Welcome

On July 3, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Welcome Rev. Ty Bradley, Minister of Social Justice July 2, 2017 In the chapter that ends with our Gospel text this morning Jesus and his followers are in the midst a whirlwind missionary trip to many of the seaside towns of the Galilee region. Midway through their travels, Jesus is emotionally overcome by the large […]

Welcome
Rev. Ty Bradley, Minister of Social Justice
July 2, 2017

In the chapter that ends with our Gospel text this morning Jesus and his followers are in the midst a whirlwind missionary trip to many of the seaside towns of the Galilee region. Midway through their travels, Jesus is emotionally overcome by the large crowds of people who show up everywhere they go, even as he realizes the job is too big for one person.

So, he gathers his disciples and shares his plan to split them up into smaller groups that are each empowered to travel to different towns in the area to continue the work on their own. He gives them what amounts to a sobering yet encouraging pep talk. They are going to do all the great things they have seen Jesus doing, but they are also going to run into a lot of the same resistance that Jesus has faced. They are to take heart, be bold and trust that as they go out, God’s spirit goes with them.

Whatever the actual origin of this particular Jesus tradition, the author’s larger purpose in including it in the story is to serve as an encouragement to the community of Christians who were the first readers of this Gospel. It is as though Jesus is reaching across the years through the written page and is speaking directly to the experience and concerns of the early Church community struggling to live out its purpose in challenging contexts.

Thus, it would seem to make sense that Christian communities today look to Jesus’ words here to both guide and interpret their own experience living out their purpose in a challenging world. However, we must be careful, here as elsewhere with Scripture, to not abandon our appreciation of the text as reflecting a particular writer speaking to a particular audience at a particular time and place. We should not, as too many Christian communities do, conceive of the words on the page as something God supernaturally caused to be written down millennia ago just so you and I would read it today. Far too often, the result of this faulty and ego-centric thinking is that Christian movements hijack scripture to give divine legitimacy to their own sense of entitlement and privilege as the so-called special people of God.

Just from this 10th chapter of Matthew, Christians have been emboldened to reach all manner of worrisome conclusions: “Jesus says whoever doesn’t accept what we have to say will suffer fiery judgment;” “Jesus says when we are standing up to those who oppose us, anything we say is really God speaking through us.” “Jesus says if anybody says bad things about us it’s because they actually hate him.” “Jesus says, even if our behavior hurts people in our own families, we must ignore their pleas if we want to be worthy of Jesus.”

And so on and so forth… until all manner of bad behavior is given spiritual sanction, every plea to elevate love falls on closed ears, and every effort to protect the innocent becomes an assault on their so-called religious liberty…just like Jesus said. And the heart-wrenching irony is that this corruption of the Gospel of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of so much of the oppression, violence, and degradation that has been and continues to be perpetrated in the name of Christianity.

And so, we must not make the mistake of concluding that Jesus is encouraging Christians to see themselves as part of some sort of special group that can act with divinely sanctioned impunity. But, that is not to say that Jesus words here do not have something to say to us today. When we resist the temptation to see Jesus’ words as a celebration of Christian privilege, we are free to recognize that Jesus is in truth speaking about the special purpose of the church not its special position. Specifically, as we listen in on Matthew’s Jesus telling his followers what being “sent out” as gospel-bearers really means, we are inspired by the idea that both begins and, with our text, concludes his speech. It is the idea that the gospel is advanced, that God shows up, when strangers welcome one another into their respective worlds.

Again, we do not take the text literally here, rather we step back and see the broader principle Jesus is articulating. In a world where we so often close ourselves off from what is strange to us, what is unfamiliar, what is discomforting, so often what we are really closing ourselves off from are the opportunities to connect with others; opportunities that may very well reveal God’s love in surprising and powerful ways.

In so many areas of our lives we resist what is foreign to us; different ideas and ideologies. It is not enough that we stake out a position, an attitude or a preference that works for us and that we are happy with. We find it necessary to completely shut out competing ideas and notions. Once we make up our minds about something, we so often refuse to believe there is any value whatsoever in even taking time to consider alternatives that may subsequently cross our paths with an open mind. And our consumption-based culture reinforces this predilection. Our food, our music, our entertainment, all customized to our precise tastes. We don’t even consume news anymore without filtering out perspectives different from our own. So much of our life experiences can be dialed in to our exact specifications like building a burrito at Chipotle.

It has spilled over into how we form relationships. Look at where we’ve gotten with these dating apps that so many of us use now. They allow you to filter out and not even have to see people based on age, race, height, weight, health, hair color, hair amount, hair location. You can basically avoid the awareness that people outside of your limited preferences even exist. What’s next, a dating app that allows me to simply accept or reject someone in the blink of an eye based upon my gut reaction to their picture. No, No, No, Yes, No. Right, left, right, left. Oh, wait, they’ve got that now too. Or…so I’ve been told.

All joking and dating apps aside, we probably miss out on the opportunity to welcome in and be welcomed into one another’s space more often than we’d like to admit. And it’s because of the discomfort we feel, the sense of “otherness” we experience with so many people who are not like us, who are not part of our same groups, who think about and value and experience life very differently than we do. There are so many distinctions between us as people that naturally dictate who we are more or less likely to welcome in. If we are being honest that often includes things we wish or would like to believe it didn’t. Things like race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, class, nationality, language, criminal history, political and religious differences.

This is not new to our time and context. It has always been part of the human condition. It certainly was in Jesus day, and I imagine he thought a lot about this. I suspect he was a realist enough to know that the way the world worked only reinforced people’s tendency to “other-ize” difference and to reserve radical welcome only for the familiar and the safe. But I also think Jesus dared to imagine something different. I think he recognized that what was truly a threat to people’s welfare and quality of life was not the discomfort of difference or strangeness, but the systems of oppression and dehumanization fueled by the reality of empire.

We have heard plenty from this pulpit about how Jesus’ message of the Kin-dom of God, the Gospel itself, was a counter-kingdom alternative to empire. And I believe Jesus’ missional instructions to his followers that day as he prepared to send them out on their own reflect that message. He says in our passage this morning, you want to see God show up in surprising places, where only injustice, oppression and lack seems to have been present before? Welcome the prophet. Welcome the holy ones. Welcome the stranger-in-need with compassion.

In ancient Israel, the prophet was someone who spoke discomforting, disrupting truths to power. And, “the holy ones” in our translation is actually the greek word that means both righteousness and justice, they are interchangeable. So, really Jesus is telling us to welcome one another’s truth, even when it disrupts or discomforts our own assumptions and privilege. He is telling us to embrace the claim others have for justice regardless of whether we see the connection to our own need for justice. He is telling us to welcome the one to whom we owe nothing by sharing ourselves to meet their need.

This is much easier said than done, today as it was then. It is so much easier to dismiss what we don’t understand or agree with than to be open to being changed by someone else’s truth and experience. I think about what has been going on this past Pride season. I hear about someone adding stripes to the Pride flag or disrupting Pride parades and my first reaction is to dismiss it as ridiculous, to get agitated by it. It is so much easier for me to just reiterate my own logic and arguments on it whenever the subject comes up.

But how does that result in anything other than me being divided from people in my own community, from having animosity toward those I with whom I should be in solidarity with against the structural wrongs that affect us all? How much more might be gained if instead of digging in and reacting solely from my own truth, I began by intentionally hearing the voices of those who have a different truth to tell from their own experience about the inclusivity of Pride and the LGBTQIA+ community? Maybe it changes my opinion to hear them, maybe it doesn’t. But by making room within myself to fully welcome someone’s differing, discomforting truth, it changes me, and it changes them, and most importantly it changes who we are to one another. And with that kind of change, no matter how subtle, the God of liberation and love always shows up.

Anytime we offer or receive welcome in unexpected places where the result is that we have become more human to and with one another, God has shown up.

I want to share a final story from my own life that for me illustrates the truth of this perfectly. When I was about 13 my mother came to visit my younger brother and I at our dad’s house just 1 day after she had been released from prison. For reasons I won’t get into, my mom ended up having to take my brother and I with her that day…like permanently, along with our clothes and my dog, Silver. This was unexpected. I am not sure where my mom had been planning on staying that night, but now she had us and new plans had to be made. She had a car she had gotten, but the windows didn’t roll up and so we couldn’t sleep in it even if just for that first night. We went to straight the welfare office. They got my mom signed up for assistance, but all they could do for housing was give us a list of shelters to try.

The only shelter that had space was an old church in Venice Beach. There were no beds and people were sleeping on and underneath the pews. There were three spaces available under the pews but they weren’t together and the entire church smelled badly of booze and urine. My brother and I cried openly insisting that we could not stay there, unconcerned about how much more difficult our insistence made the situation for our mom. With no one, including my grandparents, willing or able to give us a place, at some point my mom had no choice other than to call the one person with a house and the heart to possibly help us. His name was Nate, but everyone called him Nation Wide. Nation Wide was a crack dealer, and his home was a crack house. Nation Wide’s house had no electricity and no water service. This was the days before the batter ram where cops could just tear through front wall of a suspected crack house. So, what they did to discourage drug activity was have the city cut off power and water.

We got to Nation Wide’s house and he had his candles all over the house and a makeshift bed of sheets and pillows on the floor for us, and even had food and water for Silver. He had kicked out all of his customers so that we would feel safer and for the next week Nation Wide went with little to no income while we stayed in his home until my mom was able to get us into a motel. This was the 80’s and I had been flooded with negative stereotypes of what a crack dealer was. How they were violent, crazed, how they preyed on children and were the scourge of civilized society. But I experienced someone totally different than that.

Nationwide was no saint, but he was to me and my brother and my mom and my dog. I have no idea if his act of welcoming us in with radical compassion when we had nowhere else to go changed him in any way. But it absolutely changed me in a permanent way. I cannot just write people off as bad or no good because of what society or other people have to say about them. Not since that day when God showed up for me and it turned out he was black, and old, and almost toothless. He lived by candlelight and his bathroom was a hole in the back yard, he survived by selling crack cocaine and his name was Nation Wide.

When we welcome the stranger into our lives in meaningful ways, when we allow their truth to penetrate our sense of what’s what in the world, when we take up their cries for justice and compassion as if they were our own, then we also welcome God. Spaces that once seemed to be filled only with struggle and lack and the domination of empire suddenly become fountains of hope and promise, of liberation and love.

The cultivation of such spaces whenever and wherever we are able is indeed both the purpose and the privilege of the church. It is it the great work of the kin-dom of God. And it is the good news.

Dear God,
Wherever I am sent out in the world
Let me be welcoming,
Let me be a sharer and receiver of truth
Let me be a creator of justice
Let me always show compassion
Amen

 

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