May I begin by saying that it is good to be back home and to be here at TUC this morning. It has been a remarkable two months travelling around the world and then to be greeted by those who welcome you into their community and into their lives. I do believe that that is one of the great strengths of the Christian faith, but it is probably central to all religious faiths. So when I arrived at Messiah Community Church in Denver I was treated with that wonderful sense of kindness. On the first day they had arranged a lunch and gave me several gifts, of which the most valuable was this Denver Broncos Cap. I suspect that no one here has heard of Peyton Manning. Manning is the quarter back for the Broncos and arguably the best quarter back to have ever played in the NFL. Interestingly, he is also a devout Christian. He is reported to have said:
" . My priorities are ranked in this order: faith, family, friends, and football." Manning said he prays every night and before games and also said, "I hope (and pray) I don't do too many things that displease God before I get to Heaven myself. I believe, too, that life is much better and freer when you're committed to God in that way."
But I digress. Being warmly greeted by strangers who then become friends is very important to the health of every Christian community. I saw at Messiah Church that there was a depth of hospitality that marked their community life. And that goes beyond the call to religious observance. It is both foolish and inauthentic to lay down the law and say we all must love one another. Or even that we must love everyone. If it is not genuinely from the heart then it is phony. However, we are still obliged to show respect to everyone. But what a gift when we are greeted with hospitality and kindness.
There is a vulnerability in all of us when we are on new ground and in foreign territory. I have often reflected on Albert Camus words about travel. He wrote:
What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in travelling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing .1
And sitting on a plane for fifteen and a half hours from Los Angles to Melbourne, I know what Camus means. But it is more than that. The best travel is not just to collect photographs of the places where I have been as if I was a consumer of personal geography. (The selfie stick was new to me. But I saw many of them on my recent travels.) But what is really important is the greetings we experience on the way and particularly at our destination. That is what really counts and makes travel a spiritual experience because it touches the core of our being our souls.
The exchange between Toorak Uniting Church and Messiah Community Church; between Wolfgang and me was an experience for both of us (and of course for Anne and Liliana, Rebecca and her mum Nico) it was an experience of being immersed not only in another culture, but also immersion in another country and landscape. It is interesting that when Wolfgang came to Australia he wanted to see and experience the Great Barrier Reef. When Anne and I went to Denver we wanted to see and experience both Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon. Do you know what the seven natural wonders of the world are?
Mount Everest in Nepal.
Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe.
Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.
Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Paricutin volcano in Mexico.
Harbour of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
So both of us chose one of them. And that is because those places lift us up into the grandeur of our earth and the physical landscape emits a presence that can shape and reshape our inner landscape. But we have to put the selfie stick down for that to happen. As I mentioned, Anne and I visited the Grand Canyon. On the way there we also saw Mesa Verde, the twelfth century Pueblo village carved and built into the cliffs and overhangs in Colorado. It is here that natural landscape and human culture and ingenuity intersect. But the Grand Canyon is a different matter. There is no human intervention there. (Although I was once told that the Grand Canyon was created by a Scotsman digging to find a penny he had lost!!)
No it is a reminder that this earth, this planet that we call home, is millions and billions of years old and that that must be woven into our understanding of God and the universe. It is the sheer grandeur and awe that such a place instils in us that can make travel a deeply spiritual experience.
To sit quietly and contemplate a view of such magnitude draws us out beyond ourselves but also deep within ourselves. It is why there are so many references in the Biblical text to the wonder and grandeur of the natural world:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains from where my help will come . Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy The mountains rose; the valleys sank to the place which you established for them.
And that is just from the Psalms. These ancient people had no idea of how such places of awe and grandeur were created, they just experienced them. They lived in the presence of grandeur and it shaped the centre of their being.
Greetings and the experience of being welcomed; grandeur an encounter with that which inspires us; and grace or graciousness, that which holds all things together, are fundamental to our way of being in this world and form our experience of that which is divine. This is where there is a confluence - a flowing together of greetings, grandeur and grace in the story read this morning. The story of the widow who places her two mites into the temple offering. For her, life was all about grace. All about that which she hadnt created, but a recognition that love and mercy is given to us by God as a gift, not because of anything we have done to earn it, but rather it is a generous, free, unexpected and undeserved gift.
I travel to the other side of the world and I am greeted with kindness and hospitality. And it invokes in me a sense of gratitude and thankfulness for those who have shown loving kindness to the stranger. I travel to the Grand Canyon and I am struck by an awareness of awe, wonder and grandeur. I did nothing to create this place, but it gives me the gift of its magnificent presence. I dont need a photograph, its imprinted on my inner being. It is all of Grace it is all a gift, given in love.
But now my challenge and the challenge for all of us is to live daily and fully into that gracious space. There are times when we are not welcomed and we feel the cold wind of being the stranger; there are times when the vista is flat and bland and the grandeur has receded; there are times when we feel abandoned by Gods graciousness and there is no gift that we can find. What then? That is the dry place where we must have courage to throw our two mites into the temple offering the place where we let go of that which binds and blinds us. And then we trust, we have faith and courage that the welcome will come; that beauty will be restored and that even in the darkest times we can find the gift to new life.
1. Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1935-1951