Trinity 16 - the Welcome of God

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Robert Thompson on 23 September 2012

It’s now just over 7 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It was on August 29th 2005 that it hit the Gulf Coast of the US. Before the levees of New Orleans broke and the city was flooded, over one million people were safely evacuated. After the flood it is estimated that the town of Baton Rouge, which is 60 miles from New Orleans, doubled its population, as flood refugees and aid workers poured in. A study of the Louisiana state University Sociology Department found that around half of all the homes of Baton-Rouge opened up their doors, and offered temporary accommodation and shelter. Public buildings and the buildings of various faith communities also opened up to provide sanctuary for those made homeless. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, displaced people were welcomed into such accommodation for weeks or even months.

The after effects of Hurricane Katrina, provides us with story after story of people, institutions, and churches, opening up their doors and letting strangers in. It provides us with stories of communities extending the embrace of welcome to those who had been dispossessed. Perhaps it was the almost universality of the devastation in New Orleans, how it affected just about everyone, that led the people of Baton Rouge to open up their homes and extend such welcome.

In more ordinary situations we would wonder about what might motivate someone to open up their home to a complete stranger. For most of us that would be a prospect flavoured with piquant anxiety. Issues of home and personal security would be uppermost in our minds: the safety of our possessions, the safety of our property, the safety of our children and of ourselves. An Englishman’s home is indeed very often his castle, with moat and drawbridge and battlements to keep out the potential predator. Or less picturesquely these days we do the same with triple Chubb locks and flats and houses enclosed in isolated gated communities.

Such is the way of the world: we can be perennially anxious to preserve what we have accumulated and who we have become. It’s an anxiety that is reflected in our gospel text today. The disciples of Jesus had been arguing about which one of them is the best. Who is the greatest, the super, and the head boy disciple? It’s an argument that is the product of their status anxiety. They look at one another, and size one another up. Even in this spiritual and religious community of discipleship they wonder who is better than others. Even in this supposed community of equals, their pride and vanity get the better of them.

Their status anxiety resonates with our own. Most of our lives are characterised by forms of comparative and even competitive measurement against others. In the family we compare our children’s relative abilities and gifts, just as our parents compared ours, even though they told us that they didn’t. In school we measure and quantify the attainment of an education. In the increasingly competitive workplace we are motivated not just  to do our best, but also to out perform others, because that is the best way to secure our own position. On the tennis court, on the gold course, and on the ski slop it can be very similar too. I am sure that my own particular pathology of status anxiety stems from the unfortunate lack of natural foot-balling ability: Bad enough to always be the last to be picked for a team from a line-up by the appointed captains at primary school. Worse still to have an argument over who would have you!

We then, like the disciples, argue continually over who is the greatest. Jesus’ response in today’s gospel is twofold, both to them and to us:

1. He says “if anyone wants to be first, he must be very last and the servant of all.” (Little wonder then that this failed footballer even in primary school turned to the consolations offered by religion!).

2. He offers them a picture in the form of some street theatre. He takes a child and places it in their midst. He then hugs the child and says to them “whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Jesus’ consistent response to our human status anxiety is to turn things upside down. The last will be first he says. The one who touches lepers, who dines wit outcasts and who washes his own disciples’ feet, is the one who also takes up his cross and invites others to do the same. Jesus’ response to our status anxiety is to show us that the life of welcome and self sacrifice can free us from such debilitating preoccupation.

This life is encapsulated in his embrace of the child. To welcome the child is to hug a human being who lacks any achievement, who has not accumulated any possessions or significant wealth, and who has very little status in society. It is an image of how God in Christ embraces us. We cannot win God’s affection. God does not ask us to hit a target before we are loved. But God’s love is prior and it is more basic and more primal. We are simply loved by the one who loves us into being. To be truly, attentively mindful of that fact would be the panacea to all of our anxieties about status. God loves us not because of what we do or what we can achieve, but God simply loves us because of who we are: children of God’s, those who reflect God’s own image.

God in Jesus is a God of infinite welcome and embrace, and Jesus’ followers, those in today’s gospels, but also us, are called to embrace as God embraces, and to welcome as God welcomes. The church is called to be that community in which status anxiety has no place. The church is a society of citizens who are equally welcomed and embraced by God. The church is a body in which we all simply and only belong to Christ who is our only Lord. In this sense God calls the church to be quite different from the world in which status anxiety reigns supreme; a world in which comparison and competition fuel the stratification of society; a world in which inevitably some end up as lords and others as slaves. The church is called to be a prophetic sign to an anxious world.

The church of course fails at this task very often, just as the disciples in today’s gospel fail too, and just as the community of which St James speaks also failed. But my hope is that in this community, and in our worship week by week we find in Christ some amelioration for the inevitable anxieties of our own lives. We come here week by week to the one who loves us just as we are. We come to be embraced by God, hugged by God, fed by God, who is the one who gives us of his own body and blood in the communion which we receive. In such an embrace our anxiety about status should find some relief.

Wendel Berry in his poem Sabbath uses the image of resting in God. Our rest in God’s Sabbath, our rest in worship, is a way in which we too can be refreshed and our anxieties might be addressed.


The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.

Today in ‘Eucharist’, in ‘Thanksgiving’, let us die into the arms of the embrace of the God of infinite welcome in Christ. May our anxieties be satiated in the communion of his body and blood so that we might live more like the people of Baton Rouge and welcome others into his love and into our lives.
Holland Park Benefice