Coming in from the Cold (Ex. 23.9, Heb.13.2)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
February 5, 2017
Every story begins inside a story that’s already begun by others. . .
She ducked into the church because it was cold outside. She had been on a run. But it was February in New York and the chill was too much. She ducked into the church and only then realized it was Sunday. Elaine stayed at the back for a moment, warming her hands, and looked from the shadows into the sanctuary. A priest in vestments stood at the front. People rose and sang together. The old building was warm with light and color. And she realized that it was the place she most needed to be.
Like any visitor to any church, she had a backstory that no one knew. The woman in running clothes was Elaine Pagels, a Princeton professor and noted historian of early Christianity. She was in the city for medical appointments and had received the worst news. Her two-year-old son had pulmonary hypertension, a condition the doctors couldn’t cure and predicted would be fatal. She hadn’t been able to sleep at all. Finally she rose, left her sleeping husband and son, laced up her sneakers, and ran. Through the cold city, block after block, until finally she ducked into the church. There in the vestibule the tears filled her eyes. She stood for a moment, wondering.
I think of Elaine’s story often. Just about every Sunday. Just about every time I see someone walk through the door for the first time, stand in the vestibule or Keller Hall and wonder. Sometimes they look around for a moment. Sometimes they stand and squint, looking for a place to sit. Sometimes someone greets them, offers them coffee and a bulletin. And I always wonder what their story is. What cold they might be ducking in from or shelter they might seek. Because we have all been there. Sleepless, on the run, not sure where to go, ducking in someplace looking for a refuge.
What Elaine found in that church in New York was a place that “spoke to her condition.” She found a place that allowed her to be who she really was without any strings attached. And who she really was was beautiful. She had spent her life studying early Christianity. She knew of the thousands of doctrinal disputes, the splinter groups and stories of councils and their arguments. She also knew of the earliest Christians and their gospels, the gnostic literature that presented Jesus as a mystic and a wisdom teacher. Her scholarship focused on these gospels, the ones early Christians would have known and used, though most of us have never heard of them since they didn’t make it past Irenaeus, Constantine, and the other gatekeepers of what would become the orthodox canon of Biblical literature. But Elaine found in that church something that resembled the early Christians. A community of care, a communion circle of sharing, a radical welcome of strangers as guests, and rituals connecting the divine and the human, a pageantry of the Golden Rule lived out week to week. “I know from my encounters with people in that church,” she wrote, “believers, agnostics, and seekers, that what matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe (or what we do not believe).” Put another way, what matters in religious experience is the experience itself. And Elaine experienced welcome. She experienced a place she could come in from the cold.
It’s a striking image these days. Because while we haven’t had much cold winter weather, then the storms of our politics have more than made up for it. Perhaps you’ve noticed what I’ve noticed lately. More and more people showing up on Sunday, ducking in from all that is going on outside and looking for a refuge. Not a week goes by, not a day lately, that we don’t receive more bad news. In the world of politics, for example, our health care is threatened, our Muslim friends are singled out for discrimination, refugees fleeing dangerous lands are turned away, scientists are censored, and there are whispers of hateful executive orders to be directed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. I could go on, but I won’t. The winds of the worst kind of change are blowing and God knows we all need some shelter from them. In the world of personal relationships, things are no better. Every week you share with me about employers you have trouble talking with or family members. Strangers have been shouting and throwing things at demonstrators here in our own city. Everyone’s on edge and we wonder how much worse it might get before it gets better. And in the world of the mind, there are storms, too. As the scientific method, critical thinking, and even facts come under threat, we wonder if we will be attacked for holding these commitments. Which is to say nothing of being progressive or liberal Christians in a city that is staunchly conservative in its religious expression. Many of us duck into church every Sunday as the professor once did, wondering if there’s still a place here for people like us, people with more questions than answers, people looking for love and acceptance more than old dusty doctrine that may or may not make sense.
So it’s cold outside. In our politics, in our personal relationships, in our minds. And we are here standing in the vestibule looking in on a community that still gathers in a circle every first Sunday to break bread and pass it around. Is this the place for us, we wonder. Is this what we most need?
According to our sacred stories, one of the key elements of our faith is that of welcoming all. We heard two short excerpts this morning. One from the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus. Do not oppress the alien [or the foreigner], for you know how it feels to be [one]; you yourselves were [foreigners] in Egypt. And from the Christian Testament in the book of Hebrews. Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unaware. We read these scriptures together as bookends, from early in the Bible to late in its pages. If we look through the Bible, in fact, we find dozens of such admonitions. Be careful how you treat the alien, the foreigner, the stranger, the enemy. For we have all been those things before. And show hospitality to all. Receive every person with kindness, compassion, and grace. Welcome her or him in from the cold. For you don’t know the story, you can’t say what they’re seeking shelter from. Perhaps that person is a Muslim who feels attacked by our policies. Perhaps that person is a lesbian who has been shunned by the church of her upbringing. Perhaps that person is a skeptic who wonders if he and his questions are welcome. Perhaps that person is a Millennial who wants to see if institutional religion has any value. Perhaps that person is a professor, red-eyed with grief, nowhere else to run, looking for a safe place to pray and to cry.
If the story of Jesus is any example, then this may be the gospel itself. This welcome. This acceptance. This inclusion. It’s not a gospel of doctrine or dogma. That’s what Elaine had learned in all her studies of the early communities that followed Jesus. All the doctrine came later, the product of theological and political storms. But the gospel itself was more experiential. The gospel itself was the welcome. It was the love. It was the kindness of strangers making the world they wanted, ritualizing it in a space they called sacred, for an hour or two every Sunday. And it spoke to her condition.
That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why we keep coming. Not to turn out perfect people or pretend to be pious. But to welcome each other in from the cold. To break the bread and pass it around. To share the wine and juice together. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this so that you might see the sister or brother who is right next to you. Do this and let your heart be warmed by it. In a world that is a little too cold, do this. . .
 Richard Blanco, For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 6.
 Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2005), 27.
 Ibid., 6.