By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 10:40-42
A story is told of Irish sacramental theologian Siobhan Garrigan arriving at a Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland. She was greeted at the door by two women. She soon discerned that these women were functioning in an official capacity: to engage visitors in conversation, an interview of sorts, to ascertain the first names of each stranger. Upon learning the names, they drew conclusions about the cultural and religious identity of their guests. Those with Protestant names were warmly welcomed and shown to their seats. Those with Catholic names were told that they were, undoubtedly, in the wrong place and they were sent on their way.
It is, by American standards, an appalling story of prejudice and the inhospitable boundaries it constructs. And yet, theologian Eugene Park writes, “we want immediately to dismiss such boundary keeping as abhorrent to the gospel… Nevertheless, if we are honest about the church we know, we would have to confess that, though we define our borders differently, we define them still – and more subtly.”[i]
It is a word from the context of yoga that serves as the title of this morning’s sermon: “Namaste.” Namaste means, literally, “I bow to you.” It springs from the belief that there is a divine spark or presence within each of us. This, of course, we might also liken to our Judeo-Christian biblically-based teaching that each of us have been made in the image of God and that that image – though admittedly disfigured by sin – resolutely persists if we have eyes to see. Namaste, at its most basic level, is an expression of hospitality because hospitality, despite what marketing would have us believe, is not about a new grill or deck furniture or whether you can prepare sushi from scratch. Hospitality is ultimately about the way we are oriented toward the other. Any outward expression of social nicety – a clean towel, a warm blanket, a fresh pot of coffee – is only truly hospitality if it has been prompted by our desire to treat the other person in a welcoming and gracious way; to receive them as they are into our homes, our lives and our hearts.
This theology of hospitality perhaps reaches its fullest Christian expression in the final parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel; the one we often refer to as The Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that the way we treat those who are most “foreign” to us (the stranger or alien) and those who are most vulnerable among us is, ultimately, representative of our response toward Jesus. Within the parable, Jesus refers to these vulnerable ones with whom he identifies as “the least.” So Matthew’s gospel, as a whole, reminds us that righteousness goes well beyond our relationship with God. Whether we are deemed righteous has a great deal to do with how hospitable we are toward one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us.
Today’s gospel words, spoken by Jesus, may seem like strange – and perhaps even inapplicable – teaching in our post-modern American culture. This morning’s verses come from a larger section of scripture in which Jesus, lamenting that a plentiful harvest has insufficient workers to meet the demand, is now sending out his disciples to do what he has been doing (teaching, preaching and healing). Jesus provides words of instruction to better prepare and equip them as traveling evangelists or missionaries. During Jesus’ life – and most especially after his death and resurrection – his followers moved about from town to town to proclaim the message of good news Jesus had entrusted to them. Their religion was new and unfamiliar. There were no options for mass marketing; no strategies to boost their traffic on Facebook. If they were going to spread the word, they were going to need to “hoof it.” But as preaching professor Lance Pape notes, today’s Americans hardly live in a culture of “travel-weary missionaries come from distant lands to share the faith.”[ii] Today, even guest speakers we invite into our churches generally find themselves more likely to experience the amenities of a local hotel chain.
In truth, the word we translate “welcome” in this morning’s scripture passage, is better translated “receive” as in “receive into one’s home; into one’s heart; into one’s family.” So this passage calls for a hospitality that extends well beyond a fresh pot of coffee and clean sheets. It implies a meeting of hearts; an openness and a deep connection. It implies a sense of mutual vulnerability. Even today, we face deep risk anytime we open our hearts to another person. That is what makes authentic, long-term relationships so difficult. But that is what the Church is called to be about. Members of early Christian communities were ‘little ones’ and whatever their origins, “the disciples of Jesus were encouraged to identify themselves with the little ones in the world, who are also called to serve other such little ones...”[iii] It should not be surprising that early Christians thought of themselves as “little ones”; after all, our religious movement began with the Son of God assuming the vulnerability of human flesh and then willingly allowing that flesh to be destroyed by the most brutal form of capital punishment. Jesus – by choice – ranked himself among the “little ones.” By virtue of our human nature, we want influence and power, certainty and security, not risk or vulnerability; yet Jesus refers to those who are caught up in the business of his kingdom work as “little ones” who may find themselves standing in need of something so simple as a cool drink of water.
The words of Jesus that I shared this morning begin simply by promising blessing for those who welcome the emissaries of Christ. But the final verse reveals that the blessing extends and incorporates even those who offer a cup of cold water to the disciples of Jesus. Note that it doesn’t say anymore beyond that. It’s a pretty simple gesture, really, that does not even require a profession of faith. My husband Britt likens this to the phenomenon of aiding and abetting. In the American legal system, if you are aware that someone is a criminal – a fugitive – and you harbor them in any way, you can be considered an accessory. In other words, your simple act of aid or assistance results in your “assumed affiliation.” Likewise, those who do something as simple as providing a cup of cool, refreshing water to the disciples of Jesus are drawn – in a certain sense by simple association – into that community. They are joined together through the simple gesture of hospitality.
So what does any of this have to do with us, today, here at Trinity? Well, I hope by now that most of you are aware of the grant we have received for our Ready, Set, Grow Project. We’ve been writing about it in the newsletter every month. It is a series of new initiatives we are launching – things like our summer monthly Garden and Grill meals. And it’s focused on helping us to receive and to welcome those around us. Trinity has identified our Vision as “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” I’d like you to look at the front of your program this morning. The graphic is an artistic rendering of three people (from a top-down view) with arms wrapped around one another. If our vision is to grow through relationships that means we can’t wait for the community to come to us; to walk through our church doors on Sunday morning at 10:20… although, obviously, we’re delighted when they do. But today in America, fewer and fewer people are walking through the doors of churches for Sunday morning worship. Those numbers are falling at an alarming rate. Yet remember, that’s not how the Church started. The Church began with people going out and entering in to the space of others; both giving and vulnerably receiving the blessings of hospitality: open hearts, open doors and open minds. And so perhaps our current cultural challenges do not mean the demise or even decline of the Church in America. Perhaps it is simply our opportunity to return to our roots, our point of “missional origin.”
Trinity’s various Ready, Set, Grow initiatives are a way of doing that… of returning to a more apostolic model of Church. When we host our Garden and Grills, it is critical for us to do more than bring food and set up tents and grill hot dogs for, to serve another person is to exercise a certain power over them. Let me say that again: To simply serve another person is to exercise a certain power over them. But, we need to shift from a mindset of “giving to” and move toward a mindset of “sharing with.” True hospitality means slowing down to engage; sitting and eating with our neighbors; to sit next to them, to be with them, and to recognize – as the beauty of this morning’s scripture reveals – that there is blessing for the one who offers the cool glass of water and for the one who receives it. There are moments of blessings anytime we “receive” or welcome one who comes as a stranger among us. And even greater blessing when we recognize that that stranger bears the image of God and so we bow to the divine spark within them. It is a Namaste moment; it is a moment of true Christian hospitality for when we welcome a stranger, we welcome Jesus.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year A, vol. 3; Westminster John Knox Press; 2011; pp. 188, 190
[ii] Feasting on the Word; ibid, p. 191
[iii] Ibid., p. 193
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