Sunday, July 02, 2017

Hospitality as a Sacred, Holy Act

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 8 (Year A)
Matthew 10.40-42
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Jesus is preparing to send his disciples out on missionary work. The Gospel readings we have heard over the last few weeks comprise the preparatory instructions Jesus gives them before they depart. Today, he concludes his discourse on what the disciples can expect in their missionary work. Until now, Jesus’ words tend to imply potential hardships that the disciples will face. But today, the focus turns to the rewards to be expected.

Jesus’ comments are about being welcomed by those whom the disciples encounter. The word “welcome” appears six times in these three verses. This sense of being welcomed must be important. In short, this is about the importance of hospitality.

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As followers of Christ, when someone welcomes – shows hospitality – they are also showing hospitality to the one they follow – to Jesus. And they are also showing hospitality to God through Christ. The apostles are emissaries of Jesus. Jesus’ words stem from the tradition that accepting a king’s emissary is the same as welcoming the king himself. Thus the mission of the apostles is inextricably connected to Jesus as the one who sent them. But this doesn’t just apply to those who welcome the apostles. It really has broader implications for all of us.

As followers of Jesus, whenever we welcome someone we welcome Christ. And by extension, we also welcome God. This concept is foundational to many monastic traditions. The Rule of St. Benedict states – “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say” ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25.35)’” (RB 53). The monks are to welcome guests just as they would welcome Christ himself. But even this falls short.

More to the point, there is a story that comes from a Russian Orthodox monastery. A seasoned monk, long accustomed to welcoming all guests as Christ, says to a young monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes,” the monk continues, “I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?” This is what the Gospel tells us. When we welcome the other – when we show hospitality to anyone – we are showing hospitality to our Lord.

Of course, elsewhere Jesus tells us of those times when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, we are doing so to him: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25.40). By extension, isn’t any action we do to one of God’s children the same as doing likewise to Christ himself? That any interaction with another is also an interaction with Christ?

In our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about encountering him through all sorts of people. In prophets, the righteous, and what he calls “little ones.” The righteous: those who are mature in their faith. Easy enough. And the little ones: those who are new to the faith, or even those who are still seeking. Also easy. And then there’s the prophets: those notorious for speaking God’s truth – the good and the bad. Those who perceive the present injustice among their people with uncommon clarity, and address it with uncommon candor. Those who it is not always easy to welcome because they remind us what it is we’re supposed to be in this world, who call us to live as the people God created us to be, who ask so much of us. Those who may make us uncomfortable.

Jesus speaks of such encounters in terms of rewards. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (Mt 10.41). This can be understood to mean that the reward IS the presence of the prophet or the presence of the righteous person. The one welcoming, showing hospitality, is blessed by being in the presence of the prophet or the righteous person, and the gift received from them.

Being rewarded by the presence of a righteous person is easy enough to understand. A righteous person, one who is mature in her faith, can indeed be a reward. For we have the opportunity to benefit from her experiences, from the sharing of her encounters with the holy. This can bring reward in the form of new insights that can help us in our own spiritual journey. That can help guide us in our own quest to become righteous, to become more mature in the faith.

Being rewarded by the presence of a prophet may be a little more challenging to find. A prophet speaks a truth that may be hidden or difficult to see. A prophet challenges us to see the world through God’s eyes. A prophet challenges us to live into the truth of the Gospel, to live into the fullness of who God has created and calls us to be. The prophet provides opportunities for our own growth in the faith. The prophet shows us Christ in a new way.

And we are rewarded by even our welcoming of the little ones, new in faith or still seeking. As it is through their searching for answers, through their new-found faith, that we see the wonders of God working in the lives of others. How God may be working through us, giving us the opportunity to share our own experiences with them in a way that not only may benefit them in their own journey, but also serves to help us clarify and reinforce our own understanding and experience of God in our own lives.

Perhaps equally important is the experience of the other in encountering Christ through the hospitality shown to them. Just as those who are showing hospitality encounter Christ in those they welcome, so too do those who receive hospitality encounter Christ.

I experienced this first hand in 2014 while on pilgrimage to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to study Spanish, but more importantly to develop relationships with the churches and the people in the Diocese of Cuernavaca. On our last Sunday, we were sent out in pairs to various congregations in the Diocese. Another priest and I were sent to the congregation of San José de la Montaña in Municipio de Tamixco. This was a small parish in a poor village in the hills outside Cuernavaca. Following the service, we enjoyed the hospitality of the people of San José de la Montaña. They had prepared a fiesta in our honor. It was not elaborate. Just some simple sandwiches, soda, and cookies. We had a wonderful time eating our simple meal and engaging with the wonderful people of that congregation. That afternoon, as all the teams reunited at the Diocesan Center, everyone shared their experiences in the congregations they had visited. The stories were mainly about the hospitality of the people in providing festive lunches. Most of my colleagues talked about the elaborate feasts they enjoyed, complete with a variety of sumptuous dishes, homemade sweets, and of course, wine and tequila. I started to feel a little cheated. All we had were some basic sandwiches, some soda, and store-bought cookies. But then I realized, I had been in a poor parish in a poor village. What those people provided us was the widow’s mite. What they gave was a lavish gift for these poor people. Upon further reflection, I felt that despite not having a rich, elaborate meal, that I had enjoyed an equally sumptuous feast to those of my colleagues, because the people at San José de la Montaña selflessly gave of themselves. In their ministry of hospitality, I experienced the unbounded richness and generosity of Christ. In their humble offering, I saw Christ being offered. I was truly humbled, and truly blessed.

The act of hospitality is a two-way street. In Christian hospitality, we encounter Christ in the one we welcome. And the one we welcome encounters Christ through us. In this, hospitality is truly a ministry. Hospitality is a sacred, holy act.

One of the things I have grown to appreciate about St. Gregory’s is our ministry of hospitality. Many parishes think they are really good at hospitality, at welcoming the other. But truth be told, anecdotal evidence often tells a different story. Being truly welcomed is not always the experience of the outsider. Not so here at St. Gregory’s. During the “getting to know you” gatherings we had earlier this year, one of the things that stood out was that people became members of St. Gregory’s because they felt incredibly welcomed when they first visited. Many listed hospitality as one of our greatest strengths. And I have heard from those who have visited us that they felt a genuine sense of hospitality, of being truly welcomed by you.

In our ministry of hospitality, to which we are all called, we need to remember. Once, we too were welcomed. Not just welcomed into a parish community. Not just welcomed into this community. More importantly, we were welcomed by God through Christ. Sinners welcomed into forgiveness. Those destined for death welcomed into the eternal life – as Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 12.23). We experienced the welcome of baptism. We were welcomed into God’s embrace. We have the opportunity – the sacred obligation – to share that welcome with others. In welcoming them, they have the opportunity to encounter Christ through us. And in showing hospitality, we have the opportunity to encounter Christ through them. In so doing, we not only bless those we welcome. We are also blessed.

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