I attended an anti-racism workshop held at my former parish last Saturday. The curriculum was well structured, a very model for adult education. The instructor was a pro, well versed in the subject and obviously gifted in teaching adult groups. For all of that I found it stale and vaguely offensive. There was little about it that was different from similar workshops I’ve attended over the last twenty or thirty years. The working assumption of the curriculum was that we are all white, mostly male, and largely ignorant of the systemic racism built in to our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. As it turned out, we were mostly white, female and, with a few exceptions, reasonably well informed. The usual gang attended. Those who, perhaps, should have been there, were not, as usual. What was once fresh and challenging now seemed more like rubbing one’s nose in one’s inherent racism as a congenital disease more rampant in Northern European white Americans than anyone else. The instructor ended with the nationally prescribed conclusion that to really do something about our racism we needed to get more black members to join our church.
It seemed a little silly considering the very few who live in our community. It conjured up an image of trolling for a dark skinned persons and dragging them in to sit with us in our rather traditional Episcopalian congregation so that we could congratulate ourselves on our fine catch. The words rude and arrogant came to mind.
On the other hand, our community is ethnically and economically diverse with a considerable amount of shared ignorance and prejudice spread among us.
Maybe I’ve been thrown off track by attending too many Eric Law workshops and reading too many of his books, but it does seem to me that, at least for us, the issue has more to do with the need to learn about, learn to respect and learn from the cultures, traditions and ways of living in community that are represented in the diversity of our valley. I also think that any congregation desiring to welcome that diversity into its midst must do so through the humility of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality is difficult because it means that power relationships within the group will be changed, and giving up the systems of power with which we have become comfortable is very threatening.
If my former congregation became a congregation of radical hospitality serving the neighborhood in Christ’s name, it would look a lot different. The church is surrounded on two sides by low income rental housing – some with younger, often non-traditional, families and some limited to the more mature in age. The younger families tend to be among the working poor. The more mature tend to be the retired working poor. Up and down the adjacent streets are the homes of the solid middle class and a few of the wealthy. If the congregation was radically welcoming it would be filled with people new to Christianity, new to Anglicanism, but rejoicing in ‘their church’ as a place that is truly theirs, and not a place where they were simply welcomed as visitors. They would not be big pledgers. They would take up residence in pews ‘reserved’ for old timers. They would assume a variety of leadership roles and do new things without the advise and consent of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
Would we be worshiping in Spanish? Probably not. Would there be dozens of dark skinned persons in the pews? Probably not. Would the elders of the congregation still be respected and have a voice? Yes. Would the current ranks of extremely well educated upper middle class members still have some important role in decision making? Yes.
I got distracted yesterday. Sermons at rural Grace Church, where I serve a couple of times a month in my retirement, have become conversations. One can do that with a very small congregation. Our conversation about the Syrophoenician woman in Tyre and the deaf mute man in the Decapolis swerved around to the importance of doing good things for people less fortunate than us. That sort of doing is always important, but I think we missed the point. We can do good for others but fail to extend hospitality. We are particularly poor at extending the sort of radical hospitality to which I think these stories point.
Radical hospitality is what this is about. Mark’s narrative brackets Jesus’ Galilean ministry with the gentile territories of Tyre on the one hand and the Decapolis on the other. In each he extended the ministry of radical hospitality to those outside the comfort zone of Galilean Jews. The difficulty with which he responded to the Syrophoenician woman becomes for us an object lesson to guide us through the breakdown of our own prejudices. The comfort and ease with which he healed the Decapolis man is where we are headed. Each of them is outside of the allegorical comfort zone of Galilee, wherever our own Galilee might be.
As long as I’m stretching a point, I’ll go on to say that these healing stories are not so much about physical healing as they are about restoring wholeness of being at two levels: within the local context of one’s life, and between one’s self and God. Note that Jesus did not ask the woman or the man to follow him, become Jews, move to Galilee, or anything of the kind. Each was honored in the place where they were and made whole in the context of that place. We don’t know what the woman did, but it is said that the man went about enthusiastically exclaiming his new way of being in relationship to himself, his community and God.
From that point of view, radical hospitality honors the other without trying to make them over into something else, something more like you and me. Radical hospitality opens up the possibility of exploring new ways of being within the context of authenticity. That is to say, within the context of one’s community, ethnicity, history, family, etc. I think that is a huge step beyond merely doing good for someone less fortunate. It’s also a huge step beyond our usual sort of hospitality that opens our doors to others if they want to come into our space to become as one of us. In my case that means to become a North American rooted in northern European ways nurtured by various Pagan mythologies encased in the Anglican tradition of the Christian faith as expressed by the Episcopal Church.
OK, that’s enough rambling. The whole train of thought needs some reflection and development.
Two things continue to amaze me about Christ and Christianity. One is the idea that there is only one right relationship with Christ that entitles one to be called a Christian. The other is the enormous variety of relationships Jesus had with those he encountered. Some were healed and sent on their with instructions to tell no one. Some were healed and sent on their way with instructions to tell everyone what God had done for them. Some were called to follow as disciples and some were told not to. Some were intimate friends and others informal acquaintances. A few were enthusiastic and apparently spontaneous followers while others were most reluctant.
The continuity that binds them all together is the radical hospitality with which Jesus engaged each according to their particular needs and circumstances. They were insane maniacs, blind, physically crippled, powerful, wealthy, poor, educated, ignorant, Jews, gentiles, Roman soldiers, anti-Roman zealots, country bumpkins, city elite, male, female, free and slave. There was something about their encounters with Jesus that inspired them to enter into a trusting relationship with him, but each in a unique way that was appropriate for them in a fashion determined only between themselves and Christ.
Maybe we have it backwards. It’s not the character of our relationship with Christ that counts, but Christ’s relationship with us. That can make it a bit awkward because it strips us of our ability to judge, and we so love to judge. There is only one requirement, and that is to have some minimum degree of willingness to accept the radical hospitality that Jesus offers. But even that is not always open to our discernment. The rich young man whom Jesus loved, but who went sadly away because he would not give up his wealth, did he return another day? I wonder if far too often we do not give God enough credit for knowing how and having the ability to handle the job of salvation without the benefit of our critical advice and assistance.
I think that what Jesus said to Peter at the end of John’s gospel was very telling. “Pete, don’t worry about that other disciple. You tend my sheep. What I have in mind for him is none of your business.” What Jesus said to Peter should be understood to be what Jesus says to each one of us, and what we need to understand about others.
A few days ago someone brought up the question of cheap grace as something he saw troubling the contemporary church of his community, just as Bonhoeffer saw it in his. That person wanted a more forceful emphasis on costly grace as an antidote. I sympathize, but at the same time am extremely cautious because the demand for costly grace can very easily be turned into a demand for God to separate the wheat from the chaff right here before our eyes on our personal naming of the unrepentant sinfulness, hypocrisy and unworthiness of those whom we accuse and have already judged.
Perhaps what he had in mind are some strands in American Christianity that appear to have an odd relationship with grace that can look a bit cheap. There are churches in which sin and the sinful nature of humanity that is always teetering on the edge of eternal damnation but for one’s acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior is coupled with the expectation of a constant cycle of backsliding and re-acceptance through public confession and appropriate tears, followed by more of the same behavior, often with the excuse that ‘the devil made me do it.’ It can look pretty cheap, even tawdry.
Grace is free and unearned, but it is not cheap. When the salvation of the world is accomplished through the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus there can be nothing cheap about it. But it still remains free and unearned. What it doesn’t accomplish is freedom from the natural consequences of our behavior. For instance, the natural consequence of my running up a poorly anchored ladder was a broken ankle. The natural consequence of the genes I inherited was a heart attack, in spite of a healthy life style. The natural consequence of my occasional arrogance, anger and judgments are strained relationships and genuine hurt to others. You see where this is going? The free gift of God’s grace, through which we have forgiveness of sin and all other benefits of Chris’s work, does not absolve us of the ordinary consequences of our behavior or the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Consider, for instance, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The hypocrisy of her accusers was blatant, but Jesus did not condemn or even shame them. He simply exposed their own sin to the shame they generated for themselves and sent them away to ponder it. He did not condemn the woman either, and in my imagination I hear him say something like, “Look, you almost got stoned, and if you keep on behaving like that you will be stoned, so go forth and don’t do that again.”
That is why we need to associate the grace of forgiveness with confession, repentance and the hard work of reconciliation through which healing and restoration can, but does not always, take pace. We have been called into the ministry of reconciliation, and, as the community of the Church, we are the body of Christ continuing the healing work of Christ. We enter into that ministry not to become saved, but because we are saved. It is a sacrificial offering of thanksgiving.
If that sounds like a call to mature discipleship, it is. And that is what Bonhoeffer was about when he wrote on cheap grace in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was a key element in the training of new clergy who would be able to continue the work of Christ in a Germany ruled by Nazis and a Protestant Church that had largely surrendered to them. Not all were ready for it.
Not all are ready for it in our own day either. We are surrounded by people who have never heard the good news; they are new to the Christian faith; they are long time Christians with only a superficial understanding of what that means; they are anyone and everyone in any condition of life. Whoever they are and however come into the presence of the Church, they are to be welcomed with the radical welcome of Jesus himself. Mature ordained and lay discipleship does not make demands on others for an adequate demonstration or proclamation of their faith. Mature discipleship exudes the radical welcome and love of Christ into lives that desperately need it. Mature discipleship calls others to begin their formation as followers of Jesus from the place where they are, in the place that they are, and as they are able. Mature discipleship offers through Christ the free gift of God’s grace. But it does not promise unnatural relief from the natural consequences of our behavior or the conditions of our lives.
In the tradition of my Church, the collects for Friday are the collects for mature discipleship in the recognition of what costly grace really means. That’s a good place to close this post and seek your own contribution to the conversation:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your name.
This is a quote from someone offering her opinion to the Obama transition team:
I do not believe in family immigration. Just because one person comes to America does not mean that the whole family belongs here. Immigrants should be educated and speak english (sic) to be in this country. We have enough people in this country who are not educated and can not (sic) afford higher education, so we must take care of the citizens of this country before we can take on more. We do not need to (sic) world’s poor in this country.
While I can understand the angst about losing our American character to a foreign invasion of poor, illiterate strangers who do not share it, it also betrays a deep ignorance of how America developed in the first place. It is also consistent with the ethnic paranoia expressed by every generation of Americans about new arrivals. I guess it’s human nature, but it’s terribly sad and worse, it’s the feedstock that fuels bigotry, violence and the corruption of our highest civic ideals. I’ve done some traveling about the globe, and I know what it’s like to be the one who is illiterate and uneducated, and who, like dear old Blanche Dubois, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. Of course, I was “rich.” What if I had been poor? But even more important, what kind of connection might you make between this brief article and the several that precede it on the subject of radical welcome?
Regular readers, if there are any, will note an occasional reference to a friend who is writing a commentary on a portion of Luke. I’m a little vague about what I say about that since his daily drafts are intended to end up as an edited whole ready for publication one of these days. But I’m going to borrow one of his sentences from this morning’s draft because it speaks directly to a couple of previous posts about radical welcome.
“At the root of anticipatory welcome is confidence in God’s gratuitous generosity.”
Anticipatory welcome is the feeling, or at least hope, that I will be warmly welcomed by the people I am about to meet, perhaps for the first time, in the place I am about to enter, perhaps for the first time. Anticipatory welcome is hard to come by. The more likely expectation is of anticipatory rejection. “I don’t really know this place; I don’t really know these people; I know I was invited but I don’t know the local rules of the place, it’s culture, it’s practices; What if they don’t like me?
Anticipatory welcome, as least in terms of the radical welcome I believe is the primary tool of evangelism, is all about confidence in God’s gratuitous love. But that confidence has to come from somewhere. Congregations and individual Christians need to be bold in talking about that gratuitous love when the opportunity arises, and develop habits of being that reflect it in some way, so that when that hopeful, but skeptical, person finally decides to find out if it might be available to him or her, she or he will find an abundance of it during worship and fellowship. But let’s be clear about it, an abundance of God’s gratuitous love as expressed by you, me, or our congregations is not the same thing as fawning, smothering, and obviously phony welcome that many of us have experieinced. It is the genuine willingness to touched by the stranger who is a sinner as by our brother or sister. There’s more, but I’d like to hear your take on it.
I wanted to start with very simple, ordinary things about radical welcome in the post below because we have a tendency to over-complicate matters right off the bat mostly, I think, as a way of avoiding doing anything but talk. For a number of years I taught a course in an MBA program called Management and Society that introduced budding executives to some principles of ethics. I’ve written elsewhere on some of my experiences with them, and one consistent experience was their desire to leap into questions of the morality of atomic warfare or how to achieve peace in the Middle East. What we really needed to to was begin with examining the moral habits of our ordinary daily lives and the relatively simple choices we make in them. It turns out that that is a very hard thing to do because it forces us to deal with the reality of our own lives as we confront our own responsibility for choices and their consequences.
Epiphany is a season of signs and symbols, and I want to reflect on that in some pretty down to earth ways.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the Glory of God.” (Rom. 15.7) Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another as he loved us, and, while I believe that remains our highest goal, it also seems to me to be out of reach even for the best of us. But what we can do is to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us. The record of Jesus welcoming is somewhat alarming in that he didn’t seem to have very high standards. Just about anyone who came into his presence was welcomed: lepers, tax collectors, notorious sinners, elite scholars, lawyers, good friends, total strangers, even the crowd that came to arrest him in the garden. Not everyone accepted or responded warmly to his welcome, but all were offered it nonetheless. Maybe we are unable to love as Christ loved, but we can welcome as he welcomed. So now the questions becomes, what signs and symbols do we erect that say You are Not Welcome!?
I wonder if we could work on those first, and I don’t think we need to get overly theological about it. These are ordinary, practical things. For instance, some years ago on our annual sojourn to our favorite winter retreat we decided to look for the Episcopal Church in a nearby community. We had the address and new the town, we could even see the building sitting back in a small grove of trees, but there was not the slightest hint about how to actually get to it. Obviously only those in the know were welcome there. A nearby SDA church, on the other hand, had a large inviting driveway framed by a large, but tasteful, sign of welcome. I have no idea what went on in either one of those places. The point is that signs and symbols of welcome are a first step and we can all take it. I know there is a lot more to it than that, but why not start with the simple basics and go from there.