Sermon by the Rev. dr. Cheryl McFadden on Sunday, June 28, 2020.
In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Gospel for today has only three verses, but the message contained in these verses, is powerful. Of particular significance is our opening verse. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Our Gospel writer is sharing with us the importance of welcoming and it is this concept that I want to focus on today. What does it mean to be a welcoming community?
I can speak to the concept of welcoming first hand by sharing with you two short stories. These experiences changed me, shaped me, and led me deeper into the community of Christ and in relationship with beautiful people that differed in ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, gender, exceptionalities, language, religion, and sexual orientation. The first experience occurred when Patrick and I moved to Savannah, Georgia. Our furniture was deposited on a Friday and Patrick, my dad, and I spent the weekend unpacking and setting up house while minding the three “ruffians” as my dad affectionally referred to Sean, Devin, and Cailin, ages 5 and 3. On Sunday morning of that weekend at precisely 10 am, the doorbell rang. My dad and I were organizing the garage (very important to my military dad who valued tools and equipment). Patrick was inside the house minding the children and setting up their bedrooms. Patrick peaked out the window and saw a woman wearing a long dress and holding several baskets. Bewildered, Patrick went and got me to answer the door. “You answer the door.” “No, you answer the door.” Sound familiar?
When I opened the door, the woman gave me a beautiful smile and said, “Welcome to Savannah. I’m Lori, your neighbor. I thought you all might need some supper to sustain you while you unpack and get settled into your new home. May I come in?” Before I could respond, she walked into the house and made her way into the kitchen where she deposited baskets on the counter and began unloading the items. Immediately, there was an aroma familiar to many homes in the South. She unpacked a large glazed ham, scalloped potatoes, string beans, sweet biscuits, sliced fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, and if that wasn’t enough, she produced a still warm pound cake. She had fresh strawberries and cream for the cake. Can you smell the aroma? Patrick, my dad, the children and I stood like statues as she put the strawberries and cream in the refrigerator. Who was this woman? We were all mesmerized by this incredibly friendly woman in a long dress bearing baskets of aromatizing food. I quickly regained my composure and introduced myself and the rest of the family to her. She hugged the adults and kissed the top of each child’s head. Lori shared that she was on her way to the 11 am service at First Presbyterian Church where her husband Clay and her two little girls were already there in Sunday school. She invited us to attend Sunday school and the service with her family next Sunday and to have lunch afterwards at the Piccadilly Cafeteria. What was a Piccadilly Cafeteria? I learned the following Sunday that it was a restaurant where you walked through a line and were offered every conceivable Southern dish. Lori also invited me to an interfaith/interdenominational women’s Bible Study with childcare and activities for children on Tuesday at 9 am. She would be happy to drive us as she had a large car. Lori bid us farewell and strode out the door.
I quickly thanked her and said I would call her on Monday. Afterwards, I looked in the basket and found a note that welcomed us to the neighborhood and gave her address, home and cell number. My family stood in the kitchen and absorbed the aroma of the food and the aftermath of this woman’s presence. My New York City dad, who had been married to my Southern mother for close to 40 years, appreciated a home-cooked meal and shouted, “Let’s eat!” We quickly made plates of food and enjoyed the most delicious supper at 10:30 in the morning.
Now friends, that was a welcome. It was welcoming not only because she greeted and shared food with us, but because she initiated a relationship with us. She invited us to be part of her life and she shared her faith with us. How could we say no? Ultimately, Lori’s act of welcoming, her hospitality, her generosity, led my family to a deeper faith and to a state of being, where we developed relationships with people that were different from us. It was at that interfaith/interdenominational women’s Bible study where I learned about a school that had as its mission to bring children and families in relationship people of different ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, language, and religion. I have no doubt that the radical welcome my family and I received from Lori transformed all of our lives. Through a community of faith and an elementary school, my family formed relationships with diverse people and enable us to appreciate our differences and understand that we are all God’s children. My family and I learned how “to live into a compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God” as Stephanie Spellers aptly puts it in her book, Embracing God, the Stranger, and the Spirit of Transformation. The love we felt for our family, our faith and school community, encouraged us to always extend a hand to a stranger and welcome them into our lives. My children recently shared with me that this childhood experience of Lori welcoming our family and introducing us to a community beyond ourselves, left an indelible imprint on their lives and shaped their future. It taught all of us that Jesus welcomes everyone and it is our job, our mission in life, to follow his example. Isn’t that what our Gospel is inviting us to do today? “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40-42).
The second story I want to share with you happened not only to me but to several parishioners at Christ Church. This past February, a group of us embarked on a trip to Cuba to form a companion relationship with the Episcopal Church of Cuba, specifically with the congregation of San Marcos in Holguin and their pastor, Father Gil Fat Yero. On one leg of our journey in Cuba, Father Gil and Father Juan Carolos Diez Moreira who is the pastor of three churches in Los Arabos, The Church of the Trinidad (Trinity), decided that we would develop deeper relationships with our fellow Episcopalians of Cuba if we stayed in their homes. How astute of fathers Gil and Juan Carolos! When we arrived at the first parish in Los Arabos, we were enthusiastically welcomed with hugs and kisses and served a delicious lunch prepared by members of the parish. It was very evident that special attention and care had gone into preparing the meal and the table they set for us. They even accommodate my gluten-free pescatarian diet. The fellowship was warm and inviting and the food was fabulous. Afterwards, we walked to the homes we were assigned with one of the children or an adult of the home. As I walked with my new 12-year-old friend, Celia, she held my hand and told me how glad she was for me to stay at her home. When I walked into her home, her mother greeted me and said, “We are a poor country. We don’t have much to offer you but our love.” I will never forget these words. She and Celia showed me to the room we would share. The house was simple but well cared for with beautiful flowers, pictures and carefully chosen items of adornment. After several hours of talking, laughing, and sharing our lives, we went back to the church for an evening meal. Again, special preparation had been taken to provide us a wonderful meal of pork, beans, rice, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, fruit and a delicious dessert. They even had tuna for the American priest which was no easy feat in a country with food shortages and where pork reigns supreme. After the meal, we gathered for music and worship. There was rejoicing, singing, clapping, dancing, and lots of love in that little church. Everyone from young to old, from different ethnicities and languages were united, in one accord, and there was pure joy in the church, the kind of joy that only comes from letting ourselves go and being in communion with one another. In Being Disciples, a book written Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and one that you all will be receiving in early September in preparation for our Zoom conversation with him, says “love simply as ‘doing good’ is not enough. Love has to be delight in another…” (p. 33). What happened with our Episcopal Cuban friends in Los Arabos and our parishioners from Christ Church was truly delight in one another. We welcomed each other into ours heart and God’s love flowed sweetly all around.
As we walked home late that night, I felt and I am sure my fellow Christ Church travelers felt, a kindred spirit among our friends in Los Arabos. Later that night as we were readying ourselves for bed, Celia embraced me and told me she loved me. She did so without any hesitation. Her love flowed naturally out of her. I realized in that moment that we all have a choice to make in life. We can live in a world and try to be unaffected by Others, or we can choose to welcome Others with their beautiful differences into our lives. I truly believe that when we do so, our reward is a life filled with love and joy and the strength and courage to endure hardships and suffering and to make the changes we need to live in a just society. My dear friends, we are at a crossroad. We have a choice. Are we going to be like the Lori’s and our Episcopal friends in Cuba who welcome neighbors and Others into their lives or are we going to live apart from Others? I pray that we all choose to welcome our neighbors and Others into our lives. Our reward will be a life filled with love. Amen.