Sunday, May 8, 2011

3 Easter

New Member Sunday
May 8, 2011

Luke 24.13-35


+ These last couple of weeks I have mastered the art of playing the “host with the most.” Of course, I hosted my mother for about three weeks during the flood while she was a misplaced person. And I have also had couple of friends on mine stay at the rectory on their way through Fargo. People like it when I host them. I am, if I say so myself, a good host. I go out of my way for my guests and I try to make them as comfortable as possible when they stay with me.

This, of course, is simply because I am a good Benedictine. By that I mean, I, as an Oblate of St. Benedict, have learned well what it means to welcome people. In the Rule of St. Benedict, the rule that Benedictine monastics all around the world, for many , many centuries have followed, there is a wonderful chapter on greeting visitors to the monastery.

St. Benedict commands that “All should be received as Christ.”

Everyone who comes to the door of a Benedictine monastery or convent, should be welcomed and received as Christ for, St Benedict says, “he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25.35).”

Benedict goes on to say, “Proper honor must be shown to all…”

And to this day, Benedictines all over the world do just that when anyone comes to a monastery or convent. They are known for their hospitability.

And so are we, here at St. Stephen’s We, at St. Stephen’s, whether we are truly conscious of Benedict’s Rule, are also very good hosts. We do practice this radical hospitality.

One of the things I have heard again and again form people who visit us is how friendly and welcoming we are. And we ARE. Whether it’s on our website or here in person or in the many ministries we do, we welcome literally ANYONE through those doors, without judgment, without a second thought. And the secret to this radical hospitality is found in the belief that everyone who comes through that door is truly treated as Christ. Because, as we learn from our Gospel reading today, that Jesus does walk among us, even if we are unable to recognize him.

In today’s Gospel, we find this beautiful story of Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and the other disciple are, essentially, already in a strange time in their life in following Jesus. The long week of Jesus’ betrayal, torture and murder are behind them. The resurrection has happened, although, it’s clear from their words, they don’t quite comprehend what’s happened. Of course, who could? We still, two thousand years later, are grappling with the events of Jesus’ resurrection.

But as these two walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they are kept from recognizing their friend, the person they saw as the Messiah, until finally he breaks the bread with them. Only then—only when he breaks that bread open to share with them—do they recognize him.

It’s a wonderful story and one that has many, many layers of meaning for each of us individually, no doubt. But for us Episcopalians, for us who gather together every Sunday to break bread together, this story takes on special meaning. In a sense. we are the disciples in this reading. We are Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, walking on the road—walking, as they are, in that place on the other side of the cross. They are walking away from Jerusalem, where all these events happened—the betrayal, the torture the murder and the eventual resurrection of Jesus from the tomb—back to Emmaus, to their homes. Like them, we go around in our lives on the other side of the cross, trying to understand what it means to be followers of Jesus on this side of the cross.

What this story teaches us is that, even when we don’t recognize Jesus in our midst, we should always be cautious. He might not make himself known to us as he did to Cleopas and the other disciple. Rather, he might remain cloaked in that stranger who comes to us. And as a result, it’s just so much better to realize that everyone we encounter, everyone we greet, everyone we welcome, truly is Jesus disguised.

What an incredible world this would be if everyone could do this—if everyone could practice radical hospitality like this. What an amazing Christian Church we would have if we could do the same, if we could welcome every stranger—and every regular parishioner as well—as Christ. I think many Christians forget this.

I was recently at another church and I was shocked by how distant and cool people were there when I came through the door. Yes, I had someone give me a bulletin. But, no one really greeted me—even though I knew some of them. And even some other people I knew who were there—strangers to the people in that church—also shared with me how coolly they were greeted.

The fact is, we as Christians ARE called to this radical form of hospitality. By the very fact that we are baptized we are called to do this. In our Baptismal Covenant—that Covenant we have made with God through our baptism—we are called to serve Christ in each other. In our Book of Common Prayer, in the Baptismal Covenant on page 305, each time there is baptism in this church, we are asked,

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”

To which, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.

Now, of course, that’s not easy. In fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible. Without God’s help, we can’t do it. Without God’s help, we first of all can’t even begin to recognize Christ in our midst. And without God’s help, we can’t seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And, let’s face, it’s just easier to choose not to. It’s easy not to see Christ in those people who drive us crazy, who irritate us, who say things to us we don’t want to hear. It’s easy for us to see the devil in people, rather than Christ.

But for us who gather together every Sunday at this table—at this altar—we can’t use that excuse of being unable to recognize Jesus in our midst. In our liturgy, we find Jesus in a multitude of ways. Jesus speaks to us in the scripture readings we hear in the Liturgy of the Word. The voice we hear in these sacred words is truly Jesus’ voice, speaking to each of us in our own particular circumstances, and to all of us as whole. Jesus is present with us—in ALL of us—as we gather here. We—the assembly of the people—we, all of us together, are the presence of Jesus here as well. And when we break this bread at the altar, we find whatever spiritual blindness we come here with, lifted at that time. We see Christ truly present with us—in the brad and the wine and in one another.

Today, on this New Member Sunday, we are celebrating the fruits of radical hospitality. These people who are joining us today are here because they were greeted—each and every one of them—without judgment. Each one was greeted with true joy at the fact that they are here with us.

We have a lot of to celebrate today. It’s not a secret that not that too long ago, St. Stephen’s was viewed as a church that was somewhat stuck. People thought it could not grow—that there was no potential for it to grow. At our last Vestry meeting, I actually brought out the membership numbers over the years, culled from our parochial reports.

Our congregation was formed in 1956. The earliest parochial report I could find was 1961, when there 183 members at St. Stephen’s. The highest number of members was in 1968, when there was a whopping 243 members at this church. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, those number dropped radically—for various reasons.

When I started here at St. Stephen’s in 2008, we had 55 members here. By the end of this year, we could have as many as 100 members here. The last time we had a membership in the triple digits was in 1979.

Now, I don’t want us to get all caught up in numbers. We’re not about numbers. But what we should be rejoicing about the ministry each of us is doing here at St. Stephens. We should be rejoicing at the sound of children in our church. We should be rejoicing that people feel as though they are welcomed here by all of us. We should be rejoicing that this congregation of St. Stephen’s that people once saw as having no real future, no real potential, has been a refuge for people—a place where people have been welcomed and accepted and loved simply for who they are. And all of us here are doing that ministry of radical hospitality to those people coming in our doors.

And that radical hospitality DOES make a difference. Greeting people as though Jesus were present in each person who comes through that door has incredible results—not in only in our collective life here at St. Stephen’s, but in the lives of each of those people coming among us.

We are showing them that, despite the occasionally somewhat ugly reputation the Church has at times—and sometimes deservedly so—we, as the Body of Christ in this world, can do much good as well. We can truly love. We can truly be accepting. We can truly see clearly that Jesus does still walk beside us. We can see that he is with us here as we listen to the scriptures and he is here with us that this table in the breaking of the bread.

So, today, as we celebrate our ministry here at St. Stephen’s, as celebrate and welcome our new members, let us all truly see Jesus present here. Let us hear his words in the scriptures we have just shared and in the scriptures we will read this week. Let us allow Jesus to speak to us with words that are familiar, with a voice that is familiar. Let us allow him to take away whatever spiritual blindness we might have so that we can truly and completely see him in those people who share our life with us. Let us allow him to take away that spiritual blindness that causes so much harm in the world so that we can fully experience him and show love and respect to everyone we come in contact with. And when we break this bread this morning, let our hearts sing, as it no doubt did for Cleopas and the other disciple,

“Be known to me, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of bread.”

And recognizing him here, as we come forward to be nourished in body and spirit by his Body, Blood and Spirit. may we also go out into the world, able to recognize Jesus as he walks alongside us on our journey.

We are living, in this moment, on the other of the cross. We are living here, with Jesus in our very midst. It is a glorious place to be.

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