The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In the 2009 science fiction film, Avatar, there is an alien race called the Navi, and one of the distinctive things about this movie is that a linguistics professor from USC created an entire language for the Navi. And the way this species said “hello” in that new language, Kal ti, literally means, “I see you.”
If you were creating a language from scratch, would you think of using “I see you” or I behold you” as a way of saying, “Hello”?
There are certainly moments in each of our lives when we feel unseen, even invisible, as if people don’t notice us or intentionally ignore us. If you are the new kid in class or you’ve just moved across the country, you want your classmates and neighbors to notice you, to connect with you, and to offer a friendly welcome. You want them to say, “I see you.” Even for those of us who are somewhat shy, we want to be seen. And that is especially true in a church — even more so in a religious tradition that is a little unfamiliar. We want to be seen and acknowledged and welcomed. As someone who is a bit introverted, coffee hour can be the most daunting part of a visit to a new church. Everyone else seems to belong, seems to know others, seems to have friends to connect with. It can be awkward, unless someone sees you, comes up, and engages you in conversation.
When I was serving as associate conference minister in Connecticut, and then realized that I needed to be back in parish ministry, I found a church in Vermont that was looking for a minister, so I drove up early on a Sunday morning to check it out…just to be an unannounced visitor there. Now, one of the things to know about archetypal New Englanders is that they a bit laconic…not known for interpersonal warmth, exuberance, or friendliness. In Maine, unless you were born there, you are “from away” and on Cape Cod, they call you a “wash-ashore.” So, attending the service in a lovely white meeting house in Vermont, I was able to walk in, worship with them, go to coffee hour, and drive home to Connecticut, and the only greeting I received was a cursory handshake from the interim minister. Needless to say, I realized that this church and I were not meant for each other.
When we in the church fail to say “Hello!” we are neglecting a big piece of what it means to be Christian, because we are missing the bond of fellowship and connection. When we don’t say, “Hello!” we are sending the message, “I don’t see you.” I hope the message that we send at Plymouth — especially our longtime members is that not only do we see you, not only are you welcome here, you belong! No one is “from away.”
For years, I have had an intentional practice of saying “Hello!” and smiling to people on the Spring Creek Trail behind our house as I walk Chumley, the golden retriever who owns me. I notice that most people will return the greeting. Sometimes runners with intense expressions on their faces won’t say “Hi” through their grimace. And the other group who I notice won’t make eye contact or say, “Hello!” is the cohort of children who have been trained not to — the kids whose parents have drummed “stranger-danger” into them for years. While we all want our kids to be safe, I wonder sometimes if we’ve overdone it and we are creating a self-isolating group of folks who will soon be adults. You’ve undoubtedly read about the loneliness epidemic in our society, and congregations like ours can be part of the solution as a locus of true intergenerational community.
Whether any person looks you in the eye and says, “I see you,” there is a greater force in the universe who, as the psalmist says, “has searched you and known you, and is acquainted with all your ways.”
So, here’s a question for you: Is it good news or bad news that God sees you, knows you from the inside out, really gets who you are? I suppose that depends on how you envision God and God’s activity in the world. Is your image of God like St. Nick? “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” And if that’s the case it may not be such good news, because we all mess up royally every now and again…and nobody wants to get a lump of coal in their stocking. But God isn’t St. Nick.
But what if you have a different image of God? In a large section of American Christianity people imagine God primarily as a judge. And if God is playing the part of the judge, your part is…well, the accused. The most famous sermon preached in colonial American was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and we’re still trying to recover from the Calvinist notion of Total Depravity that ungirds it.
To be sure, all of us miss the mark with varying degrees of regularity, but that doesn’t mean that God gives up on us. I love the poetic section of this psalm that assures us that God is with us.
“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in the underworld, you are there.
If I take to the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.” vv. 7-10
We are not left on our own! God sees us, knows us, pursues us, and won’t reject us, even when we fall short.
There was a wise Jesuit from South India named Anthony de Mello who wrote beautiful parables and aphorisms. And one of my favorites has only six words: “Imagine God beholding you…and smiling.” Hear that again: “Imagine God beholding you…and smiling.”
Will you humor me? Take a moment and turn to the person next to you and really look at them — behold them! And once you’ve exchanged glances with your neighbor…by a show of hands, how many of you saw someone smile at you?
That person your neighbor smiled at is a beloved child of God. That person is fearfully and wonderfully made, a gift of God and a gift of Creation. That person is you. “Imagine God beholding you…and smiling.”
Maybe some of us have a little nagging voice in the back of our heads that says, “Yes, but…” Yes, but I’m not devout enough or successful enough or young enough or thin enough or old enough or physically able enough.”
You are enough. I see you. There is not a person in this room who is not enough. Each of you is “fearfully and wonderfully made by God, who right hand now holds you fast.”
Each of us needs to be seen and loved, and even when our human families fall short of our needs, there is a greater parent that says, “I see you. I know you from the inside out. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. I love you.”
I’m going to leave you with a question to ponder. And for some of us this is a real conundrum, so I hope you will write this down or remember it and pose the question several times this week: What does God see in you that brings a smile to her face?
Whatever your answer, do more of that, because God’s world needs it dearly.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Mandy began her ministry at Plymouth in August of 2014. She is originally from Michigan where she followed her call to ministry to become a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Her passion is helping young people grow in faith in creative and meaningful ways. Read more.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
July 2, 2017
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
There are some commercials running on TV these days that intrigue me. They are commercials for a credit card program that purportedly says what it does and does what it says. They wonder what it would be like to say exactly what you are thinking to people.
In the latest version that I’ve seen a woman goes up to a front door carrying a pie and rings the doorbell. You immediately think she is welcoming a new neighbor. The woman in the house answers the door. The woman with the pie says: “Hi, I’m your neighbor. I know you are new to the neighborhood and brought you this pie to see how weird you might be.” The second woman says, brightly, “Oh, well it smells....(pause)” The first woman, “Intrusive?” The second woman, “Yes! Would you like to come in and snoop around?” First woman “Why yes! That’s exactly why I came.” The voiceover asks, “Wouldn’t life be easier if we just said what we were thinking?” Would it? Maybe yes, Maybe no!
As I read our words from Matthew about welcome I thought about these commercials and our culture of plain speech. Which isn’t always so plain or so simple. Or is sometimes so plain that it is hurtful and divisive. Or is so plain that it hides the truth in plain sight.
And we all know that the old adage, “Stick and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me” is profoundly false. Words do hurt...they can burn and wound and leave a mark on our souls. AND they can be like a cup of cold water after a hard day’s work. Or on the lips of someone dying from thirst. They can be like springs bubbling up in the desert. Water is essential to life...so are words of kindness, compassion, love....words of strength and truth and justice proclaimed without malice or hatred.
I also thought about our sincere efforts here at Plymouth to offer extravagant and even radical welcome to people who walk through our doors. We do a pretty good job with our words and in our actions. We believe fervently and remind one another frequently that welcoming the stranger is welcoming the Holy among us.
The Greek word, dechomai, translated as “welcome” in our passage today using the NRSV can also be translated “receive.” I think receive can take the action of welcome deeper. Does receive open the door to relationship? I can welcome you at my front door but not receive your presence into my house. Even the woman in the commercial surprised by the nosy neighbor with the pie receives the woman into her house. You wonder if no matter how awkward their beginning, there is still a possibility for relationship. According to the dictionary, to welcome is “to greet gladly.” To receive is “to accept, to take in” as well as to welcome. A truly meaningful welcome to someone needs both actions.
The words we heard about welcome from the gospel of Matthew come at the end of a long discourse of instruction that Jesus gives the 12 disciples as he sends them out as missionaries to preach and teach all Jesus has been teaching them. And to be agents of healing in the world. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. ... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Because we are attuned to the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 we first assume that the “little ones” are the “least of these” in our world. Or maybe you thought about the children in Matthew 19 that the disciples are shooing away. Jesus says to them and to us that we must become open and receptive like the children to enter the kingdom of heaven. However the “little ones “ in this passage are not the least of these or the children. They are the disciples...the ones sent on mission proclaiming God’s good news, the ones healing and bringing new life. The little ones are the disciples sent out to do the work of God’s kingdom...they are us.
Jesus wanted the disciples to be received! Not just glad-handed....”Oh, hi! How are you? Glad to have you here!” ... Next.... Greeted gladly, yes AND received! A reception that is like taking in a cup of cold water to restore life...to keep it thriving! When the disciples are greeted and fully with life-giving welcome, Jesus said that it was like receiving him which was like receiving the one who sent him....receiving God. Greeting and receiving with a “cup of cold water” welcome is receiving God in our midst....It goes way beyond just being nice, polite people.
So this poses some questions in my mind....Starting from the inside and moving out... How do you greet and receive your self as one of Christ’s beloved disciples? If your self-talk is anything like mine....it is not always so generous. I once said something self-depreciating in a conversation with my son and he said to me, “Don’t talk about my mother that way!” I believe God is often saying to us...”Don’t talk about my beloved that way!” We are not perfect and God knows that. But God is always ready to receive us with that cup of cold water welcome.
How do we talk to those closest to us....our family and friends? Do we see them first as God’s beloved disciples even when we are frustrated with them? And maybe for good reason! How do we have conflict with them and still see them as God’s beloveds? And welcome them as such in the good times and the not so good?
How do we welcome one another in this community as disciples of Christ as we go about building the realm of God here in northern CO? How we use our words and our actions to greet and receive one another has everything to do with how we receive our guests! Are we willing to step outside our comfort zone to welcome those we do not know but who may have been members and friends of this congregation for years? Or may be new? Or may be a very different age from us? Or may disagree with us on some issue? How do we use this deep sense of welcome to work across the silos of boards and committees and competing mission initiatives within this very community?
And moving out one more circle.....I have often noted that it is easier for us as Progressive Christians to have interfaith dialogue than it is to speak across the divisions of Christendom....than to speak to our more conservative and evangelical brothers and sisters. It sounds more exciting too, doesn’t it? More exotic. More difficult somehow. Yet it is harder to speak with family members that are estranged. How sad that we cannot speak to our own family members and welcome them. And that they may shy away from being welcomed by us. And vice versa. This is part of my excitement about the IAF community organizing work...it is an opportunity to learn relationship, to reach across the conservative/liberal boundaries and work with Christian brothers and sister on issues that can change lives.
In an interview with Krista Tippet on her radio show, “On Being”, American poet, Marie Howe quotes one of her poetry professors, the exiled Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky: “You Americans, you are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.”
Friends, we all know in this day of highly inflamed language, how much words as well as actions shape who we are. Marie Howe goes on to say to Krista Tippett... “language is almost all we have left of action in the modern world. ... action has become what we say. The moral life is lived out in what we say more often than what we do.”
Let the Spirit of God work in words of deep welcome from the inside out in you....gladly greet and receive yourself as a beloved disciple of God’s realm, gladly greet and receive those you are closest to, those in this community that you love and work with and those you do not yet know, those who enter our doors as guests....and those whom you meet when you leave the doors of this sanctuary to bring God’s good news and healing into the world. Your words will inform your actions and your actions your words! You will say what you mean to others and what you say will be compassionate, just and loving. You will be a cup of cold water for this thirsty world! Amen.
© Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. May be reprinted for publication with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
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