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Holy Welcome

Jesus sent us, his twelve disciples out to Israel with these instructions: “As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.”[1]

I’m not even going to pretend I wasn’t scared. We’d already had all kinds of threats and a little violence against us. And now Jesus was just telling us to go out into the world and tell people all that he’d told us as if that wouldn’t, couldn’t get us killed. And to tell the truth, Jesus knew it. He even said it. He said we were like sheep in the midst of wolves. So really it only made sense to be scared.

But Jesus seemed to believe that there were people who would want to meet us, people who would welcome us into their homes and listen to what we would say, people who would trust us to heal their sick, and to change the way they saw the world. And anyone else, anyone who kept us out of their towns, synagogues, and houses- they couldn’t receive the good news anyway. We just needed to walk away. We didn’t need to waste our time and energy trying to convince people to welcome us. Those who practiced hospitality toward us had hearts open to hearing from God. And anyone who couldn’t receive us, couldn’t receive the good news. At least not right then. We

It worked out. And Jesus was right. The same people who made space for us in their homes and shared their food and water, who laughed, and told us their stories- they were the ones who we healed, befriended, came to know and love. They were the ones who could hear the good news and could get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven here among us. And I don’t know what happened to all the people who shut us out.

Later on, I thought about the people who offered us hospitality and the people who didn’t. It was embarrassing how I acted, the side I fell on when it was my turn to make the choice. See, Jesus had been teaching. It had been a long day, and everyone was tired. Jesus had been telling stories and talking about things that felt complicated to all of us. So, when this big group of parents and grandparents interrupted us and were bringing their kids to Jesus, it was annoying. It seemed rude, really. They wanted Jesus to bless their kids, but we were all trying to continue our conversation. So, James and I stopped the parents and turned them away. We weren’t trying to be mean, but someone had to control the situation. And maybe we spoke more sharply than was necessary.

But Jesus saw the situation differently. We had been talking about right and wrong and how to follow the law and Jesus lets himself be interrupted by these kids. He stopped us from stopping them. “Let them little children come, do not stop them,” he said. And here’s the part that got me remembering what had happened before. Jesus said, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

The kingdom of heaven has come near. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the ones who are let in when I would have kept them out. The kingdom of [heaven] can only be received by those who are willing to welcome the stranger, the child, the straggler, the one who is different.[2] Here’s what I learned that day: in as much as I wanted to be welcomed, I had to welcome. If I wanted a taste of the God’s kingdom, I had to learn how to welcome others.

In modern times, we associate hospitality with an industry. “Hospitality” is about hotels and restaurants. Olive Garden’s catchphrase is “when you’re here, you’re family.” That sounds much nicer than “when you’re here, we want you to feel welcome so you spend a lot of money.” In our homes, hospitality seems to be about putting into practice all that we have learned from Martha Stewart and Emily Post, often so people will feel good about us. None of that has anything to do with Christian hospitality though.

Theology professor Elizabeth Newman explains that Christian hospitality is a way of being, not something you do.[3] Hospitality isn’t about a tidy home, well-planned meals, and nice smelling bathrooms (although all of those things are lovely). Hospitality, true welcome in the name of Christ, is being open to receiving the stranger, fully and completely, as a beloved child of God. When we consider hospitality, it calls our very character into question. How do I see other people? Do I avoid or separate myself from others? Do I think I’m better or more worthy? Most of us want to believe that we can welcome others into our lives, but I would suggest the very real possibility that the reality of our lives tells a different story. Am I friends with only people who look and think and act like me? People who are in my same tax bracket? People who believe the same things I do?

Hospitality can include welcoming the people who are in your regular life, but Christian hospitality is also about welcoming the stranger. Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testaments, we are told to welcome not just the people we already know, but specifically to welcome people who are different than us. Welcome the stranger. This happens in our personal lives when we encounter people wherever we find them- in the grocery store, the gas station, at school events, and out on walks. Welcoming the stranger may look like helping a parent who is struggling to get their kids and their groceries in the car as the rain pours down. It can look like striking up a conversation with someone waiting in line behind you. Seeking to understand someone whose life choices are different than yours. Perhaps it looks like taking the time to treat someone in the service industry with respect, dignity, and kindness. Calling someone by name goes a long way. Treating them like they matter, and they’re your equal is a gift.

Of course, Christian hospitality extends beyond our personal lives and into our life together as a congregation. In his book, I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality professor Arthur Sutherland says, “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.”[4] Think back to Jesus sending the first disciples- their ability to share the good news was directly connected to the hospitality they received from those they met. And their ability to share that good news with the children who came to Jesus was directly connected to their hospitality towards those children. So, Sutherland’s point is this- if we can practice genuine hospitality, the church will stand. If we fail to offer hospitality, the church will fall.

It’s not up to us to decide who is in and who is out. God offers welcome and we RSVP yes. It’s not our job to check the guest list. We are not called to be gatekeepers of God’s hospitality. There is no such thing as the “right kind of people” or “our kind of people.” There are only children of God. And we are gathered together, not through our own doing, but by the work of the very same Jesus who says “follow me, come to me, I have called you friends, let the little children come to me.” It is God’s hospitality that brings us together. Elizabeth Newman, who I quoted earlier, helps us to see God’s hospitality right here before us. She writes, “Rightly understood, worship itself is hospitality. We do not gather ourselves; God gathers us; God invites us in. More fully, we are brought by the power of the Holy Spirit into a worship already taking place in the life of God.”[5] Our job is quite simply to accept the welcome we are given and to offer that welcome to others.

In 1573, a renowned Venetian artist Paolo Veronese was commissioned to create a painting of the Last Supper. You’re very likely familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the famous scene that had been created roughly 80 years before. Veronese began with a very similar image- Jesus and the disciples gathered around a table. The middle of his painting would look familiar to you. But, you see, he was working with a huge canvas. It was about 18.5’x43’. So, Jesus and company were not going to fill it. And Veronese got creative. He added a few characters- dogs, enslaved people, a random guy having a nosebleed, some drunk Germans, some “buffoons,” and “other such scurrilities” as later documents called them. Instead of Jesus and the 12 disciples, the painting became Jesus and just about everyone you could think of.

He was painting during the Inquisition, and the raucous crowd he included in his scene made some of the church leaders uncomfortable. That same year, Veronese was called before the Holy Tribunal of the Church and asked about this painting they saw as profane. Veronese didn’t have any great defense. Quite simply, he told the truth. There was room on the canvas. Although the Holy Tribunal had the authority to destroy the painting or even execute Veronese, they simply told him to fix it. Erase everyone who didn’t belong. He had three months to comply. I don’t know why Veronese did what he did, but he chose not to change the painting. Perhaps he was lazy. Or maybe he was standing up for artistic integrity. Or maybe, just maybe, he knew that Jesus would offer hospitality to everyone, no matter how buffoonish or scurrilous they are, and he wasn’t going to remove them. Instead of changing the painting, Veronese changed the title. It was no longer a scene of the Last Supper; it was “Feast in the House of Levi.”

Friends, there’s room in the canvas for everyone. God’s welcome is for everyone- it doesn’t matter who, or how sinful, or where they come from, or how they look. There’s room in the canvas. There’s space for us, and so there is space for everyone. May we offer Holy Welcome to all who find themselves welcomed by God. Amen.

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