About Our Church

 Sunday Services

 Mission

 Education

 Youth Fellowship

 Music Programs

 Join a Group

 Interfaith Ministries

 Sermons
  Current Year
  Prior Years
  Other Writings

 Pastor's Page

 

 

Welcoming Christ

Sermon - 6/26/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 10:40-42

Our text this morning is a short text that comes at the end of the 10th chapter of Matthew's gospel, verses 40-42. This occurs at the end of Jesus' instructions to the twelve, as he sends them out:

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, 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.’

Some of you, I'm sure, will remember the story of "The Rabbi's Gift", told by Scott Peck in his book "A Different Drum". We used it at a planning retreat a decade and a half ago. For those that were there, it's one of those stories that kind of just sticks with you, it has a powerful message.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again " they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, "the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"

"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah lives among you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah lives among us. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

This morning, I would like to tie together that story, with a column in the Register Guard by Don Kahle, an E-mail I received from Elaine Andres, yesterday's article in the Register Guard by Christine Tofte, the upcoming Eugene Celebration, and our Centennial. All of that in response to this text!

The text comes at the tail end of Jesus' message to the twelve (disciples). It comes immediately after some very sobering words that Jesus gives. First of all, he tells them he's sending them out like sheep amidst wolves. Now, if you've every watched the Nature Channel, you know that's not a pretty picture. He goes on to say they'll be dragged before rulers, family members will be pitted against family members, you will be hated by all because of my name.

And then comes the hardest part of all -- I think this is one of the hardest, most difficult passages to read in all of scripture: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me".

That is a tough message. It's hard to hear. It's even harder to understand. But it's also very real.

I can into a new understanding of this story when I heard that story that Chris and Mike shared for us. If you haven't read the Register Guard's "Heart to Heart" column (June 25th edition), go home and read that. If you were here at our Annual Meeting in January, you heard Chris and Mike share this story, about how they were told by their pastor in their previous church that their son would be living a life of sin if he did not change his way of homosexuality. And that even though they should still love their son, they should pray for God to change him. Even though they felt strongly that he was who he is, that God made him that way.

Well, as the Tofte's shared with us, it was a very painful moment in their lives. Because that pastor from that church was part of their family, just as we are now. And they chose, wisely and rightly, their son over that church. And eventually found there way here, where they were instrumental in helping us to change our 'unofficial' policy of being open & affirming regardless of sexual orientation, to our official policy. And yes, we did that by consensus. But we were not unanimous, that's a different thing -- some chose to stand aside, and we thank them for that. Some chose to not participate in that process. In the end, even though we had consensus, just as the Tofte's felt that they had to find a new church, we also had a couple of households that they too needed to find a new church, though for the opposite reason. And we lament that.

The irony, of course, is that everyone felt their decision -- whether it be to move forward with us or to leave -- was based on being faithful to the gospel. And so it's important for us to be respectful toward those who have chosen to leave, and to understand that their choice to do so was based in their faith. And that it was a painful choice to make. Even as we continue to affirm our choice as the right one for us based in our faith, for to not make that choice would be to deny the inclusivity of God's love we hold central to our values and the mission as God's people.

In giving these instructions to the twelve, Jesus was quite aware of the painful choices the gospel would require. In Matthew, telling the gospel story now several decades later, has the added benefit of that experience of those families, those close-knit communities that faced those kinds of painful choices.

And that is reflected in the shape, then, that is given to this re-telling of the story. And so Jesus ends here with words of encouragement, in effect saying 'As you make some of those painful choices, keep in mind that in the process you are creating new bonds of family and community, based not on your identity as a member of this family or that, but on God's identity, as the creator of all families, regardless of their make-up and character. As the creator of all people'.

So Christian community is based on forming new bonds of acceptance, love, and respect, and creating that space, a sacred, holy space. Where we welcome others as we would welcome Christ.

I call this 'radical hospitality'. Welcoming the stranger. Not just the stranger like us, who we are comfortable with, who looks like us, talks like us, but precisely that stranger you see who is different from us. And this is where that article from Don Kahle comes in. Don writes every Friday for the Register Guard, and on June 10th he wrote about his experience of that kind of hospitality in the Middle East, in his visits to Egypt and Iraq. He wrote:

"We practice hospitality in the West most easily with those most similar to us. But the ease and the similarity mean it’s not true hospitality, and it barely resembles its continuing form where it first took root. 

We practice hospitality using a cost-benefit analysis. My gift to you is considered an investment. Whether I expect my return to be direct or indirect, my self-interest drives the transaction. There’s nothing wrong with cashless capitalism. But it’s not hospitality."


I had to kid Don a little bit about this (he and I have worked together in City Club and other places), and said, you know Don, you're contradicting Jesus here :). What Don is saying is if you do it for a reward, it's not hospitality. Well, Jesus talks about the reward here, of hospitality -- only, that reward is never defined. And I think the point of that, of leaving it undefined, it's a way of saying the reward is the act itself. The act of welcome, the act of being hospitable, is its own reward.

Hospitality, Don continues:

"Hospitality extends self for the good of another, without regard for an exchange. Civilization has relied on this instinct for generosity for five millennia. It exists in near its original form across the Middle East."

And so he goes on to describe the various places he went, and how he was received in those places. And then he concludes:

"The richer the environment, the more diluted the hospitality. Marble staircases lead to polite exchanges of niceties. But when you walk through street-side garbage, duck your head to enter, watch your step up uneven and unlit stairs, then a feast awaits.

Original hospitality seems inversely related to wealth.

I asked why they offered such extreme generosity. They smiled but couldn’t answer. They offered their national identity or their religious devotion, but the deeper answer was simply this: they couldn’t imagine themselves differently."

They couldn't imagine themselves differently. I know on my own trips to that area of the world, including our recent pilgrimage through the world of Paul, that I found that certainly to be true. That there are those places, those people, where it's simply part of the culture, it's a part of who you are.

So the E-mail I received from Elaine a couple weeks ago, no idea what I'd be preaching on, was about this very same thing. It was an article by Joan Chittister, the Benedictine Nun, a well-known author on spirituality. She writes of the founder of her order, Saint Benedict, and says:


Now, I have to stop here, because something incredible happened in the first service this morning, which most of you didn't witness. It happens every now-and-then. Some of you were here on the morning after Halloween, and we had an unusual visitor, an inappropriately clothed visitor, and my sermon was about welcoming everybody regardless of how they are clothed (I had that line in there, and I had to just stop and say 'what the heck?').

Another time I was preaching on "Blessed are the poor", and right as I'm reading that line, a guy stands up and says "I want Jesus!". I said "Now?" :)

I'm reading this line from Joan Chittister this morning, and a gentleman obviously off the street walks across the front of the sanctuary, draws everyone's attention, and just as I get to this point, stands up and begins muttering, talking about a terrorist out there, this and that, was confusing, goes to the back of the church, says something about being Jesus or being God, and he writes something down on our guest book, rips out the page, and he walks forward and says "I'm going to play a song". And I'm thinking, I've got to do something. He then walked down here in front and I stepped forward to meet him, and said "I love you guys", and gave me this big hug. And then walked out.

This is what he wrote: "Jesus Christ of the almighty, I love you almighty God, Lord. I love everyone. I am not almighty God, I am only a son of God".

Huh. You know, as I said earlier: "Who was that masked man?". I also said, you know, we can't expect everyone to enter our world, and sometimes they live in a different reality. And we have to enter their world, to be with them and to try and understand what is going on. And it's hard, and difficult. Yeah, he too is a child of God.

Well, here's the thing. So after that interruption, I continue reading Joan Chittister:



Whew. Elaine wrote in that E-mail that she sent, that she read this and thought of our church.

That brings me to the Eugene Celebration. The theme for the Eugene Celebration this year is "Raising the Roof". On August 27th, when they have their parade (and often that parade comes down right in front of our church), 100 years almost to the day, when that parade walks by, was when we raised the roof of this church. So our Centennial Committee said wouldn't it be cool if we had an entry in the parade?!

So image this: 20 or 30 of us walking down the street in a big circle, carrying a parachute in the middle. And in kind of a reverse of the story of the big bad wolf, we get everyone to huff and to puff, not to blow the house down, but to blow the roof up. And magically, the parachute rises! And through the miracle of fiberglass tent poles, forms a dome! And as we sing or play the Hallelujah chorus, everybody gathers under that dome, and we share this message:

Hallelujah people of Eugene. There is a place under the roof for everyone.

Whether living in your home or living on the street, we are here for you.

Rich or poor, young or old, Republican or Democrat, socialist or capitalist, legal resident or undocumented alien, soldier or conscientious objector, police officer or protester, you are welcome here.

Gay, lesbian, or straight, queer or questioning, single or partnered, married or divorced, you are welcome here.

Jew and Christian, Buddhist and Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, people of all faiths and people of no faith, you are welcome here.

And then the coup de gras: imagine a Duck chasing a Beaver, in and out, in and out, will they? won't they? And then the Duck catches the Beaver, and there underneath the dome -- embraces him! Yes it is that radical :).

It's easy to imagine, to picture. But can we do it? I'm not talking just about the parade. Can we practice that kind of spirituality? Can we create that kind of a sacred, holy place where all are welcomed as we would welcome Christ? Can we do it?

Maybe. Maybe we are.

 


Home | About Our Church | Services | Mission | Education | Youth Fellowship
Music Programs | Join a Group | Interfaith Ministry | Sermons | Pastor's Page
Questions or comments about this web site?  Contact the WebMasters