Several years ago, I was at an in-between stage in my life’s journey, waiting for God to lead me to the next stop. I was living at home with my parents, and my mother and I were both doing temp work at an office in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was about a 45-minute drive from where my parents lived. One day, as my mother and I were driving home from the office on a warm summer evening, we looked to the side of the road and saw several men dressed in monk’s habits walking along the road. We were a little startled, because, after all, you don’t often see a group of monks walking along a rural road in the mountains of Virginia. But, we continued on our way home and forgot about the incident. Until, a day or two later, we saw an article about the monks in our local paper. It turns out this group of monks was on a pilgrimage—I can’t remember exactly where they were going—and for shelter at night, they would knock on the door of someone’s house and offer to do chores in return for a meal and a place to sleep, even if that place to sleep was in the garage or the barn. And most of the folks whose doors they knocked on did offer them that hospitality. It gave me hope that there are still good, kind people out there in the world. And I admired these monks, who seemed to be taking Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel very seriously: taking no additional baggage along with them, but asking for help and for hospitality as they journeyed from one place to another.
When I saw today’s Gospel lesson, I didn’t quite know at first how the Holy Spirit would lead me to preach on this. After all, when I go from one place to another, I take my stuff with me. When I made the journey here from Wyoming, I made plans: while I did give away many things and threw many things out, I still had lots of stuff that I had to move across the country. I booked hotels along the way, and I had to make sure they were hotels that would let me bring my animals. I don’t know what it’s like to simply set out on a journey to proclaim the good news with nothing but myself and trust in other people to shelter me. And in today’s society, doing such a thing would require even more faith in God’s protection, especially as a woman, because it means becoming vulnerable to attacks from strangers who are not willing to provide hospitality. So, what do we do with this text that is the appointed reading for today?
Well, let’s start by acknowledging something about ourselves: We don’t like to be vulnerable. To illustrate this point, I’d like to share with you a story about something that happened to me on my internship, about 6 years ago. As many of you know, I was in Lancaster doing my internship at Holy Trinity Lutheran. If you were here at my installation service last week, the pastor who preached that day was my internship supervisor. At the time, my name and my biography was on Trinity’s website, and included in that biography was the information that I had spent time in Taiwan as a volunteer missionary. One day, only a few weeks before I was set to finish my internship and go back to Gettysburg to complete seminary, I received a call from a pastor in Washington State asking for help. It seems that a young lady from China was coming over to the U.S. on a summer work visa, but at the last minute, her summer work had been switched from Washington to Lancaster, PA. Would I be able to help this young woman find housing and make sure she wouldn’t be taken advantage of?
With my supervisor’s approval, I took on this challenge. When we couldn’t find affordable housing right away, I offered her the couch in my one-bedroom apartment that was being filled up with boxes as I was preparing to move back to Gettysburg. It was a great inconvenience to me, but I didn’t see what else I could do at that point if I didn’t want this young lady to be on the street. As it turned out, I ended up learning a lot about her and about some of the injustices in our visa system that year. But then, God turned the tables on me. The very last week of my internship, I somehow managed to come down with a bad case of laryngitis. My unexpected visitor from China decided to return some of the hospitality that I had shown her. She had brought lots of tea with her from China, and she started making hot tea for me, as well as other hot dishes to soothe my throat. And you know what? I didn’t like it that she did this for me. What I discovered is that I can extend hospitality to others, and that I often see this as part of Jesus’ calling on my life, but that I’m really bad at accepting hospitality from others. And perhaps part of that, too, was that she extended hospitality to me much more willingly than I had to her.
I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that we are like that. Because accepting hospitality from others means admitting that we are vulnerable, and that we need help from others, and we don’t like that. Especially in American culture, most of us are raised to be independent and to do for ourselves. Asking for help is considered to be a sign of weakness. And so, we look at Jesus’ instructions to his disciples today and we tell ourselves that this is impractical and it is unsafe and that surely Jesus doesn’t want us to put our lives in danger, does he? But what if we’re wrong? What if Jesus is calling us, his church in North America, to admit that we’re vulnerable and that we need help? What would that even look like?
One way that this might happen is to put ourselves into the place of the people around us who are in a vulnerable situation in life. And that starts with having compassion on them. Part of our text today says that Jesus had “compassion for [the crowds], because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Now, the Greek word that gets translated as “having compassion for,” is one of my favorite words, splachnizomai. In Greek culture, the seat of the emotions was not in the heart, like we have it today, but rather in the bowels, and this word that is translated as “having compassion for” literally means “feeling like your insides are coming out.” Have you ever felt such compassion for someone that you felt like your insides were coming out? Has the grief of another person so overcome you that you start weeping, too? That’s what having compassion on someone truly feels like.
Having compassion on others means that other people are not a political sound bite and they are not something to be afraid of, but rather, that they are ordinary people facing some tough things in life, just like we are. For example, it’s one thing for politicians to say that those who are poor should not be relying so much on government programs, but rather should be going out and finding work. It’s another thing entirely to be confronted in person by the mother whose husband has left her, who has several children, and is working two jobs just to make ends meet, and who would not be able to afford to put food on her table were it not for those government programs. Another example: it’s one thing to say that of course, we welcome immigrants if they come here legally. It’s another thing to look into the desperate face of a person who has no chance of coming here legally because of the cost and the bureaucracy and the very real possibility that she will be rejected, but who is facing such violence in her home country that she is willing to do whatever is necessary to escape and to give her children a chance of having a better life.
Jesus sends us out. He sends us out of our church buildings and into our communities. He sends us out to “proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He sends us out to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,” and to “cast out demons.” He sends us out and tells us to give without expectation of payment, but to accept whatever hospitality is given us. Our violent world needs this good news of compassion more than ever. Because it is only when we have compassion for others; it is only when we feel our insides coming out, that we can do the things which Jesus has commanded us to do. And when that happens, when we truly listen to the stories of others, and when we truly have compassion on them, it is then that we can bring the peace of Jesus into their lives.
I saw this little story on social media yesterday, as I was finishing up this sermon, and I wanted to share it with you, because I think it fits:
A rabbi asked,” How can you recognize the time when night ends and day begins?”
“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” another asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Then when is it?” they asked. “It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us.”
So, let’s practice being vulnerable with one another. Let’s admit to one another that we don’t always have it together and that we need help. Let’s have compassion on one another. Let’s feel our insides coming out for the other person. Let’s stop reducing people to nameless masses and political sound bites, but instead learn about their stories and how they’ve come to the place in life that they have. We will still not always agree with one another, but to have compassion means that we can admit that we are vulnerable, too, and that we don’t know what we would do in those particular circumstances. And then let’s go out with the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near, and bring healing and peace to the world. Amen.