Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 29, 2014
In the Name of God: cosmic creator, ascended Christ, and enabling Spirit. Amen.
In the early 1990’s, at the end of her first year in Divinity School, Stephanie Spellers arrived at an Episcopal guest house in a major U.S. city. She was not yet an Episcopalian nor did she think of herself as Christian but, coming to the door of this lovely building was like coming to a God-filled oasis.
The host opened the door and asked how much she would be paying before she could step inside. Stephanie mentioned the sliding scale advertised in their materials. The host offered to take $20 off the price if she didn’t eat her meals with the community. It was still pricey, especially having to arrange for food. The host smiles and suggested she try the nearby youth hostel, and shut the door, leaving this single, young black woman with limited financial resources and no place to go on the doorstep. She walked away wondering what kind of religious community and what kind of church these Episcopalians had created and kept her distance from the Episcopal Church after that encounter.
A few years later, Stephanie was baptized in a multi-cultural Lutheran Church in Boston but something still had not clicked. Then she found St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, a vibrant city congregation filled with wonderful diversity in color, ages, economic situations and sexual orientations. She realized that she had found the awe, the mess, the beauty, the poetry and an emphasis on justice rooted in resurrection-focused faith. She was home. But that experience of welcome did not erase the memory of a door shut in her face years before.
In the very brief Gospel passage today, Jesus calls us to the ministry of welcoming others in his name, even—perhaps most notably the disenfranchised and those on the margins. The word welcome appears six times in two short verses from Matthew. Jesus uses several images to demonstrate what welcoming hospitality looks like. Here he invokes the prophet, the righteous person, and the little one (most likely referring to “new in the faith,” the newest members of the community.) What he is telling us is that when we welcome others through practices of hospitality—especially those who may not be welcomed in other corners of society—we open ourselves to receive the gifts of God, “the reward of the righteous.”
The image of a cup of cold water was not lost on his audience. Water was and is a precious resource in the Middle East. The Bible speaks of water as coming from God, a unique gift beyond humankind’s ability to create. In offering a cup of cold water to another one recognizes that what they are doing is none other than a gift from God, not a possession to horde at the expense of the thirsty.
Radical Welcome. What exactly is it? It has been a guiding principle of this community for the past twelve years. We adopted the term with the blessing of St. Bart’s in New York City, one they used to characterize their ministry to all God’s people, especially seekers, LGBT folk, curious pagans and bored Christians. Simply stated, Radical Welcome is the spiritual practice that embraces those who have been systematically cast out of or marginalized within a church, a denomination, or society. In truth, in one way or another, we have likely all been sidelined or disregarded by some institution because of our age, gender, ethnicity, education, differently abled-ness, marital or socioeconomic status or the more obvious issue of our sexuality.
Radical Welcome involves an opening of a community’s hearts so that everyone might find within that community a warm place and the possibility of building authentic relationships. It is offered freely, to everyone—no matter who they are or where they may be on their journey of faith and no matter how easy or difficult it may be to do—and it is not always easy.
If we are honest—and I will be the first to admit it—it comes without too much effort with those who look like us, believe like us, behave like us, think like us but when there is a big gap between the other and us, when differences in culture, ideology, and upbringing are palpable, it can be a challenge.
Yet Jesus asks us to do it in order to create the opportunity for everyone and anyone to experience a deep-seated makeover where it may be needed, especially with respect to the kind of relationship they may have had with God and the church as a result of the practice, teaching, and effects of “bad religion” which is in no small supply.
We must recognize that the church needs to reverse the effect of years, if not generations, of distancing, unfriendliness, marginalization, and outright rejection. Radical Welcome. It’s a nice concept and it’s actually very ancient and Biblical and, more than that, it was God’s idea long before it was ours. However, it is meaningless and a hollow expression if it is just a technique or a tactic or viewpoint. It needs teeth. Well, actually it needs hands willing to reach out and embrace and ears that will listen and give attention and voices willing to invite and tell stories.
Check-up time. How well do we as a community do that? How truly does each of us see ourselves as a minister of welcome? How well does each of us live into the doctrine of Radical Welcome? At the door?
In the pew? At the coffee hour? What is the cup of cold water you might offer? Is our effort genuine, consistent, and offered with joy and generosity of spirit? Is it enough to erase the bad memory of a prior church experience for a person like Stephanie Spellers? That’s probably a good litmus test. Do we pass? That’s my thought provoking question of the day.