The Point of Welcome, or A Secret History of I-95

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Audio Recording

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The word for beginning, in Greek, is “arxi,”  It’s an ancient word.  Its roots go back to the idea of a beginning, but also to something primary or noble, kingly or commanding.  The beginning of a ministry makes sense of that relationship, those dual, seemingly disparate roots, because so often the start of something important does come with noble hopes. I know you and I carry such hopes.  This means that in the midst of all the energy and to-do’s and plans and meetings and ministry that we’ve begun together, this is a tender time for us, for you and me.  Each intending and seeking to know and learn the other, each treasuring high hopes and likely also a little baggage, each believing that together we will be good and good for each other, that the church will be better for our union, that we will help each other and be a help to many in this time within and beyond these walls.  We believe it is so, may it be so.

That tenderness is particular to us and this circumstance of beginning a new ministry together – and it’s also not particular to us, not even particular to the beginning of any ministry.  It’s often the situation when anyone comes to a church – or a temple, or a mosque – for the first time.  People come in not knowing others, unsure of their welcome, unsure if they belong, sometimes unsure if they even want to belong, sometimes careful of the wounds carried from past faiths or congregations, sometimes mindful that inside or out they may not seem like those that they see around them in the space – and still they come.

I know we don’t usually talk, or maybe even think about it this way, but it takes courage to come to church, especially, but not only, for the first time.  Strangers are vulnerable, which is why there are countless stories, time out of mind, about the sacred task of hospitality and the sacred gifts that come with hospitality well-offered and well-received. You may remember the legend of the old and impoverished couple Baucis and Philemon.  The gods Zeus and Hermes come to visit them disguised as poor travellers.  Zeus and Hermes had already tried other homes throughout the village, and no one would welcome them in, give them food or a place to rest.  But Baucis and Philemon, in the poorest and smallest house, did… because that’s what you do when a visitor comes to your door seeking shelter.  They even offered to cook up their last goose, until it fled to safety in Zeus’ lap.  Eventually Baucis, the wife, noticed that no matter how many times she filled her guests’ cups with the last of her wine, her pitcher was never empty.  She and Philemon realized their guests were gods and raise their hands in supplication and awe.  But Zeus and Hermes reassured them to have no fear – their generosity and piety were redemptive.  The rest of the town would be wiped out, but they would be saved.  The elderly couple climbed up the hills nearby, as the gods directed, and turned to see the town flooded and gone.  A temple appeared where their home had been.  They asked to serve at the temple the rest of their lives, and when they died, the two became an intertwined pair of trees, an oak and a linden, evermore.

Oftentimes, old stories don’t sit well with modern morals, and that’s certainly true in this case.  An entire town doesn’t deserve to be killed simply because they are selfish and unwelcoming.  But the point of the story, then and now, was never about the town, it was about the sacredness of welcoming a stranger, and the fact that when we welcome a stranger, we too will be changed by the experience – welcome is fundamentally a relational experience, a 2-way street, and well-offered, it helps the host as much as the visitor.  While I don’t love all the elements of the Baucis and Philemon story, I couldn’t agree more with that point, in my own modern way.  Because the point of welcome, the goal of hospitality, isn’t hospitality itself, it’s what deep welcome makes possible – and I said this in my sermon write-up for the newsletter, I kind of gave away my point already.  Deep welcome makes possible trust, connection, relationship, community, even love, even justice, even peace.  Figuring out how to offer welcome in all the ways it is needed can be a challenge.  But it’s so worth it because the truths and people and communion that unfold in the wake of welcome well-offered and well-received may amaze us.

I think I’m getting pretty theoretical here, so let me ground this in a couple of stories.  After college, I lived in Greece and taught English there for a few years.  While I was there, I developed strong ties to a small village near Kalamata – yes, where the olives come from.  The first time I was visiting there, a small and deeply-wrinkled old woman dressed all in black beckoned me into her house and sat me down in her kitchen.  Her house wasn’t wired for electricity and so it was fairly hard to see with only the one window in the room for light.  She lifted a doily off a jug and poured me a glass of what turned out to be water from it, and then she opened a old jar of small dark things in a clear, thick, viscous sauce, and put a couple on a plate for me, and pushed them over to me with a fork to eat them with.  There they lay, gleaming wetly.  They were bigger than olives, clearly not olives, utterly mysterious.  I hadn’t learned much Greek yet, so we really couldn’t communicate.  I had no idea what these things were, but it was obvious that I needed to eat them.  And I was raised to eat what I was given, so I dug into the soft, dark food, each about as big a gigantic date – but also clearly not a date – and brought it to my mouth.  I didn’t know if it was a fruit, a vegetable, something worse – it looked a little like a giant slug and you know, there is escargot after all, so who knew what this was? I bit into it and chewed.  It was… I still didn’t know.  Surprisingly soft, a little slimy, extremely sweet, drenched in what was turning out to be some kind of syrup.

What I didn’t even know at the time was that to refuse food in someone’s home is an insult in Greece – it suggests that you don’t think their food is good enough for you.  In those humble circumstances, that’s definitely how it would have come across to my hostess.  Eventually a friend came and found me and translated a conversation which was the beginning of a surprising and delightful friendship – Anna was an old and childless widow full of interest in the world and in youth, and we enjoyed each other enormously.  Over time I learned about her life, about village life, about utterly different understandings of the world and people, from Anna.  Also my friend did tell me what I was eating: candied baby eggplant, Anna’s specialty.

Learning to see with another’s eyes, is part of what comes from welcome, when welcome, well-offered and well-received, becomes relationship.  Learning to see with another’s eyes is something we’re talking about all the time now as we contend with white privilege and the limits of identity and perception.  We all understand more and more that our perspective is not the only one and that in fact we cannot see as much when we see only our own viewpoint.  What looks empty to some – silence, a landscape – looks full to others.  What looks simple to some – a time of day, a road – looks complex to others.  So much has changed for me because of what I’ve learned from others who have different experiences and understandings, even, maybe especially, regarding elements I thought I knew – music, worship, silence, even sometimes the most mundane things.

I have driven I-95 more times than I can count.  I’ve driven it in the middle of the night, during countless rush hours, in every season, with friends and with family and too many times alone.  I’ve driven it in cars and in trucks and most recently for 12 hours straight at 50 mph, pulling a trailer while minding an unstable kayak on the roof.   I can go to sleep on I-95 (if someone else is driving!) wake up later and recognize exactly where we are without seeing any signs, that’s how well I know the road.  For most of my life, I-95 was the familiar, ugly, crowded, and most direct way to get back and forth from home, and that was about it.  But that was changed for me when a member of the Silver Spring UU church, an elderly woman who grew up black in the Jim Crow south, told me about I-95.  She was a former member of another UU church, one with a long tradition of multicultural, multiracial commitment.  Silver Spring was new in its commitment, but she had moved near the church.  She was interested in joining, but she didn’t want to join if the church wasn’t going to walk our talk about building multicultural, multiracial community there.  She spent years attending, even volunteering, before she finally joined.  She needed the long arc of time, of inhabiting and let’s be clear, not just inhabiting but testing, and evaluating, the reality of the welcome at the church, in order to make her commitment.  Her commitment in return for the church’s.  Eventually she joined and she told me about her life and along the way she told me what it meant when I-95, that federal road, was built so many decades ago in the Deep South.  A new road, a road people of color could drive without worrying about what might happen to them if they had to stop on that road, because I-95 was subject not to local police and state troopers but to federal law and federal investigators.  A highway, a highway I’ve known all my life, and often loathed driving, is now charged with entirely new meaning about justice, about freedom, about hope, about safety, because I see it through the eyes of another person’s experience.

In the end, welcome is maybe a human manifestation of grace.  Grace – such an interesting theological term – grace.  Grace is a favor, gift or indulgence freely bestowed by one who need not do so.  My favorite definition of grace comes from the folksinger/songwriter David Wilcox who said once at a concert “Grace is the bridge that is built to us from the other side.” ….Grace is the bridge that is built to us, from the other side….. However we define how or from where grace comes, the crux of it is that grace comes to us unbidden.  We cannot make, invoke or earn grace.  Regardless of whether or not we deserve it, grace comes as and if and when it comes and that’s that.  True welcome is also like that – it is offered to us, not earned by us, and we receive and accept it graciously even when we feel unsure.

So in the end, we must seek to offer welcome, real welcome, deep welcome, not because it reflects well on us, or makes us feel better about ourselves, or because it is expected and we are people-pleasers, or because it may increase our membership, or diversify our membership – we must offer deep welcome in every way we can because it is part of how we manifest grace, part of how we connect to each other and save each other – and are saved by each other.  We gain when we connect, our welcome grows us all as individuals, the welcomer and the welcomed, the host and stranger, we are all made more, more whole, regardless of numbers or expectations or any external measures, through welcome.

At General Assembly many years ago, Philadelphia poet laureate Sonia Sanchez addressed a gathering of UU ministers.  Among many stories she told us, was this.  She was coming home, around 1 am, from work to the sketchy neighborhood in Philadelphia where she lives.  Sonia Sanchez is a very small, older woman.  She had with her a briefcase and her bulky purse.  Suddenly, at the other end of the dimly-lit block she saw a young man, 17 years at most, walking in her direction.  She saw him notice her from the other end of the block, and she saw him stop, and check both ways up and down the empty street, and then start up again, coming towards her… and she ran to him and threw her arms around him and said: “Oh my brother, my brother, I’m so glad you’re here.  Now you can see me safely home.”  And he did.  And she sat on her stairs with him when they got her home and she asked him why he was out so late and he said “Got no job, out looking for stuff to do.”  She said “There is no life for you out here, late at night.  Out here, this late, you will find no work, no life, only death.”  They grew into relationship that night;  eventually she found him a job at Temple University where she worked.

That is deep, human, spiritual, brilliance and transformation because she welcomed him, on that empty street, she welcomed him and she saved herself and she saved the youth.  She utterly changed a moment and lives by declaring kinship, she took a stranger and made him a friend, a brother, defying the potential of unfamiliarity to shape that moment by welcoming him, honoring their, our, shared humanity, all the ways that we are more alike than we are unalike.  Her story lifts up the extraordinary power of welcome.

Everywhere we go, and especially here, we can diminish each other … and strangers we meet – or we can raise each other up and declare kinship.  We have incredible power for good, transformational power for good.  And there are uncountable ways to welcome, that only need us, to discern them, to bring us closer, step by powerful step, welcome by deep welcome, to the world we don’t just dream about but work for.  Amen.

Opening Words:

Choose to Bless the World, part I by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power,
the strength of the hands,
the reaches of the heart,
the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
bind up wounds,
welcome the stranger,
praise what is sacred,
do the work of justice
or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
hoard bread,
abandon the poor,
obscure what is holy,
comply with injustice
or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?


As we light this chalice, we invoke the love that calls people into connection and understanding, that calls us even to risk and sacrifice for another.  May we be vessels of lifesaving welcome.  (adapted from words by Rev. Michael Tino)


There’s my temple!
Believer, unbeliever or wild one.
You are welcome!
We have no definition of who we are but human.
We have no code but that of respect.
We have no creed but that of equality.

There’s my temple!
Identity-seeker, sinner, stateless or not.
You are welcome!
We have no constraints on expression but space.
We have no code but to listen to poetry
between the silence and the surrender.

There’s my temple!
Nature-tripper, urban-dweller, or saint.
You are welcome!
How shall we divide the world but by our breaths.
We have no pope above us, no infallible bull.
We have no judgement but in terms of harm.

There’s my temple!
History-maker, marginalized, unorganized.
You are welcome!
We have no covenant among us but mutual assistance.
We insist on no assumptions and doubt moral facts.
We are free to theorize with emotion and call it hope.

There’s my temple!
Unbecoming, expert, robe or disrobe.
You are welcome!
We have no dwarfs or giants, Goliath fell long ago.
We have no seal on revelation, tentative is truth.
Lead by your desires and serve by your power.

There’s my temple!
Funny, temperamental, shy, or wise.
You are welcome!
There is not one way of being human, not even Superman.
We have no world but that which we together create.
There is as much wisdom in harmony as in dissent.

– By Ma Theresa Gustilo Gallardo


Closing Words:

Choose to bless the world.

The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
a moving forward into the world
with the intention to do good.

It is an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
that in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

There is an embrace of kindness
that encompasses all life, even yours.

And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
there moves a holy disturbance,
a benevolent rage,
a revolutionary love,
protesting, urging, insisting
that which is sacred will not be defiled.

Those who bless the world live their life
as a gesture of thanks
for this beauty
and this rage.

The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
to search for the sources
of power and grace;
native wisdom, healing, and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
the endeavor shared,
the heritage passed on,
the companionship of struggle,
the importance of keeping faith,

the life of ritual and praise,
the comfort of human friendship,
the company of earth
the chorus of life welcoming you.

We travel together on a search for meaning, having come from many different places and bringing many different gifts to share for the journey. Bless those who bring the gift of courage. Bless those who bring the gift of love. Bless those who bring the gift of curiosity. Bless those who bring the gift of hospitality.

I’d like you to turn to your neighbors, to face one person at a time with focus and intention, and to give and receive the message, “Your gifts are welcome on this journey.” If you need help remembering, the words are written in your order of service. We’ll take a moment when you can bless and be blessed by two or three people near you. If you choose not to participate out loud, you are welcome to fold your hands and close your eyes in meditation and know that your neighbors will appreciate you from afar. In any case, please hear from me: “Your gifts are welcome on this journey.” Please bless one another. – Lyn Cox