Summary: Paddington Bear, Nadia Bolz-Webber and an old lady called Betty challenge us on what it means to welcome the unwelcome
Welcoming the unwelcome
“He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away”
The scripture speaks of a God who welcomes the unwelcome. These words are so important that no only do our choirs sing them every Sunday in Evensong, but today we hear them twice, both sung and said.
“He hath...exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things;” A God who welcomes the unwelcome.
Yet that is not always what everyone else does. Some of you may be aware of a certain immigration problem that has been large on our screens recently. It concerns a young bear called Paddington from darkest Peru. Our story begins in darkest Peru where a tribe of talking bears are visited by an English explorer. When he leaves he invites them to come visit London and promises “whenever you come you will get a warm welcome”.
Many years later climate disasters destroy their rainforest idyll, and so an economic migrant stows away on a cargo boat bound for London with nothing but jars of marmalade to sustain him, and a sign round his neck saying “please look after this bear”.
But when he arrives at Paddington, he does not find the welcome he has been promised. He is pushed, he shoved. he doffs his hat at people but they don’t greet him back. A pigeon comes clearly hungry, so Paddington tries to share what little he has (his Marmalade sandwich) only to be swamped by the flock of pigeons. It grows darker, it grows wetter, the train station grows emptier. But will anyone look after this bear?
That is how 86 year old widow Betty Williams felt. Small towns like Ottery in Devon can be full of wonderful community. Five generations of families can live within 5 miles of one another. People know one another. There is laughter. There is fun. But if you are not a part of that, it oh so hard.
For this 86 year old former teacher, that was how she felt. Twelve years ago her husband died. Before then, they had had each other. But it is lonely being a widow. People were very kind. Most of the time they were very welcoming. But at Christmas …. well they had their families and they invited all of them and … well for someone with no family, it wasn’t very welcoming.
So Betty walks down to the lamb and Flag pub in Ottery and for the Tuesday before Christmas books every table in the pub, stumping up £1,000 towards Turkey dinner and wine for whatever strangers might want to come that day - so that anyone on their own might no longer be lonely but have a Christmas dinner.
Would anyone come?
People coming wasn’t the problem that the Revd Nadia Bolz-Webber faced. Pastor Nadia runs a rather unusual lutheran church in Denver, Colorado, “The House of All Sinners and Saints”. It is perhaps unusual because she is a rather unusual priest. Tatoo-covered, she is a recovering alcoholic, who when she speaks at church events, has to be given a “parental guidance warning” because of the explicit language she uses. Nadia’s church was unusual too - firstly because it was full of young people. Not your well groomed middle class twentysomethings holding down jobs in the city. A different sort of young. Trannies at various stages of their sex change. Lesbians and gays rejected by the parents and families they had grown up with. Ex-alcoholics and ex-junkies - and those, well, who are still alcoholics and still junkies. “The House of All Sinners and Saints” is a church where those who are usually unwelcome can feel genuinely very welcome.
And then something happended. Pastor Nadia got in the city wide news. She was interviewed. People read it. And on a single Sunday, the church doubled in size. The only problem was, it was the wrong sort of people.
Lawyers. Teachers. Middle aged white people, The sort of people who might be your mum or your dad. Respectable people.
“It’s all very well, I am sure they are very nice people” thought Nadia. “but they are not our sort of people. What are we going to do about these people who are so different who are flooding our church.”
An emergency meeting of the church was called to discuss what to do with the “problem people”.
Mary sets out to see her cousin Elizabeth. It is a difficult journey. Not just the length of it from Galilee to Southern Judea; nor the steep roads up high to the Hill Country; Nor the fact that she is pregnant, possibly with morning sickness, certainly needing to go to be relieved far more often than she was used to. All this made the journey difficult. But it was not these that made the journey difficult.