A new altar guild member couldn’t open the combination lock for the safe in which the parish stored its altar silver. So, she asked the rector for help. The rector started turning the dial of the combination lock, but stopped after the first two numbers, looked up serenely toward heaven, began moving her lips silently, then turned to the final number, and opened the lock.
The altar guild member gasped, “I’m in awe of your faith.”
“Really,” the priest said, “it’s nothing. The combination is taped to the ceiling.”
Analogously, outsiders can find Christianity incomprehensible or intimidating. However, in today’s gospel reading Jesus throws the door to our community wide open. If he had been the first Episcopalian, he would have declared, “All are welcome!” And had he been Hawaiian, he would have said, “E komo mai!” Jesus delineated four welcomes, four paths into the one community of God’s people.
The first welcome or path depicts individuals who seek to connect with God by welcoming the one whom God sent, that is, Jesus. Walking a labyrinth illustrates many aspects of this path. The spiritual life is a journey, not an event. The journey may feel personal, yet a community’s effort is necessary to create and maintain the labyrinth. Walking a labyrinth suggests God’s mysteriousness, while reminding travelers to continue moving forward even when their spiritual life feels dull, tedious, and unrewarding. In the ordinariness of walking and praying one may, in a time and manner of God’s choosing, encounter the living God. If you travel this path, can you describe your personal spiritual journey?
Unfortunately, this first path or welcome for spiritual seekers is widely regarded as Christianity’s only path. Yet Jesus describes three more welcomes, three more paths, by which people can encounter God.
The second welcome or path is for people who receive a prophet. Jesus speaks against the backdrop of well-known Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. Sadly, knowledge of the Old Testament is sharply declining, even though we live in an era that desperately needs to hear the prophets’ messages of social justice and compassion for all. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a more recent prophet whose ministry was a catalyst that transformed society. Without King’s prophetic voice, Barack Obama would probably not have been elected President.
The Rev. William Barber pastors a small North Carolina church and until lately chaired the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter. He founded the Moral Monday movement to protest what he deemed unjust moves by the North Carolina legislature to restrict voting opportunities, impose discriminatory access to public restrooms, and limit healthcare for the poor. Rev. Barber now works to expand the burgeoning North Carolina movement into a national campaign for justice. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, when Bishop of North Carolina, actively supported Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday movement.
Do we similarly welcome prophets? Do we heed prophetic judgments about how our political, economic, and social systems and values measure up against God’s definition of justice, a definition that requires us to care for the most vulnerable and the least among us? And having heard those prophetic judgments, do we support the prophet with our voices, presence, votes, and contributions?
If the first path, with its spiritual focus is the most intellectually challenging in our materialistic, scientific culture, the third path can appear deceptively easy. Jesus instructs his disciples to welcome the righteous. Who is a truly righteous person?
Many of the hundreds of persons that the Episcopal Church identifies as Saints, with a capital S, embodied great virtue. They were just, courageous, prudent, or temperate. However, decades of mid-week services in which my homily usually highlighted a particular Saint’s virtue taught me not only the rigor of cultivating virtue but also that all of the Saints had clay feet. Not one is a person whom we can safely emulate in toto.
Instead, those who strive for righteousness should look to Jesus as their moral exemplar, the pioneer of their salvation. Notably, Jesus preached an inclusive rather than exclusionary welcome. In today’s gospel, in which Jesus identified four welcomes, four paths for his disciples to tread, he implicitly instructs us not to judge those who tread a different path or paths than the path or paths that we tread. Judgment of anyone’s worth – of self or others – belongs to God, not to us.
The final welcome or path that Jesus describes is practicing kindness toward the most vulnerable and least among us. He poignantly illustrates this path with the example of offering a cup of cold water to a little one. Understood literally, a little one denotes a child; understood metaphorically, a little one connotes the most vulnerable or least among us. Both interpretations are comparable: first century Palestinians had no chilled water or ice; water arduously drawn from a deep well was their only source of cold drinks.
A now deceased priest of this diocese, Fr. Claude DuTeil, founded the Institute for Human Services, Hawai’i’s largest non-profit provider of social services. IHS, which St. Clements supports, grew out of Fr. DuTeil’s compassionate response to a hungry, houseless person he encountered in Chinatown while feeling depressed about his ministerial gifts and future.
How can we become more compassionate toward the “little ones” in our midst? How can we more fully care for the houseless, the hungry, the sick, and others?
In a few moments, we will say the Nicene Creed together, affirming our commitment to walking in Jesus’ footsteps. We welcome on this journey all who seek God, who struggle to obey God’s prophetic word of justice, who strive to live righteously, and who try to care for the most vulnerable and least among us. Looking outwards, how can we more fully welcome all four? And, looking inwardly, which path or paths do you walk in your journey towards God?