Some years ago I, along with my parents and younger brother, had the good fortune to travel to Europe with the local music group, Ars Choralis. And it so happened that the flight home to the United States stopped over Finland, which is where my great, great grandfather Johan emigrated from at the end of the 1800s. My parents decided there would not likely be another time to stop in Finland and visit distant relatives and perhaps see a few places connected to our family history.
There are many things I hope that I will always remember from that experience, but chief among them is the hospitality we received everywhere we went. Whether we were stopping in those 7 days to visit a second cousin once removed or a young couple who lived in the house where my great aunt and uncle had once raised their children, everyone welcomed us with coffee and cake and a genuine desire to get to know our story. My grandfather’s cousin Pekka, when he heard we were going to visit, even offered to borrow his son’s van and drive us everywhere, planning a 10 page itinerary of visits to places with meaning to our family.
Perhaps you, too, have been on the receiving end of radical welcome and hospitality in one or more times in your life? There is something sacred and holy in this act. In Jesus’ time hospitality to travelers was very important, with inns few and far between, and with water being brought to people to drink and to wash the dust from the road as they arrived to a household. Indeed, Jesus repeatedly reminds the disciples of the importance of hospitality.
Jesus tells the disciples in today’s lesson that whoever welcomes them welcomes Jesus himself and thereby God the Creator and Father as well. So there is, in the act of welcome, something of the essence of greeting Christ himself. This might make us all want to rush about a bit more to make coffee and cake!
Did you know what the number one characteristic people note about us as the community of Redeemer Lutheran Church that stretches beyond these walls into the world around us? It is our friendly and warm welcome. And I am thankful to say that by God’s grace and our elbow grease and practice, that welcome continues to grow. It grows every time one of us offers to make the coffee or provide goodies on a Sunday morning, but it also grows when we prepare food to be shared in the ecumenical Thanksgiving dinner hosted by our ministry of the Student Christian Center at SUNY New Paltz.
Our welcome also grows every time any one of us dares to risk a deeper answer to the question “how are you?” by sharing some of the joys and sorrows of our current lives and the world as we experience it around us. Our welcome as a congregation – or rather Christ’s welcome through us - grows when we risk getting out of our comfort zones and do something new, like joining in the Pride parade or going to meet new folks at the Agribusiness Educational Center on Route 32 north.
Each time we go beyond saying hello to someone new and instead ask them to sit with us in worship, or go with us to coffee hour, or attend a local lecture or discussion about how to care for the poorest, the least, and the lonely, or work together to take care of this property so as to make it a beacon of Christ’s light in the world, or work alongside each other to prepare care packages for refugees; in short every time we go deeper in our striving, it is actually Christ whose resurrection work is striving through us, bringing a glimpse of the eternal Kingdom to our very doorsteps.
Yes, this is the welcoming work that has been entrusted to our hands by none less than our Savior the Christ. And we must remain vigilant that the we as individuals and we as the Church do not become clubs of insiders, content with taking care of those we already know while leaving others who hunger for sustenance of body, heart, mind, and soul standing at the curb.
A woman named Clarke, in talking to Pastor Brian McClaren, said recently that she thinks that:
It seems all too often, the church has become a comfortable place where we learn about God but not the place where we expect to actually wrestle with and be transformed by God.
Clarke went on to say that she feels:
...at times that “the church caters to the expectations and needs of insiders who have lost sight of our call to be radical change agents charged with advocating for and with people who have been pushed to the margins and to fight against the walls that keep them there. (from the blog post of Pastor Brian McClaren, July 2017)
Yes my friends, since it is the Christ, the suffering and humble Christ who climbs to the cross to free us from our sins; since it is the Christ who calls us to welcome others in His name, we must be vigilant in growing the circle of welcome others experience through us. And we have a radical helpmeet standing ready to support this ministry work! After all, it is the Christ who empowers us to carry out this ministry of welcome and hospitality.
It is the Christ who daily helps us to shed our skins of over-protectiveness and fear, so that we might be ready with water at the door to meet travelers in need. Nay, not even waiting at the door, but taking our jugs of water and heading out to the streets to find those who are thirsty to let them know that they, like us, and like the Israelites long before, can come home from their exile. There is a place for them at the table. There is a place for them in this world. There is a place for them in Christ’s love that stretches far beyond any one building or any one of our individual lives.
On that trip to Finland so long ago now, I learned a deep lesson in what hospitality can look like. The coffee and cake were wonderful, but the hearts and minds and lives of the people offering those goodies – this was the bread of life come down to earth. These hearts striving to be open, these lives sharing welcome to me and my family in a foreign land, they reminded me of what it must have felt like for my great grandfather Johan, when he first arrived to the Finnish Lutheran Seaman’s Mission in New York and found a radical welcome and hospitality. That ministry of hospitality persists to this day in the work of our Lutheran ministry at Seafarer’s and International House in the ports of NYC and Boston and Maryland. And this ministry persists wherever God in Christ works the resurrection story in each of our hearts and lives, congregations, and communities, making us the arms to share Christ’s welcome for the world.
Yes, welcome is fundamental to the core of what it means to be Christian, and when we welcome others in word and deed we are in some way welcoming the Christ himself.
Thanks be to God. Amen.