The Rev. Elaine Breckenridge
Sermon, Proper 8A, June 29, 2014
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.06.29 EHB
Welcome! This morning’s Gospel selection speaks of welcoming. In fact the word welcome is used six times in this one short passage. Today we welcome a new deacon into our community. Surely the Spirit would have us consider what it means to welcome. I begin with a story.
An ex-convict was finally heading home from prison. He sat on the bus next to a woman who struck up a conversation with the man. And so he told her that he’d been in prison for four years and that his wife hadn’t written him in over three years. When he learned that he was being paroled, he wrote again to his wife and told her that he still loved her. But in his letter, he wrote that he understood that she might not want to ever see him again. To make it easier on both of them, he suggested that his wife use a yellow ribbon to communicate her feelings. If she wanted him back, she would tie the ribbon on an oak tree near their home. If there was no ribbon, he would stay on the bus and keep going.
Word of the arrangement spread throughout the bus. As the bus came to town, people on the bus flocked to the windows to look for the oak tree. When they saw the tree, cheering broke out. On the tree was not one, but hundreds of yellow ribbons.
That is a true story and it inspired a hit song. Do you remember the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”? Tie a ribbon round the old oak tree, if you still want me. It’s a song and a story about the power of extravagant welcome.
We certainly practice extravagant welcoming in this place. In fact, we are down right enthusiastic about it. Look at the Exchange of Peace for example. People move into the aisles and literally exchange the kiss of peace, well at least the hug of peace. We do well at loving our neighbors as ourselves– something that both the New Testament and the Old Testament calls us to do.
And yet, you may be surprised to learn that in actuality there is only one reference in the Hebrew scriptures about loving one’s neighbor. Contrast that with the 36 commands found in the Old Testament–not commands to love our neighbors, but the command to love the stranger. (An Altar in the World). Matthew echos that commandment, saying in chapter 25, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Welcoming the stranger, now that is a challenge. It takes courage and intention. In fact, the Greek word “welcome” in the New Testament has a much more complex meaning than does the English. To be welcomed, as it is understood in the New Testament, means to take up, to literally take into your hands what is presented or brought by another. It implies a decision of the will, so that the recipient of the welcome accepts, embraces and receives the welcome hospitably.
Jesus of course lived in the place of welcoming the stranger more than anyone ever has. He welcomed and was welcomed by strangers and sinners, the outcast, the sick and poor, people of other races, people of both genders and people of all ages. He cared for the little ones, but he also welcomed privileged persons: prophets and pharisees, the rich and the righteous. Jesus welcomed everyone.
And he also welcomed his vocation to be a prophet. Surely when he went around overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple, when he called the pharisees to repentance, when he ate and drank with untouchables—surely he must have known that he was putting himself at risk. And yet he welcomed God’s call to him— to the point of taking up his cross and walking those steps to Calvary. And by the way, the phrase, take up your cross, that is the same word as welcome. Welcome your cross. Welcome your suffering. Welcome even death. Welcoming, in the New Testament is to take up and offer our very lives in service to God and to others.
Now it as that point when many of us look the other direction, avoid eye contact, lock our car doors in self protection. How can we be expected to be as welcoming as Jesus?
Perhaps that is why today’s Gospel is so important. Sometimes discipleship does require sacrifice or it entails risk; yet sometimes it is as simple as giving a cup of cold water to one in need.
A few week ago when I was visiting my parents in Salt Lake City, I found myself downtown, at night, walking to a grocery store to pick up some provisions. It was not far from where I was staying. But I didn’t realize that the short walk would take me on an unlit street. Walking in the semi-darkness, alone, I suddenly felt vunerable, especially when I saw the unmistabkable presence of a man walking towards me. Let me just say that he did not look like a clean-cut Mormon missionary. No, he was dressed rather– colorfully. My body immediately tensed up. I sensed danger and I was afraid. Soon he came close to me and stopped.
Then ever so slowly and gracefully, he put his hands together like this, bowed his head slightly and said “Namaste, namaste”which means, “The divine in me, greets the divine in you.” I was a stranger and he welcomed me. I was afraid and he comforted me.
I can not say enough about what that gesture meant to me. Immediately I relaxed and felt held in the palm of God’s hand. In fact, I felt a wave of happiness and peace. I did smile at the man and nodded my head in return, but I wished later that I had had the presence of mind to say in return to his greeting, “ The Christ in me, greets the Christ in you.”
There is no small gesture when it comes to welcoming the stranger. Anything done in faith and love has significance, perhaps even cosmic significance for the ones involved. We might say that the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Small acts of devotion and tenderness have the capacity to change the world. That is what it means to represent Christ wherever we go. That is God’s call to each and all of us.
But is there more? Is there more that we might do collectively to be a welcoming presence in our community? The answer of course is yes. It has always been a question of how and when. Today one of those questions is answered. The time is now. Because today we welcome a new deacon into our community.
Today is Randy Knutson’s first day to be among as a newly ordained person. Yesterday, Randy was ordained by Bishop Beisner of the Northern California Diocese to the sacred order of deacons. And fortunately for us, Randy will spend his transitional ministry as a deacon serving with us in this place.
I will have more to say about his specific duties over time, but broad strokes, understand that the ministry of the deacon, is “to bring the needs, concerns and hopes of the world to the church.” (BCP) His ministerial role is meant to focus our concern on the needs of the most vulnerable.
I hope that this will result in Randy helping us to discern where this congregation and where individuals might find new ways to serve the poor and the weak, the sick and the lonely, seekers and doubters outside this building and within.
Randy has been set apart to enact a special serving role among us. But don’t think for one minute that he is in some way a more faithful or more committed Christian that the rest of us. And don’t assume that now because we have a deacon, we can relax and let him serve in our place. No, with Randy all of us must continue refining the ways in which we represent Christ wherever we go. His ministry among us is meant to be a focus point and catalyst. Now, before he can begin this ministry among us, Randy needs our welcome. This is important because he will only be able to serve to the extent that we welcome him.
How will we welcome him? With a cake at coffee hour, of course. We will give him a cake, a card or two and maybe there will be a surprise gift. But on a much more serious level, we will welcome his ministry by receiving the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven from his hands. Remember that I said, to welcome means to take what is offered into our hands with a gesture of acceptance. Let your acceptance of his ministry today be heard with your resounding, “Amen” as you receive communion from him today. Let your, “Thanks be to God” and your one “Alleluia” resound as he dismisses us to be a blessing in God’s world.
And speaking of blessing, I ask you to give Randy your blessing today.
Yesterday, Randy received this stole as a gift from the vestry on behalf of the congregation. He wore it yesterday right after his ordination. It is a symbol of his servant hood both in the world and in the church, but it needs to be blessed by this community as yet another sign of welcome.
And so, I invite each of you to take this stole, this symbol of his ministry into your hands and to bless it. After the service, I will leave it by the baptismal font, and you may touch it and offer your own blessing. By taking up this stole into our hands and offering our own touches, our own prayers–our love–we are extending our welcome to a new ministry.
It is a new ministry for us all. Remember, all it takes is a small gesture to change God’s world. Let it begin today. As God welcomes all of us, strangers and friends, may each of us learn to say, “Welcome, the Christ in me, greets the Christ in you.” Amen.