The Risk of Radical Welcome – July 2, 2017
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.
In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris tells a story that is said to come from a Russian Orthodox monastery. A seasoned monk, long accustomed to welcoming all guests as Christ, says to a young monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes, “the monk continues, “I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?”
It’s one thing to welcome a prostitute or a prime minister, as that monk had learned to do, but a prophet? Now that’s a whole different story. As guests go, prophets are not the easiest people to have around. The Hebrew prophets were well known for addressing injustice with exceptional frankness. Jesus, well we know all about him. He pulled no punches. Prophets tend to make us uncomfortable by their blatant honesty.
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, those forced to live 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 ones”, most likely referring to the newest and most vulnerable members of the community. What Jesus 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 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 is a guiding principle of this community. It is the spiritual practice that embraces those who have been cast out of or marginalized within a church, a denomination, or society. In one way or another, we have likely all been sidelined by some institution because of our age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, education, differently abled-ness, or socioeconomic status .
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 that cup of cold water freely given to those who thirst for inclusion and for validation of who they are—that statement of guarantee you see at the entrance to all our buildings.
This is a good Sunday to renew our commitment to Jesus’ call to welcome. It’s very ancient and biblical and was God’s idea long before it was ours. For it to be an effective means of touching the lives of those who enter our doors, it is incumbent on us to recognize that we are all ministers of that welcome.
It is an attitude that must flourish in the DNA of a community, a constant openness of the heart. It is saying to those whom we meet, “come in” and it is giving them space, listening to them intently, and helping them find their place here at their own pace and by God’s grace.
It is not always easy. Like the Russian Orthodox monk in Kathleen Norris’ book, we may do well at accepting people as they are, who they are—prostitutes or prime ministers. It’s another thing to welcome those who speak like prophets, who remind us what it is we’re supposed to be in the world and call us to live as the people God created us to be.
That’s the risk we take when we offer radical welcome—that when we greet a stranger we might just find ourselves wondering, “Jesus Christ, is it you again?”