About three years ago, I went on a servant event to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in northern Montana. I joined a group that came out from my internship site, Holy Trinity in Lancaster, and we experienced what it was like on an Indian reservation together, as well as participating in some beautification projects around the church, Our Saviour’s Lutheran. I began this trip with some trepidation. I was very aware of what white people, some of whom were probably my ancestors, had done to the Native American population in the past, and I was starting to become aware that the situation of many people in the tribes is still not very good today. How would they welcome me, a white person, coming on to their reservation? Would there still be resentment? How would I be treated? And what would I have, if anything, to offer?
What I found surprised me. I found a people who were willing to share with me their history and their love for the land on which they lived. What I found was a gracious sense of welcome and a common desire to make this small slice of the world a better place. What I found was a willingness to acknowledge the pain of the past and yet a desire for forgiveness and healing. And two events that stuck out for me in this wondrous week were these: first, a naming ceremony. I and the others with me who humbly requested this were given names in the Chippewa-Cree language. And, second, as a conclusion to the naming ceremony, we were brought down to the local creek and invited to fill our water bottles from the creek. And that water was the coldest, purest, best-tasting water I have ever had in my life. In short, the Native Americans I met on this reservation embodied Jesus’ saying in today’s Gospel lesson: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Welcoming one another and being hospitable to one another in today’s society is a challenging concept. In a nomadic culture, such as what the Israelites had in our Old Testament stories, being hospitable was a necessity. In the hot desert climate, where food and water were scarce, travelers were automatically welcomed into one another’s tents for food and drink. It didn’t matter if the person was a complete stranger to the host or even if the person was an enemy. And not only was the person welcomed into the tent, it was expected that the person would be given safe passage through the host’s territory. This was a matter of mutual survival, because, after all, you might have to pass through enemy territory one day and then you would need that same protection, food, and water that you would offer to a guest. This is why, in a story from the book of Genesis, we see that, when three strangers appear at Abraham’s tent, he immediately welcomes them in, tells Sarah to bake bread, kills the fatted calf for them, and then acts as their servant as they eat. What we think of as going overboard was simply a natural thing for them to do. And, this is most likely the story that the letter of Hebrews references when it says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
This background ties in to Jesus’ words about welcome. As an observant Jewish man, Jesus would have known this story about Abraham, as well as other stories about offering hospitality to strangers. But Jesus takes it one step further: by welcoming one who is a disciple of Jesus, the person doing the welcoming not only welcomes the disciple, she also welcomes Jesus himself. Let’s think about that for a moment and let that sink in: when you welcome a disciple of Jesus, you are welcoming Jesus himself. When we welcome one another, and Christians who are not part of this congregation as well, we are welcoming Jesus himself. And let’s now tie that in with the instruction from Hebrews that says we may be entertaining angels when we show hospitality to strangers. Even if we don’t know for certain that the person is a disciple of Jesus, we are to assume that that person is a disciple, or maybe even an angel sent from God. More than that, we are to see Jesus in that other person. And we are to treat that person as if we are welcoming Jesus himself.
What a truly awesome and mind-boggling thought! But the challenge for us is this: how do we take this idea of Middle Eastern hospitality, of seeing Jesus in the faces of others, and translate it into 21st century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania? How are we to follow Jesus’ mandate to welcome one another, especially when that person might be our enemy? Here are some of my thoughts about what hospitality in our congregations can look like.
First, our unity is found in Christ, not in politics. What does that mean? It means that Christians of good conscience can—and often do—come to different conclusions and opinions on the political issues of the day and yet, they can still be called Christians. I’d like to share a story to show why this is an important idea. Several years ago, when my parents were still living in Virginia and I was staying with them, I came home to find my mother watching a news program, which she usually does. I watched with her for a couple of minutes, and then I expressed an opinion which was counter to what the talking head on TV was saying. My mother then went into a tirade in which she accused me of selling my soul because of the way I had voted in the recent presidential election, and implied that my Christian faith was in question because of that. Maybe some of you in the congregation today have had similar conversations with friends and family. Very often, conversations like these are why many young people today feel hurt by the institutional church, and no longer want anything to do with the church: they have been “shut down” by members of the church telling them their opinions and beliefs about certain issues are, at the least, wrong, and at the worst, not “Christian”.
Brothers and sisters, this Bible that describes our faith is a collection of books that has come down to us through the centuries, and well-meaning Christians in every century have often come to opposite interpretations of the exact same passage. And those interpretations have informed our beliefs, and our beliefs have informed the way we approach the world, including our views on the political issues of the day. But the one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is Jesus and his love for us—his love for each one of us that sent him to die on the cross for us. You know, in a way, that is God showing us the ultimate hospitality. We are each different, our personalities and our physical characteristics a unique combination of the genetics with which God has endowed us and the environment in which we were raised. We have different ideas and different talents, and I think God designed us that way because God loves variety. And yet, over all of this, is Jesus and his love for us. And so, it is Jesus who unifies us—not politics or anything else of this earth. And what this means is that our churches should be open spaces in which we can each express our beliefs and opinions without fear of being shut down because we don’t “believe the right way”. It is only in open and civil conversation, where we truly listen to one another, that we can learn to love one another as God loves us, and where we can together listen for God’s voice directing us in the mission to the community around us.
Making our churches a safe place to express opinions and disagreements is one way that we can show welcome and hospitality to one another and to everyone who comes through our doors. But how do we express welcome and hospitality to those in our neighborhood and to those who may never come through our doors? The first thing that we need to do is to find out who our neighbors are. Dave Daubert, who was the speaker at the Synod Assembly and who works on congregational renewal, talks about churches who don’t know who their neighbors around them are or what they need.
Here at St. John, we are already starting to get to know our neighbors. As Jack mentioned last week, our community breakfast has fed many people coming through the doors. Others have come in for clothes in our clothes bank. We are starting to become known for this in the community. This week, Pastor Victoria of Trinity Lutheran and I met with Doug Brown, the borough manager of Steelton. He was excited when I mentioned the community breakfast and has offered to help us publicize it. He also shared with us more upcoming opportunities for our congregation to get to know the community of Steelton and to find new ways of ministering in this area. And on July 9, we will be having an ice cream social where we will be giving away free ice cream cones to anyone who walks by our building. God is giving us many opportunities to get to know our neighbors and to offer them welcome, and I pray that we will recognize them and continue to take them.
The point in getting to know our neighbors and providing welcome and hospitality to them is not to have more people in our pews on Sunday mornings. It is rather to go out and spread the good news of how God has provided hospitality to us in Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit moves people to come and worship with us through the work that we are doing in the community, then praise God! But that is the Holy Spirit’s work to do, not ours. Our work is to be participants in God’s mission to show love to the world, and to be faithful in our welcome and hospitality to others.
That cup of cold water that Jesus talks about offering to little ones sounds very refreshing, especially on a hot day and especially as I remember that drink of cold water on the Indian reservation in Montana. Welcome and hospitality is about refreshment and about feeling that we are in a safe space to be who God created us to be. It is also about offering that refreshment and safe space to those around us, so that they may be who God created them to be. That growing and flourishing is what God’s love is all about. So let us go and share that with one another and with our communities. Amen.