Radical Welcome = Safety + Respect
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 10:40-42
As you know, I was on vacation last week. I went on vacation the day after our Vestry made a very big decision: that we wouldn’t reopen until it was safe for all of us to be in the building together. We don’t know when this will be. With cases shooting upwards and no vaccine, it looks like it’ll probably be awhile.
If I’m being really honest with you, I spent a lot of my vacation dropping into my grief around this. I miss you. I miss us. I miss greeting Richard when he arrives to prepare the sanctuary for worship. I miss listening to our musicians warm up. I miss hugging you during the peace. I know I’ve said it before, but the longer this goes on, the more I miss our St. Luke’s community. Last week, as I confronted the decision our leadership made, I just felt so...sad.
But I felt something else, too. I was proud of our Vestry. As I said in my letter to the congregation, the two words that kept coming up were “safety” and “all.” All of the questions the Vestry asked revolved around one word: Welcome.
Our gospel reading today comes at the end of a very long talk Jesus has been giving the disciples about what it will mean to spread the gospel throughout the world. You will heal people, perform miracles, and bring them peace, he tells them. But it won’t always be easy. Where you go, you will not always be welcomed.
Today, Jesus speaks to us not as the disciples, but as people who live in the houses where the disciples are knocking. What does it mean to welcome them? It’s the question Jesus answers in our gospel today: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
The welcome we show to those who come to our doors is the welcome we show to Jesus himself.
As most of you know, before I came to St. Luke’s I worked as a street chaplain in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. I based my work out of two organizations, the Gubbio Project and Faithful Fools. The mission of both of these organizations was to offer radical welcome. The Gubbio Project operated out of two churches, one Catholic and one Episcopal. These two churches opened their doors every weekday to people who didn’t have a place to live so that they could sleep and rest safely. Faithful Fools was basically a community center for anyone in the neighborhood, housed and unhoused. They offered AA, art and writing classes, and general help with getting government and community support. I helped run a Bible study and offered a spiritual reflection group every week.
No matter who you were, no matter what substance or mental illness you were struggling with, no matter how clean your clothes were, these were places where you would find safety and respect. That’s what welcome meant. There was just one condition: that you yourself were able to be welcoming to others. This meant that everyone would keep each other physically safe, that everyone would treat each other with respect.
That was it. That was radical welcome. Safety and respect.
If they came to our doors too sick or injured to be safe in our space, we’d bring them to a clinic or call an ambulance. And if someone came to our doors not able to be safe and respectful that day, we would ask them to come back again when they were able to.
Welcome wasn’t about letting everyone in no matter what. It wasn’t about being together no matter what. It was about safety and respect. For everyone.
Welcome is all we’re actually talking about these days. We may not know it, but it is. Wearing a mask in public places is about protecting the safety of others. It’s about respecting their lives and health.
The Black Lives Matter movement is about how our institutions and systems were built to keep some people safe but not others, how those institutions and systems have created a culture that respects the lives of some but not others. It’s about how our country doesn’t welcome its Black citizens. Those protesting are doing one thing: calling us to our highest values.
Which is also what our Vestry kept coming back to when we were talking about reopening: What are our highest values as a church community? And the conversation always came back to welcome.
Would we be honoring our church’s welcome if we couldn’t keep everyone safe? Would we be honoring our church’s welcome if we had to ask people over the age of 60 to stay home, as our guidelines from the diocese encourage us to?
Whenever I think of the picture of Welcome at St. Luke’s, I think of our passing of the peace. Some of us are huggers. Some of us aren’t very comfortable with hugs and conspicuously hold out our hands. Some of us wander around, making sure we say hello to everyone. Some of us stay in our pew. Some of us get so overwhelmed by the peace that we need to step outside until it’s over.
At St. Luke’s, we honor every single way to be part of the peace—or not be part of it. Because our community knows there’s more than one way to offer safety and respect. We know that there’s more than one way to do welcome.
Right now, welcome is looking a lot different than we’re used to. It’s staying away from people. It’s covering our faces in public. It’s worshiping on Zoom, which—let’s be honest—is not the same. I know it. As I look across your faces or see your names in little boxes on my screen, I miss each and every one of you. I long to be with you. I get mad sometimes that I can’t. I cry sometimes that I can’t. I imagine a lot of you feel the same way. We’re grieving.
But for Jesus, welcome wasn’t just about letting people in the door, it was about meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. Feed the hungry, he said. Give shelter to those without. Set the prisoners free.
The kind of radical welcome Jesus calls us to means sacrificing being together in our building right now, so that all of us—all of us—can be together again in person later. It means doing everything we can to keep each other safe. It means respecting the most vulnerable of us and making sure everyone knows that they are fully a part of this community.
Our welcome will shift and change as this virus shifts and changes. Maybe we’ll figure out ways to be together safely outside. Maybe a vaccine will come sooner than we expected. God knows, and the Spirit will guide us. The Vestry is continually in conversation about this, and they welcome your input.
But for now, may we joyfully offer that most radical welcome of safety and respect.