I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric. I remember how Eric was attracted by the crowd one Sunday evening when we were doing Stories, Songs, and Supper. I was pretty sure when I first saw him that he was homeless although to be fair, his clothes were cleaner and neater than most in that condition.
He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper. We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.” We invited him to come in and join us. So he did.
While he was eating he told us a bit about himself—he had a gift of gab—then after supper he helped clear the tables. He joined right in with the singing and he had a pretty decent voice. Somewhere in the midst of all that let it be known in his own gregarious way that joining with us that evening was a particular treat for him because it happened to be his birthday. So we all sang Happy Birthday to him. At the end of the evening, as he was leaving, he asked if he could borrow a book from the book table in the fellowship hall. He took a novel and promised to return it.
The next Sunday, Eric was there for Sunday morning worship. Soon he was participating in Adult Education classes and Bible study. He joined in with one of our small groups in the work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services. In almost no time Eric had become an important member of our little family of faith.
We welcomed Eric into our lives and Eric welcomed us into his. And we were all richer for it.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus in the tenth chapter of Matthew. This is the same gospel in which Jesus later says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Christ often comes to us in ways we’re not expecting. When we welcome the unexpected stranger, or graciously accept a welcome when we are the unexpected stranger, we experience the presence and grace of God in new and enriching ways.
I remember one dreary afternoon when the sky was the color of lead and the rain was relentless. The light coming in my office window had unconditionally surrendered to winter and my mood matched the weather. Suddenly I heard this bright, jazzy music coming from downstairs. I ran down the stairs and there in the Fellowship Hall was Eric, pounding out boogie-woogie on the old out-of-tune piano. Who knew? He had come in to the hall to get out of the rain and the mood had come on him to just sit down and play. He apologized for disturbing me and I told him, “No apologies necessary! You brought light into a gloomy day! Keep playing.”
“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.”
We learned a lot from Eric. We learned a little about life on the streets. We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the homeless. We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness. We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough. Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us. All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.
As I read the scriptures and the history of the Church, I see a story where the Holy Spirit is always trying to open the door of welcome wider. Sadly, though, every time the Spirit pushes the door open wider, there are more than a few trying to close it.
God made a covenant with Abraham and told him that his descendants would be a blessing to all nations, but then his descendants tried to make it a “descendants only” club.
Jesus welcomed “tax collectors and sinners” to his fellowship table but the Pharisees were scandalized and critical. How could he be from God if he associated with such people? Then down through the years, even the followers of Christ, people calling themselves by his name, would make all kinds of gateway tests of belief and morality to decide who was worthy of coming to Christ’s table.
When the Church was barely up and running Peter, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, baptized Cornelius and his household, Roman gentiles. In response, James and the other Apostles back at headquarters in Jerusalem had a tizzy fit and raised all kinds “who gave you permission” questions.
St. Paul placed women in the pastorate and leadership ranks of the congregations he established (Junia, Julia, Prisca, Lydia, Euodia, Scyntyche), but before he was cold in his grave other patriarchal hands were editing his writing (1 Cor. 14:34-36) while still others borrowed his name to write the women out of their jobs (1 Timothy 2).
Not exactly welcoming.
This month in the ELCA we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a change in wording in the bylaws of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church, two of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA. Fifty years ago they voted to change the word “man” to the word “person” in their bylaws, thereby opening the door for the ordination of women.
Fifty years later, women clergy often struggle with challenges that male clergy do not. They deal with sexual harassment, disrespect, and often lower pay due to gender-based discrimination. Some congregations still refuse to call a woman as pastor even when there are no other candidates. The saddest part of that is that in doing so these congregations are depriving themselves of the gifts these talented women bring with them, gifts that could revitalize and renew them.
When I think of the women pastors I know, I feel a tremendous hope and confidence for the future of the church. If anyone can lead us to a brighter day, they can.
“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.”
Eric taught us this lesson well: When we welcome the unexpected guest, we receive unexpected gifts.
Fifty years ago the Spirit moved to open the door wider so that the church could receive the bountiful gifts that women bring through ordained service. Eleven years ago the Spirit opened the door wider again when the ELCA voted to allow the ordination of LGTBQ persons. And the church is richer for their ministry.
Today we stand at the edge of a tidal shift in our culture in regard to race, economic structures, and societal systems. The Holy Spirit is pushing the door open yet again and maybe, maybe even pushing down the walls. Church will be different. There are new prophetic voices to hear. New righteous persons to receive. New gifts being given. The only question is, will we welcome them?
In Jesus’ name.