This week as the city of Toronto welcomes millions to the World Pride Celebration, it is so very appropriate that the lectionary provides a reading that has the potential to open us up to a more radical understanding of what WELCOME might mean for those who yearn to follow Jesus. This sermon on Matthew 10:37-42 uses two stories to posit questions about who Jesus might be. The context of World Pride provides us all with an invitation to welcome the ONE who comes to us in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and gender-identities. The imagined conversation with Jesus is taken from New Zealand preacher Clay Nelson’s excellent sermon on this text entitled “I Know I Am a Priest, But Am I A Christian?”.
There’s a story that I learned years ago when I was exploring the riches of the Buddhist religion and rediscovered in Wayne Muller’s LEGACY OF THE HEART. (p. 136)
There once was…. “A young widower, who loved his five-year-old son very much, was away on business, and bandits came, burned down his whole village, and took his son away. When the man returned, he saw the ruins and panicked. He took the charred corpse of an infant to be his own child, and he began to pull his hair and beat his chest, crying uncontrollably. He organized a cremation ceremony, collected the ashes, and put them in a very beautiful velvet pouch. Working, sleeping, or eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him. One day his real son escaped from the robbers and found his way home. He arrived at his father’s new cottage at midnight, and knocked at the door. You can imagine, at that time, the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes and crying. He asked, “Who is there?” And the child answered, “It’s me, Papa. Open the door, it’s your son.”
In his agitated state of mind the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away, and continued to cry. The boy knocked again and again, but the father refused to let him in. Some time passed, and finally the child left. From that time on, father and son never saw one another.
After telling this story, the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. If you cling to it so much, when the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you will not open it.”
Jesus said, “Those who welcome you also welcome me, and those who welcome me welcome the One who sent me.” But what does it mean to welcome Jesus. Perhaps we carry with us a velvet bag of ashes. Valuable yes, because they are the ashes of a child and represent our love for Jesus. But in the end are the ashes of a child really Jesus. Sometimes our carefully held notions about who and what Jesus is fail us. Sometimes we cling so tightly to doctrines, theologies, ideas, and words about Jesus that the radical nature of the man whose life and teaching changed the world. Sometimes our own selfish desires about what Jesus can do for us blind us to the radical nature of what Jesus lived for.
Peter Rollins tells a parable that lays waste to our notions of Jesus. “Late one evening a group of unknown disciples packed their few belongings and left for a distant shore, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been crucified. Weighed down with sorrow, they left that place, never to return. Instead they traveled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as Jesus had taught them. The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years, spending their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their heart. But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement.
These missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection or the ascension of Christ, for they had left Jerusalem before Christ returned from the dead. Without hesitation the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of Jesus. That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping. “Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”
“It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued Christ’s ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated Christ and would one day defeat us also.” The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes.
“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for Christ because we judged Christ wholly worth of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow Christ, not because of Christ’s radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because Christ sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.” With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary crouched weeping on the floor.” (The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins)
In order to welcome Jesus, we just might have to lay aside our bag of ashes in order to move beyond our carefully held notions about who Jesus is. The storyteller known as Matthew has Jesus giving his disciples some instructions about how they are to represent him. He doesn’t baptize them first. He doesn’t have them memorize a creed. He doesn’t give them an animal husbandry manual so they can identify sheep from goats. He certainly doesn’t ask them if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He doesn’t even give them the assurance of salvation. In fact he tells them it’s not about them at all. He suggests they have to have a right attitude. As important as family is, they need to understand that what Jesus represents is more important. What he represents is even more important than life itself. He tells them their task is to represent him and in doing so they represent the ONE whom he represents.
I can hear the disciples saying, “Huh? What do you mean? How do we that? Do we wear special clothes? Do we need a collar? Should we lug the Torah around and quote it chapter and verse?” I can see Jesus shaking his head with a bemused smile. “No, just welcome people into your lives. Welcome everyone, but especially welcome those no one else does. Don’t look so shocked. Even if all you do is give them is a cup of water, you will find that most gratifying.”
“Is that all,” they ask.
“Yep. That’s it. Be hospitable and everything else will follow.”
Hospitality it turns out is at the heart of our faith. A Christian is simply someone who is hospitable. Sounds too easy until we think about what is required. It is easy to be hospitable to birds of a feather: people we identify with, who strike us as interesting; who might be useful to know. It’s no problem to invite them to our homes for a few drinks and a meal. Those occasions are their own reward. It is another story to invite those of a different feather: people of a different culture, gender-identy, class or race who can offer no obvious advantage to us. Being well-bred we might invite them and make them feel at home, all the while wishing they would leave… I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. Why did Jesus make hospitality the basis for his ministry? Perhaps, because it is essential to building relationships. It is the first step to overcoming fear, finding understanding, and giving respect. Ultimately it is the foundation of bringing about a peaceful world. It is the source of harmony. (adapted from Clay Nelson)
If you doubt this, I challenge you to think of a time when you were shown unexpected hospitality that at least improved your day and may even have changed your life. Jesus lived to change the world and change it, he did. One person at a time. Christ lives in with and through us to change the world one person at a time. Each act of kindness, each word of welcome, each act of hospitality binds us together in love and moves the universe that much closer to peace. Not the fragile peace that the world gives; but the peace of God, that transcends selfishness, greed, hostility, prejudice, tribalism, classism, hatred and even war. Peace, which can begin with something as simple as a glass of water, a world of welcome, an act of hospitality. Let it be so among us. For those who welcome you also welcome Christ, and those who welcome Christ welcome the One who sent Christ. And yes, that works both ways, for the truth is, whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of the poor ones, also welcomes Christ, and those who welcome Christ welcome the One who sent Christ. Let it be so among us.