Sunday, June 26, 2011

Preach One: Proper 8A

I had forgotten that the last Saturday in June is the Tomato Festival in Crystal Springs.  "Peace, Love, Tomatoes" was this year's t-shirt!  I came home from Holy Trinity with a box full of fresh tomatoes and two jars of homemade muscadine jelly.

At St. Matthew's in Forest that evening, the talk was all about fresh South Carolina peaches, which a couple had just brought back from a car trip.  We had homemade peach ice cream after dinner (not with the fresh peaches, but still...yum!).

They brought my sermon to life, just by living as they always do...

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

When it comes to hospitality, Miss Manners takes her cue from us.  No one welcomes a guest like a Southerner, always ready with a cake or a glass of sweet tea or a really good story about way back when.  Our front porches are wide like the branches of our magnolias, and our speech is slow and deliberate, every syllable savored.  We love our graciousness as dearly as we love our grits.

Still, I needed a little help when it came time to welcome a guest of my own into our home.  My mom was coming to visit, and I wanted to be hospitable.  I found an old Martha Stewart magazine article about getting guest rooms ready.  Martha may be from New Jersey, but she knows a good thing when she sees it, and I studied the pictures in the article carefully.  I washed all the linens and fluffed the pillows.  I stacked extra blankets and towels on a chair in the corner.  I cleared the bedside table of everything except a few books I thought my mom might like, a new box of kleenex, and a clean glass for  water at night.  There was a space for her suitcase at the foot of the bed, empty hangers waited in the closet, and new lemon soap sat by the bathroom sink.

It was a lot more work than just making the bed and cleaning the bathroom, but I didn't mind - it made me happy to imagine ways to welcome my guest...ways to help her feel at home away from home.  My mom was delighted when she arrived, and being a good Southerner, she both thanked me for my hospitality and at the same time declared, "Oh, you didn't have to do all this!"

Southerners didn't invent hospitality, of course.  It is an ancient art.  Some of the oldest stories of our faith are about hospitality, about welcoming guests and extending kindness even to strangers navigating the deserts of the Near East.  Over and again, God urged our Hebrew ancestors to treat guests like family.  The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born, we read in Leviticus.  Love the other as yourself, for once you were strangers in Egypt.

Even long before Torah commanded compassion for travelers and other vulnerable persons, Abraham welcomed three strangers to his tent in the heat of the day, offering them food and drink and shade.  He did so not knowing that they would offer him the fulfillment of Gods promise that he and Sarah would have a child.  Host and hostess, opening their arms to traveling strangers, became recipients of God's amazing grace.

Long after Abraham and Sarah set the standard for hospitality, such that even Martha Stewart would have been impressed, Jesus prepared his disciples to go out with God's promise that the kingdom of heaven was near.  Proclaim the good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, he instructed them in verses at the start of the chapter we heard from today.  Cleanse the lepers, cast out demons...bring God's amazing grace everywhere you go...

They would be vulnerable; the disciples would need food and drink and shade; they would be utterly dependent on the kindnesses extended to them as strangers in guest rooms and households and communities not their own.  And while Jesus warned them that some people would not receive them with open arms but rather closed fists, he still expected his disciples to keep proclaiming all that they had come to know about God's kingdom.  It was the gracious thing to do.

And finally, Jesus said to them, Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes a prophet, a righteous person, even one of these little ones in the name of a disciple... In the three verses of today's gospel reading, the word welcome appears no less than six times, so that perhaps the disciples were heartened after hearing Jesus speak of the hospitality they might not be shown.

Still, the hospitality that Jesus considered sufficient must have seemed meager.  Whoever gives even a cup of cold water will receive their reward.  It's hardly a stack of fresh towels or clean sheets or a dish of fancy soaps.  Here in the South, though, we know, especially this blistering hot summer, just how extravagant a cup of cold water can be, how beyond merely refreshing it is, how it is life-giving, liquid grace.  In fact, acknowledging the significance of a cup of cold water, the Camp Bratton-Green t-shirt a few summers ago feathered a picture of the ice machine, the hum of whose motor in the heat of the day is the most hospitable sound I know.  Perhaps it would have been so in the deserts of the ancient Near East as well.

When it comes to hospitality, even Southerners have nothing on Jesus, the incarnate compassion and grace of God.  He did not simply offer the fulfillment of God's promise of life renewed and restored - he himself was that fulfillment.  He turned water into wine.  He fed thousands at a time.  He tended wounds.  He sat at bedsides.  He comforted weariness.  He invited strangers to follow.  He welcomed outcasts and sinners and all manner of guests who had been turned away at every other door, opening his arms that they might be recipients of God's grace, too.  Where Jesus was host, there was no stranger, no other.

"Oh, Jesus, you don't have to do all that," many would say, although without the grace and good manners of my mother.  "In fact, stop it.  Don't even bother," they would say, refusing to be welcomed, refusing to welcome him.  I have everything I need.  I can take care of myself.  Receiving hospitality can reveal our vulnerability, our dependence, our grief, our sorrow, our hurt, our sadness...whatever it is that makes us hunger, thirst, or long for shade.  If we admit our need, we admit our weakness.

But it is God's nature to be hospitable, no matter how we resist.  God provides, Abraham learned when atop Moriah God's grace proved more powerful even than Abraham's obedience.  God provides, the disciples and all who have since welcomed Jesus learned when atop the cross God's grace proved even more powerful than our sin, even than darkness, even than death.  God provides, we learn, if we are willing to open our arms and be provided for, when we welcome the hospitality of another and find that in doing so we have been recipients not just of a casserole or a cup of cold water but of God's amazing grace.

Or do we, like the disciples before us, need a reminder of how it is out there in the world, where we, too, are sent to proclaim the good news of God's kingdom?  Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, Jesus said.  Wherever we go, whomever we encounter, however wide we open our arms, whatever gestures of kindness we make, large or small, whenever we gratefully accept the kindness of another, Jesus is with us.  Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age, he promised us in last week's gospel.  So it is that, as people received into the household of God, welcomed into Christ's body, marked as Christ's own forever, we bring Jesus with us, we offer Jesus to others, simply by bringing and offering ourselves.

"Every guest is Christ," mused Saint Brigid of Kildare, fifth century founder of monasteries in Ireland, known for the hospitality especially toward pilgrims and other wandering strangers.  Joan Gale Thomas, twentieth century author of children's books, wondered what it would be like to receive Christ as guest in  a book I would place on any guest's bedside table.  "If Jesus came to my house," muses Thomas, writing in a child's voice.  "If Jesus came to my house and knocked upon the door, I'm sure I'd be more happy than I've ever been before... I'd run downstairs to meet him, the door I'd open wide, and I would say to Jesus, 'Oh, won't you come inside?'"  The story goes on to describe all the marvelous things Jesus and his host would do together during that visit...have tea, play with toys, pick apples, explore the hallways of the house (especially the ones that are scary at night...with Jesus the host can be brave).  The child's imagined hospitality toward his guest is generous and joyful.

Every guest is Christ.  So is every host, for Christ is both.  So do we all bear Christ within us, revealed in acts of hospitality, of welcoming the other, of receiving welcome, and discovering not a stranger but a fellow traveler in God's kingdom, in need, as we all are, of food and water and shade.  In need, as we all are, of healing and forgiveness and salvation.  In need, as we all are, of love and mercy and grace.  Hospitality is an ancient art, but ever since God in Christ came to our house, it is an art we are invited to practice not out of obligation but, rather, gratitude.  How will we extend the welcome that we have received?  How wide will we open our doors?  How vulnerable will we make ourselves both in giving and in receiving?  How will we see Christ even in those we only stranger?

"I know the little Jesus can never call on me in the way that I've imagined, like coming in to tea," Thomas writes.  "But I can go to His house and kneel and say a prayer, and I can sing and worship Him and talk with Him in there.  And though He may not occupy my cozy rocking chair, a lot of other people would be happy sitting there.  And I can make Him welcome as He himself has said, by doing all I would for Him for other folk instead."

The question, then, is not what would Jesus do but rather what will I do because of all that Jesus has done for me?  Because of amazing grace?  Some days it will be all we can do to offer a cup of cold water to another, but in doing so, we will have shared Christ.  Some days it will be all we can do to receive a cup of cold water from another, but in doing so, we will have received Christ.  Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  When Jesus comes to our house, as friend, as guest, as host, as vulnerable, as wounded, as generous, as compassionate, may we have the grace to say with gratitude, "Welcome home."  Amen.

Artwork: (paintings only) "Glass of Water," by Kellie Marian Hill; Unknown; "Glass of Water II," by Jorg Zenker; "Water Glass," by Laurel Daniel.


Cathy said...

Thank you, Jennifer, for sweet memories and encouraging challenges.

mississippi artist said...

Thanks for the nice compliment about us at St.Matt. We enjoyed having Charlie last night, it is always nice to have children amongst us old folks!