Monday, June 8, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Welcome"

Matthew 25:31-40 

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left. 

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ 

 37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’" (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Movement for Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Two

Down in Phoenix, something pretty frightening, disturbing, and amazing is happening.

An anti-Muslim event in Dallas saw the killing of two residents of Phoenix by Dallas police officers, and one man decided to retaliate by holding an armed protest outside of an 800-member mosque in Phoenix.

And by “armed,” I mean with sub-machine guns, military camouflage, the whole nine yards.  About 250 such protesters showed up.

Imagine, for a moment, how we as Christians might react if our venerable church building were the site of such a protest, if a quarter-thousand people armed to the nines showed up to protest us.

We’d call the police, slam the door, do anything we could to ensure our safety, right?

But for the Muslims—a group far more a minority than we as Christians will likely ever be in the United States—that wasn’t the option they took.  Instead, they invited the protestors in.  Many chose not to take the mosque up on the invite, but a few did, and here is how the Washington Post reported what happened afterwards:

Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing (a) profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and said the experience changed him.

“It was something I’ve never seen before.  I took my shoes off.  I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people.  We all got along,” leger said.  They made me feel welcome, you know…”

Paul Griffin, who had earlier said he didn’t care if his t-shirt was offensive, assured a small crowd of Muslims at the end of the rally that he wouldn’t wear it again.

“I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt,” he told one man while shaking his hand and smiling.  “I won’t wear it again.”

Usama Shami, the president of the (mosque), invited anyone to join him and the 800 members of the mosque for a prayer.

“A lot of them, they’ve never met a Muslim, or they haven’t had interactions with Muslims,” he said.  “A lot of them are filled with hate and rage…so when you sit down and talk like rational people, without all these slogans, without being bigots, without bringing guns, they will find out that they’re talking to another human.”

Finding out that you are talking to another human?  That's about as basic a side effect as possible from basic, profound, but still incredibly difficult gesture: offering welcome.  And that's what we'll be talking about today.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything.)

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and last week, we talked about the nature of wholeness itself, before today, where we move on to the theme of welcome, with this excerpt from Pastor Sharon about a missionary couple, Millard and Linda Fillmore, who came to the Disciples from Habitat for Humanity (yes, the very same who built a home for our Dave and Donna!), and their extraordinary mission in the sub-Saharan African country of Zaire:

The Disciples appointed the Fullers as missionaries to a little brick-making project in Mbandaka, Zaire, bricks that could be used to build houses.  Zaire was a land of complicated relationships between rich and poor, a land of extraordinary natural wealth and even more extraordinary corruption and despair.  However, Mbandaka was the seat of a strong and thriving Disciples church.  From within that community of Zairian Disciples, using bricks from the brick-making project, (a) Habitat for Humanity community was begun.

The Mbandaka Habitat for Humanity account is the story of a community transformed.  It is also a symbol of hope for a world renewed.

The plot of land given for the initial Habitat project in Zaire was available because of its checkered past.  Named Bokotola, it had long existed as the no-man’s land, the “sanitation zone” between wjhite and black Mbandaka of colonial times.  The name itself meant “the person who does not like others.”

As Zairians and international volunteers working together built house after house, however, it became clear a new community was developing.  Bokotola needed a new name.  In beautiful contrast to the old meaning, the new name selected was Losanganya: “reconciler, reunifier, everyone together.”

This is a very powerful, profound, and commonly important sense of community in Sub-Saharan Africa: there is such weight placed on the state of being in community with others that in South Africa, they have a word that has no direct English translation, a word I learned when I went there on mission through our denomination in 2006: ubuntu.  The best translation we can create out of it is: “I am because you are,” but there is no direct word-for-word translation like there is for, say, the word ‘chair’ or ‘bowl.’

And that matters, because our language tends to reflect our values.  We create more words for things we value, and neglect to create more words for things we do not.  We have all sorts of words for money: cash, currency, capital, coinage, and even slang terms like bread, dough, and moolah. But we don’t have a word that means the unconditional regard for other people, the closest we come in English maybe is ‘compassion,’ or, I think in this case, ‘welcome.’

Living out the meaning of welcome in its most radical sense is really very difficult, even though that is the task we have assigned ourselves by posting our “Everyone Welcome” sign out front!

So how do we go about doing that?

Again, I am way late in actually getting around to the Biblical text in this particular sermon, but let’s talk about what Jesus is really saying here in Matthew 25.  He makes it a bit confusing by talking in the third person like the Hulk, but when Jesus is saying “The Son of Man” ascending to His throne, He’s referring to Himself.  And so, as king, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats: those who gave food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and welcome to the strangers, and those who did not.  Those who do these things for the least of us, Jesus says, we have done for Him directly.

Put that in your proverbial pipe and smoke it the next time you’re tempted to dismiss that homeless addict or that illegally immigrated alien as worthless, or, at least, unworthy of your compassion.

Okay, so why sheep and goats, though?  Why not, say, Seahawks fans and 49ers fans? (ZING!)  Because both act as sacrificial animals (where do you think our term “scapegoat” comes from, after all?).  Well, sheep belong to a shepherd, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  If we belong to the Good Shepherd, we must be sheep who do as our shepherd teaches us to do here: to welcome strangers and give to those who come to us in need.

Believe it or not, the protestors outside that mosque in Phoenix came to their Muslim neighbors in need as well—in need of understanding, and of compassion, and it was shown to them, and given to them, and a precious few of those protestors did choose to reach out and partake of that goodness.

Because that is what welcome looks like.

Because without them, you or I cannot be.

Jesus calls us into right relationship with Him, and such a huge, unbelievably huge part of achieving that is by likewise being in right relationship with one another.  It’s a big enough deal that the entire Bible deals with this very issue of welcome, not just Jesus—Abraham is rewarded for welcoming three angels disguised as human strangers, Solomon speaks of the importance of welcome in his proverbs, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews famously says that we should, indeed, must welcome strangers, because those who have done so have unknowingly welcomed angels.

Are you ready for the next time an angel might enter your own life, dressed up as a sinner or as a saint, as an Uncle Moneybags or as an Oliver Twist, as an atheist or as a Muslim? 

Are you ready for an angel who will likely look nothing like how you could ever imagine them to be?

And if you are not yet ready and willing to sit down and break bread with them, ask yourself, “Do I realize that what I am doing to them—or not doing for them—I am doing to my Lord and Savior?”

It isn’t, then, just What Would Jesus Do—it’s What Would We Do to Jesus?  What would we do to a Messiah we say we have welcomed into our hearts, but not to our tables, into our souls, but not into our lives?

Hopefully, then, we will learn to welcome Him into our homes as well.  Hopefully, that is what we would do to Jesus in the end.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 7, 2015

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