“He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
This past week, at my other job at Montana State University Billings, we held a camp for high school students with disabilities who want to consider going to college. We hosted 17 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from all over the state of Montana. For four days we had them tour three college campuses, take classes, listen to presenters, and hear from college students who attend college. We also entertained them with lots of social activities. It was a wonderful experience . . . but, I discovered that I am getting too old for this stuff. It is tough keeping up with teenagers at my age.
It was a great experience for the kids . . . and, it was experience of the heart for me. Let me explain.
For a moment I want you to think back to your days in high school. High school, no matter what generation, is tough. Think about how everyone broke themselves up into social groups . . . cliques . . . and achieved some sort of pecking order. There were the “in” groups, and the “out” groups. Which group or groups were you a part of? We you among the popular kids, or were you one of the outsiders or outcasts? We you included, or were you left out? And, do you remember how it made you feel?
Well, these kids, for the most part, in their schools and lives, are probably what most of us would consider to be outcasts or outsiders . . . those who are in the shadows of most of society’s circles. They are not the popular kids . . . they are not the athletic kids . . . they struggle with learning . . . some of the look different . . . some of them act different . . . and, all of them had some sort of disability that those around them saw as making them second-class citizens at the best. These are the kids who other kids made fun of . . . picked on . . . these are the kids who were excluded from the circle.
There were three students from one of the schools that serve the Crow Reservation. Where they went to school they learned to exist in the shadows of the school . . . learned to make themselves invisible. It was tough enough for them to be Indians, but add to that the fact that they had disabilities . . . and, well, they had two strikes in a game of life that only allows three before you are out.
There were two students who were on the Autism Spectrum complete with their little idiosyncrasies and behaviors that made them peculiar and different to their classmates and the rest of the world. Stuck in their own worlds, but desperately attempting to fit in. Made fun of by others, picked on by some . . .
There were three hard of hearing students.
Most of the students had learning disabilities.
And, most of them knew well the feeling of being left out . . . of not being included . . . of living life on the outside and always looking in.
It was a motley crew that we encountered that first day. Apprehensive. Quiet. Scared. It was fairly quiet that first day, but as the camp went on and the students felt more welcomed and accepted . . . well, it got quite loud. Out of the shadows these students slowly came out . . . they let their defenses down . . . and, they felt included for who they were. There was lots of laughter . . . lots of teasing . . . there were “aha” moments . . . trust was built . . . friendships were discovered. Where there had been apprehension and fear at the beginning, there were tears and a reluctance to go home . . . to go home to their non-existent lives. They just wouldn’t leave no matter how much I wanted them to leave.
In the end, the last student left. After the high of seeing lives transformed, the reality set in for me . . . a sadness filled my heart. These kids were going right back into those situations in which they would never be included for being themselves. The brief respite from exclusion while at the university for four days . . . despite embracing and experiencing inclusion . . . these kids were facing a really tough life ahead of them. For some of them this reality broke my heart.
Jesus said, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receive me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
These were the closing remarks that Jesus spoke to his twelve disciples before he sent them out on a mission trip. The key word that is repeated in this statement to the disciples is “welcoming”. Over and over again, Jesus lets his disciples know that in welcoming the reward is theirs. To “welcome” another is to greet with hospitality . . . it is to accept another . . . and, it is to do so with gladness. Hospitality is to receive another into one’s presence . . . to bring them into the group . . . to receive them, to receive them just as they are. It is here that I believe that Jesus encourages his disciples to embrace a ministry of “welcoming” . . . a ministry of hospitality. He tells them that if they would practice such a ministry, the rewards would be greater than they ever imagined.
Though it seemed as if Jesus spent a lot of time speaking to large crowds in public places, he does his miracles and most powerful acts of love in the shadows of the crowds among those who are not allowed into the circle. Consider his many miracles . . . his many acts of graciousness . . . the many times that he welcomed the outsider or stranger into the circle of grace and love. After having served as an ordained minister for over 30 years . . . preaching lots of sermons . . . studying lots of scripture and reading lots of commentaries, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus preached and lived a ministry of hospitality. A ministry of “welcoming”.
I think this “ministry of welcoming” was what those 17 high school students encountered at their camp on the campus of Montana State University Billing. I think they experienced raw hospitality as they were welcomed, embraced, and accepted for who they were . . . disabilities and all. In that hospitality they bloomed . . . they bloomed even if it was only for a few days. They basked in that acceptance. Gone were the defenses and masks they hid behind. Out of the shadows they came into the light and felt alive and accepted . . . they felt love. The circle that had excluded them had been erased and a bigger one was drawn. The reward . . . the blessing . . . was mine. Overwhelming mine.
Whatever Jesus challenged his disciples with, he challenges us for we are his disciples, too.
We are called to a ministry of hospitality . . . a ministry of welcoming. We are called to go out into the world and to welcome others into the family of God. We are called upon to receive others for who God created them to be . . . warts and all. And, as a congregation, that was the ministry we agreed upon several years back when we changed our constitution and by-laws . . . we agreed to be a welcoming body of followers of Jesus. We agreed to practice a ministry of hospitality . . . one in which all are welcome. And, for the most part, I truly believe that we have embraced this challenged as the faithful.
Yet, at the same time, we have yet to even delve into the potential opportunity that we could experience if we only want to. We could do so much more! Thus it is that the words of Jesus this morning challenge us to be more than we are. And, then again, maybe we are already doing as much as we can. If this is where you are, I ask you to take a moment to consider the table that is before . . . the table from which we celebrate the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples.
Each Sunday we gather around this table to break the bread and lift the cup. Each Sunday we reiterate that this is an “open” table in which anyone and everyone is welcome to take their place at the table. We proclaim loudly each week “that all are welcome” . . . welcome to come and take their rightful place--not only at the table, but in the family of God. With that in mind, I challenge you to consider who is not at the table . . . and, why aren’t they at the table? Consider who is not at the table.
This is where we begin in our ministry of hospitality . . . our ministry of welcoming. Welcoming those no one else will include . . . welcoming those who are in the shadows. We begin with Nick, Cole, Jackson, JT, Ian, Summer, Whisper, Maylasia, Erin, and nine other students. We begin moving into the shadows and welcoming those who are not welcomed in the world we live in.
The quote by Edwin Markham has been paraphrased by the followers of Jesus. In their paraphrase they state that the circle was drawn by the world in general to exclude, Jesus drew the circle to include all. Let us go forth and do likewise . . . let us practice hospitality. Jesus did. Amen.