We are beginning a year in the life of our synod in which we will try to pay careful attention to the impression that our Christian communities make on other people.* We are going to make the effort to see ourselves as others do**, and though this will be hard work it will also be a lot of fun.
We want to be ready, when the Holy Spirit sends us guests and visitors and friends, to receive them with an openness and grace that takes them by surprise. We want to learn to talk about our Lord Jesus with conviction and hope and patience that just stun the people who hear us.
But if we are not ourselves ready to be surprised, then we are going to miss out on too much. If we’re not ready for the ways that others can touch us and teach us, if we lose our own capacity for amazement, then what we are trying to accomplish won’t really amount to what we hope for.
Lots of you could think of examples here. Some of you have had the experience of welcoming a young adult to your congregation, and as you offer your guidance, “Here’s how we do this…,” “Here’s what this means…,” you begin to hear if you listen such a deep reflection on life and work and service that you yourself are challenged and inspired. Or you find yourself in a conversation with a new American, someone from Ethiopia or the Sudan, Liberia or El Salvador, and if you even mention the Lord’s name you hear such a story of struggle and courage, of faith and persecution, that you are amazed and maybe ashamed at what you take for granted.
The point is that we are not the “welcomers” here, we are not the ones who generously give the Church to others. Instead, we are blessed to be members of a great community of welcome. For Jesus’s sake, we share what we have and know, and others share with us, and if we can do this consciously, heads up and eyes open, then we will never cease to be amazed at what we have for others, and what they have for us.
It is apparently God’s good pleasure to take us by surprise. You hear this all through the scripture, as in the gospel lesson for this afternoon [Matthew 25: 31-40] you hear the crowds at the last judgment asking in honest amazement, “Wait a minute, what are you talking about?” And in the tiny passage from Hebrews [Hebrews 13: 1-2], there is the reminder that things might not be exactly what they seem.
The world has trouble with things that are not as they seem. And even in the Church we can be uncomfortable with not knowing it all ahead of time. But the same God who sends angels apparently to take us by surprise, this God is working us into true disciples for the Son. In all the surprises and adventures of this life, God is shaping us for the life to come.
So may God be at work in us, and in the world through us. And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and forever. Amen.
*These words were shared by the Rev. Richard H. Graham, bishop, ELCA Metro D.C. Synod, in a sermon during worship at the Together in Mission event, January 22, 2011.
**”To See Ourselves As Others Do” is a theme adopted by the Metro D.C. Synod Council for exploration synod-wide in 2011.