Matthew 10:40.
 Mission Statement of the United Church of Christ, affirmed by the UCC Board of Directors, October 20-22, 2016. From: https://www.ucc.org/about-us_purpose_vision_and_mission.
 John 13:34-35.
 Mark 3:35.
 Adapted from a letter by The Steering Committee of Confessing Christ, May 2005. From: https://www.ucc.org/god-is-still-speaking_church-resources_hospitality.
 Mary Luti, Emerge: Blessings & Rituals for Unsheltering (Pilgrim Press, 2020).