The Very Rev. H. T. Knight
ALL ARE WELCOME
The Gospel for today, about the drowning of all those poor pigs, has never been very enlightening for me, so I’m leaving it alone this morning. But I do love that sentence of St. Paul’s in his letter to the young church in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” All of you are one in Christ Jesus. All of you.
Last weekend was the parish retreat up in Healdsburg at the Bishop’s Ranch, and it was an amazing time in a gorgeous setting. For those of you who haven’t been to one of these parish weekends at the Bishop’s Ranch, put it on your must-do list for next year. It’s a great weekend – a beautiful setting in the wine country, a chance to get to know people from the other services that you seldom if ever see, a chance to get away and do as little or as much as you want to. There were about 30 of us there from Christ Church, of all ages. Families, singles, couples. Young and old. The Bishop’s Ranch is a terrific place! And the Christ Church weekend there should not be missed.
One of the things that really struck me was on the first morning when Fr. Chip led us on a hike up to the peace pole, and then to the very moving Christo sculpture. We stood holding hands in a circle and Chip said it reminded him of a song. Suddenly little Evan, who is probably 5 or 6, began singing the song that everyone sings at the 9:15 service every Sunday:
Come in come in and sit down
You are a part of the family
Form a circle all around
You are a part of the family
God is with us in this place
Like a parent’s warm embrace
And we are all welcomed by God’s grace
For you are a part of God’s family.
It was an awesome moment, listening to this sweet little voice singing all by himself.
And it’s true. We are all welcomed by God’s grace. Not just some of us. Not just the ones who have been good. Not just the ones who put a lot of money in the plate. Not just the ones who look like proper Episcopalians. We are ALL welcomed by God’s grace. Everyone. No exceptions.
Welcome is absolutely central to the message of Jesus. When we welcome each other we welcome the presence of Jesus into our midst – into our hearts. And as Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
How well do we welcome people, particularly people who are different from us? People from different countries. People who look different than us, people with different backgrounds, languages and customs, people with different political or religious beliefs? Jesus says, in words that are especially challenging in today’s political climate — “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of them, you did it to me.”
We’ve all had the experience, I’m sure, of being a stranger in a new community, a new church, a new school, a new job, maybe at a party or some other gathering, feeling alone and unsure, wondering who all these unfamiliar faces are. And then someone comes up to us and welcomes us. What a relief we feel. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” “Come in, come in and sit down, You are a part of the family.” As we sing near the end of our communion service, “all are welcome in this place.”
It may surprise you, but community is the main reason I attend church. I don’t come to church to be saved, or to have my sins forgiven, or to get into heaven. I know I’m a sinner, but I also know that God welcomes me anyway – God loves me and forgives me, right now, just as I am. I know that, without having to go to church. Jesus at one point says, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” Not just the good people, or the Christians, or the ones who go to church. All people. All are welcome in this place. We come together as God’s family not just to be encouraged or strengthened. Just showing up and being part of the family strengthens the others. We come to church for what we can give to others. And of course the more we give, the more we get in return.
I know that God loves me, no matter how far I fall short of God’s hopes for me or my hopes for myself. I know that God loves you the same way, and God loves every person, every living creature, every plant and animal on the earth. It’s really very simple — God creates everything, and what God creates God loves. Because God is love. When we say “Thank you” to God, God says “You’re welcome.” “All of you, everyone – you’re welcome into my kingdom. Be me in the world, and welcome each other, welcome all my creation.” For “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” No exceptions.
Let me end with a story. This is a true story. I’ve told it before, but like the parables of Jesus it bears repeating.
The Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells of an experience she had: (and I quote)
“Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”
“Well” (she said) – “one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
“An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
“I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly [in Arabic]: The minute she heard any words she knew, … she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
“We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother until we got on the plane and would ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.
“She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies out of her bag – little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts – and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
“And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend – by now we were holding hands – had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
“And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate – once the crying and confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
(And then she says) “This can still happen anywhere. Every small act of welcome has the power to transform the world, even if only for a moment. Each of us has the power to welcome. I hope we also have the courage.”
Jesus said, “whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” All are welcome in this place.