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September 3, 2015, 12:51 PM

Extending Our Extravagant Welcome

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”   Romans 12:9-18

The summer is over?  Already?  It must be true what they say, times flies when you are having fun.  I have had a wonderful summer here at First Congregational Church.  I want to thank all the members and friends of our church for the extravagant welcome, grace and hospitality shown to me this summer and for the support given to me and my ministry.  It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to be allowed to serve as pastor in Cheryl’s absence.  It is an opportunity not many seminary students get, and one that I was only able to have due to enthusiastic support from all of you.  I am deeply grateful. 

Honestly, when I think about it, I should not be surprised.  It was the extravagant welcome and hospitality of this congregation that caused my family to join many years ago and it is the ongoing hospitality of this congregation that continues to make it such a wonderful place for faith formation.  This fall, the faith practice we will turn our focus to is “Giving and Receiving Hospitality.”  I can’t help but think that this one was custom made for us.

As I consider the words of Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, I see our church embracing and living so many of the qualities we are called to have as Christians.  One of the most Spirit filled parts of our worship service is the sharing of joys and concerns when we come together to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  I see all of us contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to others through our successful missions work.  As a faith community we do more than live peaceably with one another, we value and embrace one another and respect each other for our gifts.  This is truly a wonderful, welcoming church with hospitality to spare.

With our focus on church vitality, I have been wondering, how would someone who hasn’t yet walked through our doors have any idea what is here?  As we enter into this faith practice of Giving and Receiving Hospitality, I hope that we can not only take some time to fully appreciate the hospitality we have here, but also challenge ourselves to find new ways to make sure our offer of hospitality is extended to the wider community in ever more clear and meaningful ways.

Some time ago we began a discussion around officially adopting a statement of intentional welcome for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and becoming an Open and Affirming church of the UCC.  It is a fantastic way to extend an extravagant welcome and abundant hospitality, making it clear to traditionally marginalized and excluded people that when we say “all are welcome” we actually do mean all.  We as Christians do recognize and affirm that the light of God shines through all people and anyone, absolutely anyone may be called to be Christ’s disciple.

Before Pastor Cheryl left for the summer she and I discussed ideas for ways to reignite this discussion in the fall.  Neither one of us knew, nor did we imagine that by the time summer had drawn to a close, marriage equality would be the law of the land and that Caitlyn Jenner would have started a nation-wide discussion about gender identity.  

The Apostle Paul instructs us, “as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  We cannot extend peace without understanding.  It is required of us as Christians to do our part to understand one another.  The Open and Affirming discussion may require us to have some difficult or uncomfortable conversations.  I hope it does.  In our larger society so little grace is extended to people who don’t understand or who hold a different point of view.  In our faith community, so much grace is extended to those who want to explore new ideas or learn new things.  That gift gives us a unique opportunity to ask questions and to have conversations we could have nowhere else. We have a gift for remaining hospitable to people with whom we do not always see eye to eye.  By focusing on the faith practice of hospitality we have an opportunity to use that gift to help us discern who we are as a faith community and what kind of ever widening welcome we wish to extend to all.

The words “so far as it depends on you” are worthy of much reflection.  All of our assumptions and ideas and beliefs, whether we keep them or challenge them or modify them, depends entirely upon us.  Whether we embrace chances to have new conversations depends entirely upon us.  Whether we take every opportunity to extend our extravagant welcome and hospitality to all who wish to know Christ’s love depends entirely upon us.

I pray that we all continue to do our part to extend hospitality and live peaceably with all. 

Grace and peace be with you.     

Ellen Willert

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