Sunday, July 2, 2017

Embraced and Welcomed: Sermon for Proper 8A, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost

Presiding for the first time as priest as I say farewell to the people of Good Shepherd who welcomed me two years ago.

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Good morning.

Well, it’s come down to this at last. You get to see me in yet another in a series of weird get-ups, because that is the Episcopal way.

I laughed out loud a little when I first read the readings appointed in the lectionary for this Sunday, because they can seem at first glance to be a mixed bag. I was comforted by the fact that this is like the third week in a row that that has been the case. I mean, here we are, just wanting to enjoy summer, and Matthew’s gospel gives us Jesus talking about persecution, and swords, and division, and even alienation.

So today’s readings start to pile it on pretty heavy. There’s the story of Abraham nearly engaging in human sacrifice of his son Isaac. Then our psalm resonates with feelings of loss and abandonment. But, thank God, then we make a turn. Romans then begins to offer a glimmer of hope by reminding us that, no matter how much sway sin may hold over our lives, that God’s love and embrace of us is greater than anything we might do to break the bonds of love between ourselves and God. Paul reminds us that we all have to serve somebody, as Bob Dylan famously reminded us in a song or two, and that’s not a bad thing, but rather a wonderful thing, because the way of service is the way of Christ. God’s love, through it all, embraces us, and holds us fast.

You know, the last few days have been full of a lot of embraces. On Thursday I was ordained to the priesthood with my beloved friends Andrew and Maria—we are known as the littermates, and we aim to make that term look good! (Our bishop referred to us as a litter of kittens, and I can honestly say that’s the first time I have EVER been called kittenish.)

But there were lots of embraces, and blessings, and a fantastic sermon, and beautiful music, and the laying on of hands, and tears of joy, at least on my part. And I am riding that wave into the beach right now to be here among you, my beloveds of Church of the Good Shepherd, which now is something I share with dear Maria-- may her ministry among you be long and prosperous. Andrew, Maria, and I have all been blessed to be attached to this parish, and we thank you.

So then I was glad when I read our short but insistent gospel passage, and saw that it was centered around the concept of welcome. I want to start by thanking you for the welcome, love, and grace you have extended to me for the last two years as we have learned and laughed and labored together. It has been a joy and privilege to have you accompany me as I have been your seminarian intern and later your transitional deacon. I am grateful beyond words to Pamela and Susan for teaching me how to lean into this strange and wonderful calling as first your seminarian, and then your deacon, and now a priest. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do as a parish, and for your embrace of me as I have learned and walked alongside you all.

Embraces are interesting things. They only work when both parties spread wide their arms, open themselves to each other, and are willing to press heart to heart together. There really is no such thing as a one-sided embrace, as anyone who has tried to hug an effusive toddler turned overnight into a recalcitrant teenager may know.

It’s easy to show hospitality to people we know. It’s much less awkward and more comfortable. It’s not very risky. This is why this gospel today is so precious, because it calls us out of our familiar rut and reminds us of the thread of radical welcome and call to hospitality that runs throughout scripture.  We see welcome exemplified starting from Genesis 18, when Abraham welcomes the angelic visitors who speak God’s own promise of children to a couple who has almost given up hope. Welcome is commended through the Letter to the Hebrews, when Christians are urged to welcome everyone, because you never know when you might be entertaining angels without recognizing them as such. Here’s a hint: the less "angelic" they seem, the more likely we are to be led to a deeper knowledge of the love of God through them.

If you have ever been shown hospitality by a stranger, you know what a holy thing that is. When I was 17, my mother took me to the UK and to Germany after my high school graduation. We arrived in London on an early Sunday morning, and as I was a new Episcopalian, the first thing I wanted to do was to worship in an Anglican Church. We found one not far from Heathrow, and were treated to a beautiful Morning Prayer service. At the door, the vicar greeted us. When he found out we were newly arrived from America, he insisted we come back to his parsonage for a real English breakfast. I’m sure his wife was thrilled. But we were treated to wonderful conversation, a lovely tour of his rose garden, the strange programming of the BBC on Sunday mornings (a tractor plowing methodically, back and forth, through the English countryside, presented without commentary, for hours). We shared a wonderful meal of boiled bacon, fried tomatoes, bangers and mashed, and even wee glasses of sherry. It obviously made quite an impression on me, as I remember it all these years later.

And in all of our family’s travels, we often encountered the same thing. There was the Korean woman who pulled my little brother off a platform in the New York subway right before he could have been knocked onto the tracks, who then insisted we go to church with her at her Korean Presbyterian Church. There was the time we three kids were dancing during a festival to honor the dead in Japan, and apparently the sight of three blond children in kimonos pretending to slay a dragon as we danced in a circle with the townsfolk was considered charming, because candy and other small gifts were pressed into our hands all night.

All of these experiences came to me as I read this gospel. Welcome is one of the key concepts of scripture. The word shows up 16 times in the gospel of Matthew alone, and this three-verse pericope (that’s a fancy word for “reading”) is one of the places where the word is most concentrated. It is interesting that the other place where there is a cluster of the use of the word “welcome” is in Matthew 25, where Jesus reminds the disciples that the keys of discipleship lie in taking care of and welcoming the chance to be with and stand alongside those who are weak, poor, or marginalized—what then and now could often be considered to be social suicide.
At the Cafe at Thistle Farms.

Welcoming strangers and refugees has been one of the great hallmarks of our nation, as we prepare to remember our Independence Day on July 4. It’s good to think about our national tradition of welcome near a holiday in which we celebrate independence, because it reminds us that independence is not really possible unless we first remember how dependent we are upon each other, really, when it comes right down to it. Independence isn’t possible without first welcoming each other to these shores, and being willing to embrace each other as one nation, one people, no matter how different we are.

When I was a kid, people would often piously intone, “You are known by the company you keep.” This dictum was supposed to keep us from hanging out with the riff-raff. But the problem is, that as Christians we are supposed to emulate Christ, and Jesus hung out with ALL the "wrong" sorts during his earthly life.

But they are right: as Christians, we ARE known by the company we keep, and that’s when it’s important to remember that Jesus comes to us and asks us to welcome him every time we encounter someone, whether they are a friend or a stranger. Matthew 25 will later remind us of this:

for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.

....Truly I tell you, just as you did it

to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.

There can be only "we" in God's kingdom. Everyone is invited into the circle, as the Rev. Becca Stevens says.

And even today, Jesus as our living savior calls us out into the margins, away from our comfortable, familiar places, and is often most real to us when we let all our internal walls come down as Jesus often did, and we too hang out with the sick, the friendless, the outcast, the refugee.

We are called to be welcoming to those who come among us, whether by design or by chance, as Jesus himself practiced radical welcome and hospitality with even the most unlikely of people. And there’s a reason for this. Jesus became God Incarnate in the world to help us live in imitation of him, so that we could live more fully into our calling to be true children of God.

Jesus’s welcome and hospitality mirrors that of God toward us. Just as we are welcomed as friends, companions, and even children, no matter how petty, impatient, or wrong we may be, so are we also called to do the same for others, to live our lives with our arms wide open to the possibility of fellowship with all of God’s creation.

Jesus sends his disciples, then and now, as sheep into the midst of wolves, we were reminded last week. We are called to be the sheep, not the predators. We are to stop treating each other as tools to be manipulated and exploited for our own benefit but rather as beloved children of God. Jesus sends his disciples into the world in Matthew 10 with a message of love and welcome, and he knows from first-hand experience that it will not always be met with rejoicing but with rejection at times. It doesn’t matter—the message of God’s love MUST be carried forth anyway, in order to confront the powers of empire and fear head-on. And we can’t welcome Jesus’s message of salvation for ourselves
without first being willing to reflect that message on to others we meet. 

We are reminded of that call to practice what the Rev. Stephanie Spellers calls “radical hospitality” as we kneel for communion, and Jesus asks us to be his guests-- and also to be his hosts, by embracing the love by which he feeds us here at the altar rail regardless of the risks. As Jesus bids us welcome, all he asks of us is to carry his love for all out into our lives and to welcome everyone and love them, the poor, the sick, the stranger, the refugee, and especially those some would label as sinners.

Our savior, Love Incarnate, Living God, knocks at the doors of our hearts, and asks to come in and be made at home within us. To do that, he asks that little thing of turning against the economics of exploitation and fear, and turning toward the radical kingdom of love.

That’s all he asks. Just that little thing. 

 Too often we may tell ourselves that we are not good enough to do this, and so we may give ourselves permission to not even try. But—never forget: those disciples he called and sent out certainly weren’t perfect, and yet they have through a chain of witnesses passed on Jesus’s message of love, risk, service, and hospitality, and made it sound so good that billions of people have been willing to try to take on reflecting it in their own lives. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas offers us some words of comfort regarding our own self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness when he says,

“The undistinguished character of the disciples is a sign of hope for us who inherit their task, for it is surely right that the church understands itself to stand in the tradition of the apostles. To be an apostle is to be a messenger of and witness to Jesus…. Christianity is not a philosophy that can be learned separate from those who embody it. If the truth that is Christ is a truth that could be known ‘in principle’ then we would not need apostles. But the way of the gospel is known by one person being for another person the story of Christ.”

“The way of the gospel is known

by one person
being for another person
the story of Christ.”

Over. And over. And over.

Here’s the good news: Jesus doesn’t call the perfect, but he does work to perfect the called, if only we will let him in and get out of the way.

Each one of us can be that one person for someone else.

It starts with opening our hearts in welcome to the Spirit of God, and to the love of Christ. It starts with the precious gospel of love and grace that we have received, clasping it to our stubborn, sometimes ravaged hearts.

It starts with taking seriously the reminder the Rev. Becca Stevens has made into a song of praise when she sings out “Love heals.”
It starts with trusting just a little bit to let love take root within the center of our souls.
It means starting with having mercy on ourselves--and those around us.

The love and mercy of God’s radical welcome reflected within us leads us to ourselves and each other, and then gives us the courage to open our arms to embrace each other as God embraces us.


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