A True Welcome

The pineapple is thought to have originated not on the Dole Plantation in Hawaii, as you might imagine, but in South America, specifically in what is now Brazil. Its original name, ananas, comes from a South American language, and means “excellent fruit.” These excellent fruits were transported by travelers to neighboring lands where they were planted and came to flourish. Eventually the pineapple was discovered by European explorers who thought its skin resembled the spiky points of a pinecone while the fruit was a lot like…you guessed it…an apple. They also thought it was delicious. The pineapple was such a hit that European sea captains loaded up their ships with them and tried to get enough wind in their sails to carry them back to Holland or Spain or England before their sweet yellow insides began to rot. European botanists were consulted on how the pineapple might be grown outside of the tropics and imperial architects were hired to build hothouses and even something called a pineapple stove – all for the love these prickly sweet fruits.

By the 18th century, the pineapple had begun to take on a new identity. You see, stories told about pineapples said that the original explorers who had traveled to lands far and wide had noticed that the indigenous peoples who placed pineapples by their doors seemed to be the friendliest and most welcoming. The pineapples, it was thought, were a kind of native welcome mat. And its being a perfectly likeable kind of fruit, the pineapple began to be seen as a sign of welcome. It became, in fact, a symbol of extravagant hospitality – extravagant because in the 18th century, pineapples were enormously expensive. In colonial America, one pineapple is said to have cost as much as $8000 in today’s currency. Now I like a good Dole Whip as much as the next girl, but that is ridiculous. Those who couldn’t afford this caviar of fruits, had to make do with images of pineapples carved into welcome signs outside of taverns or inns or even churches – an early version of the Anglican Church welcomes you.

There was another option, though, for those who wanted to offer the pineapple of prodigious welcome but couldn’t quite afford it. Colonial dealers of produce used to rent out pineapples for a discounted price. That’s right, rented pineapples. Families that were slightly less wealthy could lease one of these luxurious fruits for a party or a formal dinner, show all of their friends or colleagues that they, too, could offer a welcome that generous, and then whisk it away before anyone got too friendly with a knife. The pineapple was then returned to the rent-a-fruit dealer, who resold it to someone who could afford not only to look at it but actually eat it as well. It was a case of American ingenuity at its…well…most American.

But what kind of welcome is it if the welcome disappears when the time has expired? What kind of welcome is it if the symbol of welcome is off-limits, if the welcome says please, come in, but don’t touch, don’t mess about, and definitely don’t sit down and eat? One has to wonder if these pineapple renters were seen as generous or as pitiable. Perhaps they would have more hospitable if they had bought some real apples and really let people really eat them. Better real food than a fake fruit, no matter how excellent.

When Jesus sends his disciples out into the world on their first real mission, he, too, is concerned about welcome. He is sending them out to proclaim the Good News, with little more than their faith and each other’s company – no staff, no bag, no extra tunic or spare pair of sandals. They are off to do something they have never done before and to do it on their own. And so he offers them words of assurance and inspiration as they look out upon the long road. He tells them not to worry if people ask them questions they cannot answer, for the Spirit will speak to them and give them words to say. He tells them not to be afraid if them are persecuted and handed over, for their Father in heaven knows every single hair of their heads. And he tells them, as he sees the doubt and the hope in their eyes, that they are worthy of this task. Yes, they are traveling without him; yes, they will be preaching and teaching without him, but this will be no second-class proclamation of the Gospel. They will carry Jesus Christ will them, in their hearts and upon their tongues, and so to welcome them is to welcome Christ himself. Because of the Gospel they proclaim, they are worthy of a true, generous welcome.

So…what kind of welcome do we offer for the Good News of Jesus Christ? Is our welcome real or fake? When we hear the Gospel proclaimed do we truly open ourselves up to it, let it fill us up, body and soul, or are we only really interested in how it looks but not so much in how it tastes or fuels our actions? When the Spirit speaks to us – in the words of scripture or the words of a stranger on the street, in the food offered at this altar or the food offered in our parish hall, in the feeling we have as a hymn soars around us or the feeling we have as we watch a boat of refugees floating in the Mediterranean – do we welcome the Spirit in, to stay a while? Do we welcome the Gospel when it is inconvenient, when it speaks at the wrong time, or comes from the wrong person, or seems to be just the wrong message? Do we offer a real welcome when it seems the Gospel might do that which is scariest of all, which is, of course, change us?

Change feels like the costliest part of a true Gospel welcome. Change is the $8000 pineapple, the thing we think we can’t possibly afford. What do you mean go out two by two to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ? What do you mean take no tunic and no extra sandals? What do you mean take a week’s vacation and travel to Honduras? What do you mean change jobs, run for office, go to seminary? What do you mean give away more of what I have? And what do you mean give away even more than that? What do you mean start exercising, stop drinking, start loving my body as a gift from God, even when I catch a glimpse of myself naked in the mirror? What do you mean get up earlier to pray? What do you mean risk looking like a fool by reaching out in love even if that love is rejected, what do you mean risk looking naïve by being unfailingly kind and loving rather than biting and superior, what do you mean risk speaking truth with love even to – and especially to – those in power? What do you mean open my heart, even if there is no guarantee I won’t get hurt? Oh, no – that cost is too high. Why don’t I just rent the Gospel instead?

Because if I’m just renting the Gospel, then I can be nice, no matter what anger or judgment might be rotting beneath my smile. I can love my neighbor in church on Sunday, but God help you if you cut me off in traffic or post something I don’t like on Twitter. I can use the Gospel to order my financial life, but not my sexual life. I can give money to organizations that work for justice and equality but ignore discrimination and meanness I see around me if they seem likely to get too messy. I can welcome the Gospel into my life, and then send it back when it starts to feel too costly. Anything more than that is simply too expensive.

But this, of course, is backwards thinking. For it is not the cost of the Gospel that is extravagant; what is extravagant is what God has given us, free of charge. The cost of change in our life is nothing in comparison with the gifts God has already given us, the changes he has already wrought in our lives, the welcome he has already provided for us, high upon the cross. The free gift of God, Paul tells us, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Grace, forgiveness, salvation, mercy, compassion, love that never ends – these are the gifts that we have been given for free, not to mention the gifts of Creation, our own gifts and talents, the people God has placed in our lives, the Church. All of this is ours, simply because God has chosen us to love.

So listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. You can afford this Gospel. You can afford this extravagant generosity. Open up your hearts, fling wide the gates, and welcome the Gospel in. Invite it to sit down and stay a while, to lovingly mess about, to change you by making you more of the precious, excellent fruit you were made to be. Welcome the Gospel in to stay, a true welcome. And the king of glory shall come in.    

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

2 July 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 2, 2017 .