I read an article this week that began, “If Christians are known for anything, it is how we welcome others.” A great deal of effort goes into welcome around this church, which is something that became so clear when we started bringing people back to church. We needed greeters at doors. We needed ushers for the sanctuary. We needed to make sure the rooms were clean and ready to receive people. Perhaps of utmost importance, we had to get fresh cookies back into the Lounge for coffee hour!
A couple of weeks ago I was at my Rotary meeting where one of our own, Ari Abraham, was student of the month. In his talk about all his impressive accomplishments at Grand Haven High, he mentioned that he attends First Pres. He said (and I quote), “We visited lots of churches before First Pres, but they had cookies, so that’s where we stayed!” So, if you’re thinking about joining this church, try the cookies. You’ll want to stick around.
Hospitality and welcome are part of the core of who we are as a church. Today and in the weeks to come, we’re going to take a deeper look at what it means to be welcoming to all. How we welcome matters. Who we welcome matters. It reflects our identity as God’s people.
Many of you all know that my family spent a chapter of our lives in the Deep South. We loved a lot about living there, but we were definitely fish out of water. I had no idea how midwestern I was until I moved south. All of a sudden, every person younger than me called me “sir.” I was in my late 20s -not the age I expected to be “sir.” I’d approach a youth and ask how school was going. Their response, “Great, sir.” “Will you be going to the pancake breakfast?” “Yes, sir!” I could never figure out the etiquette, but fortunately I was generally polite. They gave me a pass because I was a Yankee.
There is so much to Southern etiquette that I had to visit a website just to check out some of the social mores expected of children. From experience I can testify that all of these are true. Here are some of my favorites.
- Say “ma’am” and “sir” to your elders. Always.
- When addressing adults, use “Mr.” or “Mrs.” with their last name. If they insist on your kids calling them by their first name, add “Miss” or “Mr.”
- Keep your elbows off the table.
- Start eating with the fork farthest from the plate.
- Don’t spill, but if you do, clean it up and apologize.
- Try not to interrupt unless the house is on fire or a bone is protruding through the skin.
- Never gossip (but when you’re older it’s ok as long as it’s for the prayer chain at church).
- Don’t squirm or make a scene in church.
Having no idea how long God would have us in the South, we actually had our daughter take etiquette lessons with a friend. These lessons culminated in a fancy dinner at a great Italian restaurant. I have no idea how much she remembers of the etiquette now that she’s back in the Midwest, but she at least got a good meal out of the deal. None of our family ever figured out when and how to use “sir” or “ma’am” in our conversation. We were hopeless.
Southern hosting is an entirely different matter. Southern Living magazine offers these pointers for how to be ready to host at the drop of a hat.
- Always have a pitcher of something on hand. You never know who will drop by, and you’ll have to have some sweet tea ready.
- Don’t even think about skipping the flowers. (That is, you can’t just have food. Everything must look like a magazine photo spread.)
- Keep a fresh towel in the powder room.
- Make sure each of your guests feel like the most important person in the room.
Being a host takes effort. Even though we’re not southern (at least most of us), that doesn’t mean that inviting others into your home is simple. We clean. We prepare food. We try to make sure the kids have what they need to be content with other adults in the room. Welcome is an intentional act.
Welcome is an act that goes back to the very beginning. Our main text today is a familiar one, part of the creation story. Since it’s all of two pages into the Bible, chances are that anyone who has ever tried to read the Bible has read this story. It also carries a lot of cultural currency. Even those outside of the church know about the Garden of Eden and about Adam and Eve. The issue with that broad but shallow knowledge is that this passage has led many down some very harmful interpretations of the passage’s meaning.
I don’t have the time today to unpack all of it, but allow me just a couple of minutes to point out some things to us before I get into my main reason for being in Genesis 2 today. This would be a good time to pull out your Bibles so you can see for yourselves what I am talking about. First, notice that the man and the woman do not have names in Genesis 2. God creates a man. God creates a woman. The names don’t show up until Genesis 3:20, where the man names his wife Eve, which comes from the Hebrew word resembling “living.” Adam doesn’t even get officially named. The word “adam” means “man” in Hebrew. I do find it interesting that they aren’t named until after they have disobeyed God’s command. Their sin has lessened them. They were known fully and in perfection without names, but now that they have broken covenant, they need names to keep them straight. In our reading it’s also interesting that God parades a bunch of animals by the man as possible helpers, but they aren’t sufficient to complete the man. What does he do? He names them. Again, lesser.
What else is there? God is creating a “helper” for the man, and some interpreters have taken this to mean that males are superior to females. But did you know that the word “helper” occurs eight times in the Bible. Outside of this instance that word is referring to God being our helper. Surely none of us would insist that we are superior to God, would we? Thinking there is a hierarchy between men and women is a dangerously bad interpretation of the Bible in my book.
I love this part of the creation story because it’s so intimate and earthy. God creates land (adamah in Hebrew) and before there is a human anywhere, God starts gardening. Then God creates one man (adam in Hebrew) and puts him in the garden. God is the ultimate host here, right? God makes the space, provides what the guest needs, and welcomes the guest home.
The creation story is a story of welcome. God is the host. Humans are the guests. But since God created humans in God’s image, we have a role and responsibility to imitate God in how we exist in the universe. God welcomes all of us – plants, animals, land, humans – and puts us in the place where we care for each other, live peaceably with each other, and find a place of wholeness with each other. “A fundamental truth about hospitality is that we can welcome others only because we have first been welcomed and had a place prepared for us by God.”
Yet, we also know the story of what comes next. We start to doubt if God’s intention for us is good enough. We wonder if God is keeping us from experiencing the best of it all. We doubt, and so we degrade the image of God in us and others. We abuse neighbor and nature. We stop resembling the welcoming nature of God our host. From the stories we read right at the beginning of our Bibles up until now, we have spent our lives trying to reclaim what we have lost when we rebelled against God’s good will for us.
God is the originator of hospitality. God created and welcomed everything in the cosmos – including us! God has gifted us with the unique purpose of imitating God in our lives, including how we learn hospitality. Earlier I spoke about all the Southern etiquette that my family struggled to learn. Our daughter’s experience was not unique when it came to having an etiquette coach – a person who helps show another how to be a good guest and a good host. Think of God as the ultimate etiquette coach – not training us for Southern-style manners (those are their own thing!) but one who keeps showing us the way to wholeness and life through living. The commandments, the do’s and do not’s, and the words of Jesus are all ways of showing us the way to full life in the world. The life of Jesus itself is a mirror in which we can see how much God loves the world and all of us.
If I were to use one word to describe God, it would be “love.” God’s love is the through line of all Scripture. 1 John 4 drives this point home. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” But there’s one line in this passage that, until now, I really hadn’t noticed. It’s in verse 17. Here’s the line, “because as [God] is, so are we in this world.” I’ve been tossing it around my mind throughout this week wondering what it means. Because as God is, so are we in this world. What does that mean? I think it goes back to how God created us from the very start – in God’s image, with the blessed responsibility to be like God in how we care for the world and for each other.
God is love, John writes.
Because as God is, John writes.
God is love.
God is love, so are we in this world.
We are to be love in this world.
And to be love in the world means imitating God in welcoming all. God didn’t create just certain people and not others. God created all of us. God loves all of us, no matter how messy we are. We did not create the world. God did. God is host to all. God loves us all. God calls us to be people who love like God. That begins with welcoming all, not some, not just those who are comfortable to be around. All. It’s what we mean when we say we are a “Christ-centered community of acceptance.” So, who will you welcome and love this week?