“Welcoming Jesus, Welcoming God”
a Sermon by the Rev. Jay Lawlor
18th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 20, Year B – Sep. 23, 2018
St. David’s Episcopal Church – Bean Blossom, IN
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
The act of welcoming was central to ancient societies. “To welcome” meant to show hospitality toward, to be hospitable to. One welcomed a stranger under one’s patronage in showing hospitality. It was an act of kinship and reciprocity. The stranger becoming a friend, in a way like family, and becoming part of kinship network where hospitality is extended throughout the network. This was very important as these ancient societies were not individualistic. They had a collective understanding of identity. Therefore, how one was welcomed, how one was shown hospitality, was reflective of the wider group, even of society, as a whole.
Jesus used this to tell his disciples that those who welcome the most vulnerable – little children, welcomed Jesus, and those who welcomed Jesus also welcomed God the Creator. The act of welcoming – of hospitality – was important to Jesus and early Christian communities. So much so, that it is mentioned in every Gospel and other New Testament texts numerous times. Welcome and hospitality is, or at least should be, a central identifier of Christian community.
A good measure of whether or not we should be doing something is to look and see if it was important to Jesus. Especially if it was important enough for him to pass it on to his disciples – something to be continued, taught, and shared as part of the Jesus Movement. Welcome and hospitality is one such aspect of being Christian – of being part of the Jesus Movement – that was important to Jesus and his disciples.
Being relatively new to Indiana, I can say there is something to Hoosier Hospitality. And serving as a supply priest throughout the diocese, I have experienced and witnessed Christian welcome and hospitality. It has been a benefit of traveling the diocese – to experience a number of our congregations. To experience how Episcopal members of the Jesus Movement across the Diocese of Indianapolis strive to offer the welcome and hospitality of Jesus.
And while Hoosier Hospitality is a real thing. We are Christians living in a culture which has a strong sense of individuality woven into our DNA. A strong sense of independence and individuality can be good things. At our best we reflect diversity and openness to others. Independent thinking can lead to innovation and broadening of ideas, perspectives, and invention.
When we are not at our best, we experience divisiveness, exclusion, and labeling those different from us as “other” rather than as beloved children of God. Reflecting the type of welcome and hospitality Jesus offers can be counter-cultural. It can be a challenge to offer welcome and hospitality in an age that often demands uniformity over unity.
For to honor love over uniformity allows for unity in Christ. This is a necessary foundation to welcoming the Jesus in the stranger or the visitor. This is at the heart of Christian welcome and hospitality. We need more of seeing Jesus in others. We need more of welcoming the stranger in genuine hospitality – in doing so we welcome Jesus and the God who sent him into our midst.
In addition to receiving the gracious hospitality of congregations around the diocese, I also get to tell some favorite stories often. One is particularly applicable this Sunday. It is all about welcoming Jesus through genuine Christian hospitality. The type of Christian hospitality perfected by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
For those not familiar with SSJE, it is the oldest religious order for men in the Anglican Communion – founded in Oxford, England in 1866 by the Reverend Richard Meaux Benson. Their main monastery is on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA – just outside of Harvard Square. I was fascinated by being in the presence of real life monks. Not fascinated enough to consider becoming a monk – as the late Tom Shaw, the bishop who ordained me and was a member of SSJE, once asked when I was still a single twenty-something, but enough to want to be around them as often as I could.
Their entire lives are grounded in devotion to God and ordered by a life of prayer and service. Central to that is extending welcome and hospitality in the name of Jesus. Hospitality is so important that it literally is a chapter in the society’s Rule of Life, where they write:
“The source of hospitality is the heart of God who yearns to unite every creature within one embrace. […] It is not merely enough to offer accommodation to visitors. Our faith must recognize the one who comes to us in the person of the guest, the stranger, and the pilgrim. It is the Lord, who has identified himself with each of his sisters and brothers. [To] truly meet Christ in them face to face.”1
I was fortunate as the monastery was no more than a five to ten minute walk from my office at Harvard University. I would love to go for Noonday prayer in the beautiful stone chapel and feel the presence of God as the brothers lifted prayers monastic chant.
I would often hurry from work to attend the Tuesday evening Eucharist – knowing I needed to get their early if I wanted a seat in the chapel because that service was (and still is) so popular. The brothers know how to do Episcopal liturgy extremely well and the preaching is always inspiring. And have I mentioned the hospitality? Strangers, acquaintances, and friends (new and old) all welcomed most graciously.
When I began seminary in the fall of 1999, the walk was a little longer from Episcopal Divinity School as EDS is located across the other side of Harvard Square on Brattle Street. But there was a group of us who made, what we referred to as, our weekly pilgrimage along the well-worn path between EDS and SSJE. Yes, we had chapel every day at seminary – which I attended faithfully. But the hospitality of SSJE reflected the love of Jesus where we could be welcomed as guests. A form of retreat away from the rigors of our seminary campus. The brothers welcome by seeing the Jesus in their guests. In doing so they welcomed Jesus and the God who sent him.
It is just such a welcome Jesus speaks of. Just such a welcome we are called to emulate as followers of Jesus. It is, after all, the slogan of our denomination: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” We proclaim it enough to put it on our church signs. Hopefully it is written on our hearts as well. And it is more than just being polite in hopes visitors will return and, perhaps, become pledging members of a church. When we speak of welcome we are speaking of the type of welcome in which Jesus is present. And shouldn’t Jesus be present in all we say and do as the Church? Specifically all we say and do as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement?
In a time where divisions and fear and demonizing of “the other” seem so prevalent in our society, the need for our radical welcome and hospitality are needed perhaps now more than ever. May a spirit of generous welcoming and hospitality be a gift we offer.
Hold fast to celebrating your unity in Christ while honoring your differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion. In so doing you honor one another and welcome others as Jesus in your midst.
In welcoming Jesus, you welcome the God who sent him. It is the only way forward. May God truly bless you as you extend the gracious and loving welcome and hospitality of Christ to Bean Blossom and beyond. Amen.
1Rule of Society of Saint Jonh the Evangelist, p. 68.