A Sermon delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Charleston, WV
on 6/29/2014 and based on Matthew 10:34-42
Have you ever felt excited and happy - and terrified at the same time?
I know I have! We used to live north of Chicago, not too far from Six Flags Great America theme park in Gurnee, Illinois. Whenever we went there, we’d immediately head for the latest and greatest ride. Currently, the park boasts the world’s tallest, steepest and fastest wooden roller coaster. Here’s a picture of it.
Here are some other things that are exciting and scary at the same time.
A Wedding: (Cindy and I in 1977!)
Having a baby (Me with daughter Leah in 1979)
Giving the car keys to your teenage daughter: (Leslie in 200?)
And that’s how I feel about our practicing our subject for today. I’m excited about it, and even blessed when I actually do it, but if I really think about it gives me pause, to say the least.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, it involves the word ‘Receive’, from our text in Matthew 10:40,41: "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. the one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward."
There are two Greeks words for ‘receive’ in play here. The first is ‘Dechomai’ (de kohm a he) – to Give Access to someone – as a visitor. It also includes the idea of Hospitality, or welcoming someone – especially a stranger.
The second is ‘lEpsetai’ (Lepset a He) – to obtain or to get.
So the sense of the text is ‘the one who grants access or hospitality… shall obtain or get the reward…
This passage always puts me in mind of the Shunamite woman in
2 Kings 4:8-10. She noticed that the prophet Elisha frequented her neighborhood and because there weren't any Holiday Inns at the time, she used her wealth to build a room in her house specifically devoted to the prophet’s use. She received the prophet’s reward: namely the gift of a child. God blessed her with a son after years of barrenness. And when her son fell ill and died, God also blessed her by reviving the boy and bringing her son back from the dead.
This story points to our experience with Jesus. We too can receive the ‘prophet’ – Jesus Christ – in to our home, our heart, and our reward is to receive a Son – and then also to receive him back from death –presaging our own resurrection life in Christ. But we can also ‘receive the prophet’ by recognizing him in other people – any other people, not just the prophet or righteous people.
One of my heroes of the faith, St. Benedict of Nursia, thought long and hard about receiving people and he wrote some very specific instructions to his followers about how to live it out. Listen to this passage from the Rule of Benedict (RB) chapter 53: On the Reception of Guests…
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received Me"
Benedict also bases his instruction on another passage from Matthew (Matt. 25:35 – 40), that contains a very similar idea to our reading today: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me...Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
Based on these verses, Benedict writes that: “In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.”(RB ch53)
Jesus is to be recognized in the person of the guest at the door – especially the poor guest. Benedict again: “In the reception of the poor, and of pilgrims, the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received…”!
Can you imagine hearing a knock on your door and opening up to see a bedraggled and suspicious looking person standing there? – And then bowing down in adoration of Christ standing there at the door?!
If you’re like me, your first instinct would likely be to call the police instead!
Anglican writer Esther deWaal comments on this aspect Benedict’s version of Hospitality:
“The Rule presents no abstract or remote theological treatise on God and his mysteries. Instead it is pervaded with the idea of sacramental encounter with Christ in the circumstances of everyday life and in material things, but most particularly in people. (Seeking God, the Way of St. Benedict by Esther deWaal, pg. 115)
Remember, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality – and a sure and certain means of grace. What we see outwardly is a sign of a deeper spiritual reality – in this case, the basic reality that Christ took on human flesh and dwelt among us. To receive a guest, then, is to practice the reality of the Incarnation, the Presence of Christ in our everyday life – even in the person who doesn’t look much like Christ.
There is an echo here of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging in Bethlehem. As we open our door to the stranger, we are making room for Jesus at the ‘inn’. See what I mean about exciting and scary at the same time?
Some Provocative Definitions of Hospitality
So, having considered a brief theology of Hospitality, let’s think about some other definitions, or aspects of Hospitality:
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and a noted commenter on the Rule of Benedict. Here are a couple of her thoughts about the nature of Hospitality.
[slide] “Hospitality is the willingness to be interrupted and inconvenienced so that others can get on with their lives as well…[it] is an act of the recklessly generous heart (Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, pg. 131,132)
A recklessly generous heart! What would it be like to live that out?
Perhaps we have a Biblical example in Abraham and Sarah, who entertained angels in their tent and received the message that they would be parents of Isaac, the son of Promise. (Gen. 18).
Another example would be Mary, who received the angel Gabriel’s message that she would become the mother of Jesus with the hospitable words, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
This is how you receive Jesus - with a recklessly generous and open heart!
Here’s an example of an open and generous reception:
In May of 2000, the Russian Orthodox Holy Cross Hermitage moved from St. Louis to Wayne, WV. Cindy and I read about this in the newspaper, and one Sunday evening when we were taking a drive out in the country, we decided to try to find the monastery. We couldn’t remember where it was, so we went to the local Wal-Mart and asked at the service desk if they knew where we could find the Hermitage. “Oh, yeah”, said the lady at the desk. “Those guys come in here all the time!” And she promptly told us how to find the monks.
The Monks of Holy Cross Hermitage, Wayne, WV.
When we got there, we gingerly knocked at the door of the double-wide trailer that served as the kitchen and dining hall, and the Abbot, Fr. Seraphim, greeted us warmly, told us that they were having ice cream sundaes, and promptly invited us in to have some! I don’t think I've ever had such a warm or incongruous welcome in my life.
As Joan Chittister observes: “Honor, courtesy and love are the hallmarks …for hospitality of the heart (RB 52 Chittister, Wisdom from the Daily, (WDD)pg. 127).
This practice of hospitality requires us”…to pour ourselves out for the other, to give ourselves away, to provide the staples of life, both material and spiritual for one another. (Chittister, WDD pg. 123).
Just by way of contrast, though, here’s a story about what it looks like when the practice of Incarnational hospitality fails:
Kathleen Norris is a Presbyterian lay woman and a Benedictine oblate, or associate member, who has spent much time with the monks of Blue Cloud Abbey in North Dakota. She relates how one time, a friend of hers went to a Benedictine monastery for a retreat and was at the visitor center asking one of the monks some questions. The monk was short with her and finally said to her, in an exasperated tone, “I don’t have time for this; we’re trying to run a monastery here!”
He had missed the point completely. Receiving guests is absolutely fundamental to running a monastery. Even as Benedict himself matter-of-factly states: “A monastery is never without guests RB 53).
Fortunately the monk came back the next day and apologized profusely to the woman. He had finally gotten the message, even if somewhat late.
As we see from this example, if we are open to receiving Christ in every person, this may cause inconvenience. John L’Heureux (‘loh-row’) expresses this challenge in his poem,
“The Trouble with Epiphanies”:
Christ came into my room
And stood there
And I was bored to death.
I had work to do.
I wouldn’t have minded If he’d been [handicapped] or something –
I do well with [the handicapped]
– but he just stood there, all face,
And with that [darned] guitar.
I didn’t ask him to sit down:
He’d have stayed all day.
(Let’s be honest. You can be crucified just so often;
Then you’ve had it. I mean you’re useless;
no good To God, let alone to anybody else. )
So I said to him after a while –
Well, what’s up? What do you want?
And he laughed, stupid,
Said he was just passing by
And thought he’d say hello.
Great, I said, hello.
So he left.
And I was so [… ]mad
I couldn’t even listen to the radio…
And got some coffee.
The trouble with Christ is he always comes at the wrong time!
(In Monk Habits for Everyday People, by Dennis Okholm, pgs 87, 88 )
Yes, indeed, He always shows up at the ‘wrong’ time. But the Scripture tells us that ‘in the fullness of time’ God sent forth His Son …(Gal. 4:4,5)
and ‘at the right time’ Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). God’s timing is always just right, even when it seems wrong to us and we can’t control it! I saw a great poster the other day, shared by a friend on Facebook. There’s a wonderful, tranquil picture of a person sitting on the beach, with the caption:
“Relax, nothing is under control! “
To be a people who truly welcome Christ in others, we must realize we are not in control – not of our lives, our homes, our calendars, or our deaths. Therefore, we should relax and entrust ourselves to the tender mercies of God, put up our Christ-detecting radar and await His visitation.
But here’s where it gets scary. If Christ comes to my door one at a time, I’ll be inconvenienced...or worse! And what if he comes by the trainload? – and keeps on coming day after day, train after train?
If I am too welcoming, I may become overwhelmed. Benedict recognized this and provided for a ‘Guestmaster’ to regulate the interactions of monks and guests to preserve the order and stability of the monastery and not allow it to be overrun with the demands of guests. Hospitality and good order can and must coincide.
But despite the dangers, what are the Rewards of Hospitality?
Kathleen Norris writes that “Benedictines often tell me they receive so much from their guests that they could never repay it, and many guests feel the same way about the hospitality they receive" (Norris, Amazing Grace, pg. 266).
Opening ourselves to others often provides a unique experience that enriches our lives and leaves us feeling blessed and challenged.
Dennis Okholm, a protestant College professor, tells of spending a week at a Benedictine monastery with a group of six of his students. At one point, the students were invited to participate in giving their reflections on the readings at the evening Mass – in itself a gracious act of hospitality.
At the end of the week, the Abbot said to the assembled community, “We need to thank these students for coming to us. By their presence in our midst they have challenged us to examine ourselves to see whether or not we live the life we profess.” (Monk Habits for Everyday People, pg. 83, Dennis Okholm).
So, there are two questions to ask in our practice of receiving the guest:
1) Did we see Christ in them?
2) Did they see Christ in Us?
The ‘gift’ of the stranger – the ‘reward of the prophet’ may be the challenge to examine ourselves: Do we live the life we profess?
This applies not only in our private lives, but in our corporate practice as a worshiping and fellowshiping community.
The metaphor of family is important to us as Christians, but often this same way of thinking about ourselves as the Church is oriented towards the nuclear family; those who are single or widowed or without a spouse may not feel as if we are truly welcoming to their needs. The visitor may or may not feel welcome. Therefore, we as the church need to seriously think about how we receive people of all situations in life.
This is not easy for us, because we tend to create a comfortable nest and to gravitate towards those like ourselves. When the stranger, the person unlike us, enters our midst it challenges us to see past the outward appearance, to see Christ, and make Him welcome. This always requires us to look beyond the outward appearance to our common humanity and to remind ourselves that we are made in His image and when we welcome the Other, we welcome Him.
Let me also make a suggestion about Receiving Christ in Communion.
As you hold out your hands to receive the bread, make a cradle to receive the newborn Christ. Think too about what Theodore of Mopsuestia said. Writing in 350 AD, in Homily XV, Theodore wrote, '...do not approach with hands extended and fingers open wide. Rather make of your left hand a throne, for your right as it is about to receive your King, and receive the Body of Christ in the fold of your hand, responding, 'Amen.'
So - - - receive Christ the King, your Savior, come to you as a child in the manger, as you partake of the bread of heaven. Welcome him with a hospitable and open heart as he comes to you in worship, but also as he will visit you tomorrow and every day in the form of other people –and obtain the reward of the prophet: Salvation, peace, and openness to change and growth in scary – but exciting encounters with the Risen Christ. AMEN.