Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Welcoming of St. Alban (Jun 21 2015)

Homily, St. Albans Day, June 21 2015.
Readings:  Wisdom 3.1-9; Ps 68.1-8; 2 Cor 6.1-13; Mt 10.40-42

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Welcoming matters, in fact it is one of the most important things that we do as a church community.  And yet, far too often, we take welcoming for granted.  We take a bland, passive approach, thinking that if we put a sign up outside that says “All are welcome”, we’ve somehow become a welcoming community.

But the welcome that Jesus is talking about is a much more active, a much more radical, indeed even at times a subversive and a dangerous act.  During his lifetime, Jesus was often chastised for eating and drinking with the wrong people, sinners and tax-collectors.  That scandalous, welcoming behaviour was one of the reasons that Jesus had so many people in the establishment out to get him.  Welcoming is a boundary crossing activity.  It upsets people, it upends social norms.

It can also be dangerous.  On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus welcomed Judas to the table, and offered him bread to eat and wine to drink, knowing full-well that that same Judas would betray his hospitality and indeed his life later that same evening.

Today, we celebrate St. Alban, the first English martyr, who was put to death because he welcomed a fugitive into his home.  You’ve heard the story, how in a time of persecution of Christians, a priest who was being pursued made his way to Alban’s home, banged on the door and was given refuge by Alban.  In fact, not only was he given refuge, but Alban hid him from the authorities at great risk to himself, and then when the authorities finally tracked down the fugitive, Alban donned the fugitive priest’s clothing and offered himself up to the authorities in his place, leading to Alban’s own execution.  This is serious welcoming, radical welcoming, dangerous welcoming that is a on a completely different level than simply posting a sign outside the door saying that “all are welcome.”

This week, the people of Mother Emmanuel Church, a black church with a long history, a church which is a symbol of the struggle to end slavery, the civil rights movement and the deep racial wounds that exist in the United States, these people welcomed a young white man into their church in Charleston, South Carolina.  He came in, and they made him part of their weekly prayer meeting.  When they had prayed together for an hour, he took out a gun and he murdered nine people.   Welcoming is not bland and benign.  It can be dangerous.  What happened in Charleston is terrible and reprehensible. We hold that church community in our prayers.  We also pray for those who must take action to end the racial hatred which continues to exist and to plague our southern neighbour.  And we remember our need to take action to end racism and engage in reconciliation in this country, particularly in these weeks following the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and on this day, Aboriginal Day in Canada.

When we as a church community held our first retreat in 2011 to talk about our core values, the first value that emerged from our prayers and conversations was welcoming.  So what are we going to do about that?  What sort of inspiration do we draw from our patron saint, Saint Alban, how do we model ourselves as a community after Jesus himself when it comes to welcoming?

Let me first acknowledge, especially in light of what happened in Charleston, that part of being a welcoming church is also to be a safe church, to provide a space that is safe for all, those who are part of this community and those whom we welcome into the community.  The same Jesus who urges us to welcome also reminds us to be both as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents.

But to rephrase my question, as a church that explicitly values welcoming, do we have in mind a welcome which is cheap or costly?

Some of you may recognize that distinction as one borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who as a young man in the 1930s, wrote a book called the Cost of Discipleship.  In this book he introduced us to the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.

“Cheap grace,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."

Costly grace, on the other hand, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a [person] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." "

I believe that the same distinction can be applied to welcoming.  Cheap welcoming is putting up a sign that says “all are welcome” without much further impact on us as a community, without risking the way that we do things.

Costly welcoming, well on this day, we need look no farther than St. Alban as our example.  Costly welcoming is courageous.  It is a risk-taking act, it takes effort on our part and has the potential to change who we are and how we do things in order to fully welcome the one who is the stranger into our midst.

So, as a community that has made welcoming one of our core values, what are we going to do about it? 

Some things we do well.  Many people do feel welcomed when they visit us here.  Many of you put time and energy into welcoming strangers and guests into our midst, learning and remembering names, meeting and greeting guests and visitors during our coffee hour rather than always chatting with the same friends.  We do get out of our building in order to engage with the community, whether it’s through our campus ministry or The Big Give or the work of Centre 454 which many of us support.  It’s good to celebrate these things.

But there are also challenges.  To mention just one that was brought to my attention this week, I’m sure that most us would be quick to say that aboriginal people are welcome at St. Albans.  However as the TRC final report pointed out, Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the architects of the residential schools program that was part of the policy of cultural genocide that was imposed on our aboriginal peoples by our government and our church.  And this particular church of St. Albans was the church of Sir John A. Macdonald, something that we mention and indeed celebrate in our communications, something that is written in those white booklets that many of you have in your hands.  Is this a good way to welcome aboriginal people to St. Albans?  What are we going to do about that?

I’m not suggesting that all these matters are straightforward.  What I am suggesting is that if we aspire to be a church inspired by St. Alban and by Jesus himself, if we are serious in our desire to make welcoming one of our core values, then we have to take welcoming seriously, and be ready to pay the cost.  Because when we do, we welcome not only the other, but also God himself into our midst.  As Jesus said,

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”


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