September 22, 2019 (Homecoming Sunday)
The lessons were taken from the Common for the Mission of the Church I: Isaiah 2:2-4; Psalm 96; Ephesians 2:13-22; and, Luke 10:1-9.
We have a cat – well, we have two cats – but one cat in particular draws my attention on this Homecoming Sunday. Starlight is her name, and she is thirteen years old. Starlight has the habit of periodically disappearing. She has since she was – to use the term in comparison – a teenager. She will disappear for days at a time. I’m not exactly sure where she goes; but, I imagine her wandering the neighborhood, maybe trekking to Florida Southern College (really, it’s only a block away) to be treated like royalty by the students. Or maybe she goes on a hunting trip to catch a mouse or a lizard. Regardless, she just disappears from the home!
But, she always comes back home!! Now, I don’t carry so much hubris to think she comes back for me – or, at least, not for me as myself. Cats don’t really do that. But, you know, it is kind of funny that when she returns she becomes like a little kitten for a few days: She curls up and lies in the blankets on the couch. She hides under furniture. She eats ravenously. She returns home to be fed, and to rest, and to be safe!
That, to me, is such a wonderful and fascinating feature of the divine creation – that animals have such an incredible homing instinct. We might all know of the columba livia (the homing pigeon) which can find its way home over distances of 1,100 miles. Salmon, against all odds, swim home from the sea to spawn in the rivers of their birth. Sea Turtles will travel 1,500 miles or more to lay eggs at the same beach where they were born. Ducks and geese, pelicans and cranes will travel from the cold climes of northern Canada to the same pasture or lake in Polk County year after year – the true snowbirds, if you will.
And we’ve all heard the stories of domesticated animals that have shown a remarkable instinct to go home. The unofficial record seems to belong to “Bobbie the Wonder Dog,” who covered 2,551 miles on his own to return home to Silverton, Oregon after he was lost while his owners were visiting family in Wolcott, Indiana.
I wonder, did God create humans with a similar “homing instinct?”
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” has long been the slogan of the Episcopal Church, our national body. Indeed, we assert and we believe that “the Episcopal Church welcomes you” – all of you, not as merely a church slogan, but as a reflection of what we believe Jesus teaches us and of what lies at the core of the movement Jesus began in the first century. And so, like the Jesus who we follow, the Episcopal Church welcomes all. All of us!
As followers of Jesus in this time and in this place, Saint Stephen’s is committed to that welcome – as our Prayer Book teaches, honoring the covenant and promises we made in Holy Baptism:
- “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”;
- “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves”;
- “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (see BCP, 305)
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is not just a slogan, it’s who we as a church seek to be and it is the witness we seek to make, following the way of Jesus.
To all who mourn and need comfort,
to all who are tired and need rest,
to all who are lonely and want companionship,
to all who sin and need a Savior,
and to whosoever enters,
this church opens wide its doors
in the name of Christ our Lord
and says, Welcome!
Welcome!, you who have been here for forty-one years.
Welcome!, you who have been here for one year.
Welcome!, you who are here for the first time, or who are returning again after a sojourn.
Welcome! – to paraphrase the best sermon I’ve ever read – you who are poor for yours is the kingdom, you who mourn for you will be comforted, you who are merciful for you will receive mercy, and welcome to you who hunger and thirst for you will be filled. Welcome!, you who are.
We read in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians,
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”Ephesians 2:13-14
Languages and nations? Christ proclaims peace to those who are far off and those who are near. Religions and ideologies? Jesus was prepared even to “abolish the law with its commandments and ordinances,” in order to create one new humanity. Jesus takes down whatever walls we have raised to create divisions amongst us. Insiders and outsiders? The walls come down. Citizens and foreigners? The walls come down. Oppressors and victims? In Christ Jesus, the walls come down.
Jesus is working to raise a new structure, to join us together into a holy temple. Jesus is working to reverse the curse of Babel, first by healing our divisions and then by creating a new tower. This tower, though, is built to God’s glory. Instead of striving to reach heaven from the earth, this temple is built to invite the presence of God, to be “a dwelling place for God,” on earth as in heaven.
Paul tells us that Jesus does all this through his own body. “In his flesh he … has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus consummates all this work of teaching and healing, showing himself to be present even in surrender and suffering and death. On the cross, Jesus accepted the full weight of our pride and our contention, allowing his own body to be broken in order to show us the folly of our hostility and sin. Then, in the resurrection, Jesus witnesses to new life, acting to reconcile us to God and one another in love and inviting all of humanity to become part of his own body. He not only restores the temple of his own body in three days, but begins to shape all of us into the Body of Christ.
A RADICAL WELCOME
One year ago, there was an example of this building up of the body – a witness of new life when, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God made of “one new humanity in place of the two” (so to speak). One year ago, Saint David’s joined with Saint Stephen’s, and made one in place of the two. It was a sad and scary time, when we realized that Saint David’s must close. Where would we go? What would become of us? I feared we would become distant wanderers, with no place to call home.
But, we were welcomed!!! So, let me say, for what it’s worth, thank you! Thank you for welcoming us. In many ways, as I would discover, it was like a homecoming. I was a bit struck, after just a few months, by hearing the stories and witnessing the connections that already existed between the two bodies. They were natural connections, easy connections, that I hadn’t known existed. But they were there, connections that made two of the one – finding metaphor in the way the Saint David’s cross fits over the altar, or how Saint David’s altar fits so perfectly in the garden.
Where there was death, there was resurrection – a resurrection made possible only through your radical welcome. And a radical welcome made possible by joyous celebration of Jesus’ own work in us – namely, by allowing Jesus to break down the dividing walls and to create in himself a new humanity.
And so, now is our turn together, to welcome each other – those who are far off and those who are near. When I was little, at our church we had a recycling facility. It was before city pick-up, when if you to recycle you had to bring your recycling somewhere. It was a little controversial with the neighborhood, and with a contingent of the parishioners; because, admittedly, it was dirty. The facility used a couple of long, wire-meshed trailers, where people just threw in their newspapers, aluminum cans, and glass bottles.
Right there in the backyard of the church! It got dirty. It got messy. And people complained. “How can we have the church looking so messy?” they asked. “It looks like a junkyard. All sorts of people are just bringing their trash over here. They’re bringing their rubbish.” And they were right. That’s exactly what people were bringing to church. Father Caulfield would respond to the complaints, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
I think that maybe that is an apt metaphor for the Church: the ultimate recycling enterprise. We take what is old and turn it into something new. We take what looks like trash, and we turn it into something new. Church should be the place where we accept the dirty and messy, and even sinful. And, frankly, it’s also the place where we need to admit our own uncleanliness and weaknesses. Recycling is what we are supposed to be doing! We are supposed to be accepting the dirty, and the sinful, admitting it all before the grace of God – so that it can be transformed into something new.
That is exactly what this Church is about. We are a place that accepts you, no matter who you are, or how you dress, or even how dirty and defiled you might feel. This Church welcomes you because we believe in resurrection!
Now, if you are new among us, or if you are here after a bit of a sojourner, or even if you’ve been here for forty-one years, one year, or anywhere in between: “Welcome! Peace!”
“Welcome to Saint Stephen’s! This is a house for saints and sinners, we will disappoint you! Not intentionally, and certainly not maliciously! Decide now, though, what you are going to do when it gets a little messy or dirty, or when I or someone falls short. Decide now, before it happens, whether and how you will create space for reconciliation, restoration, and resurrection. Because I tell you that at that moment, when (when, not if) that mistake happens, you will miss the beauty of grace. You will miss the beauty of God restoring what people have broken.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”Ephesians 2:19-20