Sacrificial Welcome and Father Anthony

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)
June 29, 2014

The Rev. Dr. Luk De Volder, Rector —

To welcome is a verb that comes with more sacrifice than we often realize. Because in order to welcome others we must step out of our comfort zones, sacrifice things that are dear to us, and in doing so make space in ourselves for the other. But in sacrificing things to which we are attached in order to make space for others, we might just find that we have also made space for new parts of ourselves to emerge. In welcoming others, we wind up welcoming our truest selves, the selves God would have us be.

When I was a child my parents used to welcome a missionary in our home. Every two years Father Anthony would return from the Sao Paolo region in Brazil to his home country of Belgium to drum up support for his work. Before he became a missionary, Father Anthony was the former youth pastor of our church, and he and my young parents went ‘way back’ as they say. Father Anthony’s visits were always a treat for the kids. He had a natural sense of kindness, a bellowing voice, and beautiful Portuguese expressions that he would translate for us. Today Brazil is hosting the World Cup soccer tournament, but in the ’70’s it was still a country in need of much support. Father Anthony would tell our family about the fire in the bellies of Brazilian Christians who were building new communities and defending their land against exploitation. But what I remember most about Father Anthony was that he was not afraid to ask people to help and to reach beyond their comfort zone to welcome people into the world-wide community of love.

When I was 8, Father Anthony had returned again from Brazil, but this time he asked something new. This time he invited the children of our family to give something to the children of his mission. While eating my dessert I thought of something, but then thought again about it. I sat quietly deliberating because it would be a great sacrifice. Then right before Father Anthony left, I ran upstairs, and in a wave of sharing frenzy, I rounded up my favorite matchbox cars, emptied my little piggy bank, and made my offering for the children of Sao Paolo mission of Father Anthony. It was all very exciting.

But once Father Anthony was gone and the thrill quieted down, I began to feel the pain of my sacrifice. My piggy bank was empty. How did that happen? My favorite toy cars, for which I saved precious pennies long and hard, were now off to Brazil. What did I do? I felt a bit sick to my stomach realizing, those cars were never coming back. That night my heart was broken open a bit by giving up something dear to me, by giving up something to which I was very attached. But as my parents helped me to focus on the children who would play with my toy cars, children who had far fewer toys than me, joy filled the space in me that was broken open by sacrifice. Welcoming others, even those oceans away whom I would never likely meet, meant sacrificing something dear to me. But in willingly giving away something to which I was attached, the pain made room to welcome new parts of me that would emerge, like compassion and joy and new imaginary international friends.

In today’s lessons our God draws out for us the relationship between welcome and sacrifice. On the one hand we hear in the Gospel that we are called to welcome others as a way of welcoming God. And that may at first may seem straightforward and easy. As if just saying the word hello or welcome to passers-by magically makes them feel welcomed. But we are also reminded today of the sacrifice of Isaac. And it is when we see these two callings together, welcome and sacrifice, that we realize just what it is our God asks of us.

Abraham and Sarah thought they would never be blessed with a child when three angels share dinner with them one evening and tell Abraham that Sarah will conceive a child in her old age. With great joy Isaac is born and is showered with all the love that such a long awaited child would evoke in parents. Then when Isaac is nearing manhood, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, to kill him, to demonstrate Abraham’s love of God. With great sorrow, Abraham obliges and hikes up the mountain with Isaac to slaughter his only beloved son. Then just when Abraham has already made the sacrifice in his heart, knife raised high over the bound Isaac, God stops Abraham and tells him to sacrifice the Ram caught in the thicket instead. Talk about tension building in narrative!

But this story of the sacrifice of Isaac is not just good storytelling, it is a profound spiritual lesson. When we welcome others as though we are welcoming God, we too are called to sacrifice what we most love as part of the welcome. We too are called to stretch beyond our comfort zones, beyond what feels easy and right for us, beyond the meager offering that our larger society now suggests is sufficient welcome. We too are called to give away our Isaac. Because when we give away what we most cherish, we will find that like for Abraham, God, will fill something new in that space of pain that comes with sacrificing.

In our modern world, we put great emphasis on our individual needs, on our own personal care and wellness. And while it is good and right to care also for ourselves, the pendulum has swung so far in our time toward self-care, that we hardly know what whole hearted welcome looks like, or feels like, anymore. But real welcome feels like we are making a sacrifice. Real welcome involves human encounter that stretches us. Not just a passing greeting that means nothing, but real engagement with the other. It doesn’t matter whether we are introverted or extroverted, we are all called to give away what is most difficult for us to give, whatever that is for each of us, and by doing so create a stretch, a space in ourselves that not only makes room for the other, it makes room for God to pour into us new more mature dimensions of ourselves.

As God would have it, when we make sacrifices to welcome the other, we also find that we welcome ourselves. We become more ourselves. We meet the fuller richer version of ourselves.

This is a hard message to hear today, especially for Christian communities that have big welcome banners flowing over cliques of people ignoring strangers. But we are not called to take the easy route of doing what is comfortable every Sunday at church or every Monday at the office. We are called to stretch beyond what is easy, called to figure out how to make conversation and build a bond with the stranger in the back pew or that weird guy Joe from accounting. Yes, it will feel strange for us to do what we don’t know how to do, but that is the sacrifice. That is the stretch. That is the space in which God will pour in something new.

When we welcome others our God is directing our attention to a basic premise of existence, that all life is about welcome and encounter–from birth, to family, to romantic love, to friendships, to death. Encounter. Everything else is just the way we are making encounter happen. Our values and duties, our hopes and our trust grow from within this very welcoming encounter. The welcome experience is in fact like a cradle for human life.

Our God teaches us today to welcome the stranger, to step outside our comfort zone, outside our clique of friends and attachments. Because God’s empowering grace is very often reaching us exactly through others. As the rabbi, Emmanuel Levinas, stated: “It is in the [welcoming] response to the call of the other that I become truly myself.” By welcoming the other we grow in empathy, responsibility, and loving care. We become a richer being.

May we go out on this day and welcome others with sacrifice, with stretch and intention, so that we may draw them into the community of God’s love and in doing so become who God has called us to be. For this we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.