The Art of Welcome

Welcome. It's such a common word. It adorns floor mats outside all sorts of entryways. It's often on road signs as one enters a new state, a new town. I even saw a welcome sign recently as I entered a national forest. There are places where people offer "welcome" as a greeting as I enter: "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" "Good evening and welcome-table for two?" "Welcome to the greatest show on earth!"

Such conventional uses hide the loveliness of this word. Welcome. In English the word finds its roots in a compounding of "well" and "come," though with slightly different connotations that we tend to use today. The root of "well" could go in two directions: it could mean something close to our current understanding of "wellness" or "well-being," but it could be stronger than that, implying desire or pleasure. Some scholars see a link between "well" and "weal," the root of our word "wealth," and thus perhaps the word offers a kind of blessing. "Come" finds its roots in an Old English word "comer," that is, one who arrives or, perhaps closer to the Greek, one who is received. Thus "welcome" can offer in its earliest sense an invitation to come and be well, or to be well in coming. Either way, it is an invitation to be received into the goodness of this new place, this place here that one has just arrived.

While we use the word casually and commercially, making one welcome is not as simple as offering a word, though it often starts there. The art of making one welcome is rooted in the ancient practices of hospitality. Preparing to welcome someone takes thought, intention, discipline. Some practitioners of hospitality are masters of the art; they're always ready with the accoutrements of welcome: an appropriate beverage, food, a comfortable chair, a few thoughtful and respectful questions of the "comer." Their very presence seems to wipe away the strangeness or awkwardness of social greeting and make one feel as if they are home. If you've ever been the recipient of such hospitality, you know exactly what I mean. If you are such a master practitioner of hospitality, please know that those of us who have received it notice, and we thank you.

Perhaps the measure of true welcome is the ability of the host to make the guest feel at home. There are some places where one can go and always feel at home. It may look different. It may smell different. It may be full of strangers. But, somehow, it just feels like home, and it is good to be there.

For Jews and Christians, such hospitality has always been a part of who we are. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Torah and was a part of the measure of the Hebrew community's faithfulness to God. When a traveler came to town, they waited by the well, and it was incumbent upon the townspeople to house and feed the visitor for the night.

Of course, these travelers were rarely family. These were folks unknown to the community. They were aliens, often foreigners, people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, different gods. Opening one's home was risky. Today we'd describe such a thing as out and out foolish. As Ana Maria Pineda reminds us, "Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger." But such hospitality was central to the Hebrew identity. The risk did not define the people; their hospitality did, for they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God.

The same was true in the early Christian communities. Paul reminded the Romans to offer hospitality to the alien, and in the Letter to the Hebrews the people were reminded to show hospitality to all for in so doing some entertained angels unaware. In Acts, the early deacons practiced hospitality throughout the community, bringing welcome to those in need. And in Matthew's community, hospitality still measured the faithfulness of the people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples (those whom Matthew called "little ones") was a disciplined practice of the young churches.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, discipline is the key to faithful hospitality. In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells the story of a nun who, although she has Alzheimer's, still asks to be rolled in her wheelchair to the door of her nursing home so she can greet every guest. Said one nun of her sister in ministry, "She is no longer certain what she is welcoming people to...but hospitality is so deeply ingrained in her that it has become her whole life" (265). Norris continues, "I read somewhere, in an article on monastic spirituality, that only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality...hospitality has a way of breaking through our insularity" (267).

Welcome as a practice of hospitality doesn't just happen. It has to be taught. And such lessons don't come easy in our society. I used to drive by a church that had a sign out front proclaiming itself to be a church where everyone is welcome, even claimed to be fully accessible for people with disabilities. It had a lovely ramp up to the door of the sanctuary, friendly folks waiting just inside that door; but there was a step up into the building, a step to reach those people. If you're in a wheelchair, your welcome just ended. It's a matter of hospitality, and it's a matter of attention: attention to those barriers, impediments, biases, and obstacles that we construct-sometimes intentionally, though often unintentionally-barriers to the good news, to participation in the church, to abundant life in Jesus Christ.

It is noteworthy that in the Greek, the word for stranger-xenos-is also the word for guest and host. In this age of contemporary tribal warfare, of Balkanization and gated communities, most of us are all too aware of the term "xenophobia," or fear of the stranger. Such a fear leads to nationalism, racism and even genocide. As many scholars have noted, however, Jesus' call to welcome another is a call to xenophilia, or love of stranger, the stranger who is also guest, who as the embodiment of Christ after a long walk on the Emmaus road-is also host.

Hospitality should be the central practice of the Christian church today. As Arthur Sutherland states, "Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls." Thus hospitality is the central practice that should receive attention by our pastoral leaders and theological educators, by Sunday school teachers and by local preachers. So how do we teach hospitality?

It all begins with practice: to offer hospitality, we simply bring who we are, what we have, where we are. At times that may be grand; at times that may be very little. In every case, it is the gesture itself-the practice-that shapes the character of the encounter, that shapes the character of the participants, of the story of grace that is the essence of the moment.

Often we learn such lessons by experiencing just how difficult or complicated it can be. One of our Fellows at the Fund for Theological Education tells a story that illustrates how a gracious welcome can transform not only a moment but a life. It reveals in simple ways how an encouraging word of welcome can make Christ's presence known and perhaps even help one hear God's call.

When she was young, Liz loved the church. It was a place where she was welcomed, where she sensed God's presence, and where good people made her know that she was loved and at home among them. At least that was the case until she sensed a call to ordained ministry. Her denomination did not ordain women at the time. When she shared her sense that she might be called to a preaching ministry, it was as if the welcome space that was home vanished before her eyes. In her words, "All I remember about their response to my making my sense of call public was that they ignored me." Whoever welcomes you welcomes me....

Undeterred, she continued to follow that sense of call, eventually leaving that home that she still loved because she was no longer welcome there. It wasn't until several years later that she finally felt at peace with that decision. It came long after she was ordained and was serving a church. One Sunday she led a group of church members to visit a nursing home. Ella, a 9-year old girl, asked if she could ride along with Liz to go visit those folks. Liz agreed, and on their way, Ella began to talk. She said, "You know, I always thought I was going to be a teacher, but since you came to our church, I think I'm going to be a pastor."

Liz said it took everything she had not to lose control of the car at that moment. She responded simply to the little girl, "That's great Ella; that's really great." Since that afternoon, Liz has been careful to encourage Ella, to introduce her to new ideas, to ask her deep questions, to celebrate the ways she has participated and led at their church. She has been intentional in the ways that she has noticed, named and nurtured Ella's emerging sense of call within her. And she has modeled what it means to welcome another in Jesus' name.

Welcoming another requires attention to the other. It means often setting aside our discomfort for how one may be different or strange to us and meeting her or him as they are. Being an agent of God's hospitality makes Christ's presence known, for as Matthew reminds us, when two or more are gathered in Jesus' name, Jesus is present there as well.

May God continue to open our eyes, our ears, our hands, our hearts-and, indeed, our very lives-to the strangers among us, so that we might welcome all in the name of Jesus Christ. For such lives, thanks be to God. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, you give us life, you call each of us into faithful service, discipleship in Jesus Christ. Open our hearts in ways that we might reach out to those-especially those who are so different from ourselves-and in so doing, may the world be transformed through your love, enlivened through our lives. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.