Is it like this?
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
That’s how one Catholic community in the States welcomes people, according to Jon Acuff. Being a pastor ‘who can’t carry a note in a bucket’, I like it.
What do you think? Assuming they live up to their words, what might it say to us?
Forty years! How on earth does someone like me, who has been married one fifth that length of time dare to speak some words to you on this day?
As I pondered that question, I felt led back to a particular memory of our own wedding service. No, not Debbie entering the church building to the accompaniment of ‘Born to be wild’ in memory of her past as a biker, with my mother whispering in my ear, “What is this music, dear?”
Nor did I think about us leaving the service to the strain of the Thunderbirds theme music, to the evident delight of my two young nephews who were our page boys. International Rescue might be a metaphor sometimes needed in marriage, but it didn’t occur to me in relation to you two!
Instead, I recalled that the Anglican rector friend of mine whom we asked to preach chose a surprising reading, we thought, for a wedding. It was Luke 24:13-35, the story of the two friends who walked to Emmaus, not believing yet that Jesus had risen from the dead. I didn’t dust down his sermon – besides, I couldn’t find the tape of the service! But it did make me think that I would offer my own thoughts on this story in connection with your own marriage.
As I say, it’s a surprising reading, but it is one about two friends, two companions. My rector friend said that some people think that Cleopas and his companion are a married couple. I’m not sure about that, but whether they were or not, I think there are some encouragements we can draw from the story on this wonderful occasion today.
Firstly, I see a couple talking about Jesus. Cleopas and his friend or companion are exercised about Jesus in the story. Granted, there are things they don’t know and major issues on which they are wrong, but nothing matters more to them than to talk together about Jesus.
And that’s something I appreciate about you as a couple, too. We can talk about all sorts of things, such as the way we compare notes about young children. David and I can talk about computers or football. But what is most important and utterly natural in your presence is that we talk without any sense of being forced or nervous about the central aspect of our lives, faith in Jesus.
In my four years here, I have seen it grow and grow in you. It was always there – our early conversations often centred on your experiences in the past with the Campers and Caravanners’ Christian Fellowship, and particularly the things you learned through your friend Mike Dominy.
But I have seen it increase. I think the decisive time was when you went on the (this is ironic with this text) Walk To Emmaus weekend. Something went up a gear in you then, especially in David!
There are all sorts of helpful things we can learn about what makes a healthy marriage. But for a Christian couple, this is critical. How sad it is when Christians find it hard to talk about their faith, even with their loved ones. But you can do that, and because you can, you have a way of getting to foundational issues about life and faith which surely holds you in good stead in your marriage. If you talk about Jesus, you will be talking about self-giving sacrificial love. You will be talking about forgiveness. You will be talking, therefore, about matters absolutely critical to the health of a marriage. I see this as a work of the Holy Spirit within and among you. I pray it is something to which all Christian couples would aspire.
Secondly, I see the presence of Jesus with you. Jesus came and joined the couple as they walked to Emmaus. They weren’t aware for quite a while that he was with them. They were unable to identify the mysterious stranger who accompanied them and made sense of the Scriptures. Only in the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened to his identity.
And similarly, you may not be aware all the time that Jesus is with you. I am sure you know it in theory, but there will be times when you do not feel his presence or circumstances will be dire and you imagine he is distant or absent. You would be only human if you were not to have those thoughts and feelings as you live with Arline’s health.
But let me tell you something. People see Jesus in you. They see it in how you live out your lives in the face of joy and pain. They experience something of him, simply by coming into contact with you. Some will be able to say, ‘That’s Jesus’. Others will merely know there is something special about you.
And you may be surprised to learn this is the case. However, it is my experience that it is often other people who notice things like this. I know of a story where a student vacated his room at the end of a term and someone stayed in it for a conference during that vacation. That latter person experienced a particular sense of peace that they put down to the faith of the student who normally lived there.
Likewise, I know a story where the house where a Christian family had lived in was sold. The new residents were Christians. They had an unmistakable sense that they had moved into a property that had been full of prayer over the years.
Today, then, many of us here celebrate the fact that you are a couple through whom we encounter Jesus.
The Rector who preached at our wedding lifted five points from this story. I am going to confine myself to three. My third is about hospitality.
Cleopas and his companion offered hospitality to the stranger who had joined them on the road. It was a natural thing to do in Middle Eastern culture, and indeed still is. It is not something so natural in our society.
But it is something I – and others – have experienced from you. One piece of advice we were given when training for the ministry was that if you are going out visiting for a few hours, save for last a visit to some people who are positive, and who refresh you just by being with them.
Often when I’ve called on you unannounced, you have been my last call of the afternoon for that very reason. Whether times have been good or you have been going through further adversity, I have always been glad that I have had time with you. If it were ever inconvenient, you have never let on. You seem to know that definition of hospitality which goes like this:
Hospitality is making people feel at home when you wish they were at home (Michael Baughen).
It is something we know you have practised in the way you have welcomed international students into your home. In the New Testament, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit in the case of some people. why? Because it’s a Jesus thing again. The offering of love. The giving of self, of time, of possessions. All these are implied in the act of hospitality. Christians, therefore, can offer hospitality as a witness to their faith. I believe you do.
As I conclude, then, you may think I have described you as far better people than you feel you are. Well – let a friend have this public opportunity to say kind things about you! I am sure you know dark and broken things that I and many others here have no idea about.
But – today we celebrate the love you have shared in forty years of marriage, and which you continue to share. In particular, those of us here who are Christians rejoice in the way you put that love into practice in such distinctively Jesus-shaped ways. I pray that many of us will learn from your example and be inspired by you.
And in doing so, may the Jesus you love and serve gain all the glory.