Have you ever walked into somewhere and instantly felt that you were not welcome, wanted, or needed in that place? This morning I will share with you one of the most bizarre worship experiences I had ever had. When I was in college, I was active in a Gospel choir for about a year. My time with them really taught me how to project my voice and how to use it. We would sing nonstop for hours, one concert could last close to four hours and just when you thought your voice couldn’t possibly get any louder the directors would make us go louder. There was not a single concert where I didn’t lose my voice afterwards.
But what was more valuable for me was to experience their type of worship. Many of the participants were of a Pentecostal background and music would often lead to worship and worship lead to music. I experienced people taken by the Holy Spirit flailing around on the ground, weeping and wailing, and talking in tongues. The first time I was in this class I was “a little” overwhelmed. I was out of my worship element. I remember pushing my way to the back of the classroom and just watching with wide terror stricken eyes. I began asking “what have I gotten myself into?” and I thought about dropping the class. I was uncomfortable. I went home that night and decided to sleep on it before I made a decision. In the morning, I was bound and determined not to let my fear and discomforts dictate to me what I would experience, what I could learn. Maybe there was a reason God wanted me to join this choir. So I stayed and learned from them. I learned to loosen up in my worship and I learned about who these people were as individuals and about their faith practices.
In the beginning, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like I was out of place and that they wouldn’t want me in their group because I worshiped and experienced God in a very different way. And most people would just turn around and leave. I was a freshman in college, all of my high school friends were scattered all over the country and world and I was lonely. I needed someplace where I felt like I belonged and where I felt wanted and needed. As I continued to attend, people started to notice me on the back wall and invited me into the group. They noticed that I didn’t speak in tongues or become overtaken with the Holy Spirit and they would ask me about my strange worship practices and I could ask them about theirs. They became my support system and friends. They helped me to feel connected to God more closely. They made me feel welcomed which was what I needed the most in those early days of college.
We all need to feel welcome, needed, important to the people around us and to God and our church communities. We all need a place where we belong no matter how we observe God or who we are or what our backgrounds might be. I really love our scripture selection for today because it is one of the rare instances in the Gospels where we see non Jews approaching Jesus. Now to many of the disciples, they would have been offended to have a gentile approach Jesus because the Messiah was supposed to be for the chosen people of God alone.
In fact, in the other Gospels we see Jesus learning about his role as Savior in these moments. He realizes that all people no matter what their religious or cultural backgrounds are need to feel the compassion of God and that God’s message was intended to be an all inclusive one. The Greek people that came to Jesus were searching for his compassion and the wholeness that he offered to all who believed. They may have felt as outsiders at first in a culture that had extreme xenophobia, a culture that would have scoffed at the thought that their Messiah, that was supposed to bring Israel back into glory and destroy the Pagan influences in their lands, would waste time with the concerns of the pagans in their country. But we see that Jesus welcomed these Greeks because of their faith.
In our lives, there are times when we might wonder if we are truly welcomed into Christ’s discipleship. When we experience times of doubt and struggle we wonder whether we are accepted into Christ’s fellowship. We may even experience those times when we hope that we are somehow set above everyone else and somehow more special than other people whose backgrounds and actions in life we might question. We might wonder just who will be accepted into Christ’s new Kingdom when the time comes.
But these scriptures are meant to guide us in our search for acceptance and mission in our lives. Remember what Jesus said in the book of John, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor”. We are all welcomed to follow Christ and to do this is to also reach out to others with compassion, love and kindness, to accept others who are in need of Christ’s companionship into our church family. We are being challenged today to live our lives acknowledging that just as we have been forgiven our faults and accepted into the house of God, so too should we be living our lives in this manner. We should be actively extending a welcoming hand of fellowship to all who search for peace through Christ. We are challenged to live our lives as welcoming people. So as we prepare for yet another week in our Lenten journey, let us meditate and think on how we can be more open and welcoming as a people and as individuals. For Jesus said that if we truly believe in him then we must strive to live like him.(sermon based on John 12:20-33)