In the movie, Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg plays aspiring disco diva Deloris Van Cartier who falls in love with a very tough and very married gangster, and when she witnesses him commit a murder, the police order her to seek protection in a convent in the inner city.
When the pastor of the failing parish, Monsignor O’Hara, explains this to the very proper and traditional Mother Superior (Maggie Smith), she reluctantly agrees to the plan---until she opens her office door and gets a gander of Deloris in her garish attire and with lots of teased hair.
“Absolutely not, Monsignor. That woman cannot stay in this convent.”
“Mother, remember that you have taken a vow of hospitality to all.”
“I lied.” She replies.
In the very brief Gospel passage today, Jesus calls us to the ministry of welcoming others in his name, even—perhaps most notably the disenfranchised and those on the margins. The word welcome appears six times in two short verses from Matthew.
Jesus uses several images to demonstrate what welcoming hospitality looks like. What he is telling us is that when we welcome others through practices of hospitality—especially those who may not be welcomed in other corners of society—we open ourselves to receive the gifts of God, “the reward of the righteous.”
The image of a cup of cold water was not lost on his audience. Water was and is a precious resource in the Middle East. The Bible speaks of water as coming from God, a unique gift beyond humankind’s ability to create. In offering a cup of cold water to another one recognizes that what they are doing is none other than a gift from God, not a possession to horde at the expense of the thirsty.
Our lawn banners offer the promise of a “Radical Welcome.” You’ve heard me use that expression often. What exactly is it?
Simply stated, Radical Welcome is the spiritual practice that embraces those who have been systematically cast out of or marginalized within a church, a denomination, or society.
In truth, in one way or another, we have likely all been sidelined or disregarded by some institution because of our age, gender, ethnicity, education, differently ableness, marital or socioeconomic status or the more obvious issues of race and sexual orientation.
Radical Welcome involves an opening of a community’s hearts so that everyone might find within that community a warm place and the possibility of building authentic relationships. It is offered freely, to everyone—no matter who they are or where they may be on their journey of faith.
If we are honest—and I will be the first to admit it—it comes without too much effort with those who look like us, believe like us, behave like us, think like us but when there is a big gap between the other and us, when differences in culture, ideology, and upbringing are palpable, it can be a challenge.
In the early 1990’s, at the end of her first year in Divinity School, Stephanie Spellers arrived at an Episcopal guest house in a major U.S. city. She was not yet an Episcopalian nor did she think of herself as Christian but, coming to the door of this lovely building was like coming to a God-filled oasis.
The host opened the door and asked how much she would be paying before she could step inside. Stephanie mentioned the sliding scale advertised in their materials. The host offered to take $20 off the price if she didn’t eat her meals with the community. It was still pricey, especially having to arrange for food.
The host smiled and suggested she try the nearby youth hostel, and shut the door, leaving this single, young black woman with limited financial resources and no place to go on the doorstep. She walked away wondering what kind of religious community and what kind of church these Episcopalians had created and kept her distance from the Episcopal Church after that encounter.
Like the Mother Superior in Sister Act, had they lied—even as the words “All are Welcome” are on all our Episcopal Church signs?
A few years later, Stephanie was baptized in a multi-cultural Lutheran Church in Boston but something still had not clicked. Then she found St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, a vibrant city congregation filled with wonderful diversity in color, ages, economic situations and sexual orientations. She realized that she had found the awe, the mess, the beauty, the poetry and an emphasis on justice rooted in resurrection-focused faith. She was home. But that experience of welcome did not erase the memory of a door shut in her face years before.
Jesus asks us to create the opportunity for everyone and anyone to experience a deep-seated makeover where it may be needed, especially with respect to the kind of relationship they may have had with God and that may be the cup of cold water we can offer the Stephanie Spellers of the world.
Radical Welcome. It’s actually very ancient and Biblical and, more than that, it was God’s idea long before it was ours. It is not just a technique or strategy. It needs teeth- hands willing to reach out and embrace and ears that will listen and give attention and voices willing to invite and tell stories.
Stephanie Spellers—well, now the Reverend Canon Stephanie Spellers is one of the Episcopal Church’s leading thinkers and consultants on 21st century ministry and mission Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation. Most recently, she is a candidate for bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.
We never know who may enter our doors because of our promise of and commitment to radical welcome. And where that may lead them because we have in our DNA the Jesus variety of hospitality. It’s old news but good news.