Who Welcomes? Matthew 10:40-42

Who does the task of welcoming well anymore?   I think it’s particularly difficult to get the right intent or understanding of this Gospel lesson because the whole concept of Hospitality is more than a little skewed by our consumer culture.

            Case in point:   Take a trip to Disney sometime and what everyone is impressed with is their hospitality.  From the moment you walk on to the grounds, to the moment you leave everything is done with one thing in mind, that you will have the best possible experience.   Cast members are taught how to bend over backwards to make sure that you feel welcomed.  Cast members who are there to clean are taught how to make themselves invisible so that the “magic” of the place will be preserved.  You come away from Disney thinking that their only purpose in life is to make you feel special.

            And of course, that is their purpose… for a price.

            The “Disney Experience” is sold, with varying degrees of amenities and hospitality depending upon where you stay and how much you spend/immerse yourself in the total Disney Experience.

            Now, I have nothing at all against that.   They do it well, perhaps better than anyone and there is much about hospitality that we can learn from the Disney Experience, but the “catch” in all of that is that we still ending up thinking about hospitality in terms of “the bottom line.”

            The better we do our job, the more likely they will be to return, and support us, and spend their vacations here and that’s good for Disney.

            We are tempted to think that this Gospel lesson about Hospitality and welcome is something in a very similar vein, Jesus giving instruction on how to welcome others.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”

While this is a clear invitation to think about the matter of hospitality, the context of the passage flips everything around.

This comes at the end of Jesus commissioning and sending of his disciples off to go and do their work.  Chapter 10 starts off with Jesus commissioning the twelve to go out, and in Matthew they’re told to stay away from the Gentiles and the Samaritans and concentrate on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”    So there is an expectation here that you will be going out among those who should be open and friendly to what you have to offer, but the implication is not “this is how we should welcome folks coming to us.”   No, it is a comment on what kind of welcome to expect as you go out with nothing.

In the next breath, while they are going out amongst those who should be receptive to their message, Jesus tells them that this will be no picnic!  “See, I send you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.”   Not everyone is going to be thrilled with what you have to say, and you’ll even get beat up and persecuted and probably have you own family disown and betray you.  

As a motivational speaker in Chapter 10, I would have to say that Jesus is a flop! 

By the time he gets done with the list of the kind of opposition they will receive, it’s a wonder any of them went out at all!  So by the time we get to the end of chapter 10, the disciples have got to be ready for some good news again, and here it comes, in the form of a reminder of how deeply rooted in their culture the importance of hospitality was, and the reminder of what they are going to be doing. 

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” 

Here is the promise. 

You are going to be emissaries of God himself! 

When that person lets you in the door, they will be letting in Jesus.  They will be receiving the very presence of the Most High God into their midst.  You will, with your very physical presence, be a bringing all those blessings and all that power and all the Grace that God has to offer. 

Now that’s a pretty high calling, and quite a thing to claim, but that, says Jesus; is just what you will be doing, so whatever inconvenience and difficulty you may suffer along the way, remember that.  Remember what you were sent out to do!

We need to hear these verses on hospitality from the point of view for which they were intended.   We need to hear them as the “sent ones” of Jesus, because that is who we are as disciples of Jesus.  We are the sent ones!

We are going to have some tough times, but there will be hospitality out there for us, and when it does come our way, look at what we can do!   We can bring God into that household.  Even just a cup of cold water, that much acceptance, allows us to confer to the household that receives us all the blessings of everlasting life, the forgiveness of sins, and salvation.   No one who welcomes you misses out on the reward God has come to offer in Jesus Christ.

So, part one of understanding this Gospel is hearing clearly that command to go.  Hospitality will be extended, so go and bring the blessing you have to offer!  

Please note however that there is a sense of discernment built into this Gospel as well.  Who is being welcomed?   It’s not just anyone, but it is those who come in Jesus’ name!

The one who comes representing Jesus is to be welcomed.

The one who is “righteous” is to be welcomed.  That’s an interesting word.  Most everywhere else Jesus talks about how he has come not for the righteous, but for sinners.  But here, in this matter of being welcomed into a person’s home and sharing fellowship, there is some expectation of behaving yourself and having good intentions.  It is the righteous who are to be welcomed, and who will receive the reward of the righteous,– namely being trusted.

The prophet is to be welcomed, the one who comes giving a Word from God and challenging your comfort.  That one is to be welcomed.

The “little ones”, the weak, the young in faith, the people who need some attention and care, they are to be welcomed.

So there is some discernment to be made, but how to do that?  ‘

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news again, but there is only one way that can happen, and that is to take seriously the “go” part of this text again.

How do you find out who is the righteous, the weak, the challenging or the one who comes like Jesus?  

You engage them. 

You talk to them. 

You meet them, and visit with them and discern who and what they are.

But most of all, to do all of that you have to go out and find them, because they more than likely will not come here looking for you.

 We just got back from our trip to the Czech Republic a while ago, and in preparation for that I read the obligatory travel books.   Our primary resource was the travel guide by Rick Steves, (A good Lutheran, by the way) who encourages travelers to become what he calls “temporary locals.”   Which is to say, instead of waltzing in like you know everything or expecting to be treated differently as a tourist; try instead to engage the world of everyday life in that place to which you travel. 

Forget the splashy tourist traps, look for where the locals shop, eat, spend their time…and engage them there.

Let the locals teach you about how it is they live, and what is wondrous about their country.  Becoming a “temporary local” gives you an appreciation for their culture, their experience, and their life.

But, to get there, to become that “temporary local” — you do have to take seriously the travel part…the being sent out part.

Hospitality is found in both the sending out and the reception you get as a fellow sojourner in this world.  It comes from being willing to engage folks where they are.  Then, you use that experience with each and every other one who is sent to you, and with each and every one that you meet as you go about your daily life.

 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

That’s what Jesus said.

May we have the confidence in God to go when and where God calls us to go.

May we have the confidence in God’s people to discover our Lord meeting us in those whom we meet along the way, and those whom we welcome into our lives.

May we find the reward together, and the banquet that has no end.

“Pentecost People” John 20:19-23

What does Pentecost have to do with us?  

This is the Sunday when we read from the second chapter of the book of Acts and are reminded that promised gift of the Holy Spirit manifested itself to those original disciples.  If you’re not familiar with the story, it involves a lot of rushing wind, tongues as of fire descending on the disciples and then the gift of being able to communicate in a foreign language.   We get a whole list of obscure folks milling around in Jerusalem at the time.  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc, etc.  Those disciples begin to speak in languages that are understood by the visitors from those nations, and to the rest of the crowd in Jerusalem, well it looks like they are either drunk or crazy.   

But what does that have to do with us?   Not a lot of “speaking in foreign language” happening now, with or without the help of “Rosetta Stone.”

If you want to understand what this gift of the Holy Spirit has to do with us today, you have to back up a little bit.  You have to go back into the Gospels and pay close attention to what Jesus does there, commands there, for that is where the sending of the Spirit starts.   And so, from the Gospel of John we read:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It seems that there is an order about this sending of the Spirit to which we do well to pay attention.  It is something not to be missed, or we will miss the point of Pentecost altogether.

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”   The first step, the first movement is not what we expect. 

You see, you and I would assume that before any sending goes on, we should receive.  

If I’m going to send you to the store to pick up a few grocery items, you would naturally assume that before I send you off I would place in your hands the money needed to purchase the items.  It wouldn’t make any sense to send you without giving you what you need first, would it?

But that is apparently exactly what Jesus does.  And so, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we get those crazy stories of Jesus sending the disciples off to go and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God come near, and he gives explicit orders.  “Take nothing for your journey no staff, nor bread, nor money, nor extra tunic…”  

What are you crazy, Jesus?  How are we supposed to go out and get anything done without the proper equipment?  Yet that is exactly what he does when he sends them out, and what they learn in the process of going out is that they already have everything they really need to do the work. 

It doesn’t make sense, but it is the truth. 

When they come back to him, they are all charged up beyond belief.  “Lord we did miracles in your name!”  — And all this without the extra shirt we thought we would need.  How could that be?  Well, it’s because they missed a part of what Jesus promised.  Did you catch it?   “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  

Here’s what they missed, what we missed. 

Who does the sending?  It is the Father!   It is God, the creator and sustainer of all things who does the sending, and since God already provides food and clothing, home and family, and everything needed for daily life, including his Spirit, they weren’t being sent out with nothing.  They were being sent out with God.

We get the same set of orders that Jesus does, who came as a naked infant in the night.   We, like Jesus, get to take nothing with us to that we will understand what God provides along the way.

Those first disciples were being sent out with the one who had already provided for everything.

The first step in understanding what it means to be Pentecost People is that we are “sent” first and foremost.  It is only after the sending that the receiving comes.

22When he (that is, Jesus) had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”   Jesus breathes it out on them, and it enters into their lives, and then, guess what?  It is imperceptible, that Spirit that they received did absolutely nothing, until the day of Pentecost, until the day when they actually stepped out and began to share their faith.

Friends and neighbors, that is still the way it works 2000 year later.  

This is the critical piece that we so often miss!  

All the preparation for being sent into this world happened way back when we were infants as well.  In baptism, when we said the words and splashed the water, we then lit the candle and held it high and made a proclamation.  “Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

We can say that because we know that God has already poured the Holy Spirit into this child.   God has already promised to go out with them when they go, providing for them along the way.

If you are waiting until God gives you enough of something — enough faith, enough hope, enough study or memorized bible passages, before you start to share your faith, you’re going to be stuck in neutral.  

Sending comes before receiving. 

Long before we can imagine what we can do for God, God has already imagined what we will do for him and for our neighbor, and for the coming Kingdom, and God promises to be there in the doing as we go out. 

That’s what baptism is all about. 

Long before you knew what you could do, while you were still only capable of filling your diapers and squawking for your next meal, God had given you marching orders.   The Spirit was already there waiting to equip you with what you needed when you were stirred to action.  “You will receive power,” Jesus says, in Acts 1, “you will be my witnesses.”

And just what are you being sent into the world to do? 

According to Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, Pentecost people are sent to really do just one thing, which is to proclaim and to live forgiveness. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This is what we are sent to do.

Now you begin to see how we are really still speaking a foreign language much of the time in this world, and often accused of being drunk or crazy.   For you see,  there is nothing that this world is more in need of than forgiveness, and there is nothing that this world tends to recoil from from more than forgiveness!

We recoil, for to forgive always means giving something up.

If you doubt that we recoil from forgiveness, then look no further than the events of this past week.   Our nation went from exaltation and elation to confusion around the release of Bowe Bergdahl, and the central issue in it all is around forgiveness.

We cannot seem to forgive a president for being elected while being black, and so we criticize his every move.

We cannot forgive a young man for wandering off his base, and abandoning his post.

We cannot forgive those incarcerated without warrant, trial, or due process since 2001 because they may still be a “threat.”   And how much did our treatment of them over these years make them less of a threat?  Or did we solidify it?

Oh, to speak about forgiveness these days in the face of these events is to be every bit speaking a “foreign language” as trying to talk in Parthian, Mede, or Elamite!

There are some sins we would prefer to “retain.”

Pay attention to this, because it makes sense of this matter of retaining sin.   We think that retaining sin is a punitive measure.  “Well, I just won’t forgive you, and that gives me power over you, and I’ll forgive you when you shape up.”  “See, Jesus even said that we could retain the sins, hold you accountable, and so I’m just doing what the bible tells me I can do.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this matter of retaining sin is something that benefits you.  No, it is a sad and sorry business, because where there is no forgiveness, there is no healing, no relationship, and no future.  

Listen once again to what Jesus says, 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;   PERIOD!   EXCLAMATION POINT!   And all the power that they once held is gone.

That is what Jesus wants us to understand.  He wants us to understand the power that the Spirit gives is that when something is forgiven, it is truly FORGIVEN – it is put behind you, over, done with, not to be brought back, so that true healing and reconciliation can take place.

…if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. – PERIOD! EXCLAMATION POINT!  

And here is how the second half of that works.  If you hang on to those sins, they are going to hang on to you! 

All the negative feelings.  

All the pain. 

All the emotion and hurt and the anger that goes along with that sin, it’s all going to stick to you like gum in your hair. If you don’t give it up, it doesn’t go away.  

Pentecost People, we are sent by God into a hurting world, and the God who sends us, also equips us for the task and the journey with his Holy Spirit.   We receive from God what we need in the midst of the journey – not before we take off.

We forgive, or we don’t forgive.  

When we do forgive, we experience the joy and freedom that comes from Christ himself.    We come to know the power of letting go, and healing, and being renewed in faith and life.

And when we don’t forgive, then it is that we are driven back to Christ.  In pain, and suffering, in agony and confusion we seek out again the one who can give us what we most need, the forgiveness needed to forgive others.  We seek out the one who was able to let go of all things, even his own life, and we learn from Christ how to let go of those things that we long to retain.

That is what it is to be people of Pentecost.  That is what it is to be the church. 

It’s not flashy, or the stuff that will grab headlines.  But it is the stuff that makes for life, and that will transform the world.   We speak the oh-so foreign language of forgiveness into a world that is obsessed with tit for tat, and would rather retain things than let things go.

That’s what we are sent to do as Pentecost People.

What Kind of “one?” John 17:1-11

Sometimes in order to get things in the Gospel of John we have to do a little re-arranging of our thinking and remind ourselves about the differences between the way John crafts his story of Jesus and the way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story.

            In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the pivotal scene of Jesus praying takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus invites the disciples to pray with him but then goes off to a quiet corner to pray on his own with them out of earshot.

            This makes perfect sense in the way that they portray Jesus, as the one who from time to time goes off to a “lonely place” to pray.  

            But in John’s Gospel, the picture of Jesus given is not one of a retreating Jesus, it is rather one of a Jesus who is revealed in signs and words and who becomes enfleshed.   The Lord’s Prayer is not taught to the disciples in John’s Gospel.  Instead, we are given more of the events of the upper room.

Indeed, this is the moment when Jesus does his teaching about prayer, and it is not done with a “when you pray, say this….”   Rather, it is done by modeling prayer in the midst of the last gathering.    Here, with those first disciples, we get to overhear what Jesus pray as he prays for us! 

            The prayer includes a number of petitions and hopes, but concludes with the admonition “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

            It’s that admonition, the “that they may be one” that always catches my attention.  Just what does Jesus mean by that?

            We pick up ideas about what it is to be made “one” from a variety of sources.  

            Having just celebrated Memorial Day, and with the anniversary of D-Day coming up this week, we might think about what it means to be made as “one” in terms of purpose.  Military units, bound together in a great cause, letting individuality drop away for the sake of the buddy, the other, or the mission to be accomplished.  That’s what it means be be “one.”

            Or, we might think of being made “one” as seeking out like minded individuals to rally together for a particular cause or ideal.   To be “one” is a share a common philosophy.  So we join a particular political party, or a group with a common world view and let our individual differences drop away for the sake of the political goal or expression.

            Sometimes we think of being “one” as a matter of being tolerant of one another’s differences and still caring about one another in some strange and wonderful way.   The 1970’s seemed be filled with shows that explored that idea, from M*A*S*H to Barney Miller to “Welcome Back Kotter” the differences were not erased, but rather played up and enhanced with all their quirkiness being a virtue and yet, somehow despite the differences, showing that they cared about each other as individuals thrown together by circumstances.  We were shown how the ensemble works despite the fact they don’t share the same view on matters.

I think that brings us closer to what we witness in the Gospel of John as Jesus prays for his disciples.Image

            These are characters, no doubt about it, and somehow DaVinci’s masterwork catches that.   We often interpret this great painting as being the moment when Jesus reveals one of them is about to betray him, and so the table erupts in the question, “Is it I?” and DaVinci then groups the disciples in these classic triads as they whisper and mumur and try to understand what he is saying.

            But I think you could insert this Prayer of Jesus and look at the painting and get the same effect.

            What is he talking about?

            What is he saying?

            How are we to be one?

            What does he mean when he says, “this is eternal life, knowing God?”

            What does he mean when he says he is going to “finish the work?”  What does that mean for us?

            I think the painting portrays all the things that roil and rile up inside us when we overhear Jesus praying for us, and can’t quite figure out what kind of “Oneness” he is praying for.

            That’s why this painting is so often parodied.  

Image

You soon discover that you can insert any number of characters who are thrown together into this painting and while it seems so wrong, it also somehow, seems so right!   The parodies end up enhancing both John’s Gospel and our own observations about the kind of “one-ness” that he prays for.

            This is an unlikely gathering of people, who have so little in common, buffoons who seems to be cartoon caricatures of what you would expect in followers of Jesus.  They are full of bluster and silly actions and strange actions.  My goodness, how could you ever think this group would get serious about anything?

            This is a cast of characters who are the furthest thing from being a group that shares a common goal, or a philosophy, or a common viewpoint.   They are constantly failing at life, showing their foibles, doing exactly the opposite of what any sane person would do.  We laugh at their density, even while recognizing ourselves in part in the characters.  My goodness, how could such a group of misfits ever do or teach you anything of value?

            This is a gathering of those who appear to be arch rivals and enemies and who would sell each other out in a heartbeat to get their own way.  Power hungry, or clueless puppets, the refuse of life whose time has past.  How could they ever share anything in common or be forged into one?

            This is the most unlikely gathering of people over which to have someone pray, “That they may be one.

            In fact, the miracle of the story is that Jesus didn’t roll his eyes, look heavenward and pray, “Father, how much longer do I have to put up with this?”

            The miracle of the story is that Jesus didn’t pray, “Father, you and I are one, but these jokers you gave me are never going to get it.”

            No, the miracle in the Gospel of John is that we find out that even though they are screw ups, and caricatures of what God would have them be as disciples, as those charged with the mission to love this world, Jesus prays for them anyway with full confidence and full claiming of them, all of them.

            “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

            Hear that for what it is, Jesus praying for his disciples.  He is praying for those given to him whom he will not speak ill of because he believes in them.  

He is praying for those who are in this world that God so loves.   They are to be God’s presence now in this beloved world, long after Jesus departs, and until he comes again.

That’s what Jesus prays for those for all those misfits around his table.

And if that’s what he prayed for those original misfits around the table, guess what he prays for when it comes to you and to me, the current misfits and screw-ups there!

No, we will never see eye to eye in this world, of that you can be sure.  I only have to take a little masking tape and mark a few things off up here to get the conversation going.  We are not going to be “One” in terms of a common vision for how things ought to be done, or what goals we should accomplish.  That’s a given.

And we will not be “one” in terms of our political persuasion, or our sense of our philosophy or approach to ministry, mission, committees, or priorities.  That’s just a given too.   We are in this world, all of us, and we see the world from our own unique perspectives, from the lenses that were given to us by nature and by nurture.   Jesus knows that being “one” isn’t about being clones in thought or agreement.

And so the great prayer he prays is this.  In the midst of all your differences that you can see, written all over each other’s faces; in the midst of all the things that you all bring to this table, know this, I am praying for you.    

That’s what Jesus says, and does, and somehow knowing that makes a difference.

Suddenly, I am reminded that Jesus loves you just the way you have been brought to the table, and if that’s the way he loves you, that’s the way I love you.

Jesus prays that we won’t remain the same.   He tells us that we will be glorified just as he is, and that we will take the mission he started into this world.  

That’s going to be a process. And so, Jesus sits down at the table with us.

Jesus takes out the towel and basin and washes feet, and pray for us to understand an to see what he is doing.  

He does so to show us the way be one.

We are One not by all agreeing, or by being alike, or by doing the same thing, but rather we are one in the spirit found in this table, just because Jesus has brought us together here.   For Jesus’ sake; and for the sake of the Father who believes in this gathering, and who is somehow mysteriously also “in you,” we are to be one.   

What kind of “one” does Jesus pray for us to be?  

It is the “being one” that comes from being in his presence.  The “being one” in our willingness to be shaped by his presence.  To find ourselves, with all our many differences and foibles and fears still coming back together, to this table, to discover here the one thing that can bind us together, the love and forgiveness of God through Jesus who so loves this world, and who bids us to love it for him as well because we are in it, and while we are in it, and because it is through those of us who are still in this world that God’s love for it will be made known.

And so, in John’s Gospel, Jesus does not go off to pray by himself and then come back to vent his frustration with us.

No, in John’s Gospel, the sign given is that Jesus is with us through it all, thick and thin, and in full confidence prays that we will be his disciples, bringing God’s love to this world that so needs to hear it, and that needs a new model for how to live.

We live at the table.  This is where he invites us.  This is where he prays for us.  This is where he finds us and gives us marching orders.  This is where we all belong.  This is where we are finally “One.”