I must admit, I have struggled with this song at times. But not because I don’t love the melody and beautiful words. The first time I sang it was mass in the chapel of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas. I’ve been an Associate with the Sisters since 2007. That first time spoiled me, I think. I felt immensely welcome with the Sisters and always have. The Motherhouse of the Sisters is where I know everyone I meet will be able to pronounce my name and that tends to make most people feel welcome. The good Sisters taught in the Catholic schools in Billings, Montana for over a hundred years. They taught my dad in the early 1920’s. They taught my mom in nurses training in the mid-1930’s and they taught me through high school graduation in 1974. Yes, the SCLs are a very embracing community and I always feel welcome and at home with them!
The times I have had difficulty with this song are times I did not feel particularly welcome or knew others didn’t feel welcome. The song doesn’t play well when the church singing it excludes folks for some reason. Maybe they don’t look like they belong in church. Maybe their sexual orientation isn’t deemed appropriate by the church. Maybe they didn’t pay enough dues or didn’t go through the proper motions. Maybe they just don’t fit in. Whatever the reason, I cringe when this song is on tap and I’m pretty sure not all feel welcome singing it. Let me just say right here that I’ve never felt unwelcome at Immanuel and, in fact, that is why I chose to join ILC two years ago. The first time we sang this song at worship I got teary because I DID feel so welcome and the song worked. I felt it. It was true. But my heart aches for the times this song has been too hard to sing because it was just #347 in the songbook and there wasn’t truth behind it.
In thinking about those on the margins, I wonder some hows and whys of it all. Who decides who is on the margins? How does one end up there? And what did Jesus say and do about those on the outer edges of society in his day? All good questions to ponder this week as we pray about being community with those on the margins. Sometimes people may choose to place themselves on the margins. The rat-race at the center may be too much to handle and it may feel more comfortable, for some, to be on the edges. I think of St. Francis of Assisi, who chose a life of voluntary poverty to be in solidarity with those who had no choice. But, I think most folks on the margins feel shoved to the side by society who cannot accept them for whatever reason. There may be some comfort in pushing others to the fringe to make more room in the center for ourselves. We feel good safely ensconced in the center, don’t we? I know I have. But, eventually, as we grow deeper in faith and closer to Jesus, we see what Jesus said and did with those outside of society. He was drawn to them and sought them out. He touched them. He healed and comforted them. He whirled around to see who had touched his cloak for a secret healing. Jesus desired relationship with those he encountered and many, if not most, were people on the outside the kosher Jewish society of his day. Jesus’ actions model this for us, and he also said clearly, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The closer we come to Jesus, the deeper our desire to emulate Jesus. And Jesus stood with the marginalized all the way to the cross.
Another admission: this devotion felt daunting to write because I don’t feel qualified to even share on the topic. I’ve helped out in various groups that assist folks on the margins, but I think our call goes much deeper than that. We are called to relationship and solidarity with people on the margins, like Jesus and St. Francis. And that seems hard. How can we even begin? We need to pray and consult Jesus on how to stand with those on the margins. It looks different for everyone because everyone has different gifts to share. And we can start with a simple refrain… “All are welcome.” Welcoming others is a good step in moving to the edges with those on the margins. We are all community, one in Christ, and beloved by God.