Peace, Protest, Hospitality: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year C, 2019

We have come to that section of Luke’s gospel which relates his long journey toward Jerusalem. In the past few weeks, we have seen him teaching and healing in Galilee, crossing over the Sea of Galilee to heal the Gerasene demoniac. Last week, we were told that he set his face to go to Jerusalem, and we heard that strange story of him sending his disciples ahead of him into Samaritan towns that refused to welcome him. Strange, because James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy the inhospitable villages. Continue reading

Loving the Strange: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year C


Radical Hospitality.

All are welcome here.

Inclusion. Diversity.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

These buzz words and slogans are everywhere. In public discourse and especially among progressive Christians. Hospitality comes up in conversations around ethnic diversity and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. If you were to read current literature on congregational growth and vitality, hospitality is always one of the key themes. Like many other churches, at Grace we pride ourselves on our hospitality. If you’re visiting today, join us for coffee hour to test whether we put our words into action. Continue reading

On being sent out: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year B, 2015

By now, most if not all of you have heard the news coming out of the just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Among many other resolutions passed and the election of a new presiding bishop, the items that got the most attention outside of the church from the mainstream media, were the resolutions concerning marriage—the change in the canons, removing the reference to man and woman in the definition of marriage, and the approval for trial usage of new rites for marriage.

We are not of one mind on these issues. Some of view these changes positively, as signs the church is responding to cultural change, embracing and welcoming diversity. Others are much more cautious, even opposed, struggling to understand how these changes fit in with scripture and tradition. While Bishop Miller has suggested that congregations may use these rites when they become available on the first Sunday of Advent this year, as a congregation we will have to discern where we are and how we might move forward together as the body of Christ.

If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to stick around after service today and join me in the library for a conversation. Bring your questions and concerns as we talk together about the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church as well as marriage equality. This conversation is not just about gender and sexuality, it is about hospitality and mission, two themes that find resonance in today’s gospel.

Jesus comes home in the first section of today’s reading and isn’t welcomed with open arms. Remember that he has been on the road, visiting the towns and villages of Galilee, but also crossing the lake and working in Gentile territory as well. He has healed people, raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, cast out demons, and taught crowds. Now he’s home, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and preaches. The response from the community is astonishment. They know this guy, he’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary. They know his family and wonder where he gets off talking with such authority and performing the mighty acts they’ve heard about. Their response of astonishment and offense seem to limit Jesus’ ability; instead of performing “deeds of power” similar to those he has done elsewhere, in his hometown, he only heals a few people by laying hands on them.

Jesus resumes his itinerant ministry, teaching and healing, and as he does, he commissions the twelve to share in that ministry. Like Jesus, they traveled about, healing the sick, casting unclean spirits, and preaching repentance. Indeed, these are precisely the same activities that Mark shows Jesus doing in the preceding chapters. The disciples become an extension of Jesus’ himself, proclaiming the coming of the reign of God, and in their actions, offering a foretaste of that reign.

But there’s more. In addition to sending them out and empowering them, Jesus gives them instructions on what to take with them and what to do. They’re to take no provisions with them, no bread or money, to wear sandals and not even carry a change of clothes. In fact, so puzzling are these instructions that when telling the story, Matthew and Luke change the details. In Mark they are to carry a staff and wear sandals; in Matthew and Luke, they are forbidden either sandals or a staff. But all three agree that if they come to a place that rejects them, they are to leave, and as they leave, shake the dust off of their sandals, symbolically demonstrating their rejection of that place.

On one level, these instructions reflect a central concern in the first century or so of Christianity, the local community or congregation responsibility to provide for its leaders, especially for itinerant evangelists. Paul addresses such issues in his letters, stressing at times that he was paying his own way; and in Christian sources outside the New Testament, we see similar instructions for the lifestyle of evangelists. And over the centuries, these instructions have provided inspiration for movements like that led by St. Francis of Assisi, who sent his followers out two by two, and instructed them to wear sandals, no belt, and take no money with them.

We may get caught up in the specificity and simplicity of Jesus’ instructions as well as the dramatic image of disciples shaking the dust from their sandals as they leave a place that rejected them. These details reflect two larger themes that deserve our attention. First, mission. The very word comes from the Latin word, “to send.” Here Jesus sends the twelve out. They are doing the very things that Jesus has done; they are extending his ministry, his proclamation, his presence, and his healing, in places where he cannot go. They are expanding his influence and message.

The second theme is hospitality. Jesus is not welcomed back home—they take offense at him—and apparently because of this response, he is unable to do in his hometown all of the things he can do elsewhere. Jesus instructs the twelve on how to receive hospitality, and what to do if they don’t receive it. It’s that aspect of hospitality that we don’t often think about.

When we talk about hospitality, we tend to emphasize how open or welcoming we are or should be. We think about how we greet newcomers, how we embrace people unlike ourselves. All of that is important, of course but it comes from a position of privilege. We are the ones to whom guests come, we are the ones opening our doors, inviting others in. That’s not what Jesus was talking about here. He was giving instructions on how to receive hospitality.

The disciples he sent out had almost nothing—no food or money, nothing by the clothes on their back, their staff and sandals. They were dependent on the kindness of strangers, for shelter and for food. As recipients of hospitality, they were vulnerable. It’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself, as anyone who has ever had to ask for help can tell you.

Can our hospitality embody such vulnerability and openness? Can we let go of our privilege and comfort and welcome the possibility of change when we welcome the stranger? Can we be open to their gifts and experiences, open to relationship based on vulnerability and openness, rather than requiring them to conform to our expectations?

We have talked a great deal about hospitality here at Grace; we are talking about issues of diversity and welcome, of reaching out to our neighbors, but most of those conversations are one-sided. We are talking to each other, but not to people beyond our congregation. We are thinking about how we might be more welcoming and do more outreach in our neighborhood and the community but what we are not asking people outside our doors what their needs, and gifts, are. Can we receive what they have to tell us?

Hospitality and mission; there’s something else we ought to reflect on in all of this. We see Jesus rejected because apparently his preaching offended the townspeople. We see Jesus telling his disciples what to do if they’re rejected when they come in his name. Can we imagine ourselves offending others in Jesus’ name? Can we imagine being rejected because we have said, or done things, that make our neighbors uncomfortable?

The most discomfort we might have is hearing these words of Jesus, as he tells his disciples, tells us, to go out and do his work, to travel lightly, to receive what others have to offer, to be ready to receive rejection. It may be uncomfortable, but Jesus is sending us out. When we say the prayer after communion, we accept that responsibility, “Send us now into the world in peace … to love and serve you.” May we accept that mission, may we do his work.

Jesus was hungry, not hospitable

I’m working on my sermon for Sunday. The Gospel is Mark 6:1-13. The passage includes Jesus’ visit to his hometown where he was unable to do any “deeds of power” but did heal some people. It also includes Mark’s version of the sending out of the twelve. Jesus instructs them on how to receive hospitality and how to respond if they are not welcomed in a village.

“Hospitality” is one of the key values of contemporary progressive Christianity, especially as mainline, mainly-white churches seek to welcome and include people of color, members of the LGBT community, as well as people of different socio-economic background. Often, such praiseworthy goals are connected with Jesus’ own practice of radical inclusion. Progressive Christians love to say things like, “Jesus practiced radical hospitality” or “Jesus welcomed all to the table.” Such arguments are made not just in our efforts toward great diversity and inclusivity, but also in the Episcopal Church in the ongoing controversy over inviting the unbaptized to receive communion.

Such statements may reflect central values in contemporary progressive worship and theology but as Andrew McGowan notes in a blog post, they don’t correspond to the gospel records of Jesus.

 the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may be a common feature of many scholarly portraits; he is not, however, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus was most clearly someone willing to eat with diverse company, less an inclusive host than an undiscriminating guest. Jesus appears as host only in quite different and more historically contentious material, relative to that where he is depicted as keeping bad company or being a wine-bibber. The “guest” traditions about him are generally defensible; the “host” traditions tend to be more influenced by later reflection than material that scholars in general would actually attribute to the historical Jesus.

He concludes:

Meals were important to ancient Mediterranean society, Jewish and Greco-Roman alike, as venues for the expression and creation of social relationships—not just among families, but for professional guilds, interest groups and, of course, for religious purposes, too. Meals were venues for politics as well as piety, business as well as pleasure.

It is hardly surprising that we find Jesus actively participating in this meal-culture. It was the most obvious means for many types of social interaction, and the carefully-crafted Gospel pictures of Jesus sharing others’ tables certainly have a reliable core.

Nor should we forget the even more basic reality of physical need. Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. Hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship.

In our gospel for this week, Jesus’ instructions to the disciples help them to receive hospitality, not give it. In many ways, that is more difficult for us. Offering hospitality, especially in the Church, comes from a place of privilege. Receiving hospitality requires vulnerability. That’s true in our worship and in our outreach programs.

Entertaining strangers and angels: The Reality

I preached about hospitality this morning. 

We were hospitable in all sorts of ways, with lots of visitors and newcomers, some old friends, and at least two homeless people. The VA discharged a man who was barely ambulatory and sent him to the shelter. He had come to the VA hospital yesterday from another town in the area so he’s unfamiliar with Madison, the shelters, and had no information about what limited services are available on Sundays. They discharged him this morning around 8:30. Of course the shelter opens around 7:30 this evening. One wonders what VA staff expected him to do for eleven hours, or worse, if they even cared. He came to service, enjoyed coffee hour. Earlier someone purchased him a cup of coffee; as I was leaving church this afternoon, someone else had just gone to the store to buy him a couple of packs of cigarettes.

I called the VA between our services and gave the discharge nurse an earful. I also left messages with the homeless outreach program. It outrages and sickens me. It’s bad enough that all of the hospitals do it; I think it’s criminal that the VA does it.

The other homeless person who came to us today was wheelchair-bound. She had been sent from the Salvation Army to what she called the “rescue mission” to eat. Unfortunately that facility is not accessible so they told her “to go to the church on the square.” That’s how she found us. She will attend our Spanish-language service and join them for lunch.

I’m proud of how we as a congregation reached out to these two individuals (and to lots of other strangers who came amongst us today). Such things don’t happen every week but it’s not uncommon to have a homeless person or two join us for coffee hour (and in the winter for services). But it’s a shame that churches have to fill the gaps when our society fails our most vulnerable members. And it’s especially shameful when the federal agency that exists to care for vets discharges patients directly to homeless shelters.

Entertaining Angels and Strangers: A Sermon for Proper 11, Year C, July 21, 2013

Proper 11, Year C

July 21, 2013

Take a minute. Look around the pews a minute. If you’re a visitor this morning, never been here before, were you welcomed? Did anyone greet you, ask your name, thank you for coming? If you’ve been coming a few months or even years, do you know the names of the people sitting next to you in the pews? If you’re a long time member, is there someone you’ve seen before, perhaps many times, but don’t know their names or anything about them? Well, here’s your opportunity. Take a few minutes—don’t start chatting with someone you know, start chatting with someone you don’t know. Continue reading

Volunteering at the Food Pantry

I volunteered at Grace’s Food Pantry for the first time today. It was quite interesting. I’ve not even spent much time in it before, although it has taken up its share of my time. We’ve been awarded three grants this year–from the diocese and the Madison Community Foundation. Most of the money will go to much-needed upgrades and replacement of our food storage capacity (new coolers, freezers, shelving).

I’ve certainly seen pantry guests frequently. They line up outside the pantry before hours; often they linger in our courtyard before and after receiving food, and occasionally seek me out to ask for financial assistance. But for the most part, I’ve not dealt directly with them. I suppose I had the typical assumptions about who makes use of pantries. And certainly there were what might be regarded as stereotypes. What surprised me more were the numbers of young people, single men and women, and some who had jobs. One man told me he was working now for the first time in a while, but he wouldn’t get his first pay check till Wednesday. We gave him things that he could take for lunch. There were others who had come back to the pantry for the first time in four or five years. I was curious about the turns their lives had taken to bring them back to this place.

One of the surprising things was how health-conscious many of our guests were. They wanted to know the salt content of processed foods. They asked for low-fat alternatives. They also were concerned that they not take things that they had in supply. If they had rice, they didn’t ask for more.

There were two ironies I noticed. First was the most obvious, that a few hundred feet away from us was the Dane County Farmer’s Market filled with fresh spring vegetables, meats, cheese and other local food products. We benefited from it this morning. A bakery shared left over scones with us. But that in the midst of all of that agricultural bounty, there are those who go hungry is sobering.

The second irony came from the church itself. We open our doors to the public on Saturday mornings. We invite people in to look at the space, to enjoy the beauty, to sense the sacred. It may be that someone who comes to the pantry might also visit the church. It’s happened once or twice, but usually only because they are new to the pantry and don’t know where to go.

We’ve been trying hard to make a connection between what we do liturgically with our eating and our hospitality. It’s a difficult connection for most people to make even though our central liturgical act, the Eucharist involves eating and drinking. We say we welcome everyone to our table; we talk about the sacred act of eating. We call ourselves a friendly and welcoming parish.

But the pantry reflects those values only very dimly. It is not a welcoming place. There are steps leading up to the door, making it difficult for the disabled and elderly to come in. The entrance itself is dingy, dark, and dirty, and once inside, people line up, as they usually do at social service agencies, taking a number, waiting in line.

Sara Miles in Take This Bread, describes a very different sort of pantry–where there is little distinction between volunteer and guest, with a joyous atmosphere and a marvelous meal for the volunteers, and where the food is distributed, not out of some side room or back door, but from the altar of the church’s sanctuary. That makes clear the connection between liturgy and outreach, the eucharistic feast and the feeding of the hungry.

I’m eager to find ways of making the pantry a more welcoming place, or to make the physical space correspond to the values and attitudes of the church and volunteers. I’m eager also to find ways of making connections between the Farmer’s Market and the pantry. And I hope to broaden the group of those who volunteer–to bring in young people, for example. The pantry should reflect our values as a community of God’s people. It is not a social service agency or branch of the federal government.