“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)
On Monday evening this past week I attended de-consecration services in two small country churches up in the Listowel area. ‘De-consecration’ is Church-speak meaning that the congregations had voted to disestablish, and the buildings were being sold and turned over to other uses. I had spent a bit of time in both of these churches back in 2002 as part of my field education requirements for seminary, so it was important for me to be there for this rite of passage, sad as it was. They were bittersweet occasions, no doubt about it: relief tinged with sadness, wrapped up in the assurance, as the Bishop expressed, that “God has not abandoned you”….even though I’m sure it must have felt that way to the people whose beloved buildings were hosting Anglican worship for the last time. And those were only two of five such services at which the Bishop presided in the space of two days last week. We have been a little bit insulated from such realities here at St. James.
There is no benefit or consolation to be found in pointing fingers or trying to assign blame for this new institutional reality through which the Church is passing; it’s probably more productive to re-familiarize ourselves with some basic concepts that we need to be reminded of from time to time – that the Church is the people, not the building; that the Church is bigger than we are and in more capable hands than ours (that would be God’s hands, in case you were wondering); that communities of faith, like the people who belong to them, have a natural life cycle; and that out of these current changes we trust will emerge some new incarnation of Church that will embrace the Gospel in fresh and life-giving ways. Our job, as I see it, is to carry on faithfully and not get in the Spirit’s way as creative options for being Church come forward and are road-tested. I suspect it’s also time to recall the wisdom of 1940’s Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple who said that “the Church is the only society that exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members”, something about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately, because almost without exception most churches who are experiencing declining attendance now see their primary task as getting people in the door; to increase membership in certain demographics – usually ‘young families’ is how it gets expressed – in order to guarantee their future and/or to relive glory days of the past. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to want young families in a congregation – but the Church’s ability to be invitational and welcoming needs, I think, to be broad and not simply focused on our own needs or agendas as we perceive them; and it also can’t come with strings or expectations – real or perceived. We’re called to welcome the person, period….which is actually something that I think we’re pretty good at here at St. James. But it never hurts to be reminded of it, and that’s the fundamental awareness toward which today’s gospel points us…. and which I think is particularly appropriate as we bask in the afterglow of Canada Day, when among other things we celebrated our national commitment to being welcoming. At the same time, it helps to remember those times in our life when we ourselves have felt like a stranger, disoriented and searching.
I think I’ve quoted from American artist and poet Jan Richardson in a previous homily, and some of you might be familiar with her work. This week she published a blessing based on Matthew 10:40 – “whoever welcomes you welcomes me” and it spoke to me deeply on this matter of hospitality and welcome, and who, exactly, we exist for. The background on this is that Jan’s husband died a year or two ago, whereupon she spent some time in Ireland in a small seaside town doing some writing and trying to reinvent her life. There she discovered what she called a ‘magical restaurant’ where over time she became known by name, and was fed, body and soul. This is how she described her experience: (quote) “I had left for Ireland feeling like a stranger in my own skin, so altered by the loss that was compelling me to make a new life. That new life is still in the making, but when I left Ireland, still enfolded in the welcome I found there, I felt less like a stranger to myself…..My experiences in Ireland gave me a new glimpse of the power of welcome, of what can happen when someone gathers us in and invites us to be at home when we are not at home, or have had to leave our home, or do not know where home is.This blessing was inspired by that enchanted restaurant. May we know—and create—places of welcome that help us become something other than strangers to one another and to ourselves. May we learn how to make one another at home in this world.” (unquote)
The Venerable Nancy Adams
Here is the product of Jan’s musings. Listen, and perhaps find yourself in this poem.
When you are lost in your own life.
When the landscape you have known falls away.
When your familiar path becomes foreign and you find yourself a stranger in the story you had held most dear.
Then let yourself be lost. Let yourself leave for a place whose contours you do not already know, whose cadences you have not learned by heart. Let yourself land on a threshold that mirrors the mystery of your own bewildered soul.
It will come as a surprise, what arrives to welcome you through the door, making a place for you at the table and calling you by your name.
Let what comes, come.
Let the glass be filled. Let the light be tended. Let the hands lay before you what will meet you in your hunger.
Let the laughter. Let the sweetness that enters the sorrow. Let the solace that comes as sustenance and sudden, unbidden grace.
For what comes, offer gladness. For what greets you with kindly welcome, offer thanks. Offer blessing for those who gathered you in and will not be forgotten—
those who, when you were a stranger, made a place for you at the table and called you by your name.
(© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com)
What a supremely eloquent expression not only of the fragility of being a stranger, but also of how we as people of faith are called to be a gentle presence in the stranger’s reality; called to welcome without expectation of reciprocity or reward; called to simple, compassionate inclusion as an act of faith.
Jeff Shrowder, a clergy colleague and poet as well, summarizes the gospel like this:
“Hospitality given to gain a reward has no true reward. Hospitality (welcome, inclusion and care) does not seek reward. The consequences of welcome given freely are often unseen.”
(© Jeff Shrowder, 2017)
For the times when we as a stranger have been welcomed unconditionally and for the opportunities that lie before us to be a welcoming people we give thanks to God and together say Amen.