One City, One Message
by Pastor Mark Glanville
The same sermon theme will be preached in over 150 Vancouver churches on Sunday June 11, on our theme: Welcoming the stranger. Together, we are sending a unified message to the city, a vision of the kingdom: the radical welcome of God, in Christ. The idea for One City, One Message came initially from Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer at the Vancouver City Summit, a city-wide consultation of pastors interested in pursuing together the wellbeing of their neighbourhoods and the city.
The theme of welcoming the stranger is timely: survey-based research by the Vancouver Foundation shows Vancouverites are experiencing a crisis of social isolation, a corrosion of care that results in a silo mentality. This is timely, too, as we are living in a period of unprecedented global displacement, where over 65 million people around the world have been forced from home. In this context, many Canadian Christians are frustrated by populist politics that scapegoats vulnerable people such as refugees. Many thoughtful Christians are also concerned that their church is not more diverse.
Intuitively, we know Christ’s way is different. But, where to start? Scripture teaches us that radical welcome doesn’t come out of thin air; it begins with gratitude for God’s gifts. A First Nations leader once said: “Human beings are like my pigs. They eat the apples, but they never look up to see where the apples have fallen from.” Could it be, that our connection with ‘strangers’ is entwined with our connection with God? To unpack this idea, consider the feast of Weeks, in Deuteronomy. This harvest festival celebrating God’s abundant supply is an evocative portrait for communities of welcome. “…Feast before Yahweh your God, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your female slave, the Levite within your settlements, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that Yahweh your God chooses as a dwelling for his name.” (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).
Imagine the joy of this feast! Imagine pilgrimaging from the family farm to Jerusalem, the fellowship, the ritualized time, the smell of boiling meat, the warmth of wine, the tastes of festal recipes, the waiting, fulfilment, welcome, liturgical life—all before Yahweh who supplies the harvest! This feast had a main purpose: to nourish God’s ancient people as a community of gratitude and of welcome.
God who gives
In her book Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy, a Catholic nun and an advocate for refugees, tells the story of a period in her life when she found it difficult to be grateful. God jolted her out of her dissatisfaction through a refugee family who was staying in her house. A young girl in the family was peering out of Mary’s kitchen window. The girl saw the garage through the window. She asked, “Who lives there?” Mary’s world suddenly inverted as she recognized that someone could live there—a number of people in fact. As Mary answered, “The car,” her world was opened up to the abundance, even overabundance, she had been gifted with. This story unpacks the feast of Weeks’ key themes of divine gift and thankfulness.
The feast of Weeks celebrates the gift of the barley and wheat harvest, and reminds the community that at the heart of reality is a God of limitless generosity. Here’s an idea for nourishing thanksgiving in your community: during worship, everyone is invited to write something that they were thankful for on a post-it note and stick it on the wall of the sanctuary.
Another way to nourish gratitude is through shared celebrations. In the feast of Weeks, grateful feasting responds to the abundant flow of blessing: Feast! Slaughter the lamb! Share the wine! The whole community, rich and poor, young and old, feasted together before the Lord with music and dancing. Joyfully receiving the good gifts of Yahweh is at the heart of a covenant response in scripture.
Feasting could be an imaginative response to fear-based, nationalistic rhetoric. Some of us may feel angry in this political climate, tempted to share a quick meme on Facebook. But, what if a welcoming feast is the best antidote to a silo mentality? Eating in community easily trumps the shrill twitter of fear.
Welcoming the stranger
A shared life is an authentic response to God’s gifts. We might say that welcome is the other side of the coin of thanksgiving. Christ’s people are invited to move from individualism toward a more communal identity, a shared life where together we partake in the sacraments, feasting, mission, prayer, love, worship, living-arrangements, raising children, advocacy, justice, and more.
A biblical community is a diverse community. The feast of Weeks invites the church into something much more than charity for marginalized people (see also Luke 15:1-2). We are called to share our lives, engaging those less fortunate in relationships that are mutually transformative. Christ invites us to place the weakest among us at the centre. Consider a very concrete question: who sits around your table at dinnertime? And, who is invited to your Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts? Are your feasts like Christ’s meals—recall the Pharisee’s criticism: “This man receives sinners, and eats with them!” (Luke 15:2)
Welcoming the stranger takes us to the very heart of Christian identity and mission. Our shared initiative, One City, One Message, takes seriously that we are a people called to announce the good news that in Christ, crucified and risen, God is at last reconciling all of the creation—forgiving sin, reconciling humanity to God, and reconciling humanity with one another. But, it’s not too helpful just to say it. This good news will only be believed when it is embodied by a community that is living it. Through our shared life, lived gratefully before the Lord, others too will come to know the radical welcome of God, in Christ. #IWasAStranger
Mark Glanville, PhD Pastors at Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, Vancouver and is Professor of Old Testament, Missional Training Center, Phoenix; firstname.lastname@example.org