Home > Uncategorized > How Shall We Welcome?

How Shall We Welcome?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m sure there are a few of us around here who do this one thing when we’re travelling about the state or country, as you enter into every city, town, and hamlet you come across. You look for that rectangular white and blue sign with the Episcopal shield that says, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” Then when you find it you slow down to see if you can read the fine print that informs us of the name of the church and its location. Once that is all done, we confidently send them a prayerful pat on the back for having done their job in letting travelers know they are welcome in their church.   And for the time being, at least, we can all rest assured that yet another Episcopal church is doing it right. Unless you have the experience Sheri and I had one Sunday morning while we were on vacation. As we entered the town, there was the sign, perhaps a bit more rusted than most. We found the church and began to look for the red doors by which to enter when we saw a woman walking in the same direction as us. The door was found and upon entering there was a certain feeling that was missing. It was as if the ten or so people who were already seated had melted into the pews, unaware of the two strangers who had just walked in.

Now neither of us were expecting a fan fare, but even in the rarest of occasions in this area where people are sparsely scattered throughout the sanctuary, if a stranger walks in they are greeted by someone. And once a seat is found, I notice the hospitality kick in as those around them turn and welcome them with a friendly smile, a hello, and maybe even a handshake. But nobody – I hope – will be made to feel like they are part of the furniture and not noticed: Not on their arrival, and certainly not on their departure! So the service went on. At the dismissal we headed for the back of the church and actually had to catch someone’s attention to ask if there was a coffee hour. They directed us to the kitchen where a tray of cookies and a coffee pot had been set out and if it weren’t for my questions about the building and the history of it, they would have been out the door prior to that.

Did I mention that there were maybe ten or a dozen people there? I began to think I understood why. Every conversation I tried to start with one of them all seemed to gravitate towards their love of the building and how they were so blessed to have it all paid for and a dowry to continue its upkeep. The church had become their idol. As long as they could come and sit by themselves once a week in the confines of this beautiful church, listen to its enormous pipe organ and gaze into the stained glass windows; that was “church” for them. It was as if today’s Gospel message was lost under the many layers of paint and stain that covered the walls and woodwork. I often think back on that day and wonder what would have happened if that were my first experience with the Episcopal Church. Would I have gone back to see if that was just an off Sunday? Would I have looked for another denomination or even another Episcopal Church in a nearby community? My guess is that I’d have probably not have acted as Sheri and I did when we first walked into St. Luke’s. We were in search of a place to call home and found it here. It wasn’t the first red door we walked through in the area but it was the one just right for us. We were welcomed at the others, but as one visitor recently told me “you could feel that the Holy Spirit was alive and moving through even the walls of this place.”

True, being at the door and welcoming others into your home is one form of hospitality. But there is another form of hospitality that we as Christians are called to bring to life. We find it in today’s Gospel that concludes Jesus’s discourse on how a Christian should treat others in the world; and if we look in between what we hear from Matthew and what we may actually do in our communities, we just might find ourselves sighing over the size of the gap between them.

Three verses are all we’re given today. But in just three verses we hear the word “welcome” five times. The only other text I know of where we hear one word repeated that many times in so few lines is Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop”! And yes, I did say this was the conclusion of the discourse. If you recall last week, Fr. Chris was saddled with the challenge of preaching in the front lines where so many local, national and world events pry us from our channels of faith and try to lead us into the divisions that Jesus said would result from us following his teachings. Since last week’s verses of this Gospel are the build up to today’s ending, allow me to condense what was discussed last week. We heard that contrary to what we often think, Jesus declares that he didn’t come to bring peace. He came to divide. And as we listened further we were presented with a current event that seemed to be doing the very thing Jesus said he’d do: divide people amongst themselves.

This is a very tough reach for many of us, to set our social, cultural, philosophical and yes, even political ideals and beliefs aside in order to see what the real need is in these situations. It can be difficult for sure, to see through what we hear on the news and what the talking heads on TV are telling us as how others say we should react. But when the smoke clears and the last pundit is still standing, will the basic needs of the situation have been met? The situation is harder yet when children are the issue. Through no fault of their own other than maybe being born where they were, they are caught up in a mess that they don’t want or deserve. How are we as Christians supposed to act and react in response to a situation that truly does scream for a bit more effort than giving a cold drink to the least of these? I don’t know what God’s will is for this or anything else, even though many times during the day I pray for that will to be done, but I do know that if we’re genuine in our compassion for doing what Jesus asks us to do for the least of these, we’re given the promise of a grace that will help us endure whatever the cost of that compassion. If ever there is a time to pour out love without condition – it is when the cost of withholding that love is to lose a child.

We face the possibility of a similar, although less dramatic case here at St. Luke’s involving children. For some time we’ve been putting off acknowledging that we could face the danger of having our children under the supervision of untrained and unqualified leaders. This is not to say that the leaders themselves are under scrutiny, but the fact that they may not be aware of certain procedures and policies within the Episcopal Church and our diocese does exist. This framed certificate hangs back in the admin room that says we are a “Safe” church, meaning that at the time it was given, every person here who was involved with the care of children had the proper training and certificates. Very shortly, that will no longer be the case. And that poses a danger to our children. We could very well have swept it under the rug and said “we’ll take care of it sooner or later, let’s just concentrate on programs.” But thanks to the genuine compassion and love for children that our leadership has, we are taking care of matters up front. If you didn’t get the email or call from Father Chris with the specifics of what is happening with our children and youth ministries, please see us after dismissal. Trust that this decision may not be popular to some, but when we strip away the layers and get down to the real matter, what matters most is not that we are popular, but that our children, your children, are being given the safest, loving environment they need and deserve and are shown they are loved.

Love is given to us freely, but when we give love away freely we must not always expect to have love returned to us. Sometimes when love is given freely without condition the result is crucifixion. Let’s not kid ourselves into hiding in the false security of thinking that every time we do something with honest compassion we’ll bask in the glow of sunshine as a return. But let us also remember that after crucifixion there is and will be a resurrection. And the life after resurrection is what we live for. Yes, loss is not something we expect to find after being filled with compassion to be welcoming to everyone without exception. Nor can you imagine how giving freely of your love might one day become sorrow. And it becomes even harder when you must leave the place that welcomed you so dearly from the beginning.

Thursday night I informed the vestry and Father Chris that after meeting with Bishop Gepert earlier in the week, the decision was made for me to end my time here at St. Luke’s. Sheri and my last day with you will be July 27th.   All we ask is that you welcome every person that comes through that door with the same conviction that Hazel Brown showed us when we walked through it 8 years ago. You just may find that among all the angels you unknowingly welcome, a future deacon of yours may just be the next stranger that walks through those red doors. You’ve loved us without condition. We hope we gave the same love back to you.

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