“The Promise of Welcome”

Air,

like a dried bone,

parches in the glare

of a paralytic sun

gripped in a stare.

Heat spins

its spirals and swerves—

the desert is flat,

but the sky curves:

everything moves

yet nothing stirs.

Space glistens

to a dot in gold;

silence shimmers

in sandy grooves:

everything moves

yet nothing stirs.

Then, as of old,

miracle occurs:

a puff of pearl

hung in heat

spills glass glisters

on a parchment sheet;

spills and fades

in plaids of oil,

and sand bleaches

in its dry broil—

with not a crinkle

of wet to show

the spatter of

the glass glissando;

only, for an instant,

rainbow.

(“Rain in the Desert” by Walter Lowenfels)

 

I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment!

While folks haven’t quite serenaded me with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,”

I’ve fielded lots of Wizard of Oz references during these months of anticipation.

And here you are… Auntie Ems and Uncle Henrys by many names.

You who have beckoned me home to Wichita.

For a girl whose grandfather left Oklahoma

during dustbowl days,

I indeed feel this is a sweet homecoming.

I realize Walter Lowenfels’ poem,

“Rain in the Desert,”

may seem like a strange hello

with which to start this morning.

Kansas summers are nearly as arid

as my early adult years in the high desert of Colorado

or the drought ridden California of my childhood.

In fact, rainfall in our entire nation

is about as good as it’s ever been,

according to the US Drought Monitor.

So why begin with that magically mundane moment:

rain dropping onto an arid plain?

Maybe it’s not exactly “what Jesus would do,”

but I do hear an echo in Jesus’ words to his disciples,

speaking about the reward of the righteous

promised to whomever shares a cup of cold water with one of His little ones.

I can’t help but imagine what might have been going on

in the mind’s eye of his audience when they heard him speaking.

The New Revised Standard Version—which we admittedly did NOT hear read this morning—

reveals prophetic Jesus, whose words were not always welcome to his hearers, putting it this way:

“whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

Surely those listening that day would have been reminded of that long tradition

of Old Testament prophets,

my absolute favorite being Elijah.

Elijah as you may recall is the not so popular prophet

sent to deliver the word of the Lord to wicked King Ahab of Israel.

Elijah is God’s spokesperson, to be sure,

but he’s also a real human being,

living on the ground,

who must choke on that bitter pill,

without much more than a sip of water, out in the desert.

For Elijah heads out into the wild

to weather the years of drought he himself predicts.

God provides for Elijah out there in the desert:

the ravens bring him food,

he drinks water from the brook.

These resources hold for a time,

but eventually the suffering of the land, under God’s judgement,

catches up to even Elijah.

Elijah, like all of us, knows what it feels like to be parched,

craving that elixir of life.

Then the word of the Lord comes to Elijah again,

telling him, “Go to Sidon. Go to Zarephath.

There in that region and in that city is a woman who will provide for you.

Go. I will show you the way.

So Elijah obeys.

And as he comes to the edges of the city,

Elijah sees a widow on her doorstep, grinding grain.

She was using her very last bit of oil to bake a cake with that grain—

a last supper of sorts, for herself and her son.

The drought had punished these little ones perhaps worst of all.

They would eat the poor fare she was preparing and await their certain fate—

alone, hungry and hurting, without human provider to help them find the most basic necessities

in that dire season in the life of their nation.

Elijah arrives to this destitute woman’s door,

a woman who might seem to have nothing to offer,

and Elijah asks, “Please may I have a drink of water?”

This woman who easily could have been preoccupied

with her own worries and woes

sees with enlightened eyes,

she catches a glimpse

of this window of opportunity to welcome the stranger.

And she does.

She serves Elijah a glass of cool water.

And he implores her, “Please may I have some of what you’re making? I’m so hungry.”

She admits “this is the last meal I will make for my family.

Please come and join us.

Be among us.

Be one of us.”

In that sacred moment of encounter,

God does something miraculous.

In that unwarranted welcome,

through the generous sharing of precious gifts,

God unleashes amazing abundance:

that grain and that oil does not give out

until it rains again, several years later.

God sees to it that this woman and her son do not starve.

God honors this woman,

who had welcomed a prophet

and she indeed receives a prophets reward.

I love this story!

It feels quite like that magical moment in the poem I recited,

where a miracle is unleashed

in the most unlikely of places

through the simple act of welcome,

and the power of compassion.

This is what I feel in the way you have so graciously welcomed me here at St. James.

I feel so honored and privileged to be called to serve in a place where God’s love is transforming us,

challenging and changing us, as it flows through our lives.

I am exited to see what God will do in our lives in the months and years to come.

As I have prayed for you these last six months,

I was drawn to our diocesan magazine, “The Harvest,”

noticing opportunities to glimpse the miraculous power of God, at work among us.

I have wondered about places of need in our broader community of Wichita,

and about the faces of those longing to be touched by the love of Jesus,

by that cool cup of water we can serve in his name.

Like individuals served by Episcopal Migration Ministries.

Like foster children who will receive the suitcases we are collecting at the entrance to the church.

Like those who have yet to enter and to be welcomed through our doors.

And in this version of the gospel we read today,

we hear Jesus’ words about accepting help being as good as giving help,

which keeps sending me back to the widow of Zarephath, a great exemplar of faith,

and the gifts she willingly shared,

helping to unleash the power of God in her world,

and in so doing, shaping the faith and fate of her nation.

God wants to lead us into such amazing and marvelous moments in ministry together,

as we step out to meet the needs we see around us with the gifts we have to share.

In the giving and the receiving,

in that sacred and equalizing encounter with the divine presence

in the stranger and in the neighbor,

to whom we are dared to respond in love,

even when it feels dangerous and risky,

even when it calls forth everything we have,

we will be transformed into true apprentices,

who can see and can welcome the kingdom coming among us.

Being here among you, I am so blessed and amazed

at the opportunity to be part of this community of faith,

this place where God’s love is so freely shared,

like that cool cup of water, extended in welcome.

Last night, at the 5:30pm service,

I glanced up at the stained glass windows at the back of our sanctuary

and found my eyes welling up with tears.

Right there, like a neon sign,

stretched across all three of those gorgeous window panels,

was a stunning rainbow—

my own symbolic banner welcome.

God often speaks to me in this imagistic way.

As if to point me to the promise of all that lies ahead.

I see this in our future together.

Our prophetic Lord Jesus assures us that when we dare to love in his name,

we will experience greater abundance and joy than we could ever ask or imagine.

For courage and grace to embody such welcome in this world,

thanks be to God!