The lines of one of our contemporary Christian hymns says: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. How welcoming are we to others who come to our places of worship each week? Do we welcome strangers as Christ would welcome them?
In this past weekend's Roman liturgy we heard the story of the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus with a request to heal her daughter. (Matt. 15: 21-28) Jesus at first seems to spurn the woman and only after his disciples plead with him to send her away does he make the statement that his mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and he should not be giving the food meant for the family to the dogs. This sounds like a pretty harsh and unwelcoming statement coming from the compassionate Jesus. Why would he treat her this way? Is he being prejudiced? The passage ends with Jesus' praise of the woman for her great faith. In a sense, this woman spoke up for her rights and was not afraid to challenge this wonder-worker and preacher. Jesus recognizes and praises her faith and her strength of character. We know that Jesus respected the rights and the dignity of women and welcomed them into his circle of discipleship, something not known among most rabbis of the time. Perhaps this strong Canaanite woman helped shape Jesus' recognition and acceptance of women and the role they would play in bringing others to the faith.
We see in this Scripture reading how the mission of Jesus developed within his own thinking. With his human knowledge he had to grow in understanding just like each of us and he may have been at the point where he was determining what his mission was. Was it just to the house of Israel or did his mission reach further? We know that when he was ready to ascend into heaven after his resurrection he told his disciples to go and teach all nations. (Matt. 28:19-20) There were to be no exclusions when it came to God's mercy and compassion and all of us are the ones who have inherited these gifts.
How, then, are we to respond to others who come among us? Do we restrict our welcoming to those we know and with whom we are comfortable? Do we welcome strangers among us as Jesus would?
There is a story told about the great Mahatma Gandhi who, when we was a young attorney living in South Africa, went to a Christian church one weekend. Gandhi was interested in Jesus and his message and wanted to find out more about it. He was turned away at the doors of the church because of the color of his skin. He would make the statement: I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
We must be open to welcoming all who come among us especially to worship. There should be no lack of welcoming because someone is of another race, nationality, or sexual orientation. All of us are children of our heavenly Father and all are loveable because he has first loved us. May we always be able to sing: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.