This summer, several parishioners are participating in our 90-Day Bible Reading Challenge. In supporting each other in our reading, one of the patterns we have noticed is the break-neck pace of reading twelve pages a day means we do not have a lot of time for traditional Bible Study – looking at the original Hebrew or Greek, discerning the historical context of the book, studying the cultural norms of the community, or even delving into the literary devices of the book. Instead we are drinking from the fire hose of Scripture – capturing the larger narrative God’s covenantal relationship with humankind, but not indulging in the intriguing details.
With a passage like the one we hear in today’s gospel from Matthew, we could easily do the same. There are only three verses in the text, and they are somewhat repetitive in pattern. A quick skim brings up an old adage we have learned by heart – welcome the stranger because you may be welcoming Christ himself. Maybe your mind immediately leapt to a time you saw Christ in a stranger. Maybe you began thinking about the ministry of hospitality, particularly how strong that ministry is at Hickory Neck. Maybe you even started to wonder what you could do to be more hospitable, especially during this time of social distancing.
But here’s the thing: when we slow down our reading, we realize Jesus does not say, “whoever welcomes the stranger welcomes me.” Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…” Often when we think of hospitality, we think of hospitality from the perspective of the host. Whether we acknowledge the reality or not, we are people of power and privilege, and our notion of hospitality is rooted in how we can offer hospitality to others.[i] There is nothing inherently wrong with this dynamic – in fact, our sense of obligation to offer hospitality is an answer to Jesus’ call to love neighbor. But Jesus is not talking about offering hospitality to others from a position of power. Instead, Jesus is inviting us to give up power and receive others’ hospitality.
If you remember, we have been in the midst of Jesus’ Missionary Discourse[ii] the last several weeks. Jesus told the disciples to go out, without resources, to do the work of discipleship. He warned them they would face persecution, and family members would turn against one another. And today, as Jesus concludes his discourse, he tells them whoever welcomes them, welcomes Jesus. So not only are the disciples to make themselves vulnerable to the hospitality of others, they will be mirroring Jesus to others. In other words, in every moment, every interaction, every relationship, encounter, conversation, and conflict among the disciples –the disciples will be witnessing Jesus.[iii]
I do not know about you, but that is a lot of pressure. Making oneself vulnerable is hard enough. Making oneself vulnerable means opening up all our flaws, weaknesses, and doubts. And now, Jesus is saying while we are vulnerable, our homes, our marriages, our workplaces, our extended families, even our friendships are windows into Christ for others. As Debie Thomas asks, “When we know Jesus is visible in and through us at every moment…[will] we tread more lightly on the earth? Speak less and listen more? Reconsider our grudges and grievances? Choose our words with greater care? Examine our motivations more closely?”[iv]
There is a lot about this pandemic that has been absolutely awful – devastating, painful, and full of death. But one of the things that has happened to Hickory Neck in this pandemic represents new life too. Before we closed our buildings in March, we offered hospitality from our comfort zone – hospitality unparalleled once you walked in those doors – hospitality that made most of us join this church. But once we moved everything online, the doors and walls of this place lowered – we went out, showing who we are and what we are about to a much broader audience. Here in this exposed setting, we are carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally showing others what Jesus looks like. The work is hard and scary, but the reward is great too. In letting down our walls, we are helping people to see Christ – the same Christ who redeems us, gives us strength, and makes us whole. But the work of discipleship is not just happening on livestream. I see this work happening in you – as you call to check in on people in the parish you have not met before because you attend a different service, as you don a mask and attend a rally in support of our African-American brothers and sisters during this raw time, and as you have socially-distanced conversations with neighbors about the power of Christ in your life. The promise Jesus made at the beginning of his Discourse is still lingering today. Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age. His promised presence will allow us to keep letting down walls and being Christ’s mirror in the world. Our job is to take up the challenge we will hear in our dismissal today: Go. Receive God’s love and hospitality. Serve the Lord as Christ’s mirror. Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, “Welcome the Prophet,” June 21, 2020, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay on June 26, 2020.
[ii] Eugene Eung-Chun Park, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 189.