Welcoming the Image of God

The text

In Matthew 10:40-42 we have a continuation of teaching on discipleship. However, the tone shifts dramatically from last week’s gospel verses which focused on the likelihood of having to negotiate serious conflict when we tread the road as disciples of Jesus –read further at Facing up to Matthew https://relationalrealities.com/

Verses 40-42 focus on the action of welcoming and the object – as it were – of welcoming, i.e. prophet, righteous person, and-or little ones. In these three designations we have a full spectrum of persons who might be likely to visit with us. I would suggest that we define these categories of: prophet – a person mature in faith, the righteous – a good person, and little ones –  someone unsure, possibly vulnerable, likely doubting, yet searching for that which they know they are in need of. While we can see in Matthew’s categories an identification of types of person, I would further suggest that we find all three identifications coexisting simultaneously within ourselves.

The context

Matthew weaves together in a particular way what were most probably, a series of remembered sayings of Jesus. In other words, it is unlikely that Matthew is reporting a verbatim of Jesus’ teaching, as in this is what Jesus actually said on one single occasion. He is taking snippets of what his community remembers of the disparate Jesus sayings and weaves them together into a particular message for his community. So we can discern that the dynamics of welcome were as much an issue for the Matthean community as they are for the community of St Martin, on the East Side of Providence.

Yet, Matthew’s context differs from ours in a rather significant aspect. Whereas, we will be thinking of persons who arrive through our doors as individuals,  because we live in a society that constructs identity as something coterminous with each of us as individuals, i.e. I am me, and you are you, and in that lies the difference between us. In Matthew’s community, like that of any community in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century, personal identity is a relational concept denoting a connection with, and representation of a wider group or community. To welcome an individual is to welcome a whole group of persons to which the individual belongs. In this context the welcome of strangers served the interests of fostering wider social ensuring some degree of harmony between different social groups, and disparate communities.

Our context – receiving the text

Translating this text into our own context brings to mind two aphorisms – pithy sayings that carry a generalized truth. The first is the Garrison Keeler comment about the attitude Lutherans towards visitors:

As you leave church don’t bother to introduce yourself. If we want to know who you are we will look in the visitors book.

The second aphorism applies closer to home. Referring to the sign that hangs outside every Episcopal Church,[1]:

The Episcopal Church welcomes you! In our minds this reads: The Episcopal Church welcomes you as long as you are like us!! 

Having enjoyed a good laugh at our own expense, the fact is that it is not helpful to generalize about Churches, and Episcopal Churches, in particular. Because the degree to which any church is, or is not welcoming is a reflection of the internal dynamics within that community.

In my first week in the parish, I met with the Vestry. It is my custom to reverse the normal vestry agenda priorities so that discussion of finance and more routine, recurring matters is placed as the last item on the agenda. I do this because I have learned that to place routine matters that don’t change much from month to month at the top of the agenda priority is the best way to inhibit the vestry’s collective creativity and thoughtfulness.

At the meeting two weeks ago we began with a form of Bible study known as divine reading or lectio divina, through which the Holy Spirit invited us into a more expansive frame of mind. I then invited the Vestry to brainstorm four major priorities to be worked-on over the next 12 months. You will be able to see from posting of the minutes what the Vestry came-up with. However, one priority is especially interesting, and one member coined this priority as inreach.

We came to understand this to mean that the most fruitful way of welcoming others is through reaching into s deep self-examination as a community. We do so in a spirit of appreciative enquiry, and curiosity. As we begin to practice inreach we are going to make important discoveries about who and what we are, and are not. I guess some discoveries will be reassuring, and others disconcerting.

Coming into St Martin’s I continue to reflect long and hard on why the aphorism about the Episcopal Church’s welcome seems to strike a chord of recognition in all of us. My experience of arrival has been characterized by a profuse and generously exuberant welcome.  I arrive, somewhat in the guise of Matthew’s prophet. The expectation attaching to the incoming Rector is that he or she is bringing something of what is needed by the community to continue into the next stage of its journey. Yet, how do we imagine the experience of the visitor or the stranger who comes through our doors?

Episcopal parishes have a general dynamic of reserve. Unlike some other Christian traditions we are not known for falling upon the neck of the visitor [2]. Yet, at St Martin’s I suspect it would be a mistake to interpret such reserve and restraint as a sign of being unwelcoming. St Martin’s, clearly is a missional parish. By this I mean it’s a community that is vitally interested in the state of the world around it. There is a long and strong tradition of outreach and social concern. St Martin’s, well understands that it has responsibilities to the wider Church and society.

Like many Episcopal parishes, St Martin’s is a community where the righteous – in the Matthean sense of good people imbued with a sense of humanitarian concern, readily find a welcome and a home. I also suspect that St Martin’s is a community where prophets – as in the spiritually mature, because they are able to persevere until they pass through the glass wall[3], also find a welcome and a home.

The question in my mind is how do we think the little ones – as in the vulnerable fare? Vulnerability comes in different guises. There are those socially marginalized, whose material needs are their uppermost concern. There are those who are socially ostracized through disturbance in mental and emotional health. There are the lonely and the sorrowful. There are those who experience themselves as the objects of discrimination. There are the skeptical, yet spiritually- seeking.

For the skeptical, yet spiritually-seeking some restraint and reserve may well be appreciated allowing them to find their way, at their own pace, into community relationship. Educational formation is going to be important for these persons. Our polite, middle class, emotionally restrained culture will probably make us an intimidating place for the socially vulnerable, and maybe the lonely. Our theological tolerance and progressive engagement in the service of the expectations of the Kingdom will make us a welcome place for those differently marginalized through discrimination. Our compassion and social concern will help us to embrace those variously disturbed, so long as they are not too disturbing.

Yet, the truth remains that we are a difficult tradition to penetrate. One reason for this is our theological and liturgical complexity. It is a steep learning curve to find your way around the Book of Common Prayer and into the concept of a community defined by its worship and not mutual agreement . Yet for those who can resist the urge for instant gratification, the BCP opens a portal to a world of deep spiritual, liturgical, and emotional tones and resonances that are most longed- for in our modern world. We are not the community for those whose response to the challenges of the modern world is to seek clear, unequivocal, true or false answers. Yet, for those who can tolerate living in the tension of interpreting the rich tradition of our Christian past for the purpose of creatively invigorating our Christian living in a 21st century world, we are exactly the right community.

As your new Rector, I want to invite us all into a process of inreach. Curiosity is one of the primary motivations necessary for the spiritual life. With curiosity and appreciative enquiry, let us explore ourselves as a community, celebrating our strengths, yet not shying away from our weaknesses.

In conclusion

Matthew 10:40-42 leaves me with two abiding insight.

  1. If each one of us can become more aware that in us the spiritual maturity of the prophet, the commitment to right action of the righteous, and the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of the little ones – all require our self-reflection.Recognising that to varying degrees, all three are part of our identity allows us the flexibility to orient ourselves to what is most needed, not only by the visitors that come through our doors, but by our neighbors and co-workers, and the stranger we encounter by chance in the street.  The fruit of our process of inreach will be effective and welcoming outreach. The task is to recognize in others what we know about our own familiar needs, and to let this self-knowledge orient us in relation to them.
  2. Ultimately, we welcome not the individual, but we welcome Christ, through whose image we recognise ourselves made in the image of God. When we recognize ourselves as made in the image of God, then we cannot miss seeing that same God-image in the faces of the visitor and the stranger. I believe it is the cultivation of our own spiritual resources that makes the difference between benign indifference and welcome.

[1] St Martin’s has two at either end of Orchard Avenue

[2] A reference to Acts 20:37 where the brothers and sisters embraced Paul, falling upon his neck and kissed him.

[3] By the glass wall I mean that experience of persevering with a new community until suddenly one day you find you have moved from the outside to the inside.

One thought on “Welcoming the Image of God

Add yours

  1. I’m loving staying in touch through your “in”sightful words and wisdom! Definitely the focus is “in”!

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