Today’s reading begins with a problem… and a solution.
When the God who called the worlds into being chose a people, out of all of the peoples of the earth, they chose the Jewish people.
And when the God who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to a land of milk and honey laid aside glory and came into the world as one of us, they came into the world as a Jewish man.
And when the God who laid aside glory and came into the world as one of us chose apostles and gathered disciples, he chose Jewish apostles and gathers, mostly, Jewish disciples.
So the community that gathered around Jesus before his crucifixion was mostly Jewish. And the community that gathered after Christ’s resurrection was mostly Jewish.
But then people told the story and broke the bread, and other people heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection and their own redemption. And other people—Parthians and Medes, Elamites and Mesopotamians, Cappadocians and Pontians and Asians, Phrygians and Pamphylians, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans and Cretans and Arabs—joined the community.
And it is a completely human thing that the Jewish Christians (who had been there first) paid more attention to the Jewish widows (who had been there first) than to the Gentile widows.
And it is a completely human thing that some of the Gentile Christians go to the apostles and say, “Every day, we take up a collection of food. Every day, we distribute the collection to those without enough. And every day, the Jewish widows end up with enough and more than enough, while the Gentile widows are left without.”
And that might seem like a small thing to do; but it is a brave thing to do. It might seem like a small thing to say; but it is a brave thing to say: “I know that we’re new. And I know that we’re from outside. But our needs aren’t being met. And we need to do something about that.”
It would have been easy to stay quiet. Or to complain to each other. Or to leave and find another religion where Gentiles were at the center of things. But these people chose to stand up and speak.
And when the apostles hear this—when the apostles hear about how the community has failed to be the community that it is called to be—they call the whole community together and say, “We can’t take this on ourselves. We already have too many important things on our plates. So let’s get some volunteers, and commission them to this ministry. And we will tell the story; and they will break the bread.”
And that might seem like a small thing to do; but it is a brave thing to do. It might seem like a small thing to say; but it is a brave thing to say: “We know that you’re new. And we know that you’re from outside. But you are called to this work, and we need you for this ministry. So here is authority.”
It would have been easy to be defensive. Or tell them to figure it out on their own. Or go somewhere else. But when these people stand up and speak, the whole community responds by listening… by responding… by finding a way to meet the need together… with compassion.
Every year, we take a Sunday and celebrate that we are a community of extravagant welcome. I mean, usually we are. For the last year, extravagance has had to take a back seat to safety. But even when we are emphasizing safety, the spirit of extravagant welcome lives within us.
Even in the time of COVID, we want to be a community that people can look at and say, “No matter who I am, and no matter where I am on life’s journey, I am welcome there.”
And taking a Sunday to celebrate is a good thing. Taking a Sunday to renew our Open and Affirming covenant… and to remember that we promised to embrace difference… and to reaffirm that we are community where all people are welcome… is a good thing.
It is also a brave thing.
I know that this covenant brings up stuff. I know that we haven’t really dealt with some of that stuff. I know that renewing and reaffirming this covenant—this agreement between us, and each other, and everyone out there, and God—means facing the ways that we have failed and the things that we are afraid of… and committing ourselves to do better.
Because the truth is that no matter how open we are, or how affirming we are, or how extravagantly welcoming we are, we can always do better.
And sometimes doing better means being brave enough to stand up and say, “Our needs are not being met and we need to do something about that.”
And sometimes doing better means being brave enough to stand up and say, “I can’t take this on by myself. I already have too many important things on my plate. But, maybe we can work together to find some volunteers, and commission them to this ministry.”
But most often… most of the time… I think that doing better means being brave enough to hear the cries of the people on the outside…
…even the people who we don’t think we need to worry about, because we don’t think about them, because we don’t see them, and we say that they’re not here…
…doing better means being brave enough to hear the cries of those people, and saying, “We know that you’re from outside. And we can tell that you are called to this work. And we trust that we need you for this ministry. So here is authority. We will listen. We will learn. We will serve. So that we can do better.”
After the apostles, and the disciples, and the whole community, give authority to these volunteers, something amazing happens:
The gospel spreads further. And more people hear the good news of Christ’s resurrection and their own redemption. And more people—Parthians and Medes, Elamites and Mesopotamians, Cappadocians and Pontians and Asians, Phrygians and Pamphylians, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans and Cretans and Arabs—join the community.
And Jewish people join the community. Even priests from the temple join the community.
And I think that part of that—part of that, not all of that, but part of that—is because the community is brave.
It’s brave enough to welcome people: people who might not find a home somewhere else and people who could find a home somewhere else but who are following an irresistible call.
It’s brave enough to listen to the people: those who are new and those who are old; those who are from inside and from outside.
It’s brave enough to listen to its leaders: leaders who are close to Jesus but who can’t do everything—who can’t do anything—on their own.
It’s brave enough to serve.
And, if we were to read the rest of the story, we would learn that it’s full of people who are brave enough to face down the powers-that-be, to suffer persecution and death, to forgive the ones who hurt them, and to work for a better world for everyone.
And here’s the thing:
Last week, I told you that Christ is found in the telling of the story and the breaking of the bread. Christ is found in doing those things that a community that is rooted in Christ does.
And last week, I told you that there are a lot of people to whom those things are completely alien. There are people who are a little hazy on the stories and who haven’t broken bread at Christ’s table in a long time. And there are people who have never heard the stories and who have never sat at Christ’s table.
And now I’m going to take that a step further. There are people in the world—there are people in this town—who have never felt the welcome that Christ offers; who have never felt the welcome that a community that is rooted in Christ offers; and who are desperate to feel that welcome.
And I guarantee you that there are people in the world—I guarantee you that there are people in this town—who have been told that if they are desperate for an extravagant welcome… then the last place that they should go… is a church. Period. Full Stop.
And so, on this Extravagant Welcome Sunday, when we renew our Open and Affirming covenant… and remember that we promised to embrace difference… and reaffirm that we are a community where all people are welcome… I am asking you to do two things:
First, I am asking you to remember that we are not in danger. We can be extravagantly welcoming—we can work tirelessly and recklessly for a better world for everyone—and we will never have to face down the powers that be or suffer persecution and death. And that’s a good thing.
Second, I am asking you to be brave. Brave enough to speak. Brave enough to listen. Brave enough to serve. And brave enough to be known, so that all of those people out there—and so that all of us in here—will know where we can find that welcome that the world is so desperate for.
So that all of us can come together, and tell the stories, and break the bread, and feel the love. Amen.