Text: Matthew 10:40-42
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 7-2-2017)
Our house in Alexandria, Virginia was full to overflowing. The average age at this dinner party was 19, with a few guests several years younger and a couple as old as 24. It took all my concentration to follow the conversation, because though all the guests were speaking English, it was English tinted with a lovely Northern Ireland brogue. This group of young Irish men and women had come to the D.C. area for an international Habitat build and were sponsored by an interreligious peacebuilding association.
All our guests had grown up in and around Belfast. Many had come from troubled family backgrounds and they had agreed to travel to the U.S. to build a Habitat for Humanity house. Prior to the trip, they had been informed that they would be working across Catholic-Protestant lines. What they did not realize was that the group gathered in our house represented an equal number of Catholic and Protestant men and women.
Soon after Jennell and I had been introduced and thanked as the American hosts for the evening, the ice started to wear thin. A young Protestant woman casually said, “I can spot a Catholic two hundred yards away.”
“Can you now?” responded one of the young Catholic males.
“Absolutely,” she said.
At this point, the casual chit chat stopped and no one missed the next words that were spoken.
The young Catholic man said, “Funny, because I can spot a Protestant three hundred yards away.”
A chill fell over the room and the director of the program knew that it was time for him to speak. He challenged this room full of Irish Catholic and Protestant youth to use the next six weeks to move beyond their stereotypes and to extend hospitality to those they had learned to hate since childhood. He told them that hospitality is not an offer to come to our place and to be like us; hospitality is an invitation to share with and to learn from those who are altogether different from us.
At the beginning of the evening, I thought that practicing hospitality would not be much of a hill for this group to climb. After all, everyone in the room grew up within 50 miles of each other, had the same skin complexion, had a similar diet, knew similar songs, and spoke with the same lovely brogue. It did not take long before I realized that for this group to practice hospitality to and beyond themselves would not be a leisurely hike up a little hill, but a hard climb up a treacherous mountain path.
Thank God that we do not engage in such silly, hurtful, inhospitable, discriminatory behavior in the U.S.; certainly not here at Cove. After all, we are a congregation where everyone is welcome. We say so on our new website that will premier later this week! You are welcome here if you a biblical creationist and believe in a literal interpretation of the first creation story in Genesis and deny any form of human related climate change, or are you? You are welcome here if you think the death penalty is a great idea and a necessary deterrent, or are you? You are welcome here if you prefer rock, hip hop, praise, jazz, and alternative forms of music in worship, or are you? You are welcome here if you believe that the Bible says once and for all that marriage is to be only between a man and a woman, or are you?
We may not be doing battle in Northern Ireland, but we have our own mountains to climb before we can practice the kind of hospitality that Jesus embodies. Taught from childhood not to associate with Gentiles and that “those kind” were not welcome at his table, Jesus crossed the boundary of segregation. Taught from childhood not to touch anyone who is ritually unclean and that “those kind” prefer to stay with their own anyway, Jesus crossed the boundary of ignorance. Taught from childhood that violence is a necessary tool for change and that unless we use violence, “they” will, Jesus crossed the boundary of retaliation. In Jesus, the oftentimes clipped wings of hospitality take flight.
Wherever Jesus traveled, he embodied the hospitality of God. I think of Cove as one of the most hospitable, genuinely hospitable, communities of Christ that I know, because it is. That, though, is not how Christians and the church are viewed in much of popular culture. More often than not in most forms of media, followers of Jesus are portrayed as narrow-minded, bigoted, fearful, dull, dense, idiots who are quick to hate, who refuse to forgive, and who, if they know any good news, keep it only to themselves.
Maybe that is why most progressive Christians I know are so tentative to practice the hospitality that Jesus teaches us to practice. We would rather wait for people to walk inside our lovely sanctuary and to play by our rules, and then we can bestow on them a healthy dose of Christian hospitality. Surely, when you and I come together in worship, to sing God’s praise, to pray for each other and the world, and to sing to God’s glory, then we make glad the heart of God.
I am convinced that we do, but I am even more convinced that we make glad God’s heart leap for joy when do not view this sanctuary as a hiding place, but as a fueling station to go out and practice hospitality. Jesus does not say, “Just stay in your sanctuary and make sure you are extra nice when whoever pays a visit.” He says, “Go, get out of this sanctuary and welcome whoever, especially when whoever looks different from you, votes in a different way than you, thinks about God differently than you, loves differently than you. Listen to whoever, and practice hospitality to whoever, and you will discover that God’s good news comes in many guises.”
So what happened to the group of young adults from Northern Ireland? They all became best friends, married across religious lines, and never again thought or said a discriminatory word. Well, not exactly. Some friendships were forged across long standing boundaries. Some long held assumptions were challenged and for some, self-righteous religious hatred no longer had the same appeal. A few, though, went home with their prejudices confirmed.
It is a long, hard, and lifetime journey to practice the hospitality of Jesus. It may be a journey that leads some of us to Justice Park in Charlottesville this Saturday, July 8 and later in August to offer a cup of cold water and to hold a tough conversation with grown men dressed in white robes and hoods, as we try to understand the deep well of their racial hatred.
Following Jesus is always a journey that leads to this table that is open to whomever, people of considerable faith and people who doubt if God exists at all, people who are regulars in church and people who are in church for the first time in a long time.
At this table, we are refueled for the journey of hospitality. For outside these walls and doors, whoever is waiting for us, to listen and to speak, to give and to receive, to forgive and to be forgiven, to hear about the One we follow into life, to practice hospitality with abounding love and in so doing to make glad the heart of God.
According to Jesus, we are whoever. We are the ones for whom God has practiced hospitality. We are the ones who are invited then to leave this place and do the same. If you are out of practice, do not worry. We have an outstanding coach who is ready to lead us out of our segregated silos to practice the hospitality of God.
Whoever is waiting.