September 15, 2019
Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Welcome to Founders Day at All Saints’ Church! On this week in 1867, Episcopalians in Park Slope gathered to officially form a church home. It was a bold move. This neighborhood was still on the outskirts of New York life. It would be another 16 years before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge provided the first land link into Manhattan. And there was already another Episcopal Church up on St. John’s Place, in the part of the neighborhood where most people lived. Still, a small group of laypeople had been meeting for a while to say Morning Prayer on this side of the Slope. On September 16, 1867, they met at the Park Slope armory to take the formal step of incorporating as a parish under New York State law. I guess it wasn’t exactly the Day of Pentecost, with tongues of flame alighting on each of the new Vestrymen. But you see, the Holy Spirit has a funny way of working through even the Church’s most bureaucratic tendencies. The Spirit is patient and constant, and the Spirit will use whatever She can to work out God’s intent to gather together ALL of God’s children.
Since that day 152 years ago, All Saints’ Church has been the spiritual home to countless people. Because that’s the mission of a church: to be the House of God for all who seek God. At the end of the 19th century, this neighborhood underwent a massive expansion, and many of the new residents sought out their parish church as an anchor in their new home. But like all of New York, the population of Park Slope has always been in constant flux. By the mid-20th century, All Saints’ was home to the many Atlantic Canadians who came to the city to work in the shipping industry. They brought with them their deep Anglican roots and made this parish the cultural and spiritual center of their community. And it wasn’t long after that that All Saints’ began to welcome new parishioners originally from the Caribbean, who would form the solid backbone of this church in its next chapter. Their deep faith and reverence for tradition—not to mention good food and fun—would keep alive the spirit that inspired our founders.
Today, All Saints’ Church is an incredibly diverse and loving Christian community that welcomes people from virtually every type of background. There are few like it, either in New York or farther afield. The most recent years of our history have been marked by a renewed energy of gathering, that same instinct the Holy Spirit has to draw us all together and ever closer to God. We are blessed to welcome a steady stream of strangers who quickly become family. We have been fortunate that for almost every year of the past decade, we have increased in membership and attendance, with the result that our congregation has almost tripled in size. Where there was one All Saints’ at our 142nd Founders Day, there is that plus two more at our 152nd.
When I explain this to people—whether they know anything about churches or not—they always ask how we do it. What’s the strategy? What was this magical formula your parish discovered? I imagine my answer is the same as yours when you get asked the same question. There is no magical formula, well, except that there is. The magic is in the unconditional, unrelenting, full-of-love welcome offered here to every single human being who crosses the threshold of this church. That’s it. All are welcome here. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done or what you believe. You are God’s creation, and to honor you is to honor God. The welcome may not always be perfect, but it’s always our intention, because it’s impossible to live out our faith without it.
Unconditional welcome. Okay, great—but isn’t that just some sort of feel-good gimmick in itself? Actually, no. It’s one of the absolutely central tenets of the Christian faith.
Listen again to today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. This something no honorable man of faith would have done in his context. There were the righteous and the unrighteous, and those two groups were not supposed to mingle. The Pharisees and scribes didn’t like it. So Jesus tells some stories: a man with a hundred sheep loses one of them. What’s he supposed to do? Of course he leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the lost one. And when he finds it, he rejoices. There’s also a woman with ten silver coins who loses one of those. Does she just forget about it? Of course not—it’s too valuable. So she spends the night looking for it in her house.
The message is simple. Every single human being is precious to God. **Every single one of us. Not one is lost—not one. No matter what’s happened to you, no matter how cruel this world has been to you, no matter how little you may have been seen in the world, you are just as much God’s beloved creation as everyone else. This is what Jesus teaches, so if we truly call ourselves his followers, we will act on his words. We will reject the artificial boundaries our society puts up between people, and we will seek the face of Jesus in every single person.
This is how the magic of welcome works. Imagine you are invited to a party. There are people at the party you have met at various times and places in your life. You say hello to the people you know, have a little chit chat, and catch up. That’s all very nice. But there’s one person—just one—who really gets under your skin. You’ve met them five or six times, but every time you see them, they act like they don’t know you. You make one last try: “Hey, You!” They glance at you with a look of something between surprise and confusion. “Oh, hey.” And return to their previous conversation. That’s a terrible feeling, right? It’s hard to let go of. Because there is hardly anything more demeaning than the feeling of not being seen. The party is a small thing, even if it’s annoying. But it’s a micro example of what we do as a society. We all know there are huge swathes of people who go unseen, unrespected, whose gifts and talents are ignored or diminished. But the damage done to us when we are unseen doesn’t just hurt us—it hurts everyone. Because the person at the party who brushes you off—that person is hurting too. They’re not even secure enough in themselves that they can stop and say hello, that they can dare to be seen associating with you. That’s the symptom of a deep spiritual wound, and there’s only one way to heal it: by practicing welcome.
This is why Jesus talks to the tax collectors and sinners. He is God, Son of God. In other words, he has nothing to be insecure about. And if you’re secure in yourself, you not only have nothing to fear from other people, but you are curious about everyone. This curiosity eventually turns into love. And love, as Jesus tells us, is the greatest commandment of them all.
Welcome may sound like a simple or a small thing. But it’s not. It’s revolutionary, for us as individuals and as a society. When you practice welcome, you open up a space in your heart for the Other. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, you can still keep working at it. It’s like an exercise that way. As you keep working at opening up that space, it gets bigger and bigger. All of a sudden, there’s room not just for one other person, but more, and then there’s a whole crew of people who used to be strangers but are now friends. In the process, your heart has gotten bigger—and there’s no end to how big it can get. That’s how love works—the kind of love that Jesus teaches us.
Think about it for a second: how many public places do you go where everyone is welcome? Pretty much every other place comes with strings attached. If you go to a store or a restaurant, you’re there as a customer—just try not paying the bill! Our schools are sorted by class and race. Our health care institutions are sorted by insurance status. I guess there’s always the park, which may be one of the reasons I love it so much. But even the park is the legacy of a bygone time. Beautiful Prospect Park opened the same year as All Saints’, 1867. But all of the remarkable public spaces that have opened in New York in the last decade—the Brooklyn Piers, the Highline in Chelsea, Hudson Yards—they have only been opened because of deals with private real estate developers. It’s as if we as a people have completely forgotten what it means to have a space where everyone is welcome without conditions.
People think that being a Christian means all kinds of different things, some of them better than others. But in a time like this, a time of division and mistrust, a time of alienation and isolation, a time of hate—in a time like this, those of us who dare to follow Jesus need to lead the way back to his original teaching. We need to proclaim boldly that to belong to him means opening your heart to every single person. The more we practice being a people of welcome, the more that welcome will spread, because let me tell you, it’s infectious, and once you start it’s pretty hard to stop. The more welcoming we are, the more this message will get across, and the more widely the Gospel truth of God’s love for all people will be felt and heard.
There’s no way that our founders could have known the spiritual challenges we would face in 2019. That’s why the Holy Spirit keeps guiding each successive generation to hear God’s word afresh. In our time, the stakes are high. But the message is clear. Love God. Love your neighbor. Treat each of them like the precious gift they are. Do this, and you will see the world the way Jesus does. Welcome the stranger, and you will welcome God. Amen.