THE PAIN OF REJECTION AND THE POWER OF TRUE WELCOME
In the four years in which we lived in Knysna my younger son struggled to fit in at school. We could never really work out why, but it was clear that he was just very different from the other children in his school. And so he was bullied, he had few friends, and while he passed, he never really shone. In high school there was a retired maths teacher who had been brought in to fill a gap the school was dealing with and for some reason he really connected with my son with the result that his maths mark shot through the roof.
When we moved to Cape Town he moved to a new school near Sea Point. On his first day he was introduced to a boy who had been at the school for a few years and who was to initiate him into the school and show him the ropes. This boy ended up drawing my son into his circle of friends, and making him feel completely welcome and at home in his new school. In fact, so comfortable was my son that he ended up finishing high school – as a child who had struggled with ADD in his younger years – second in his grade with 5 distinctions. Such is the power of a true, open welcome.
We have all experienced both welcome and rejection. Every one of us carries the pain of someone or some group that has rejected us or excluded us or dismissed us. Think for a moment of what pain of rejection you carry in your own heart and offer that up to God. But, we have also all experienced acceptance and welcome and the feeling of being really seen by another person. And those experiences have brought us so much healing and joy and life. Think for a moment of those who have welcomed you like this and the impact of those welcomes on your life.
So, if a simple welcome can have such power, why do we struggle so much to do it? Why is it not the default in our world? Why does the world now seem to be turning in the opposite direction with fear of immigration, the threat of a wall between the USA and Mexico, and the ongoing violence from religious extremists of all creeds? Make no mistake, learning to welcome others is not just a feel-good practice for a few souls. The peace of the world hangs in the balance!
I am convinced that in the end, whether we welcome others or not boils down to a simple choice between a closed heart or an open heart. And this choice is also the essential choice of the Christ-following life. So, if we long to feel more of that power of being truly and deeply welcomed, if we seek to share that power with others, and if we long for a kinder, more welcoming world, we need to learn to make the right choice – to open our hearts and learn to welcome and be welcomed.
THE WELCOME OF GOD
Throughout the Gospels Jesus preaches about something called the kingdom of God. And at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom is one word: hospitality. For Jesus the kingdom of God was all about God’s welcome of human beings into God’s love and grace and justice, and it was about living from that welcome to become those who welcome others in God’s name. But, it seems that maybe even Jesus had to learn how completely radical God’s welcome really is.
In Matthew 15 we see a picture of Jesus that can be very disturbing. In fact, one commentator once suggested that if this were the only story of Jesus that he knew about he would be “turned off”. A Canaanite women came to Jesus begging for him to heal her demonised daughter. The Canaanites were hated by the Jews. Their history of enmity was long and fierce, and scholars have questioned whether Jesus was influenced by this. His disciples certainly were.
At first Jesus didn’t even respond. Only after his disciples asked him to send her away did he speak, and his words were dismissive. God had sent him to Israel. When she continued to beg, he said some of his harshest words – “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” One commentator suggested that Jesus, in calling this woman and her people “dogs” was using the equivalent of a strong East Rand word that I can’t say from the pulpit!
But the woman is undeterred, she turns Jesus’ words back on himself, saying that even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table. By doing this she effectively wins the argument, and Jesus heals her daughter. Is this a moment in which Jesus’ understanding of God’s welcome was expanded? It certainly was for the disciples.
But, for Matthew’s readers it would have been deeply significant. They were living at a time when the Temple had been destroyed and the Jewish people were trying to work out what Judaism could be without the Temple and its sacrifices. It was a time of suffering, persecution, and factionalism, and the temptation to close ranks and hearts, to become exclusive and defensive, and to reject anyone who was different or threatening was extremely strong. But, Matthew calls them to a completely different way of dealing with these threats – not exclusion, but welcome. Matthew suggests that God’s calling is to be radically, unconditionally inclusive – welcoming even an ancient enemy.
In our world of fear, division, and exclusion of those who are different and potentially threatening, Matthew’s words speak loudly and challengingly. The way to address our fear is not to close our hearts and shut others out. It is to open our hearts and welcome others in – as God called Jesus to do. What this story reveals is that God’s glory is to be radically, universally, and unconditionally welcoming to all.
LIVING GOD’S WELCOME
So, if we desire to experience the power of being truly and deeply welcomed, if we want those around to share in that experience, and if we long for a kinder, more welcoming world, we need to learn from Jesus how to keep our hearts open. And two suggestions can help us to do that.
Firstly, we need to lean into the unconditional welcome of God. We can only welcome others when we know we ourselves are welcome. When I first starting wearing Jeans to church I remember my gran saying, “If you went to visit the Queen you would dress in your very best. So why won’t you dress up when you visit the King of kings?” I remember replying, “But Gran I wouldn’t dress up for the Queen if she was my mother. The King of kings is my father so why do I need to dress up?” I had learned to lean into God’s welcome. I had learned that I did not have to do anything to earn God’s love and approval, but even the most unlikely, like this Canaanite woman, are welcome.
Secondly, once we have learned that we belong and are welcomed, we are able to share that welcome with others. And so we, like Jesus and his disciples, are called to practice deeply and truly welcoming all others. That’s ALL – all are welcome!
I have gone on record in opposition to everything that Donald Trump stands for, and I oppose his Presidency. But, if Donald Trump wanted to visit Northfield, he would be welcome here among us. I wouldn’t let him preach, but he would be welcome.
So who are the people you are least comfortable to welcome? Who are the people you would like to send away, like the disciples? What does it mean that God is calling you to welcome even – perhaps especially – those people?
There are many reasons to be afraid in our world, and it is tempting to close our hearts, bar the gates and shut everyone out. But, that’s a strategy that will only isolate and divide us more. If we really want to experience the healing power of welcome, and if we long for a kinder, more welcoming world, it has to begin with us – with leaning so deeply into God’s welcome that we know we belong and have nothing to fear, and with sharing that welcome by radically including ALL, especially those we find most difficult to invite in.