Beyond the Welcome Mat

Beth A. Faeth March 17, 2019

Scriptures Matthew 10:40–42 and 1 Peter 4:8–11

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.     —Matthew 10:40–42

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.     —1 Peter 4:8–11

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I pay attention to welcome mats.

It can be easy to come to a quick conclusion about the home occupant based on the condition and verbiage of said mat. Of course many welcome mats simply say “Welcome.” That in itself is a powerful word, especially because I have happened upon a mat or two that say “Go Away.” Seriously. That’s when one must very cautiously ring the doorbell. And many welcome mats are chosen for a purpose—that is, to encourage people to wipe off whatever debris may be clinging to their shoes. So, the coarser the mat’s texture may give one a clue that the homeowner may be expecting you to actually use said mat for that explicit purpose.

There are other mats that certainly offer the guest an idea of homeowner’s personality: “If You Forgot the Wine, Go Home” is one I have seen of late. Others include: “You Better Have Tacos”; “I (heart) dogs; it’s people I can’t stand”; and, similarly, “Welcome, I hope you like dog hair”; “Unless You’re Amazon, delivering tacos, or Joanna Gaines, we’re not home.” (Tacos seems a popular mat feature, apparently). And, perhaps the one to which we can all relate: “Welcome (just don’t expect much)”.

Who knew that welcome mats could express our entire approach to hospitality in just a few quirky words? I chose my current welcome mat intentionally—it is bright and bold with a colorful design and the word Welcome. I wanted to depict, if anyone was paying attention, that the Faeth family is vibrant and eclectic and maybe a bit whimsical, too, and everyone is welcome in our home. I noticed, as the snow and ice finally melted off my front porch this week that our mat is looking a bit ragged and worn, which also might be a telling description of the occupants’ demeanor following a long hard winter. It’s time for a new mat.

Churches have welcome mats, too—sometimes in the form of banners (“A Step Each Day Toward Racial Justice”) or rainbow flags or even a simple message on the sign: All Are Welcome Here. While Plymouth uses its signs to announce sermon titles, preachers’ names and worship times, other churches offer up pithy sayings as a hopeful ploy for folks to give them a try: “Imperfect people welcome here—you’ll be in good company”; “If your life stinks, we have a pew for you”; “Visitors Welcome! Free Wi-Fi”; “What happens in Vegas is forgiven here”; “Now is a Good Time to Visit, our Pastor is on Vacation.” I wonder how successful any of these invitations are in getting folks in the door.

Today we explore the church purpose “Nurture a Welcoming Culture to All.” In December, the Deacons approved a change to this purpose, requested by the Racial Justice Initiative, to include the final two words—to all. Now is the time to consider just how welcoming we are, once people walk inside our doors, regardless of what we put on a church sign. For we know that no matter how humorous or descriptive or punny our welcome mats are, the real key to deciphering welcome lives inside the doors.

An abbey, formerly known for its vitality and spirituality, had fallen on hard times. Where once there had been many visitors and joyful singing, there were now empty places in worship and lifeless singing. The abbot went to visit a holy man who lived on a nearby mountain. Upon arrival, the abbot poured out his heart and told the holy man everything he thought he should know about the abbey. Finally, the abbot asked, “Are we guilty of some sin?” “Yes,” replied the holy man. “Christ is living in your community, and you have failed to recognize him because he has come in disguise.” All the way back to the abbey, the abbot wondered which member of the community could be Christ. Each person he considered had faults, but then perhaps that was part of the disguise. Back at the abbey, the abbot shared what he had learned, and the community decided that the only thing to do was to treat each person as if they were Christ. Soon, the community again was alive and vital, for they did indeed recognize that Christ dwelt among them.

Extravagant welcome is an essential component of a healthy, vibrant church. It suggests we care deeply about one another—those already here—as well as those who have yet to discover our community. And at its core what it means is that we, collectively, work to redefine our welcome by recognizing the Divine in each person we encounter, not only those who enter our sanctuary. The first step in doing so is to take the time to really look at another, to practice seeing each other. Jesus tells us in today’s text that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water . . . none of these will lose their reward.” There is nothing extraordinary about a cup of cold water. It is readily available, easy to get, costs little. But when I am thirsty, a cup of water is priceless. In fact, when I am parched, all I can think about is where I might find a cup of cold water. It becomes a matter of life and death.

There is nothing extraordinary about a cup of cold water except that it can quench a thirst and restore a soul. A simple little task, like offering a cup of cold water, can make all the difference. My experience tells me that people come into church seeking nourishment for their spirit. Their hearts are scorched; they long for companions to remind them they are worthy; they seek a reminder that there is a God and that God loves even them. It is a risk to enter a church because without the welcome of a grace-filled reception hope can be dashed and spirits squashed. We, the ones who are already here, become a divinely inspired host.

Jesus used the image of a cup of cold water, not a pitcher. This implies it is the small acts of welcome, reaching out and making space for the new, that means much more than huge program changes or paradigm shifts. Extravagant welcome is about the small but significant gifts of self, rooted in understanding that we all are loved by the same God. Being a part of the body of Christ, being a part of the mission of the church, being a part of this community of faith is not about being an extraordinary person doing extraordinary things that most of us can’t manage. It is about simple, common acts of kindness that anyone can accomplish.

A cup of cold water could be an invitation to coffee fellowship. It could be a handshake and an offering of a name. It could be a genuine interest in another. It could be an acknowledgement that this experience of worship can be daunting for a newcomer—and you are there to make things more comfortable. A cup of cold water could be words of empathy as someone shares a hardship; an offer to help find the answer to a question that is asked; a sincere inquiry on the state of one’s spirit; an affirmation that, indeed, you are so happy to have an opportunity to share a pew with a new friend. A bigger, bolder, larger cup of water may be to ask what you can do to make the experience of Plymouth Church a better one, to begin to build relationships with those who live in the neighborhood, to really look into the eyes of another and believe that the divine lives in them, too.

Creating a culture of welcome to all doesn’t have to be heroic:

Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.[1]

Jan Richardson, one of my favorite prayer writers, whom I have quoted often in sermons and worship, tells this story:

In the neighborhood where I used to live, there was a family a few doors down from me who moved in when their daughter was about two. I would often run into Kyla and her mother when I was out for a walk. Young Kyla would always greet me as if I were the greatest person in the world and she could hardly believe her astounding good fortune that I had turned up. I saw her do this with other folks, too, so I knew she didn’t reserve her joy just for me. I didn’t mind; I loved receiving her lavish welcome that would be just as enthusiastic the next time around.

I’ve found myself thinking about Kyla as I have pondered Jesus’ words about welcoming. I’m wondering what it might look like to fling my arms a little wider toward the world. As I encounter folks in the rhythm of my days, am I leaving anyone with the impression that I think they’re the greatest person on the earth and that I can hardly believe my good fortune that they have turned up?

Jesus’ words remind us that he calls us to be hospitable people not because it’s a nice thing to do—but because it is a holy and whole-making act; it is a sacred art. Welcoming another is a fundamental gesture that encompasses not only the other person but also the God in whose image they were formed and fashioned and whom—though we may sometimes be at pains to perceive it—they somehow reveal in their being.[2]

Welcome can be risky. As we wrestle once more with the news of a massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, we realize that no place of worship is truly safe, and white supremacy is an insidious evil that lives everywhere, even in church pews—an evil that will only loose its bonds the more we speak truth to power, the more we fling wide our doors and create welcoming space for all as our purpose states, the more we recognize our own white fragility and bias, and the more we extend the hand of compassion to those suffering from the impact of such inherent immorality. If this is the kind of church we want to be, then we must nurture a culture of extravagant welcome, because to not pay attention to whether our words and actions match the messages on our signs, banners and doorsteps is to participate in the very system that condones the actions of terrorists with semiautomatic weapons who enter sacred spaces to kill and maim.

I want Plymouth to be the church that stands up to hate without locking the doors or cowering in fear. I want Plymouth to be the church that offers a cup of cold water without thinking twice about the potential risk in doing so. And I pray every day that you might want Plymouth to be that church, too.

We have talked a lot in the last weeks about living out our purposes in community. In order to nurture a culture of welcome to all, we must first examine our own hearts. This is why I chose Rumi’s poem “The Guesthouse” for today’s worship. We do not know what is in store for us each day, and, instead of living in fear, Rumi reminds us to welcome in the unexpected guest even when that feels more like imposition than gift. We can choose to wait impatiently for these unpleasant house guests to leave so that we can put our house back just like it was before they arrived. Or we can treat the house guests with warmth, generosity and courage, and open ourselves to invaluable lessons from the experience.

This is the gift of welcome: to offer another a piece of ourselves in exchange for what could be a transformative experience—a recognition of the Divine. But if we close ourselves off from being a welcome—because we are afraid, or stubborn, or unfriendly, or just plain unwilling to change—then we can never expect our community to be welcoming to all. If we think nurturing a welcoming culture to all is someone else’s responsibility here and not ours, then we have just doomed ourselves to fail.

What does your welcome mat—either figuratively or literally—say about you? What would Plymouth’s welcome mat look like? Does it claim what we hope to be or what we really are? Are you ready to make a different statement?

It starts with a cup of cold water. . . .

Amen.

[1]David Lose, “No Small Gestures,” Dear Working Preacher, June 24, 2014, https://www.workingpreacher.org/
craft.aspx?post=3265
(accessed March 21, 2019).

[2]Jan Richardson, “The Way of Welcome,” The Painted Prayerbook, June 20, 2011, http://paintedprayerbook.com/
2011/06/20/the-way-of-welcome/
(accessed March 21, 2019).