Sunday, June 29, 2008

Welcoming Christ

7th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 8: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Some things simply cannot be done alone. Just imagine trying to play baseball on your own. Or facilitating a Sunday school class in an empty room. Or performing an Allman Brothers blues tune on just the bass guitar. We can’t do this stuff by ourselves. We need other people to get the job done.

The same thing is true when it comes to the work of proclaiming and building the coming Kingdom of God. It’s too much for any one person. Even Jesus can’t do it alone. So in the verses preceding today’s Gospel reading, he gathers his apprentices – the 12 disciples – and commissions them to do the work he’s been doing: proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand; cure the sick; raise the dead; cleanse the lepers; cast out demons. Jesus gives the disciples his very own authority. So when persons accept the disciples into their homes and when they embrace the good news of the kingdom they are welcoming and embracing Jesus himself. And by welcoming Jesus, they welcome God, the One who sent Jesus.

The differences between 21st Century Jackson and 1st Century Palestine are enormous. But there is one common denominator that we share with the 1st Century church for which Matthew was writing: Baptism. Regardless of where or when we live, Baptism makes us heralds of the Kingdom of God and ambassadors for Jesus Christ. It charges us with representing Jesus in our words and deeds among our co-workers and friends, in our homes and in our communities, in our church, in how we vote, and in how we spend our time and our money. In Baptism, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be extensions of Jesus himself. Like the twelve apostles, we have the authority to do the things that Jesus did – things announcing that a new order of peace and justice is coming into the world – God’s order that turns the world’s taken-for-granted, commonsense acceptance of coercive power and unjust wealth on their heads in favor of the little ones for whom even a drink of cold water is like winning the lottery. We are the ones charged with proclaiming and acting on the revolutionary vision of the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, a vision in which the proud are scattered in their conceit, the mighty cast down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty.

This may not sound like good news to the powerful and the prestigious. But for anyone who longs for justice, who thirsts for spirituality, and who hungers for relationships that give genuine meaning, purpose, and direction to life, this is good news, indeed. The Gospel is a clear message that in Christ, God desires to save and transform sinners and to embrace the lost and the lonely, the powerless and the poor, the marginalized and the voiceless, the sick and the seekers.

If that’s really what God desires – and the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ underscore with power and passion that it truly is – then it’s critically important that the Church do what every dismissal from the liturgy exhorts us to do: go in peace to love and serve the Lord. There’s a mission field right in our backyards. Right here in Jackson there are hungry stomachs and hungry souls crying out for real food, the kind of food that God in Christ gives us in abundance. We can afford to be generous with it, because the more we give it away, the more we receive.

This is also why it’s crucial that we welcome and embrace every single person who walks through the doors of this Cathedral parish, befriending them, inviting them to wade more deeply into the waters of our common life, and showing them in our words and especially in our deeds the saving, transforming love of God revealed in Jesus Christ so that they, too, may follow him as Lord and Savior. That’s the work of being a missionary and an evangelist, work we voluntarily commit to doing every time we renew the Baptismal Covenant. And it’s really not as difficult as it might sound. Let me share a couple of my own personal experiences to illustrate.

Many years ago, I was a homesick college student starting a year abroad at the University of Exeter in England. At that time, my connection to the Church was tenuous at best. But my loneliness pushed me to seek a connection with God and with other people. And in spite of my spiritual distance, I still knew in my bones that somehow, the Church could help me make those connections I so deeply longed for. So one evening I attended a meeting of one of the University’s Christian groups – sort of their equivalent of Canterbury Club, for those of you familiar with our diocesan college campus ministries. From the time that I arrived until the end of the meeting, not a single person acknowledged my presence. There were no hellos or handshakes, not even so much as eye contact and a nod saying, “I see that you’re here.” I cannot begin to tell you how that felt. It was devastating. Needless to say, I never returned.

Fast forward several years later to Nashville, TN. After drifting spiritually for some time, I finally was looking for a church to belong to, a place to call home. I found it at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. The rector at that time was Lisa Hunt, a gregarious, energetic, and caring woman who preached outstanding sermons. She was so gifted as a preacher that she didn’t even need notes – she just stood at the top of the chancel steps, weaving the scripture readings of the day with contemporary needs and concerns into a beautiful tapestry that inspired us all to live lives of deeper, more committed discipleship. And yet, after several years of being fed by her sermons, to this day I cannot tell you what any one of them was about.

What I do remember with absolutely crystal clear clarity was what happened the very first time I walked up the steps and into the nave of St. Ann’s. I was met by an elderly couple: Frank and Isabella. Looking me in the eye, they introduced themselves while shaking my hand. They spoke kindly and warmly to me as they told me how happy they were to meet me. And then they escorted me to a pew.

Frank and Isabella didn’t know me from Adam. For all they knew, I could have been a troublemaker, or a murderer, or (even worse in some people’s eyes) a graduate student in religion at Vanderbilt. And yet, they still gave me one of the most authentic welcomings that I’ve ever experienced.

I can’t remember the specifics of Lisa’s wonderful sermons, but I’ll never forget Frank and Isabella. And there’s no doubt in my mind that how they, as the greeters assigned for that Sunday, responded to my arrival as a visitor, played a significant role in my impression – not just of St. Ann’s – but also of what it might mean to become an Episcopal Christian. And fortunately for me, the worshipers in the nave picked up where Frank and Isabella left off, welcoming me, inviting me to meet others and to attend the coffee hour, and encouraging me to stick my toe in the waters of possibly becoming more involved in the fellowship and ministries of a parish church serving the poor and marginalized in east Nashville. And it worked.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Mt 10:40). Those words of Jesus are not only about what it means when people accept our outreach and evangelism work out in the world. They’re also about what it means when we who belong to St. Andrew’s welcome visitors who join us for worship and for other activities. Our visitors are not only our honored guests. They are also the presence of Christ among us. How we welcome them is how we welcome Christ. And how we welcome Christ says everything about how truly committed we are to bearing witness in word and deed to the transforming vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

We can’t do that all by ourselves. We need each other. And we need the presence of Christ in the poor and needy, and among our honored guests, to remind us of why we exist as the Church in the first place: to be Kingdom-bearers whose words and example boldly proclaim the Good News of God’s redeeming and transforming love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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