A Sermon Preached
The Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 29, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
“Don’t look stupid.”
That was the statement that a trainer I worked with said functioned as the freshman student creed in their first days of high school. It resonates, doesn’t it, as you think of that first day entering the scary doors of a giant school…of walking into a classroom and trying to find a seat (don’t sit up front because you’ll look too…eager…don’t sit in back because the teacher will think you’re a punk, don’t – for God’s sake, don’t! – sit in somebody else’s place)…trying to figure out the particular vocabulary of the place, what names they assign to what things…or, that great test of all teenage resilience, deciding which table to choose at lunch time in the high school cafeteria.
At one of the high schools where I taught, I led a freshman program that attempted to set those new students more at ease in their early deer-in-headlights days of “don’t look stupid.” Upperclass students served as hosts, welcoming and checking in with freshmen in their first weeks at our school. The new students walked through all their classes and met their teachers before the day when confusion reigned, when everybody else was there. They were introduced to the language we used – the teacher-appropriate words, at least. And they had a place to sit, together with their small groups, in the cafeteria at lunch.
It might be hard to imagine, especially for those of us who have been Episcopalian for a long time, or who have been a part of this community for a while; but I wonder how much of that deer-in-headlights thing is true for people walking through these doors for the first time. After all, you can’t look in from the outside and see what’s going on here, so that alone makes it hard to step across the threshold. Where to sit? Well, too far back and you can’t see, but sitting all the way up front means you have nobody to follow with the standing up and the sitting down and the kneeling…and then there’s the bulletin and a hymnal and the prayer book and another hymnal and the sign of the cross (when do we make that, anyway?)…and communion…and talk about a peculiar vocabulary – Episcopalians have that down cold: from narthex to nave to columbarium to undercroft…and where is Puhlman Hall, and what does it mean to go there and is coffee hour a whole hour and will anyone actually talk to me if I do go?
Well, yes. In a word, yes. I’m grateful for the stories people tell me about the ways they have been made to feel welcome here – about one new member who had someone show her the right page in the right hymnal…about another standing in the hallway outside Puhlman Hall when a former warden introduced himself and welcomed him in…about one of our smallest members, Allison Jacobs, shaking hands with another small guest – now member – Jack Curchin, and inviting him to stay for cookies after church.
This is all more than social window-dressing, friends, as I think you instinctively know. It’s more than just doing those things that allow us to call ourselves a friendly church. There’s theology attached.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
The school where I taught sat a short distance from the State Penitentiary. Many of my students were the children of inmates. Gangs were a way of life. Education was often not. At the time we began our freshman orientation program, we had one of the highest dropout rates in the state. And I wish I could say that this fixed it – it didn’t…but it made a difference. It allowed new students to find themselves within a context that welcomed them. It allowed them to attach themselves to something that was not a gang. And it provided a way for older students to act as hosts and mentors, helped by giving them a chance and an imperative to lead.
Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
What those kids did, practically speaking – yes, was to help new freshmen walk through the very big and intimidating doors of a very old and intimidating building. They helped students figure out where their classes were and gave them a chance to find a place there. They helped new students navigate the anxiety of the high school cafeteria, decided together on a table where their own small group would sit. They taught new students the peculiar vocabulary of that place, helped them learn. Yes. Those were the practical, nuts-and-bolts things those sophomores and juniors and seniors did for their freshmen. But what they meant? “Welcome. Let me help you across this threshold. Welcome. Let me help you find your way. Welcome. Let me help you build your future here. Welcome. I care, and I’m glad you’re here.”
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, Jesus says; And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Now, there are clear lines of distinction between a city high school in Salem, Oregon, and an Episcopal Church in Wilmette, Illinois. But one thing holds true – how we welcome people matters. When we invite friends to be here with us, when the ushers open doors as people walk up the steps, when we slide down the pew to help someone find their way through worship, when we greet people authentically and enthusiastically at the Peace, when we ask them to come with us to coffee hour (Yes, people will talk to you…and No, you don’t have to stay for a whole hour) and when we give them a red coffee cup and introduce them to our other friends…with all of that nuts-and-bolts practical stuff, we help people set aside the deer-in-headlights feeling of walking through those beautiful and perhaps intimidating doors of this beautiful old building. And each time you do that, this is what you’re really saying: “Welcome. Let me help you across this threshold. Welcome. Let me help you find your way. Welcome. Let me help you build a life in this new place. Welcome I care, and I’m glad you’re here.”
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…whoever gives even a cup of cold water (in a clear glass, or preferably a red mug) to one of these…none…will lose their reward.