July 2, 2017 “Community”
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
This story brought to mind an unexpected stranger who knocked on my door one day when I was living in the San Fernando Valley of California. She was an elderly woman who was going to get her hair cut. She had missed her bus and tried to walk, but had gotten hopelessly lost and missed her appointment. Now she just wanted to get back home. I lived a bit off the beaten track, so it was rather surprising that she chose my door to knock on. She asked me if I would call her a cab.
While I was searching the yellow pages for cab listings, all of a sudden I said to myself, “What are you doing? You can drive her home!” So I did, and we had a lovely conversation on the way, and I found myself somehow changed by this encounter. It felt so good.
I thought about this chance meeting for a long time afterwards. I remember it to this day. I don’t think it was an accident that she chose my door to knock on. I later felt that God had sent her there to teach me a lesson - about encountering others - about extending hospitality - about seeing the face of God in total strangers. Like Abraham and Sarah, I felt that through my encounter with this stranger I had been somehow visited by God.
The practice of hospitality in the ancient Mediterranean world was recognized as a sacred duty. The practice stemmed from their nomadic life style, when public inns were rare, and anyone who travelled very far from home found themselves strangers depending on the kindness of others.
A traveler entering a town would come to the open place and someone would invite them to their home, where they would be treated with respect and honor, provided with water for their feet, rest, and a sumptuous feast.
Would that happen today here in the U.S.? Has anyone ever extended that kind of hospitality to you? We may have some stories to share during fellowship time in the chapel.
Jesus, we know, had no home of his own. He depended on the hospitality of others for a place to rest his head, and food to keep him going. He sent his disciples out to do likewise. Early Christians, in their travels, would seek out other Christians, partly for protection, but mainly to share fellowship and worship. They met in people’s homes. Church was not a place but a community of people.
Strangers walk in these doors all the time, some having just moved here, some seeking out other Christians to worship with during their travels away from home. They come to my office looking for gift cards to Star Market, or someone to pay their rent or car insurance, or a night at a hotel.
The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. Philo is one of the four Greek words for love, and xenia means stranger. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. But who are our neighbors? Do they have to live in close proximity? Do they belong to the church across the park, or one across town? Do we have to know them?
The Hebrew Bible gives us a clue. Love your neighbor appears once, but 36 verses command us to love the stranger, and that included, not only friendly faces, but our enemies as well. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it as “coming face to face with someone who may be different from you, and entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God.”
Jesus taught this practice of encountering others by his example, wherever he went. Those he reached out to and welcomed and healed were not limited to people who looked or acted or necessarily thought like him. They included fishermen, Roman centurians, Samaritans, lepers, Syro-Phonecian women, hated tax collectors, hostile Judeans, slaves, rulers, widows, prostitutes, 12 year old girls and powerful men. And he instructed us to do likewise as we hear in today’s text from Matthew: 10:40-42
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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; and 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.’
“The supreme religious challenge,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” This is why we added a sign in front of our church: Muslims, Jews, Christians, refugees, undocumented, immigrants, people of color, our LGBTQ community - We are all God’s children.
These are our neighbors. The hardest spiritual work in the world seems to be loving your neighbor as yourself - be they just annoying next door types who put signs in their yards that you disagree with, or total strangers across town, who happen to look different, or practice a different religion.
Jonathan Swift once observed: “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.” A few weeks ago I quoted Robin Meyers from his book “The Underground Church”. In it he said that “Christianity has an identity problem.” He quoted a survey that said “Only 16% of those outside the church believe Christians show love for other people.” They identified Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch, insensitive, boring and exclusive. And I’ve heard this from more than one source.
Those of us sitting here will protest: “That’s not us!” But how do we turn this image around - this image that is keeping strangers from walking in our doors and learning about the good news we have to share? As I suggested in that sermon, we need to go back to the teachings and example set by Jesus - to “The Way”, as it was called, of those early Christians - practicing hospitality and community - looking out for one another - including the stranger.
I recently attended the annual meeting of the Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut conferences of the UCC in Hartford. The focus of the gathering was the potential future merger of the three conferences. But what I took away with me had more to do with how we in mainline Protestant churches need to come together to do the hard work of healing our broken, divided society, and in doing so, just might repair our tarnished image.
Those of us in mainline Christian churches have remained silent far too long, as others claimed the role of spokesperson for Christianity. For years we, quietly behind the scenes, wrote checks, collected food, worked in soup kitchens, thinking we had done our part. But charity, although essential, is not enough.
If we are to address the systemic problems that create the need for charity, we have to speak out. As individuals, and faith communities, we have to be on the front lines, calling out our elected officials when bills they are voting on are unjust, hurting those who can least afford it.
So often I have heard, “But that’s political!” as though that’s a bad thing. Jesus was political, radical you might say, and aren’t we supposed to be following Jesus?
No one person, or one church, or synagogue, or mosque, can do this work alone. That was the other important message I took from the meeting: We have to work together, bringing together different churches, denominations, different faith traditions, to stand up for justice, working for the common good, supporting those who feel ostracized or threatened in these troubling times. “We need each other” was a common mantra at the meeting. We each have different strengths - and weaknesses. We can learn from each other, and in doing so, we will strengthen our own faith.
As I sat listening, I found myself getting very excited as I realized “We are already doing this!” We’re a small church - in numbers that is. So are many others here in Newton. And we know there is strength in numbers. That requires finding common concerns that we can address together - expanding our sense of community.
Over the past two years 2nd Church and Eliot have come together to reach out to families living in motels, hosting cookouts on our lawn and parties for special occasions. Members of other faith communities have also joined us. We have reached out to members of the Turkish Cultural Center, hosting Iftar Dinners at 2nd Church two years in a row during Ramadan, and now some of us are sharing meals with their members in our homes - learning from each other - supporting our neighbors in need, be it emotional or material support.
We have drawn the three Abrahamic traditions together to worship here at Eliot with our Interfaith Peace and Thanksgiving services.
2nd Church and Eliot brought our teens together a year ago for Confirmation. Youth leaders from our Presbyterian friends sitting here, along with Grace Episcopal across the park, and Eliot, are making plans for a youth group in the fall. We combined talents at our Joyful Noise Cafe this spring.
We’ve extended hospitality to our Presbyterian neighbors this year when you were locked out of your church, providing space for you to worship in our chapel. We came together to worship on Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week and Easter, and now today. What an important reminder it is of what Christian Unity can look like, and how good it feels when it’s practiced.
A reporter last week called me to ask where we find hope in these troubling times. It reminded me that the Easter message is one of hope, of new birth and transformation. In a country so divided, I was given hope when I saw hundreds of people, of all faiths, and no faith at all, pouring into the Islamic Center of Wayland last spring for their open house.
I was given hope when over a hundred people, Christians and Jews, gathered at a meeting at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Newton recently to lend support after they voted to become a sanctuary church. I am proud to belong to a city that has declared itself a Welcoming City.
These are signs of new birth, but there will need to be more, to break down the walls of division, and transform our society into one that God can again call “good” - one where we can “Walk joyfully on the earth and respond to that of God in every human being.” (George Fox) Let us all keep working together to make that dream a reality.