061420 Pentecost 2
Genesis 18; Matthew 9:35-10:8, 14-22
I’ve always tried to connect my sermons to what is going on in the world and in our lives. But for the past three months, it’s become more intense, as COVID-19 spread far and wide, with public health and economic impacts previously unimagined. In the last two weeks, the theme of racial injustice has taken center stage, and became an inevitable focus. Today we’re seeing the consequence of early efforts at easing restrictions of stay-at-home orders, as new cases of COVID-19 spike. Behind, underneath and around all that is the upcoming election – one of the most consequential in generations, or ever.
Today’s texts address all of those realities by describing, and calling us to, different forms of radical hospitality. If any subject could respond to all that’s going on in our country and the world, it can be argued that radical hospitality is that theme. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the protests, violence, the pandemic, policy changes in policing, and an impending election, how do we appropriately go beyond our comfort zones to respond with love and hospitality? In another time of crisis with the collapse of national unity on the horizon, Abraham Lincoln asserted We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory . . . will yet swell . . . when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
We haven’t heard a call to our better angels by our current president. In this environment, Radical hospitality becomes even more critical. It requires a fundamental shift starting from a simple practice of offering welcome to become a movement to stand with others–particularly those on the margins. We extend radical hospitality when we include people without expecting that they will fully conform to our ways. We may even concede some of our community identity in order to be more hospitable to those who we welcome. Radical hospitality sends a message beyond, “you are welcome to join us.” It says, “We see you and want to join you where you are.” Radical hospitality doesn’t just ask, do you want to be with us? It says how can we be with you?
I’ve preached about radical hospitality in the church for years. It seems like one of the key marks of the people of God. But in the last two weeks, the call for radical hospitality has gone beyond church walls. People are demanding it in their cities and towns. Changes that seemed impossible a month ago are now being implemented. Some of you have probably heard the story of Camden, New Jersey, which has been in the news a lot the last few days. Back in 2013 their Police Department was shut down to create a new police force that emphasized de-escalation and community engagement. Former officers even had to reapply for the positions they held within the old department. Even though there have been complications, it seems that the Dept. is moving in the right direction, with homicides and complaints of excessive force down. Some point to it as a model for what they mean by defund the police.
Abraham and Jesus practiced radical hospitality by going out and sending out. Abraham recognized that an important moment arrived when he saw the three strangers at a distance. Whether or not he knew they were God, he left his tent to greet them, and then treated them like God. Matthew says that when Jesus saw the crowds that gathered around him, he had compassion for them. Compassion is one mark of radical hospitality. Jesus sent the apostles because there weren’t enough laborers for the harvest. It was his compassion for the harassed and helpless sheep that led him to multiply the shepherds. Jesus needed to grow his movement because people needed what he was offering, and he couldn’t reach them all. His compassion led him to send others.
We don’t all start the journey toward radical hospitality from the same point. Abraham recognized that an important moment arrived when he saw the three strangers at a distance. But Sarah laughed when they said she was going to have a baby the next year; then she pretended she hadn’t. Both were hospitable. Sarah’s laughter was a legitimate response to the news that she was going to have a baby in her old age. And don’t forget Abraham laughed about the same thing in the previous chapter. Sarah had been through a lot. She’d left a familiar country and ventured to a yet-to-be-revealed land on Abraham’s say so. When famine drove Abraham and his household to Egypt, he passed her off as his sister and let Pharaoh take her for himself. God didn’t reject her for her laughter; but that’s what she feared, so she said she hadn’t laughed.
Some of the disciples who were sent out by Jesus to multiply his ministry of compassion, and were later dragged before rulers to justify their behavior, probably didn’t wait for the Spirit to tell them what to say, as they had been instructed. They blurted out whatever came to their mind, or they refused to speak, because what they were hearing from the Spirit sounded so silly. God used them anyway. So today, many are facing new realities they can hardly believe. They’re changing their minds about matters they thought they’d settled years ago. All lives matter. Don’t blame the police for everything. America, love it or leave it. Now, some of those folks are marching and shouting, Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police, I agree with the protests but don’t like the looting. That’s good news. We must be patient with each other as we start moving in the same direction from different starting points. Crises help us crystalize things that may have always been true – we might even have guessed might be true – but are clearer against a stark backdrop. But we don’t arrive on the scene as finished products.
That’s why we must see this in terms of radical hospitality. The Episcopal Church is renewing ML King’s call to be the beloved community. One way to overcome racism and build the beloved community is to understand that every person brings to the present moment a story of pain and challenge. We accept Sarah’s laughter when we remember her story. We identify with the disciple’s doubts when we know what they’ve lived through. Everyone’s behavior is informed by prior experiences. That’s obvious. But we often don’t take those into account – for others, or for ourselves. Richard Rohr reminds us that we don’t all experience pain in the same way, so try not to judge others too harshly for their reactions. We don’t know what has brought them to this point. However, if we could see all our wounds all the way through to their transformative effect, as Jesus did, then they would become “sacred wounds” and not something to deny, disguise, or export to others. If we are going to become an anti-racist society – not just try to stop being racist ourselves – we must become the beloved community along the way. That’s what protesters are demanding, and what some public officials are beginning to implement.
I’ve wrestled with my role in working for radical hospitality as a 68-year-old man during the COVID-19 crisis. I’ve found ways to be involved that would not have satisfied me at another time, but that now seem important and possible. We need structural change. I know that merely changing leaders won’t accomplish that. It is necessary but not sufficient. We must start somewhere. Two strong factors in November’s election outcome are voter turn-out and voter suppression. So last week I signed up to make calls to people in swing states to get out and vote. And I am supporting Fair Fight to work against voter suppression. And we’re going to study White Flight, which will only make a difference if we allow it to. Chad Sanders wrote in the NY Times yesterday that he is telling his white friends that if they really want to help, they should protect black protesters, donate to black politicians and funds fighting racial injustice, and urge others to do the same. I hope you are finding ways to respond in these circumstances. If you haven’t, I invite you to join me in making GOTV calls. As Jesus said, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Let’s be an answer to that prayer.