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Risky Business: Jesus’ Perilous Welcome, An On Scripture Feature

by Marcia Mount Shoop, an On Scripture reflection with a focus on Matthew 10:40-42

 

The Piety of Welcome

 

The writer of Matthew’s gospel knew how to adapt old wisdom to new situations. Jesus translates a prophetic and practical word for all disciples across situations, even across centuries and cultures.  His is a message is for everyone: the “righteous” (for Matthew probably highly esteemed Jesus followers), and even the “little ones” (for Matthew probably your everyday run-of-the-mill Christians who didn’t hold a church office). And so current day disciples, prophets, and church goers can listen for how these words about welcome reverberate in our complicated moment in the human story.

 

The Politics of Welcome

 

The word “welcome” is loaded, even politicized, in our divided country. It has become a hot button for Christians and for politicians alike, now bundled with the 2017 version of the Sanctuary Movement. 

 

Welcome as sanctuary is a disposition toward vulnerability and injustice that Jesus followers can trace back to the Exodus in the Abrahamic tradition. This heritage of radical and risky welcome stitches its way through moments of truth for Jesus’ disciples.  When individual congregations chose to serve as a stop on the underground railroad during slavery in the United States of America churches engaged in the risky business of welcome as sanctuary. Many churches failed to stand up to the horrors of the Third Reich and speak out against the Holocaust in Germany, creating a template for a great failure of the church to be sanctuary. In the late twentieth centurychurches responded to a humanitarian crises of thousands of Central American refugees fleeing violent conflicts, in many cases fueled by US government policies. These churches created the 1980s Sanctuary Movement, born along the southern borders of the United States.

 

The current political climate and eruptions of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence have resurfaced a clarion call toward Christian dispositions of welcome. Jesus' followers are again invited to take risks in our welcome, to embody sanctuary in the way we make space for “the stranger,” the vulnerable, and those in need.

 

Since the 2016 Presidential election, the number of churches who have officially “declared Sanctuary” has grown exponentially.  Declaring Sanctuary means a church is willing to house people, short or long term, to protect them from deportation. In Western North Carolina churches who cannot or do not want to declare Sanctuary can declare themselves as a “Supporting Sanctuary” church, pledging resources, people, and assistance to those churches who have declared Sanctuary.

 

Noel Anderson, coordinator of Church World Service, explains that,“… since Trump was elected in November, the number of churches in the United States expressing willingness to offer sanctuary has doubled to 800…The faith community in general, after the election, was looking for 'what can we do' to support the immigrant community.” 

 

The Practice of Welcome

 

The Gospel writer is reminding those receiving and redacting this message that being a Jesus follower is not easy, nor is it a clear road to social acceptance, favor, or safety. The words of our passage today follow verses that speak of persecution, humiliation, estrangement from family, and a transient lifestyle that leans on the kindness of other people of faith.  Following Jesus is a process that brings with it both peril and promise. 

 

The challenge of the current Sanctuary Movement coalesces around our call as people of faith in the congregation I currently serve in some complicated and constructive ways.  While the congregation I serve names and claims its orientation in the world as “progressive,” the invitation to declare Sanctuary has given some pause. Many congregants (in a church of almost 700) are inclined to declare Sanctuary, while others fear the legal and financial consequences of such a declaration in the current political climate. Their fear is that past practice of law enforcement allowing churches, schools, and hospitals to be safe havens will not hold under the current Administration. The risk feels too great.

 

This continuum of opinions and inclinations about the declaration of Sanctuary, while disappointing and confusing for some, has created a constructive space for us. Such a pause is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves some even more difficult questions than whether or not we are collectively willing to break the law or risk losing assets. We are asking ourselves about our own readiness to truly embody what a “culture of Sanctuary” invites us be, not just to do.

 

The Privilege of Welcome

 

A local cross-cultural and cross-denominational clergy group I am a part of challenged the local Sanctuary movement in Western North Carolina to examine how whiteness and white supremacy culture can seep into the practices and perspectives of Sanctuary even among progressive people of faith. A portion of our statement to the local faith community reads:

 

This invitation for faith communities to help create a "culture of sanctuary" for all marginalized people calls us to tell the truth about race and power and the ways black and brown bodies have carried the weight of systemic and personalized injustice and violence in the United States.

 

This invitation also calls on people of faith in white-dominant communities to be more truthful about how the perceived safety that white communities feel entitled to is constructed through a real increased vulnerability for communities of color. 

 

Creating a "culture of sanctuary" allows us all to be more honest about our shared vulnerability as human beings. Cultivating solidarity with communities of color means standing with black and brown bodies in the places where they feel their dignity and human rights are being threatened. 

 

Engaging such honesty has opened our eyes to the difficult work we have to do as Jesus followers in our own community. We have realized several things so far in this journey:

 

·      Failure to embody Jesus’ radical welcome is not about partisan politics. Both political parties have failed to find solutions that have positively impacted the most vulnerable in our midst.

·      The church has not been a consistent voice for change and is divided against itself in how policy and piety meet in our common lives. We are complicit in the harmful conditions that exist for many people in our country today.

·      Our whiteness has created both distortion and resistance when it comes to building mutual relationships with our neighbors who are immigrants, people of color, and economically insecure.

·      Our ambivalence about radical welcome even infiltrates our self-understanding. We have a hard time welcoming the stranger within ourselves or making room for idiosyncrasy, ambiguity, and dissonance within ourselves and with each other.

·      Either/or reactions seem to be our default mode in times of stress rather than both/and modes that create the conditions for radical welcome and transformation.

 

The Power of Welcome

 

Jewish law held that the one who comes as a messenger for someone is legally standing in for the person who sent him or her. For all intents and purposes the messenger is the person who did the sending of the messenger.

 

If contemporary Christians understand ourselves as messengers of Jesus’ healing message, howwell are we standing in for him in today’s world? It’s more than a question of What Would Jesus Do.  It is a question of How Would Jesus Be? 

 

The power of Christian welcome in our contemporary moment is that it rekindles our openness to Jesus’ transforming impact on the whole world—including on those of us who struggle to claim our shared vulnerability with those most impacted by systemic oppression and inequity.

 

Welcome as sanctuary is not simply about politics, it is not simply about piety, it is about power—the capacity to have an impact on the world around us and to be impacted by that same world. Matthew’s words reverberate with the promise of welcome for the church today when we open ourselves up to how Jesus himself meets us there. 

 

Reflection Questions:

 

1.     How would you define a “culture of sanctuary” in your faith context?

2.     How do scripture and worship (liturgy) help to shape your ethics, values, and practices around welcome?

3.     What scares you the most about exploring how cultivating a culture of sanctuary might challenge your faith community, your family, or your every day life?

 

 

For Further Reading:

 

·      Religion and Ethics News Weekly, PBS, February 3, 2017, “Sanctuary Churches”

·       Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today by Jacqueline Battalora

·      A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches by Mary McClintock-Fulkerson and Marcia W. Mount Shoop

About ON Scripture - The Bible and the ON Scripture Committee

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ON Scripture - The Bible is made possible by generous grants from the Lilly Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation

 

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