Even Higher

Sermon preached June 26, 2011

Texts: Matthew 10:40-42

Don and Janet, my dad’s uncle and aunt, were among my favorite relatives growing up. They owned a modest home in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Don worked in the maintenance department at the high school, Janet was a school cook. Whenever my family visited, they always had a place for us, were always glad to see us. When I was old enough to drive myself there, I went frequently. There was always food to share and a place to sleep. They were deeply welcoming. When I think about hospitality, I often think of Janet and Don.
I also know what it is to experience something like “unwelcome.” Last month I traveled to Indiana as a part of a denominational team assessing two non-United Methodist seminaries for their work in educating United Methodist clergy candidates. At one seminary, a faculty member who teaches some of the required courses in Methodist studies brought some copies of his books to give away. I knew of the person and had used one of his texts as a resource when I taught a seminary class on United Methodist history and organization. Anyway, he brought a copy of his latest book, and when no one else on the team picked it up, I expressed interest. You need to know that in sharing introductions I said I was a pastor in Minnesota and that I had also done doctoral work at Southern Methodist University. He said something like, “Well, this is a very academic work, but I guess you have done some of that work so you may like the book.” I smiled and said “thank you,” but inside knew I had been treated inhospitably and was rather angry about that.
“Welcome.” The word comes from words that mean a welcomed guest, one gladly received, something pleasurable. We find the word welcome all over our Scripture reading for this morning. Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous. Somehow our capacity for welcoming has something to do with our capacity for connecting with God through Jesus. And lest we think that welcoming is something ethereal or abstract, there is an illustration. And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
A related word that is often used in speaking about Christian faith and practice is the word “hospitality.” Hospitality merited a chapter in Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity For the Rest of Us which many of us read last fall. “Hospitality” comes from words meaning guest, and it has to do with the gracious and generous reception of guests.
Playing with words a little here, hospitality is also related to the word hospital. We have a sense of caring for those in need here – helping them get well, perhaps like the “well” in welcome! Hospitality and welcome are part of a healthy Christian faith and healthy Christian community.
We have already noted how important welcome and hospitality are in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. A couple of contemporary sources add an “amen” to the importance of hospitality and welcome. Diana Butler Bass in Christianity for the Rest of Us defines hospitality as “welcoming strangers into community” (79). She goes on to assert that “the Christian practice of hospitality has reemerged as foundational to the spiritual life” (79).
Henri Nouwen, in his book Reaching Out: the three movements of the spiritual life describes hospitality as “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend…. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place” (51). He argues that the need for such hospitality is great in our world today. In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found (46).
Welcome and hospitality have always been important to Christian faith. In our day and time, when our busyness can make us strangers to ourselves and where our fear can put distance between us and those who seem different from us, welcome and hospitality may be as important to our faith as ever if our faith is to be a source of healing in our lives and in our world. In the remaining few minutes of this sermon, I want to discuss a few dimensions of Christian welcome.
All of our welcoming, all of our hospitality is rooted in our being welcomed by God. “Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love of Jesus Christ” (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 82). Earlier in the tenth chapter of Matthew, we read, “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Jesus is talking about the deep love of God for us. God welcomes us in Jesus. God’s love creates space for change in our lives. We welcome because we have already been welcomed by none other than God, through the love of Jesus.
Knowing God’s welcome, one dimension of Christian hospitality is welcoming ourselves. That may sound strange to you, but see if these descriptions of the human condition resonate.
We are also separated from ourselves…. Man is split within himself…. It is that mixture of selfishness and self-hate that permanently pursues us, that prevents us from loving others, and that prohibits us from losing ourselves in the love with which we are loved eternally (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 158).
Selfishness and excessive self-concern really come from an inner self-hatred…. The person who inwardly feels worthless is the one who must build himself up by selfish aggrandizement (Rollo May, Man’s Search For Himself, 101)
The most dangerous traitor of all is the one every man has in his own breast (Soren Kierkegaard, Anthology, ed. Bretall, 290)
There is a great deal of psychological work which suggests that we often don’t feel very good about ourselves, or at least some part of ourselves. There are times when we may even hate some things about our lives, and we believe that if only we despise this enough we will change. Positive change, however, is more likely to come from a realistic acceptance of who we are and where we are, along with enough of a positive sense that we are worth the effort to change. In light of God’s loving welcome of us, we can learn to welcome all of who we are, even as we work to change some aspects of ourselves. The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard put it well, I think: This was the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” but when the commandment is rightly understood it also says the converse, “Thou shalt love thyself in the right way.” (Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Bretall, 289). Welcome and hospitality need to include welcoming ourselves.
Hospitality toward oneself is a necessary, but insufficient movement in the Christian spirituality of welcoming. We are moved to welcome others, to create space for them to grow, change, flourish, become a part of community. We desire to create here, in this church a place of genuine welcome and hospitality. Simple acts like greeting someone we have not met before, along with long-time friends, is a part of our hospitality. Praying with and for others is a part of creating community.
Recently I had a wonderful experience of church as welcoming community in another setting. I was asked by the directors at Camp Amnicon if I would help lead their summer staff commissioning service. We have used Camp Amincon frequently as a congregation, and so I said “yes.” When I arrived for lunch, it was pretty clear that this staff group, who had been in training together for about ten days, was a close knit community. I appreciated that. What amazed me is how wonderful they were in making me feel, in such a short time, like a part of their community, their family. It was simple things – warm smiles, showing genuine interest, table etiquette, making sure I knew the song, sharing the camp stole with me as I led worship. During a few moments of reflection I told them that the best way to share faith comes beyond words. It comes in action, in relationships, and I said if they could welcome their campers as well as they welcomed me, those campers might find the space to be welcomed in a new way by the God of Jesus Christ. We can do that, here, too. And we do, as with offering hospitality this week to the family of Tim Bearheart in their time of grief and need.
But our welcoming is not confined to our faith community, but pushes into the world community. Christian hospitality has a broader social dimension to it. We seek to create community where society has erected barriers. One way our congregation has chosen to live this dimension of welcoming and hospitality is through the “Drop the i-word” campaign. Our church council endorsed this on Monday night. The drop the i-word campaign is simply an attempt to make us aware of how language can be hurtful and dehumanizing. The focus of the campaign is on the i-word – “illegal” or “illegals” used as nouns. Because of significant issues around undocumented workers, the language of illegals has found our way into our vocabulary. Groups of people are labeled illegals, and it becomes a broad stereotype used against persons. When I have spoken with some people about this, they are a little confused. They don’t hear the word used that way much. I was in Denver this week, and while on a treadmill after my meeting, I say a news story scroll across the tv screen. A new ordinance related to impounded cars was aimed at “illegals.”
Immigration issues are a real concern. The presence of millions of undocumented persons in our country is a significant issue. The issues are not made clearer by the use of a phrase like “illegals” for a group of people. There will be more about this in the upcoming newsletter, but I see our action at church council as a way we are trying to live out Christian hospitality and welcome, offering the cool water of more healing language to an often parched conversation.
A Jewish congregation was mystified and intrigued when their rabbi disappeared each week on the eve of the Sabbath. They suspected he was secretly meeting with the Almighty, so they sent one of their members to follow the rabbi. Spying on the rabbi, this is what the man observed: the rabbi disguised himself in peasant clothes and served a paralyzed Gentile woman in her cottage, cleaning out her room and preparing a Sabbath meal for her.
When the spy got back, the congregation asked, “Where did the rabbi go? Did he ascend into heaven?”
“No,” the spy replied, “he went even higher.” (DeMillo, Taking Flight, 162; see also p. 161 story about recognizing a brother)
Welcoming that takes us even higher. Hospitality brings a little heaven to earth. Amen.