Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Mission of Hospitality

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year A

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In our gospel lesson today, Jesus talks about hospitality.

When I hear the word “hospitality” I think of front doors with welcome mats, a glass of cold ice-tea (with sugar in it of course), and people welcoming neighbors who are new to the neighborhood. These are the images that come to my mind when I think of “hospitality”.

Hospitality refers to the relationship between a guest and a host, with the host offering generous and cordial reception towards the guest. Hospitality in the ancient middle-east was more than mere politeness, it was crucial and expected. The desert and arid land of the Middle East was a very harsh environment. The ability to receive water, food, and shelter could be the difference between life and death for travelers. Numerous passages in the Old Testament tell the Israelites to treat strangers and resident aliens well, as they themselves were once foreigners in Egypt.

I think that it is fitting that this week’s gospel follows the one from last week. Last Sunday, our gospel reading (Matthew 28:16-20) was the great commission. Jesus told his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Jesus sent his disciples out as representatives of himself – to preach the gospel that Jesus preached, to teach the lessons Jesus taught, and to baptize in the name of the Triune God knowing that Jesus is with them. The disciples were individuals, but they represented something greater than themselves – Jesus Christ.

Our culture is very individualistic. I think that there are definitely some good things to say about recognizing that people are individuals – people have different aspirations, desires, motivations, likes and dislikes. But as with all good things – you can take it too far. Individualism taken too far becomes selfishness and it isolates us from one another, it fails to recognize that we are part of a greater whole – we belong to groups of people in families, friendships, communities. And rightly or wrongly, what a few people do can reflect poorly on the larger group.

For example, some time ago I went on a cruise that stopped in Cozumel, Mexico. The ship docked, and you could come and go all day down a long pier. There were some people in those bicycle taxi things – where someone rides a bike and pulls a small compartment along with them. There were some young drunk guys who started shouting racial slurs and making fun of one of the young Mexican taxi drivers, and those American men even went so far as the shake the compartment around, and there were two older women inside who looked frightened. Looking at those guys from the cruise ship, I could see that they were drunk and they probably didn’t want to actually physically hurt someone. But I wondered what it looked like to that Mexican man and other Mexicans who saw what was going on. We were tourists, visiting their country. I was ashamed that those drunk men were a part of my group of tourists visiting, they were just a few but they made the rest of us look bad.

I think of those people from the Westboro Baptist Church who go around protesting military funerals with horrible signs about God hating people – we Christians know that those people are not true followers of Christ. But they call themselves Christians, and you have to wonder what non-Christians think. When people of other religions and people who are atheist or non-theist see people who call themselves Christians and do such hateful things – do the outsiders know that these are a few bad apples or do they think that the whole bushel is rotten? Some people have judged all of Islam for the actions of a small number of extremists. So I’m sure that some people will judge Christianity for the actions of our extremists as well if we don’t make it clear that they are not part of our group.

What we say and do matters, because it reflects not only upon ourselves but it also reflects upon the groups and communities that we belong to. The ancient world understood this, for them identity was strongly tied to family and community. When a disciple was offered hospitality and welcomed into someone’s home, it was as if they were in fact welcoming and receiving Christ’s presence into their home.

It is not easily apparent who is Christian; because we do not carry large neon signs that say “I’m a Christian.” That kind of anonymity can make things easy for us, but not necessarily in a good way. I’ve thought about putting a Christian bumper sticker on my car, but I’ve worried what people will think if I drive badly. Well, maybe putting a bumper sticker on my car would encourage me to be more mindful when I drive. Maybe acting as if we have neon signs that labels us Christians to the rest of the world would encourage us all to be more mindful of what we say and do.

When I was a child, my Dad used to tell me about the early church, and about the persecutions when it was illegal to be a Christian. And then Dad would say that we must always ask ourselves a question, “If it were still illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Good question. I think we ought to live lives that would give ample evidence to convict us.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, we represent Christ to the world.

Saint Teresa of Avila once said:

"Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now."

If we see ourselves as representatives of Christ, then we think about how what we do and what we say might reflect upon Him. If we see ourselves as the vehicles through which Christ acts in the world – Christ’s hands and feet – then we believe that not only what we say and do matters but that it has power to do great good in the world.

Jesus gives us the same command as he gave his disciples – to go into the world, wherever we might find ourselves, and tell the good news of the gospel, to teach and baptize. We are Jesus’ representatives in the world, and also a means by which Jesus acts in the world. The church has a mission, each of us has a mission because together we are the church. Our collective mission is to represent Christ to the world, to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I pray that what we say and do will overwhelm the world with proof that we are true disciples of Jesus Christ and that He is here with us always, to the end of the age. Amen.