St. Olaf Chapel Talk (February 5, 2007): “An Extravagant Welcome”
Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb (Sociology and Anthropology)
Scripture readings: Genesis 18:1-7 (Abraham welcomes the angels)
Luke 15: 11-24 (the father welcomes his prodigal son)
Opening hymn: “Gather Us In” (#532, Red Hymnal)
Good morning, and welcome back. Thank you for coming to chapel on such a cold day! If you took an interim course on campus or taught one (as I did), you have been gone for just a week. But if you were off-campus during January, perhaps on a program abroad, you have been gone since before Christmas. And some of you are only now returning to the hill since last May, if you were on an abroad program such as Term in Asia, or were in the Middle East, or on Global. Wherever you’ve been, and for however long, we are glad to welcome you back this morning.
If you’ve been away, you’ve been noticing some changes here. Even those of you who were only off-campus during interim will notice that we are gathering this morning in a beautifully remodeled chapel, with its new pews, colors, organ, tile floor, and even new hymnals. You will also notice that several long-time buildings near Old Main and Holland Hall have disappeared, including Flaten and Manitou Cottage. We now have a panoramic view of the Cannon River Valley not seen from our hilltop for several generations—at least until the gleaming new Science Center begins to rise from the ashes.
If you have been away since last May, you’ll notice other changes. The college president is now shorter, though no less friendly than before, and he’ll look forward to meeting you. A wind tower on the west side of campus soars and turns with grace, providing a third of our electricity.
Returning to campus is not always easy. Some of you are ambivalent about being back. You’ve lived for a time in Egypt or India, Ecuador or Mexico, and our hilltop campus seems suddenly much smaller than it did before you left. Some of you miss the host family with whom you lived in Fez, in Chiang Mai, or Central America. Daily life on campus is not as exciting as the experience of doing something rather new and amazing almost every day for months, or the delight of new foods. The friendships you made within the group of Oles with whom you were traveling and learning may have been particularly rewarding, given your shared troubles and joys. Being “there” may seem, at least for now, to have been more satisfying, even more real, than being “here.” Your body is back, but not your mind or your heart. You now dream new dreams, dreams that call to you even though you do not yet know where they will lead. Sometimes only others who shared your experience seem to understand.
Of course, many of you are happy and excited to be back—including many of you who also feel a sense of loss. It’s a relief to be able to take for granted that the water is safe to drink, or to have the luxury of not keeping track of where the nearest toilet is. You can dress how you want without always having to imagine how you will look through the eyes of people whose culture values modesty far more than our own. You are glad to see friends you left behind, to know that they haven’t forgotten you (well, at least not completely), or that the romance you had started not long before you left may still be salvageable.
You knew you were missing loved ones, but it is wonderful to find that you have been so missed: I have seen you walking through the last glass door at the airport into the arms of a father who seems like a much more emotional guy than the one you left behind; I have seen your smiles when you found your eight younger brothers and sisters waiting for you there, lined up in approximate order of size, each holding for Oldest Sister a small bouquet that has somehow survived the January weather.
You may be justifiably proud that you survived, even thrived in, an experience that at first seemed uncertain or scary. Your time away may have been the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, or the most fun, or both. You may have found new purpose for your life, or at least settled on a more satisfying major.
You may be relieved to return to a place where it’s less trouble as a woman to walk down the street alone, or where it’s safer to be openly gay or lesbian. And even if your French or German or Chinese is now much improved, you may still be so glad to be able to speak English when your brain feels worn out--and to be understood.
You may be grateful to spend time with a parent who divorced or became seriously ill while you were away. You are relieved to find that your best friend is willing to actually listen, really listen, and then listen again, as you slowly sort through what your time away has meant to you—perhaps even to see some of the hundreds of photos you will still be trying to organize a year from now. Such a friend seems to understand that your experience was more than a “trip,” that you have changed but aren’t clear yet even yourself just how you’ve changed.
It is this kind of friendship, this kind of “welcoming home,” this kind of love, that means so much to us as human beings--this kind of welcoming embrace from one who is comfortable holding us until we are ready to be let go, and so is able to comfort us. Whether we’ve been away for a year or a week, there is a deep part of us that wants to be welcomed back, to be seen and heard. We feel blessed when someone, perhaps unexpectedly, practices an unconditional hospitality to us. Some of you were lucky enough to experience that kind of hospitality while away, in cultures that value hospitality even—perhaps especially—to strangers, people who are wandering in the desert, in need of food and drink, and a hand like kinship.
We hear this in the story of Abraham, as he welcomes and makes welcome the three strangers—angels who appear to him as men—who arrive at his desert camp (in Genesis 8:1-7). It is a time and culture which recognizes that the failure to welcome can endanger the life of one turned away, and Abraham welcomes his guests as he would hope to be welcomed in turn. Even though it’s his wife Sarah and his servants who actually do the work of providing the hospitality, Abraham is praised for having his heart in the right place.
We hear of a similar welcome in Luke 15:11-32, the famous story of the prodigal son. In this case, the one welcomed is not a stranger but the son a man feared was lost. Yet at one level the welcomes are similar--an extravagant welcome to someone without the obvious claim to it we might ordinarily require. Why should we give precious water, bread and meat to strangers whom we will likely not see again, or kill the fatted calf for the son from whom we expected so much and who has so deeply disappointed our hopes? But the strangers and the son receive the kind of welcome we all would wish for.
We know of course that such acts of real welcome, hospitality, and home-coming don’t always happen. Reading further in Genesis, we hear that the angels who’d continued on from Abraham and Sarah’s camp are refused hospitality by the men in Sodom and Gomorrah. These men in fact seem to threaten them with rape, one of the more dramatic means by which heterosexual men of that time acted out their domination over other men. The story has often been mistakenly interpreted as a condemnation of what we mean today by homosexuality, but it is really about hospitality, or the sin of being radically inhospitable.
The church itself has sometimes displayed a welcome we would today consider ambivalent at best, even to other Christians. When I was growing up in the Methodist Church, many Protestant denominations around the country were still racially separate or segregated (many in practice still are, if no longer in principle); the church I attended as a boy told the Black children from the Methodist children’s home next door, children who were coming to our Sunday School, “you are no longer welcome.” Women, too, long among the most stalwart of church members and servants, were often regarded until this past generation as unsuited to leadership, teaching, and preaching. Denominations that have learned to accept and now welcome cultural and ethnic diversity among their members, and women in their pulpits, are too often still struggling about how—even whether—to welcome gay and lesbian Christians in their midst, as members, clergy, or as real families.
I believe that God extends an extravagant welcome to us all. I often experience this at communion: the table is set, the bread and wine are at hand (in my church it’s gluten-free bread for those with allergies and grape juice for children and teetotalers, but we pretend it’s bread and wine). We are welcomed to come, stranger and friend, lost and found, without having earned it but still, amazing with grace, welcome anyway.
Such welcoming of others is something we are called to do in our own lives. We are called to see Jesus in every face, to entertain angels unawares, to recognize (as the Quakers say) that “there is something of God in every person”--something that has led them to reject war and slavery. Matthew 25 reminds us that, when it’s time to see who will go to heaven on the last day, our efforts to welcome will be considered: if we have not welcomed those who are hungry or sick or in prison, those whom our society has made marginal and unwelcome, neither have we welcomed Jesus.
We all need a welcome, and are all asked to give one. We have all been strangers in a strange land, wandering in our own desert, each in our own way in need of hospitality, of an extravagant and loving welcome. Welcome back.
Closing hymn: “Let Us Go Now to the Banquet” (#523)