Welcome Matters

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner, Bridge Interim Rector

Matthew 10:40-42

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

For years, the Episcopal Church has had the same slogan: the Episcopal Church welcomes you.  In some parts of the country you can find it on those white and blue signs that hang by the road, telling you that the local parish is half a mile down the road to the left.  A few years ago, the national church tried to change the slogan—“The Episcopal Church welcomes you” was presumably too dated.  The idea was to go with something catchier: “The Episcopal Church: We’re here for you.”  Well, that didn’t take.  I’m not sure of the institutional reasons, but I like to think that the core reason is that we held on to the idea of welcome.

Welcome matters.  We in the Episcopal Church are good at it. It’s our thing.  It’s on our sign.  We know how to do it.  Right?

My colleagues presumably think so.  In talking with my fellow priests this week, a lot of them are skipping the gospel.  They’re not preaching on it, at least.  The general consensus is that it’s too straightforward.  I mean, how hard is it to give someone a cup of cold water?  Not rocket science.  This should be easy.

The thing is, it’s not.  I look around at the Episcopal Church, and I look around at us Episcopalians at large in the world, and I don’t think we’ve got it down at all, not yet.   And so I want to take some time this morning to think about welcome—about what true welcome is, and how we might employ it in different facets of our corporate and individual lives.

We are fortunate enough to live in a culture where hospitality is an optional sort of affair.  It is a skill for the polite, something we engage in by choice and with selectivity.  We are hospitable when we have the time, or the energy, or when we hear the echoes of our grandmothers in the back of our heads, telling us to put out the good china, for heaven’s sake.  But throughout history hospitality has been more of a necessity for corporate survival—in nomadic cultures, for example, the camel herder wandering from oasis to oasis was dependent on the kindness of whoever happened to be guarding the water source.  In ancient times, neighbor relied on neighbor to survive.  And in the New Testament era, those norms of hospitality were still strong.

What is particularly interesting to me about those norms is that they were strong enough to overcome risk.  That stranger knocking on the door—he could be, well, strange.  The completely unknown person asking for a cup of water was a wild card.  There was no more guarantee of safety two thousand years ago than there might be today.  The risk was real.  But the imperative to offer hospitality was just as real.  It did not eliminate the danger but rather it accepted it as part of the bargain.

Jesus knew that when he sent his disciples out into the world dependent on the kindness of strangers.  And he knew that when he asked his friends to welcome the strangers in their midst, too.  Jesus knew the risk of welcome, which is much the same as the risk of love.  You can get hurt.  Jesus knew the risk—and he asked the people who followed after him to take it.

Do we?

I want to look at several areas of our lives—and I want to look searchingly and honestly.  First, our country.  This weekend, we are taking stock of ourselves as a nation—a place that celebrates liberty for all within its borders and that intends to stand as a beacon of freedom for those without.  Are we in fact the people we intend to be?  I’m aware that the controversial travel ban was reinstated last week, and that our congress passed some strong bills on immigration.  What can we at this time say about ourselves as a people of welcome?  Let me be clear: I believe that there are people of good faith on all sides of this issue.  But as our country tightens its borders, we who are Christians have to ask ourselves what Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger means to us and how we might live it out.  What hospitality would Jesus have us risk?  What might welcome look like in this time and place?

Second, our church, our parish.  I have heard many people hear talk about Saint Timothy’s as family, and I see the tenderness of family offered up during the peace, when we greet one another like long lost kin.  But are we indeed welcoming the stranger as ourselves?  I hope that you will look at this place with the eyes of an outsider and see if the welcome is as robust as we often claim.  Who might be standing alone at the peace?  Who has no one to talk with at coffee hour?  Who isn’t even sticking around for coffee hour because it’s awkward and scary?  Who is made, by virtue of language or age or culture or any other demographic indicator—who is made to feel apart from the love of Christ?  What would we have to risk to welcome that person?

Thirdly, in our personal lives.  I suspect everyone here would name him or her self as at least welcoming at heart, even if maybe not overtly friendly.  We’re all decent people, right?  But how far do we truly allow that welcome to extend?  What compromises do we force those around us to make in order to let them in?  What parts of themselves to we ask them to mask or mute?  What conditions do they have to meet to qualify for our hospitality, our acceptance, our love?  And how might it change us if we removed those conditions?

And, finally, in our spiritual lives.  Can we welcome in not only the unknown neighbor, but the unknown Christ?  Every person in this room is here, ostensibly, because he or she wants to grow in faith.  That’s why we come to church, right?  But what happens when we are asked to open our hearts not only to a message of comfort, but to something really weird and new and strange and hard?  I’m struck this morning by that reading from Genesis—what a ridiculous challenge that offers!  (As a side note—I’m not going to preach a whole other sermon on it, but if you are struggling with it, come talk to me, because I’m struggling with it, too.)  How many times can we risk our stability and our certainty by opening our door to the stranger who is God?

It is hard.  All of it.  I realize that I’ve thrown about a million questions at you in this sermon, and none of them are easy.

But the good news is this: our salvation lies somewhere in these questions.  In the risk, in the uncertainty, in the danger of the open door: that is where Jesus promises to meet us.  That is where Jesus promises to reward us.

Some of you may know the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  He wrote a series of letters to a younger poet offering advice, and one of the pieces of advice was this: “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

This world us full of frightening choices and challenges, isn’t it?  And yet they want our love.  Jesus bids us offer it.   Jesus bids us to welcome in this world that needs to be met with our open hearts.