I would like to start by saying thank you to all of you here at Christ Church, to Paul and Dave Johnson, to Dave Zahl, thank you for welcoming Courtney and me into your lives four years ago, for supporting us and keeping us in your thoughts and prayers, and for welcoming me back here today. I feel a little odd beginning with these words, this sermon is not about me after all, but it is about unconditional love and being welcomed, both of which I often think of when I think of Christ Church.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
These words of Jesus come right at the very end of His missionary discourse with the disciples. Jesus has just given them their marching orders and described for them the missionary work He has given them to do, to go out into the World of Wolves and proclaim the Good News; to heal and comfort the sick; to help in Christ’s work of alleviating the suffering of the world. But he ends this by saying,
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
You’ll notice now that we’re involved. Now we’ve been given our marching orders, to welcome the disciples and their Good News, to welcome Jesus, to welcome each other and to love one another.
So how’s that goin’ for ya? And better yet, how did that go for the disciples and for the Jews and Gentiles of the 1st century who were given these imperatives by Jesus himself?
Well, the disciples did nothing. Having been told to go out and heal and preach and love their neighbors they just continued to follow Jesus around asking Him questions! Why do you speak in these funny parables? Were we, the people of the world, receptive to Jesus and His disciples? To the Good News? No. The early Church suffered persecution at the hands of almost every community they encountered, and they were crippled with internal divisiveness.
Having heard Jesus’ insistence that they go out and love their neighbors, the disciples did nothing. Jesus literally had to die, come back to life, and tell them again to go out and do the same thing. In what we now call the Great Commission, the Risen Jesus told them again to go out and make disciples of all nations. And even then they just waited around praying and looking for Jesus to return. It finally takes the events at Pentecost for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them and physically empower them to go out into the world.
Whoever welcomes you, whoever receives you, whoever listens to you, they will receive the reward of righteousness.
We believe these words, we believe that when we welcome or receive or love someone without conditions that we experience something powerful and something good, something eternal. We believe that in these spaces of welcoming we gain a sense of belonging. The problem is that just like the disciples, believing this and simply being told that this is what we ought to do doesn’t result in good works or a loving family and community, it doesn’t provide us with lives of peace and unity and joy.
The significance of our inability to do so is exhausting. We’re unable to welcome someone without sizing them up, without comparing their looks, their job, their family, their tastes and their believes to our own; its exhausting. At times we can’t seem to get anyone much less any church to welcome us without first looking us up and down and loaning us a copy of their favorite self help book. We’re even unable to welcome ourselves, to accept our own self-image or accept the grace given to us by others. We’re left feeling disconnected, tired and alone.
So where is the Good News? How is this cycle broken? How do we love and find that sense of belonging if we can’t will ourselves to love or will ourselves to receive our neighbor as they are?
The answer is that we love because He first loved us. We receive because we have been received. This is the Good News, that we have been welcomed and embraced by God as we are, in our weaknesses; that God is with us just as he was with the disciples. It is God who is doing the doing, we are just the passive recipients and it is on account of this unconditional gift that we are able to do the unthinkable, to love one another.
Dorothy Day was a journalist and social activist responsible for beginning the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, a group that to this day continues to care for the poor and the homeless. For many she still symbolizes this idea of unconditionally welcoming the poor and the needy. I bring up Dorothy Day not as an example for us to aspire to, not as a guilt trip, I bring up Dorothy Day because her ministry was not a response to God’s command to love one another, or the inner law that arises within you when someone stands up in front of you and suggestively tells you about someone holy, sort of like someone telling you about Dorothy Day. I bring her up because her life and ministry were responses to the experienced love and grace of God.
In her memoirs Day describes her childhood self as disgustingly pious. She did nothing but pray and sing hymns of purity under her breath as she moved back and forth from school, interacting with her classmates and siblings only when absolutely necessary. Her entire relationship with God, and with the world, was one based on discipline and purity rather than love or community. All of this changed when Day experienced the Great San Francisco Earthquake in April of 1906.
In the midst of the quake, Day remained in her bed digging deeper into her escapism as her family tried to find safety; her father took her brothers and sister to the front of the house and stood with her mother. She remained in her bed rolling side to side on the polished floor, silently praying as the world came crashing down around her.
But the shaking stopped and along with it Day describes what felt like scales falling from her eyes:
“I got out of bed went down the broken stairs and out into the street, I saw my family, standing amidst buildings wobbling on their foundations, standing next to smoking piles of rubble, and I saw strangers calming strangers, passing jugs of water back and forth. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. It was as though the world was united in Christian solidarity. We had all experienced the inexplicable Grace of God, we had experienced salvation and all our fears and loneliness had been released. Our only response was to care for each other, to receive one another without judgment in pity and love.” It was all they could do, and it was everything.
We have a remarkable ability as a culture and as a church to turn a gift, such as this, into an expectation and a responsibility. We turn the gift of Grace that alone has the power to beget grace and love into a commandment to do so, and as a church we too often lead with the commandment and responsibility and skim over the good news. This is not a matter of courage or discipline or will; it is a receptive condition.
Together in worship we come forward bending and kneeling, we receive with open hands that which we are all searching for: a grace beyond ourselves, to receive and to hold the eternal in our finite hands. We may come by ourselves, but we are brought together. We break bread together. We drink from the same cup.
In the Eucharist, we are given the sacrament of unity that can overcome even the deepest of human estrangements. We receive Christ and his love through our senses and we experience an intimacy with Him and with each other. Despite ourselves we find ourselves in community, drinking from the same cup. Becoming the body of Christ.
“Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
This is the quote we often use to begin the communion service. Come unto me. For those of us who are weak and exhausted from social posturing; for those who are alone or feel angry and bitter, for those who feel as if they don’t belong; Jesus says come. He welcomes us to His table and gives us rest. He offers US the cool drink of water.
But of course it is limiting to believe that sacraments only occur in church. Andre Dubus, a devout Catholic, helps us to see in his short stories and essays that these sacred moments in which sinners and saints are received and united take place at all times and in all places. That the sacrament of unity and peace may be found in a moment of forgiveness, a moment of mercy, a simple hug, or a simple plate of eggs. Dubus shows us a young couple. He shows them both striving for acceptance and belonging, yet neither of them can hold back the demons that come out and judge and fight and ridicule. They are together but so very far apart, unable to welcome and receive the other as they are, they are alone. But there is hope.
“So many of us fail; we divorce wives and husbands, we leave the roofs of our lovers, go once again into the lonely march, mustering our courage with work, friends, half pleasures which are not whole because they are not shared. Yet still I believe in love’s possibility, in its presence on the earth; as I believe I can approach the altar on any morning of any day which may be the last and receive the touch that says; In this instant I recognize you, I receive you. And I believe that I can do this and receive this in an ordinary kitchen with an ordinary woman and five eggs. I scramble them in a saucepan, as my friend taught me; they stand deeper and cook softer, he said. I take our plates, spoon eggs on them, and we sit and eat. She and I and the kitchen have become extraordinary; we are not simply eating; we are pausing in the march to perform, to perform an act together; we are in love, we care, we feel; and the meal offered and received is a sacrament which says: I know you are flawed; I know you are weak; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything.”
Our God whose property it is to always have mercy receives us as we are, and in this gift of unconditional mercy, we experience the love that begets love, that enables us to break bread with and simply be with our estranged siblings, our spouses, friends, enemies, the poor and the needy and even to accept ourselves. Our God whose property it is to always have mercy has emptied himself, his life and his love into us, so that we may be able to receive him and receive each other as we are.
To share food with one another. To welcome one another. It is all we can do, and it is everything. And it all proceeds from He who loved us first. Amen.
- Matthew 10:40 - 42