I want to begin this morning by telling you the story of an ex-con who was finally heading home, released from prison. He was ignoring the noisy college kids on the bus who were bound for Florida beaches for Spring Break. One of the young women sitting beside him asked him where he was going. He said he was going home. He’d been in prison the past four years. His wife hadn’t written to him for three and a half years. When he learned that be was being paroled, he had written again to her to tell her that he still loved her and that he would understand if she never wanted to see him again. He said that to make it easier on both of them that she ties a yellow ribbon around the oak tree in the front yard if she wanted him to get off the bus. If there was no yellow ribbon, he would stay on the bus and keep going.
This was a bus of college kids and word of what was happening spread throughout the bus. As it came into the town of Brunswick, Georgia, the kids flocked to the windows. When they saw the tree, they started cheering. On the tree was not one but hundreds of yellow handkerchiefs.
As you hear the last words of Matthew 10, the chapter where Jesus has given all kinds of instructions to his disciples, I want you to also think of the song, Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree, made popular by Tony Orlando and Dawn. The practice dated from the days of the American Civil War when women would wear a ribbon in their hair to signify their devotion to a sweetheart who was serving in the war. It inspired the John Wayne movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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; 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]
Isn’t Jesus saying in these final instructions to his disciples that the task of being one of his followers, of being a Christian, is as radical as welcoming everyone and yet as simple as giving someone a cup of water. It is simple, yet radical. Isn’t this the way that Jesus lived his life? To sum up Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, we are to offer gifts of compassion: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on healing and raising up than on the exact words and teachings that the disciples are supposed to use. You might say that with Jesus, there is more emphasis on doing rather than on saying, more emphasis on doing good than holding “correct” beliefs.
Over the years, I have worked with numerous congregations as we have prepared something we call a mission statement. In almost every congregation one value has been identified as being important: “hospitality.” I looked up the synonyms of hospitality: friendliness, warm reception, welcome, helpfulness, neighbourliness, warmth, kindness, generosity. And over the years, I have had the odd person come to me and say, “this church isn’t very friendly or hospitable.” [Of course, this doesn’t refer to West Van Presbyterian or St. David’s!] Surprisingly, there are some people who don’t find us to be that friendly and usually we are glad when they move on…
Some of you may have read some of the writings of Henri Nowen who was working at the L’Arche community north of Toronto, not far from where I was the minster. The L’Arche Communities are places where people with disabilities live together and which honour each person’s gifts and uniqueness. One Sunday Henri spoke at the church and brought the entire community with him. He wrote, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
It still niggles at the back of my mind, why some people didn’t find us hospitable. After all it is one of our core values, right there in our mission statement! It usually is because they are different to us or they have a different way of doing things than we do, and we say they are welcome if they become one of us.
Many years ago, when I was working in a downtown Toronto congregation, a young man started attending the church. He was effeminate and a fancy dresser. Everyone, minister included, had their assumptions about this newcomer in our midst. He had come to the church to find a God who could help him work through some challenges in his life. The two of us would get together for coffee once a week and talk. He said one day that he found the church to be unfriendly, that no one spoke to him, or was willing to go further and enter a friendship with him. That week we had a Session meeting and I asked if anyone had noticed this new fellow. Everyone had but people said they really hadn’t had time to speak to him. I encouraged them to get to know him. He had just moved to Toronto from Montreal to be the head of the legal department of one of the largest firms in the city. At our coffee meeting a week later, this fellow asked me what I had said to people because on the past Sunday, he had been asked to join the choir, teach Sunday school, be a member of the property committee and someone wondered if he would like to become an elder! I think this speaks volumes about how we sometimes offer hospitality.
We seem to have lost the riskiness of being a Christian if we can’t even offer of cup of water to someone who dresses differently to us or who speaks a different language or who views God in a different way. The American theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon entitled Family Values, said, describing the way many North American Christians think, “Being a good Christian is not all that different from being a good citizen, after all. You just stay out of trouble and be nice to your neighbours and say your prayers at night. There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself.”
The thought struck me the other week that yes, one can go and worship God in nature and what better place to find the Creator than in creation, but that is only a partial glimpse of God, maybe a comfortable vision of God. You see, the God that we find through coming to worship in the Church and hearing the words of the Scriptures proclaimed is a God who is continually telling us to get out of our comfortable pews, to get out of ourselves, to pull up our socks and to be a light of God shining in our lives and our world.
We are called to have an extravagant welcome for the world and all the richness of people in it. When we offer an extravagant welcome, we are practising the heart of the Christian faith. The American Biblical commentator Evan Drake Howard writes: “The more extravagant the welcome, the greater the refreshment, the deeper the grounding, the clearer the enlightenment, the stronger the inspiration that will flow from it. The welcome must be extravagant in sincerity and persistence.”
As we read through the Gospels we see that Jesus lived in a place of welcome. Think of it. Jesus made people feel “at home” wherever and however they met him. How has the church moved from being a place of welcome to being perceived by many as sitting in a place of judgement? Why don’t more people feel at home when they come to church?
We must remember, despite all the pressures that modern society places upon us, that we are not “consumers” but “providers” of God’s love. We do not gather here this morning as the ones who have been radicalized by the grace and love of God, to seek a place of safety and reassurance. The church is not a hideout from the woes of our society, the challenges of our world. It is not a place where we come to celebrate that we are the “chosen people” who have been blessed with more good gifts than we can open at one sitting: gifts like healing, forgiveness, restoration and resurrection. It is precisely when we get to such a place in our faith and in our worship that the Holy Spirit comes knocking on our door, disturbing our “members-only” meeting and reminds us that it is time to welcome everyone.