By Rev. Joan Kessler
I don’t know about you, but I am still basking in the joy our celebrations of Baptism and Confirmation and Transfer of Membership. I have heard from many of you how much you enjoyed last Sunday and what an amazing event, we shared together. We needed to remind ourselves what our community means to us, to tell those who became members, including young Payton and Winter, that they are special to us. That we want to share life together and we are grateful for their service and all the ways they help make Winfield United a special community…. a patient and embracing community.
As I thought about these things this past week, I encountered a story I have not heard before, but I suspect many of you may know it well already. It is The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley. It has been retold in all kinds of settings from staff meetings to motivational seminars to children’s books. If you already know this story, I beg your indulgence as I share a retelling of it.
One day, an old beachcomber was out for a walk and came across a young boy standing on the shoreline. Thousands of starfish had washed up on the beach and the boy was throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. “What are doing?” the older man asked.
The boy replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them back in, they will die.”
The beachcomber laughed at what he saw. “Why are you wasting your time?” he asked the boy. “Look, there are miles of beach with starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
The boy listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea and said, “It made a difference to that one.”
That’s a powerful punchline to our story. It seemingly ends here. But I wonder what the rest of the story might read like. There is an air of judgment to the actions of the boy, making a valiant effort to save some starfish and how that is being held up against other things that would be a better use of his time. But I wonder, how did the encounter, the sight of seeing a young child making an effort to save some starfish impact the old beachcomber. Did he just walk on, leaving the boy to his work, seeing the hopelessness of it all? Or did they meet up again the next morning and this time, the beachcomber helped the effort and began to toss the beached starfish back?
Our reading today comes from a part of Matthew’s gospel that some call the Missional Discourse. Just ahead of these words of welcome we heard Reg share moments ago, Jesus prepares to send out his disciples to go and share God’s love and radical welcome with others, directing them to travel light and expect no compensation for their actions. They are to take no gold nor silver, no tunics or sandals; no bag and no staff. And sometimes, Jesus tells them, they will be invited as guests to stay and other times they will be rejected, in which case, just shake the dust from your feet and move along.
This morning, Jesus speaks to the disciples more about this Welcome. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the One who sent me”. Accepting the prophets among you is as good as being a prophet yourself. Accepting someone’s help is as good and necessary as giving someone help. Maybe you know this experience for yourselves… accepting a gift or taking up someone on their offer to help is not easy. But the writer of Matthew was all about helping the early church get organized and busy. He reminded his listeners that this is not only words of instruction to be a worker, but also to be a helper. It is also about accepting help and hospitality oneself. I think we can all agree that it is easier to give than to receive. But today calls us to turn this over. What within me finds it difficult to accept the help of others? Am I worried about not being able to reciprocate? That I will take on a debt I will not be able to repay?
Jesus’ directions remind us that there are no such thing as small gestures... like throwing a starfish back into the ocean. Discipleship doesn’t have to be grand and heroic acts that demand a great sacrifice. Many acts of love and compassion may go completely unnoticed and yet, tend to the relationship we wish to cultivate and grow. A need was addressed and met to the best of one’s ability, EVEN Jesus says with just a drink of water to one of these little ones. We do not have to save the world all by ourselves. And let me say it again, there is no small gesture. Offering a drink to the thirsty, a hug to a grieving friend, or a listening, non-judging ear to one who needs to just talk something out. When we do something with grace and mercy and love, the impact reaches far further than the immediacy of the situation. Sometimes, we never know the whole effect our offer of welcome and hospitality will have. Small gestures can produce big change in the life of another and it is these eternal and cosmic consequences that Jesus is asking us to consider this day.
When the work of the Transition and Visioning Team began in 2020, the focus of the ideas and dreams shared was that of welcome and hospitality. How do we welcome the wider community that may never have been part of a church community before? We talked extensively about how we reach out to our neighbors and let them know we care and would like to know them better. We talked about how our Sunday services and our Thrift Store were primary access points to this Welcome. And then we added the Community Fridge in 2021 and Community Coffee in 2022 and Winfield United will continue to draw the circle wide. Many, many people come onto our property every day. Some of them come to rest, some come to shop, some come to be in relationship with the Divine Presence, some come to drink coffee and commiserate, some come because this is a safe place to be in a world that is very troubling and volatile and chaotic. I tell my girls this… churches are safe places to go. They might not know biblical lessons or hymns or prayers, but they know that Winfield United cares for them.
As I have been putting my life in boxes this week, some of them full and already taped up, others empty and waiting for something more, I have been reminiscing and feeling incredibly blessed and grateful for all the ways you have welcomed me these past three and half years. The tables you invited me to sit at, the excursions we enjoyed together as I adapted to a new place, the care and concern you showed me when I came down with COVID. You always thought of me and I hope you know how much this has meant to me as I take my leave of you. You see, I believe that when we are made to feel welcome, we can make others feel welcome and like they belong with us. Welcoming becomes a reciprocating relationship that just goes onward. Giving and receiving…
Thank you, each one of you, for your Welcome. For all the loving and welcoming gestures you extended to me… because we all know what it is to be thirsty.
Peace be with you this day and always. Amen.