by Will Fuller, Kairos-Milwaukie UCC

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16

“Giving involves dying” said Father Pat in his Thanksgiving Day Mass homily at St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Gresham. It was a fine message about giving and sacrifice, about giving thanks for God’s gracious presence, even when God’s Creation includes pain, suffering and inevitable death. Like a tolling bell, it resonated for a UCC visitor like me as well as it might for a devout Catholic.

It resonates as a Christmas bell, too. In this joyous time of celebration for God’s greatest gift, there is a sacrifice. The Star of Bethlehem shines as a Cross; the sign of Jesus’ birth foreshadows his death and resurrection. Giving involves giving up something in order to receive something more.

Yet, I felt the contrast between that church’s orthodox tradition and the UCC’s unorthodox one. My wife and I were there as guests of friends, not as Catholics. While we were welcomed, we were not welcome to share the sacrament of communion the way any guest is invited to communion at a UCC service.

The UCC is a place of extravagant welcome.

UCC churches express God’s extravagant welcome in a variety of ways. Our welcome embraces both those we invite to participate in our congregations, as well as those outside the church, with whom we work for God’s justice and compassion. (UCC extravagant welcome website)

We are called to expand that welcome, to act for justice and peace in this world–for the life beyond pain, suffering and even death.

In gratitude, because God welcomes us, we are called to make bold stands. In behalf of and along with those who remain oppressed, suffering, alienated, and poor in God’s world, we speak and act.  “It’s not an extravagant welcome to an ‘anything-goes’ religion, a comfortable form of Christianity, but to a costly form of discipleship,” says John Thomas, current president and general minister of the UCC. Thomas calls this kind of discipleship “evangelical courage.” It’s the other side of the “extravagant welcome” coin. (UCC extravagant welcome website)

Evangelical fervor tempts us to turn away from extravagant welcome toward orthodox exclusion, from one right way among many toward only one rigidly right way to truth and justice.  This is no banal matter of loving the sinner, hating the sin, but of comprehending sin and salvation themselves, of seeing what we give up when we give, of hearing the voice of a still-speaking God, of savoring extravagant welcome.

We in the UCC make bold stands for justice.  We act, and we should, especially now.

We mourn the senseless loss of life in Connecticut and Clackamas Town Center Oregon, as we should, but these are isolated horrors caused by lone, deranged individuals.  How much more, then, need we mourn, how much more need we act, to stop the senseless loss of life in war-shattered countries, in poverty-drained backwaters, in oppression-crushed communities that results from deliberate acts of our own powerful society.  Extravagant welcome sounds an alarm bell calling us to costly discipleship and evangelical courage.

As we act, however, my Christmas wish is that we act rightly, but not rigidly or righteously.  Let us act in deep gratitude for our Christmas gifts from a gracious God:  our power to act, our prosperity to share, our truth to guide, our faith to resurrect, and our joyous Christmas bells tolling an extravagant welcome to all … to all … to all.

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