Homily for August 28
My first church job was a St. Paul’s in Cary, North Carolina. Cary was mentioned in the national news this week when NPR did a piece about changing demographics in the New South, in states like North Carolina and Georgia where thriving cities have attracted people from exotic faraway places like Pakistan and Massachusetts. They mentioned the commonly-used acronym to describe Cary – the “Concentrated Area of Relocated Yankees.”
You know that I am not a fan of labels. But I have to tell you that that one is pretty fair. Well, it’s not entirely fair because Cary still has a whole lot of folks who are native North Carolinians. There are, after all 150,000 people living there now. But it’s also true that because of the growth of the research triangle park and the diverse economy or Raleigh, Cary is also full of people from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and yes, Massachusetts.
I say that this label is true not out of derision or tar heel nativism but out of deep affection for that particular brand of diversity. I was born in North Carolina, I grew up in north Carolina, but my father’s family goes back five generations in Queens, New York. I’ve lived in New York myself and love it and I love North Carolina too. I call myself with some pride a New York-North Carolina half-breed. So you can imagine how I felt when fate and the Holy Spirit landed me in Cary. I felt like a 30 year old zebra meeting other zebras for the very first time.
Within a few years at St. Paul’s, I noticed a pattern that I would have never expected. You see, I was born and baptized in the Roman Catholic church, and though I’ve been in the Episcopal Church for more than 25 years I still tended to feel like an outsider among natives. Even as a priest. But I started to notice that whenever I led a new member class, or an adult confirmation class, or a baptism class, that the ratio of “cradle Episcopalians” to those of us from another tradition was about fifty-fifty. This really surprised me. No one talked about this in seminary but it seemed to suggest that something was changing.
But I said to myself that Cary was a unique place. I assumed that a community so driven by diversity and immigration was simply going to have a lot more people coming from different traditions.
When I moved to Greensboro I expected the pattern to change. Greensboro is, I think it’s fair to say, more southern that Cary, in culture and in perspective, though we are not strangers to immigration. St. Andrew’s is an historic church in the way that St. Paul’s wasn’t yet: we celebrated the 50th anniversary while I was there, and of course next month St. Andrew’s turns 125. So I figured that the 50/50 ratio wouldn’t hold up.
And it didn’t. I found in Greensboro the ratio is more like 80/20. But believe it or not, in new member and sacrament classes, people from other traditions are the 80%, and the cradle Episcopalians are in the minority. When we did our strategic planning process a few years back we took a straw poll of what I think we have to regard as core members of the church, and saw that only 1 in 3 were “cradle” Episcopalians. Something is indeed changing.
This shows us that the sacred practice of showing hospitality is far more important than we might have thought. On one hand this is sad news, because it means that we have far fewer native Episcopalians than we might have thought. But it is quite good news because it means that most of us have chosen to come here from somewhere else, we’re here for a reason, we’ve adopted this tradition as our own (or it has adopted us), and most of us know what it’s like to be stranger in a holy place.
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality of strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing.” The act of welcoming a stranger is simple, but holy. It is an indispensable Christian practice.
This phrase has what I believe is a strong prophetic charge to show hospitality to the stranger, the immigrant and the alien in our land. I find that meaning to be compelling, but that’s not where I’m going today. This morning I’m going to stay a little closer to the ground and talk about what it really means for a church to show hospitality to the stranger, especially when the church understands itself not as a land filled with native people who know how to lay out the welcome mat, but as a fellowship of folk who were themselves strangers not so long ago who understand that ongoing welcome is core part of who we are.
When we welcome new folks into our midst, and do so as an unselfconscious expression of grace, our church becomes even more authentically the Body of Christ.
I’m actually going to get into the weeds a bit and talk about the work of new member ministry. But I don’t want you to think so much about how do we invite friends or greet visitors so effectively that they become “members.” Rather, the question to ask is, “are we ready for the stranger?” Yes, the newcomer bags are prepared and the guest book is open and the flow chart is up to date. But can we say to that person walking into an Episcopal Church for the first time, who hungers for something sacred, can we say to that man or woman: “we are ready for you.”
Whether that person needs the robust, enthusiastic, trademark St. Andrew’s greeting or simply needs to worship quietly in a place where the Holy Spirit is present, the question is the same. Can we truly say, “We are ready for you.” We are ready for you because we are ready for the wild movement of the spirit, to change our community into something just a little more whole, something that reflects the image of God just a bit more completely. We are ready for you.
I believe we show hospitality to strangers not just because of the innate dignity of every guest, or because we might just be entertaining angels, or even because the life of our church depends upon it. All of that is true, but sacred hospitality, welcoming the stranger, is how God works through us to dismantle the unholy barriers of this world. And you thought you were just offering a handshake.
I love the story that Andrew Weeks tells of how the Holy Spirit brought him back to church. Andrew is the creator of the magnetic church conference, and a few years ago was something of an episcopal circuit rider preaching the gospel of practical, non-threatening evangelism. He talked about the importance of bulletins, websites, greeters, and welcome messages from the pulpit.
The piece that really struck with me though was his very personal story. He is a cradle Episcopalian who, if I remember the story correctly, and fallen away from church. In middle age he had hit a very difficult patch, but something led him – I think he called it a gentle tug – to the doors of his local church one Sunday morning. He’d never been there before. He was welcomed so warmly that he very quickly entered the life of the community and found there an infinite well of love, support, and grace. And by the way, they made him their treasurer. It all happened – and when he told this you could see how tender the story was for him – because of that one simple tug from the Holy Spirit on that one particular morning that brought him to the church door.
That sacramental tug happens each time some enters a church for the first time. It is sacramental for the person walking through the doors, but it is sacramental for all of us as well. You may not realize it, but you all participate in that sacrament almost every Sunday. Sometimes twice over on a Sunday or more because just about every week someone enters this space for the first time.
Are we ready for it?
We have a new member team, we now have newcomer hosts, we have welcome bags and greeters ready for action. But a few deputized folks, good as they are, can only do so much. Hospitality is most powerful when we all practice it together.
There are some things we can do. Wear nametags. Greet your neighbor. Come to coffee hour, and spend 3 minutes talking to someone you don’t know. I would love to come to coffee hour and see a bunch of people holding stopwatches. Always take a moment to read the room through the eyes of a visitor: do we huddle in a defense posture? Or do we practice that unselfconscious but grace-filled message of welcome that says, Thank you for being here, we are ready for you.
Are our spirits ready? This is not really about St. Andrew’s, nor is it about the Episcopal Church. This is about the Kingdom of God.
Jesus tells the story of two banquets, one laden with status and class and power, in which everyone jockeys for the right seat, and another in which the poor, the blind and the lame are invited. In the first banquet, the transactional economy of quid-quo-pro hospitality, the food may be fine but the world never changes. The guests never change. They simply overeat and fret jealously that their seat is too far from the host.
But the kingdom banquet, filled with guests who reflect the face of God, this is the holy hospitality that will change our lives and transform our world. By inviting everyone to the table, not only as guests but as equals, by welcoming all and giving all a place of honor, the unholy barriers of this world are dismantled. Sometimes this actually starts with a simple greeting.
Hello. Welcome. We are ready for you.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC, August 28, 2015, C Proper 17