Whom Ought I Welcome?, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 2, 2017

Proper 8

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

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”

Just so we get this straight: whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes your friend or neighbor or family member or work colleague or elected official or mother-in-law or next door neighbor or chatty seat companion on an airplane or vendor at the state fair or grocery checker or barber or the UPS driver or the kid who hit your new car with a soccer ball…and so on and so forth…welcomes God? We could have fun with this! But would there ever be an end to such a list of those who are welcome? If there is an end to such a list of who is welcome, what does this mean? And if not, well- what does that mean?

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. And whoever welcomes any one of us welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.

The message we hear in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew was important enough to Jesus and to the early church that some variation on this theme shows up in each gospel, and often more than once. Also in Matthew’s gospel from chapter 18 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” and from chapter 25 “The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, …you did it to me.’” Mark includes similar verses. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares that “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The Jesus in John’s gospel, in true poetic style, declares in chapter 13 “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

There are numerous other examples and variations throughout the New Testament record. The bottom line emphasis seems to be on inclusion, reciprocity, welcome and doing for others—all those things it takes to build up community, to include the stranger as neighbor. If we can believe the record of today’s lesson and so many other passages, Jesus and the early disciples and later apostles put a high value on welcoming and proclaiming the presence of God thereby.

Pause for a moment and think about what we’ve been hearing through all the election drama and to the present day about division, exclusion, keeping people separated, kicking people out.

There may be legitimate and compelling reasons to consider the economic impact or national safety issues in such things, but if an inhospitable, exclusive attitude goes along with these ideas, then they are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality.

Hospitality is a primary ethic of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East even now. Whether one is brought into a family home of Muslims, Christians or Jews, there is joy in welcoming, there is the belief that it is desired of God, the welcoming of strangers who are strangers no longer, but beloved friends, believing that in welcoming people into one’s home they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do in welcoming the living God among us.

Such an understanding of hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates back to well before the time of Jesus. It was a matter of survival and community health which translated into the religious understanding of what God wants of us. Where and how do we experience such welcome today?

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’”

Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and repudiation?

So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the world stage and in the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in a variety of television shows with comments about the increase in bullying not only among children in our schools, but flowing out into our neighborhoods, showing up in stepped-up immigration strictures and deportation raids, among other things.

Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him?

This Sunday falls between two other occasions marked on the Church calendar: the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul last Thursday, and our celebration of American Independence on the Fourth of July on Tuesday.

It is important to note this for a number of reasons. First, think about Peter and Paul. They did not agree on many things, didn’t get along at all, and finally went their separate ways in the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter insisted that the early believers must follow Jewish ways, must be circumcised, must hold to the Law. Paul’s vision led him to distant lands proclaiming faith in a risen Christ and urging believers to conform their lives to that faith. What they had in common, though, was the conviction that God had visited humanity in Jesus, and that Jesus had brought something new and remarkable to humankind demonstrated in a way to live, a way to relate and a way to witness to God’s love. And they both understood that the welcome of God was an invitation to a place in God’s kingdom.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, and as we sing God Bless America, and as we roast hot dogs and hamburgers and marvel at fireworks and the good ol’ red, white and blue, let us also ask ourselves what Jesus meant in telling us over and over again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).

We may believe differently about the details of faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians are wont to do. We may understand civic responsibility differently; Americans have always held a variety of opinions on things.

But for us as Christian Americans or American Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes? For we are Christians first, as citizens of God’s kingdom, living that faith in an American context of privilege and challenge.

Jesus didn’t say that we have to agree on everything, but he pretty clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as Americans, we will stand proudly to celebrate on the Fourth. When we put all that together, one possible outcome is that we may have to agree to disagree on some aspects of American policy as we live our Christian faith in daily practice.

Christian people are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. Can we at least agree on that?

As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. AMEN.

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world. She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost.

God of Vengeance or God of Love?, 3 Pentecost, Proper 8 (A) – 2014

June 29, 2014

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

We have in today’s readings some very difficult texts.

First, the frightening passage from Genesis, where God tests Abraham. The idea that God would demand that Abraham sacrifice his own son is so terrifying to us that the compilers of our lectionary removed this passage from its more prominent position as part of the Good Friday liturgy. It raises many questions – difficult questions – including who would want to worship a God who makes such outrageous demands?

Then, we have Psalm 13: “Will you forget me for ever, O God?” As we sing this psalm, are we to have perplexity in our minds and grief in our hearts? Are we to cower in fright because our enemy triumphs over us again and again? The psalm does go on to express trust in God, but, honestly, who wants to deal with a God who hides his face from us?

And the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a treatise on sin. The Blessed Apostle depicts sin as the opposite of obedience to God. Our catechism refers to sin as distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation – that’s not exactly the same thing. Because obedience to God, well, that takes us back to the first lesson – and who wants to be obedient to a God who makes such outrageous demands?

Author Phyllis Tribble has referred to biblical passages such as this as “texts of terror.”

But, like it or not, these are part of our sacred scripture, facets of the God revealed to us in the Holy Bible.

For most of us in the Episcopal Church – and even the wider Anglican Communion – ignoring these texts is something of a lifelong devotional practice. It is far, far easier to look away than to confront the painful reality of such texts of terror, isn’t it?

But we are challenged to reconcile the violence in the Bible with the idea of a loving God, and so we tend to concentrate more on the many passages where God is depicted as loving, as nurturing, as caring.

And, fortunately, the scales are tipped from violence to love in the transition from the Old Testament to the New.

The gospels and the New Testament are not entirely devoid of violence, but – on the whole – they depict a God of love much more than a God of vengeance.

The opposite is true of the Old Testament. It’s full of violence – much like the world in which we live.

Regardless of how much or how little violence there is in our biblical narrative week by week, we struggle with it.

Even in today’s gospel passage, Jesus is hardly unconditionally affirming. Let’s examine that more closely.

He speaks of rewards – for prophets, for the righteous. And he speaks of people who lose their reward.

If the reward is eternal life, who wouldn’t be concerned about losing that? And doesn’t it make us scared to think we could lose it?

And the passages right before today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel have even more terrifying concerns: about sending us out like sheep into the midst of wolves, about being flogged, about being persecuted, and about losing our life for Christ’s sake so that we can find it. Jesus also says that whoever denies him before others, he also will deny before God in heaven. Ouch.

But Jesus also says, paraphrasing slightly, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me … and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, these will definitely have their reward.”

Maybe that’s what we should concentrate on: welcome.

Not fear, not violence, not vengeance – but welcome, acceptance and love.

The world has had enough of retribution.

The world has had enough of aggression.

The world has had enough of terror.

And the Bible’s had more than its fair share of all of these – because the Bible is about the journey of humankind almost as much as it is about God.

So, maybe one lesson to learn from all this is about free will: your choice, my choice, our choice.

Because we are all created in the image of God, we are free to make choices.

Free to choose love, free to create, free to live in harmony, free to reason.

And there’s a flip side to that: We are also free to hate, free to kill, free to foster discord, and free to deny the good sense given us.

Abraham could have said, “No, I will not sacrifice my only son!” to God, but he chose to be obedient. And God spares Isaac.

The psalmist could have cried, “I don’t trust you, O God,” but instead choses to praise God. And God responds with saving help.

Paul could have insisted that “we should sin because are no longer under the law,” but instead proclaims our true freedom in righteousness. And God gives us the free gift of eternal life.

It makes you wonder: If we get all these blessings for behaving badly, how much must God love us?

The answer, of course, is infinitely, without bounds, reservation or qualification of any kind.

God loves us enough to overlook our wrongdoings.

God loves us enough to pardon our offenses.

God loves us enough to forgive.

And, so, how are we to respond? With hatred, malice, fear and prejudice? Or with love, forgiveness, mercy and faith?

The answer is clear.

We are given a choice. It’s up to each and every one of us, each and every day we live.

We can seek to oppress and control others, to amass power and wealth and to serve the demons of this world.

Or we can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

We can affirm the goodness of creation – as told in the creation story in Genesis.

And, following the teaching of Jesus, we can welcome the stranger – offering not just hospitality but acceptance without judgment, giving without obligation and love without condition.

It’s a choice.

So let us choose life. Let us choose justice. Let us choose to offer a cup of cold water to one of those little ones in the name of God.

Let us put our trust in God’s mercy; and our hearts will be joyful because of God’s saving help. We will sing to the Holy One, who has dealt with us richly; through our ongoing choice for good, we will praise the Name of God Most High.

 

— Barrie Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montclair, N.J. 

Click here to download a large-print PDF of this sermon.

We always have a choice, Proper 8 (A) – 2011

June 26, 2011

Genesis 22:1-14 and Psalm 13 (Track 2: Jeremiah 28:5-9 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18)Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

“The wages of sin is death.” Pulled out of the context of the majestic letter to the church in Rome, this short statement sounds ominous; we have all sinned, according to the same letter. If we read this standing by itself, we might conclude that there is no hope for us.

Or we begin to justify ourselves. We try to imagine what we’ve done that deserves the death penalty, and can’t come up with anything – and so we choose to ignore this statement, assuming it’s for someone else.

Part of the truth is that Paul is writing to someone else. This letter was written to a specific church, in the first century, by someone who probably never imagined that Christians in a far-distant place and time would be reading his words and looking for good news in them.

Another part of the truth is that we owe the author the respect of reading his words with attention to the context in which they were written. Paul did not write “the wages of sin is death,” and never say anything else. These words appear in the context of a whole piece of writing, in which Paul writes a thorough examination of his theology of grace, to a church he has never visited.

A third part of the truth is that Christians have, for centuries, affirmed the work of the Holy Spirit in this letter, and therefore, we believe that it has good news in it for us.

If we treat this letter with care, looking at its original context and reading the whole case Paul is making, we don’t need to avoid the parts that make us uncomfortable and skim the “good parts” off the top.

In Paul’s writing, the concept of “sin” is tied closely to his sense of the general state of human life for two categories of people: those who have tried to live under the Law of Moses – that is, his own people – and those who have worshipped other gods. Both these groups have the opportunity to affirm instead the hope of new life, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This letter is written to people who have more experience with worshipping other gods, or worshipping no god at all, before hearing the good news of Jesus. To them, Paul writes that those who choose to follow their appetites wherever they may lead are engaged in sin; those who choose to die to their old ways and be born anew are accepting the free gift of God, the grace that changes everything.

To those who have spent years sitting in the pews of the church, this might sound like old news. God’s gift of Jesus and the life-changing power of grace that comes to us through him is basic stuff. It is basic; but more than that, it’s fundamental, meaning it’s a concept on which we build the life of faith, the practices that feed us, and the self-examination that challenges us. We are never free from the need to look closely at the lives we are living right now, to see if we are choosing behaviors that lead to death.

Most of us feel fairly well-insulated from the kind of sins that we imagine require punishment. The pews of our churches are full of nice people, even good people, with good intentions and the occasional brilliant program to love and serve our neighbors. The consequences of many of our actions are actually life-giving, flowing from our sense of God’s grace and its availability to everyone.

Perhaps, though, we are operating with too narrow a definition of “sin” and “death.” If you kill someone, you have sinned, and the consequences of your actions may well be literal, physical death for you, as a punishment, depending on where you live. But there is death, too, when a life is lived without regard for God’s deep love for oneself, for others, and for creation itself. “Death” isn’t just punishment for sin; it’s a way of being in the world that contributes to diminishment of life for others.

We are called to careful examination of our entire range of behaviors. There is more than one way to do harm. In our time, one of the simplest ways to do harm is simply to fail to pay attention. Where do your clothes come from? How far did your food travel before it reached you? Are you aware of where your water comes from? Whose labor is involved? How is the planet affected by your choices? Do you cut people off when you’re driving? How do you treat your money? These are all choices with real consequences for the earth and for other people.

If we behave as though our entire stay on earth is an opportunity to purchase and consume and make money, we have missed the point entirely. If we assume that our desires take precedence over the needs of other people, other countries, or other species, we have failed completely to understand God’s love and grace.

But perhaps far more important in this entire discussion is the second half of Paul’s sentence: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” We are not just talking about living a moral life in order to avoid punishment. We are talking about two completely contrasting ways of living: there’s a life that has only negative consequences, because there are only selfish and negative behaviors, with no purpose or moral compass; and there’s a life shining with possibility, a life of growth and movement, a life that touches other lives with joy – because of the presence in that life of God’s grace. This is the life God wants for each one of us. God’s grace is available in everyone’s life; our choices invite grace in, or keep grace on the outside.

Paul is working up to his comprehensive statements about God’s grace and love, coming up in Chapter 8. He wants to be clear at this point that his readers understand the basic need we all have for grace; it’s part of the basic design.

Paul says, “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” This is far more glorious than merely avoiding the commission of sins in order to avoid the negative consequences! Paul says that we can be much more than sin-avoiders, people afraid to make any choice lest it prove to be the wrong one; we can be righteousness-enacters, agents for God’s agenda of grace and love. We can do the things that Jesus did, because we have access to God’s Spirit. We can feed people. We can bring healing to people whose lives have been turned upside down because of personal tragedy or natural disasters. We can teach. We can make the earth greener, our neighborhoods safer; we can welcome the stranger and nurture our children. We can do these things by presenting ourselves to God, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient to begin and continue the work of resurrection in us.

We always have a choice about where we will put our energy and allegiance. If we make no choice except to sit in front of the television, that’s still a choice. The glory of God’s grace and love is that whatever choices we make, we are given an opportunity every day to imagine God’s kingdom, enact God’s love, and do everything in our power to bring God’s grace into every day, into every choice we make, for the good of the world God loves beyond imagining.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

How is God testing you?, Proper 8 (A) – 2008

June 29, 2008

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

Today we read a story that can chill one’s soul, especially a parent’s. However, if we focus only on the topic of parent and child, and the emotional and precious quality of that relationship, we lose the profound heart of what the story of Abraham and Isaac is really about.

The Book of Genesis contains the Abraham cycle, a group of stories between chapters 12-22 about Abraham’s call, journey, and relationship with God. The entire cycle is worth reading at one sitting. It takes us into a life that seems hopeless, is filled with promise, results in a journey that is full of dangers and Abraham’s folly – at one point he betrays Sarah rather than admit to Pharaoh that she is his wife – and concludes with this monumental account of a genuine test, one in which even God does not know the outcome.

The entire cycle of Abraham stories is about a covenant. Early on, God chose Abraham. The question is, will Abraham choose God? And that is the elemental question facing each of us. God chose us, long ago. Yet, like the psalmist in today’s psalm, we often ask, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

God still challenges us as God challenged Abraham. Everyday we are beset with perplexing questions: Why do natural disasters kill so many people? Why are hatred and terrorism such dire threats in our world? Why are economic forces beyond our control forcing us to cut back, go without, or cause others to lose jobs and be hungry? These may not be as personalized as Abraham’s test with Isaac, but they are tests nevertheless. And God does want to know where we stand. God has chosen us. Will we choose God?

Today in the church calendar is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, but it is transferred to tomorrow, since Sunday’s lectionary takes precedence. These two apostles are examples to us of people who chose God, despite adversity in their lives. Peter, having denied Jesus three times, now becomes the articulate preacher proclaiming the Good News of Jesus. Paul, who had persecuted Christians with great rigor, now confesses Jesus as Lord and goes to the ends of the known world to proclaim the Good News. God chose these people; and in the end they chose him. A covenant bond existed between them, a bond so strong that nothing – not persecution, prison, shipwreck – could break it.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is the conclusion of a great story about ordinary people invited by God to do extraordinary things in God’s plan. It seems the invitation always comes with a test: will those invited say yes?

Now, a word about today’s Gospel from Matthew. Anyone, it seems, can be welcoming. But righteous people who welcome are the ones in whom God is interested. Righteous people are the ones who give cold water, not out of duty, or because it’s fairly easy, but because they truly love God who gives us all things. Jesus has been teaching us this all through the readings from Matthew this month. Righteous people are not “holier than thou.” They are people in a covenant relationship with God. They are tested, and they have said yes, often many times.

In Jerusalem there is a memorial park to remember non-Jews who protected and helped Jews to escape the Holocaust. Each person is remembered with a tree and plaque. They are sometimes called the Righteous Ones. That is because, chosen by God, they said yes, even when they knew they might lose their lives by doing so. They knew, as Abraham did, that God always keeps promises.

How is God testing you? God has already chosen you. Now God wants to know, will you choose God?

 

— Ben Helmer is an Episcopal priest, currently serving the congregations of the Episcopal Church in Micronesia. He and his wife live on Guam.