This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on March 9, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.
O God, in the stillness, come meet us. Amen.
On this Sunday, we begin a new journey. This is a journey into the Lenten season, a season where we are invited to reflect inward, to take a long deep look at own souls and our own relationship with God. Yet, at the same time, don’t be fooled into thinking that Lent doesn’t involve community. In fact, our own spiritual journeys are intimately connected with those around us. Just as our Lenten journey begins within the home of our own souls, so too does our journey in life begin within a home, a community, a church, a family.
Jesus himself has a home. He grew up in a small town called Nazareth. You can imagine that all the people in the town and definitely all those in the synagogue knew Mary and Joseph’s oldest boy, Jesus. They must have been proud of him. He’s an inquisitive boy, always asking questions of the rabbis. He grows over the years in wisdom and people must have been wondering what he would do and who he would become. Would he follow in Joseph’s footsteps or do something radically different?
Jesus leaves home for a time, as most of us do during our growing up years. He finds himself in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. When he emerges without giving into temptation, the first place he goes is home. He returns to the people who raised him, shaped him, answered his questions, and encouraged him to listen to God. He’s hoping, well, even expecting, to find a warm, comfortable and welcome embrace. However, what he experiences is much less than a radical welcome. In fact, in the words of Stephanie Spellers, we could call it a radical un-welcome.
You may recall the story Spellers shares in the introduction to her book “Radical Welcome” when she was a young woman in the early 1990s. She was in a new city, a place she did not know well and was seeking a place to stay at an Episcopal guest house. The host appeared when she knocked and asked how much she would pay before she could come inside. Though their website advertised a sliding scale, the best the host would offer was $20 off the price if Spellers did not eat meals with the community. The end result was that the host shut the door and left Spellers, a young black woman with limited financial resources standing on the doorstep.
Spellers reflects on this experience by writing:
I walked away wondering what kind of religious community, and what kind of church, these Episcopalians had created. Whatever it was, I was sure it was not very Christian. And needless to say, it was radically unwelcoming.
Jesus’ experience was even more dramatic than a door shut in his face. In fact, in Jesus’ hometown at first everything seems to be going well. This is what happens. Jesus goes to the synagogue—a great place to go when you return home. Jesus gets up and reads from the scroll just like he used to and just like he’s been doing all over the countryside. The people must have been murmuring in approval. “Isn’t that Joseph and Mary’s oldest boy?...Oh look, Jesus is home from the wilderness…I’m so proud that he comes to services even when his parents don’t make him…He reads the scripture so well!”
Everyone is focused on him and so Jesus says what’s in his heart and starts interpreting the scriptures. This is when the welcome changes. In fact, people become furious. They become so mad that they jump up and mob him, chasing him to try and force him to fall off the edge of a cliff. Instead, Jesus sneaks through the crowd and continues on his way.
Spellers gives a definition of radical welcome. First, she says that welcome is the drama of embrace—like a hug, literally. Welcome is one person opening their arms, their hearts, their lives to another. She goes on to deepen that definition to say that radical welcome is the embrace that is hardest of all—that requires “the broadest extension and opening of self, even as it draws us back to our core values.”
Welcome is greeting our best friend who slides into the pew beside us. Radical welcome is giving a hug to the homeless man who smells like he hasn’t bathed in a week.
Radical welcome requires something from us, an opening up, a willingness for our own lives to be broken apart along with Jesus’ and then slowly put back together through the mutual experience of transformation.
Spellers goes on to challenge us with a communal picture of what it means for a church to be radically welcoming. She writes:
When I describe a church as ‘radically welcoming’ it means the community seeks to welcome the voices, presence and power of many groups—especially those who have been defined as The Other, pushed to the margins, cast out, silenced, and closeted—in order to help shape the congregation’s common life and mission.
You see, radical welcome is something that changes the gathered community just as much if not more than the people who are receiving the radical welcome.
Truthfully, it should have been easy for Jesus’ hometown to welcome him. They should have been able to radically welcome him, but they weren’t ready to stretch to welcome those he proclaimed that God was calling them to embrace. And that is precisely why they respond with such violence. Jesus walks away without being physically harmed, but I wonder what this hometown experience does to his soul. Does this radically unwelcoming experience mark him, just as the door shutting in her face marks Stephanie Spellers?
You see, Jesus bears his soul to his home synagogue in Nazareth. He shares the dream of God that has been given to him while he’s in the wilderness. You see these words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah shape his whole ministry. Through his entire ministry, Jesus honors his tradition, but his eyes and ears are open and he refuses to be bound by tradition if the dream of God demands something else.
These few verses are Jesus’ personal mission statement. These words are his purpose; this is what drives him to get up every day, put on his sandals and walk around preaching to the people. This is what compels him to feed 5000 hungry people, to eat with Zaccheaus, to set apart 12 disciples. This is what makes him heal men with leprosy, women who bleed, and children who have already died. This is what motivates him to ride that donkey into Jerusalem. This is what makes him turn the tables over in the temple and go to the garden to pray. This is what causes him to not resist being arrested and to answer Ciaphas with such elusiveness. This is what makes him bear death, even death on a cross.
Here Jesus is expounding upon verses of scripture that expand God’s kingdom, that extend radical welcome to the least and the lost all while he is experiencing a radical unwelcome!
Today, I want us to think of this story as a metaphor for our hearts.
The journey toward radically welcoming and loving all people begins at home for us, just as it did for Jesus. You see, I don’t think that Jesus’ interpretation of that scripture was formed just during those 40 days in the wilderness. I think that 30 years in his hometown also nurtured a faith in Jesus that brought him to the point where he could read that scripture and interpret it in a way that was so radical.
Our own hearts and our faiths are also nurtured in families, in churches, in communities. And something about those forming years brings us to this point today where we have chosen to be part of this church community that seeks to love all people and honor the image of God in every person.
You see, this is a journey that begins at home for us to. At home in the sense of the people and places that have made us who we are. At home in the sense of our inner hearts, thoughts, and feelings.
And sometimes when we hear a word of challenge to open up our hearts a bit more—to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, we get scared like the people in Jesus’ hometown and it’s a strong enough feeling that we’d rather run Jesus out of our lives than repent and believe in the gospel.
But the journey—and it is a journey, opening ourselves to others does not happen in an instant. It can take 5 years, 10 years a lifetime. The journey begins at home—in our hearts, in our willingness to hear Jesus’ prophetic words and be changed by them, to be transformed by them from the inside out.
So, as we enter Lent this year, let us remember. The journey begins at home—within each one of our hearts.
Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali
 Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, by Stephanie Spellers, Copyright 2006 by Stephanie Spellers, Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. 5.
 Ibid, p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 32-33.