Pastor Diane Schmitz
September 24, 2000

Let me tell you a story.

It was a rainy autumn afternoon when the large moving truck, driven by Roberta's husband, Paul, pulled into the driveway of their new home in a suburban area of Oregon. Roberta and her husband looked at each other as if to say, "I hope we did the right thing." Their 12-year-old son, Aaron, peeked around from between them to look out the window. "Wow - this is really different than Cleveland," he said looking at the chipmunks playing in the apple trees on the side yard of their new house.

The decision to leave Cleveland had not been any easy one but the teaching position Roberta had been offered in a unique alternative school was enticing. Her husband was able to be flexible with his consulting business. The last year had been difficult. Roberta's mother, who had lived with the family for several years, had been killed by an errant driver while she was in a cross walk. Their home just seemed to be filled with too much sorrow. It was time for a new start.

Two weeks after they arrived, Roberta began her new teaching job and Aaron began his new school year. After dropping Aaron off at his school, Roberta headed towards her own school. She felt a sense of excitement; teaching was her passion and she knew she was good at it. Now she had the opportunity to work in a well-regarded school; she was eager meet people and contribute to the life of that community.

The first day went well. Roberta met many people; they were all friendly and welcoming to her. That night at the dinner table she asked Aaron how his day had been. He said it was scary not knowing anybody but people had generally been nice and welcoming to him.

The first few weeks went by quickly. By the end of the fourth week, Roberta was aware of a vague uneasiness growing within her. She was also concerned about Aaron who seemed to say less and less about school as time went on. One night at the dinner table Roberta shared some of her frustration. "I just feel on the outside," she said. "At our staff meetings I offer some ideas, but I feel ignored. Oh, people are nice, at least on the surface, but I noticed that I often seem to get cut off when I make a suggestion. I even volunteered to take leadership for our upcoming parent orientation, but everyone said that was always handled by Jane. She mimicked someone: `Jane's always done such a good job for us' they didn't even suggest I could help. I feel like they don't trust me because I'm new. It's not like I haven't done parent orientations before," she said. "It seems like there's an `in' group and I'm out of it."

Aaron spoke up. "Yeah, mom, I know what you mean. Today at recess I was trying to tell some kids about a different game and some of them were watching me like they were curious. Then this one boy said, `Oh, I don't think that would be much fun.' Then the other kids, even the girl who looked interested in my suggestion, said, `Yeah, I think that's kind of a dumb idea.' Something like that happened after school, too. It's like he's the leader and everybody does what he says; almost like they don't dare disagree with him. I feel like I don't even count. I think that boy doesn't want people to like me. He wants all the attention on him. Maybe he's afraid of what will happen if people like me too. He just doesn't want anyone new in his `in' group."

They talked together awhile more and encouraged each other to keep on trying. "It always takes awhile to feel comfortable in a new situation," said Roberta. "It will get easier; we'll fit in eventually," she said, hoping in her heart she was right.

The weeks went by and Roberta got more discouraged. It was hard to figure out exactly why she felt so frustrated. She was having a good time with the children in the classroom. But, her encounters with other faculty and staff seemed to never be very engaging or affirming. She had continued to suggest ideas and volunteer for leadership roles, but most of the time people hinted, in one way or another, that she just hadn't had enough time in there to know what really worked well. Gradually she stopped making suggestions; soon she stopped going to as many of the faculty gatherings. Her disillusionment grew. Her initial excitement about belonging to the community began to wither away.

Aaron at school had been struggling too but one day something changed that. The boy in the in-group who had previously ignored him saw Aaron playing with a yo-yo and was very impressed. He was not good at it himself and asked Aaron to show him some moves so he could impress others. Aaron was very willing. For the first time he felt wanted at the school. Other kids started noticing how the boy who was leader of their group had befriended Aaron. They started talking to Aaron more and listening to ideas he had. Soon, the school had a new yo-yo club. The members were practicing diligently for a state tournament. Aaron was feeling like he really belonged. "I really like this school, Mom. I'm glad we moved here!"

Meanwhile, Roberta resigned herself to her work situation. She resolved to find other outlets for her leadership since she didn't feel truly welcomed among the faculty and staff. Although she was always there, prepared and engaged for her classes she seldom found herself involved in anything extra in the school community.

One day Roberta saw an announcement on the staff bulletin board. There was a special convocation being held at the school. The guest speaker was a nationally known educator; someone who had won numerous teaching awards and also been a school administrator. The school was abuzz with the excitement of getting to hear the wisdom of this man. Roberta decided to go. The school auditorium was full the evening of his talk; many people from surrounding communities and school districts had come to listen to him. Soon after the beginning of his speech, the man asked the audience a question. "How many of you are new teachers in this district this year?" Nine people raised their hands. Roberta was one of them. He asked them to come up front and form a panel.

"I've learned something over my many years as an educator," he said smiling. "The longer I teach, the easier it is to get out of touch with things. A wise mentor once told me that to keep myself renewed and creative I should always ask those newer teachers around me what their ideas are and what changes they see as enlivening possibilities for the school. It's proven to be one of my best `techniques' he said, grinning. The new teachers on the panel were invited to share their impressions of what was happening in education and in their own schools. With the urging of the guest speaker they shared their own ideas for impacting education; Roberta was thrilled to be asked her opinions and enthusiastically talked about her ideas. A stimulating discussion followed.

After the gathering ended, Roberta was walking out. One of the teachers from her school stopped her. "Roberta, you have some really wonderful ideas. Why haven't we been capitalizing on your creativity?" The next day at school, the principal came to Roberta and asked if she would head a task force to explore one of her ideas for improving children's reading that she mentioned the night before. A long-time teacher asked her to have lunch. "I had no idea you had so much experience working with learning disabilities," he said. "I really want to know more." Roberta went home that day a different person. The school and its community grew larger that day as it finally was able to be truly welcoming and receptive to the gifts of God embodied in Roberta. God was at work through the willingness of the guest speaker to put others ahead of him. The guest speaker was wise in putting first many of the people others would have put last.

To be welcoming is more than a friendly hello. Truly welcoming people seek out the gifts of others, put them to use and celebrate them. A welcoming community makes room for the new and different recognizing that the greatest possibility for growth often presents itself in a deceiving disguise. A community that wants to grow must consciously destroy its borders, both visible and invisible, so that new members can easily move into the center of the community's life.

This is an important thing for us at First Congregational Church of Monroe to take into our hearts. We will be inviting more people into this congregation; we will be inviting them to join in the life of this church. It is helpful for us to think deeply about how it is to be new in a community. It is good for us to trust in the people God sends to us; trusting enough to let them take leadership positions within the church, confident enough in the Spirit working among us that we try their new ideas and listen to their concerns.

When we care deeply for our communities we feel a sense of protection about them. We want them to be safe from harm; we would like them to be stable. But we can get trapped in this caring concern. When we focus our concerns on making sure nothing disruptive or unacceptable happens within the community we find that our actions ensure that nothing new and innovative happens.

Jesus' radical words of reversal - the first must be last of all and servant of all - can be creatively applied to ideas as well as people. How often we all have been in discussions where there are assumptions made about which idea is the best, the greatest - sometimes simply because of who suggested it or because it's the way we've always done it. Jesus' words call to us to consider that what we often argue is the greatest, and most deserving of first priority in our community may in fact be what needs to be set-aside in service of something else. We are called to be open to the possibility that that which we assume should receive less attention or in some cases, no attention at all, is what perhaps should be first in our decision-making processes.

We are called to be servants of all - all ideas - all people. God is big and God is surprising. We are called to be awake to God working within our community in unexpected ways:

A little child brings us wisdom. A new person in the community challenges us to think differently. A leader in the community holds back during a discussion so that another may have the opportunity to express their ideas. A church member reaches out to someone new and looks for ways to bring that person's unique gifts into our church life.

Over and over again we welcome God in other people; we see the face of Jesus in all we meet and we allow ourselves to receive those blessings. And we bless back. God's love flowing in such reciprocal relationships strengthens the church and creates a community that is truly welcoming to all of God's people.

May we be that community. Amen.