Monday, June 06, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Hospitality and Its Reward (6/26/05 Sermon)

Hos"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." (Matthew 10:40-42) ([NRSV]

There is a scene early on in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird in which the young Scout Finch, in a state of general despair following her first morning of elementary school, is further provoked when her older brother Jem, always the gentleman, invites her classmate Walter Cunningham home for lunch. In Scout’s view, Walter has been the source of her troubles with her teacher, and she has retaliated by punching him out on the playground. Jem, humiliated by his little sister’s inability to comprehend schoolyard etiquette for girls, is hoping to make amends with Walter and, therefore, the three children find themselves at the Finch family lunch table with the lawyer father Atticus.

As Calpurnia, the housekeeper who makes life livable for Atticus and his children, places lunch on the table, Walter asks for a pitcher of syrup. Calpurnia supplies the pitcher withouta word, and Scout looks on in amazement as Walter proceeds to douse his entire plate with the stuff. Jem’s hopes for a truce are dashed when Scout, unable to contain herself, screeches, “Walter, WHAT IN THE SAM HILL ARE YOU DOIN’?"

Calpurnia dispatches Scout to the kitchen with that speed well known to women grimly determined that their hospitable overtures will not be destroyed by impulsive children. “But he’s ruinin’ it,” Scout protests with a whine. “That boy’s your company,” responds Calpurnia, “and if he wants to eat up the tablecloth you let him, you hear?” Thus is Scout introduced to one of the most basic tenets of hospitality: make generous provision for whatever your guests want or need, regardless of how unusual the request.

Most of us learn the basic lessons of hospitality in a more congenial forum. Long before we bring home children whose noses we have bloodied, we absorb lessons in creating a welcoming environment. In my case, those lessons came from my grandmother whose efforts I, as a young girl, of course took completely for granted. I knew that I could call her up anytime and slip down the gravel road between our houses to spend the night at hers, in a room freshly made up with clean sheets and towels, with a rose from her garden on the dresser. As I grew older and went away to school and college and law school and married life, I could still call her up anytime and announce that I would be coming for the night. I would pull up the hill to find her waiting on the brick patio under the maple tree with icy lemonade and chocolate chip cookies, and know that inside a delicious dinner was roasting in the oven and my bedroom awaited me. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized that all of that preparation entailed WORK on her part, and that it isn’t so easy to reorganize your day to include making up a new room and replanning your meals and probably making an unscheduled trip to the grocery. It’s not so difficult when you are accommodating family and friends, known quantities, as when someone completely unfamiliar drops by, but it still involves work –and attentiveness.

Sometimes it seems that the Bible reads like one long call to attentiveness to the presence of God in our midst, and today’s passage is no exception. It’s one of those long sets of sayings of Jesus, sayings probably culled from a variety of places and times in his ministry and pulled together to create a single scene, in which Jesus is about to send his disciples out to proclaim the coming of the kingdom. His instructions seem designed to instill confidence in men about to enter unknown and possibly hostile territory; he gives them to power to heal and cleanse, but also warns them that they are being “sent forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” He tells them that they should make no mistake about the significance of their mission, saying, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” They go not as individuals, but as emissaries of Christ himself.

Consequently, those to whom they go, unaware though they may be, are also being called to participation in a relationship of deep magnitude. Some will, literally and figuratively, see the disciples as beloved family members, receiving them as my grandmother always welcomed me, with lemonade on the terrace and a rose on the dresser. Others will maintain the stance of a Scout Finch, seeing in the disciples baffling strangers with crude customs. In both cases, says Jesus, the welcome offered the disciples will result in the reward of a prophet. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteousperson in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous."

The language of that last sentence is arresting. Jesus doesn’t suggest that the person who welcomes a prophet or a righteous person in the name of a prophet or righteous person may earn a reward, or should offer his or her welcome in the hope or anticipation of receiving a reward. He says that such a person “will” receive a reward. The reward is inescapable. Is it possible that such a reward might bear little resemblance to what we might normally think of when we think of rewards? It wouldn’t be the first time, would it, that attentiveness to the presence of God results in immediate consequences neither hoped nor longed for? Abram and Sarai are not likely to have been thinking about picking up and moving their household to a distant land when they start listening to God. Moses is the first in a long line of figures who resist with every fiber of their beings the call of God upon their lives for as long as they can – and when he finally acquiesces, what does it get him? Forty years of leading an irritable and complaining people through a wilderness to a final destination that he is not permitted to enter. Mary listens to the call of God and finds herself a pregnant outcast. And Jesus himself, always listening for the guidance of his father, is executed as a political opponent of the Roman Empire.
I was curious about what specifically “the reward of a prophet” might entail, so I looked a few of them up. Isaiah, one of the most prolific and famous of the prophets, likely to have been a member of the aristocratic class, was instructed by God to walk about naked and barefoot for three years. Jeremiah, apparently of priestly descent, was, according to tradition, put to death in Egypt for preaching against idolatry. Micah, a favorite of many in this church for his insistence that all that God requires of us is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, does not, so far as I could find, merit even a mention as to the outcome of his life and ministry. I gave up looking after Micah. It was clear enough that the reward of a prophet or of a person of righteousness is not likely to fall into the realm of winning the lottery, or even a cruise or a car.

I always get a bit of a chuckle when someone not interested in the religious dimension of life points out to me with great authority that faith in God is nothing more than a crutch. Faith in God, as nearly every encounter with God in the Bible seems to demonstrate, is far more challenge than crutch. St. Theresa, the sixteenth-century mystic who traveled all over Spain to revive the Carmelite monasteries, was one day bumped from her ox-cart to land in a muddy stream. She shook her fist at God and exclaimed, "If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you don't have many!" It does seem surprising that with the examples provided by both the Bible and the later-day saints of God, most of which counter any image of God as a crutch, we yet continually try to reorient ourselves back to God’s ways and God’s paths, as Christ call us to do.

Of course, the reward is not all dramatic and deadly trials, or even muddy landings. The reward, as indicated by the need for welcome and receptivity, lies in attentiveness and in calling others to attentiveness. Attentiveness can be both a troubling curse and a great gift. I think that Nathan, the prophet called to make clear to King David that HE, the king, was the man guilty of so many heinouscrimes, must have felt the cursedness of prophecy. Those called today to issue the call to clarity and justice that so desperately needs to be heard in our land, must frequently be troubled by the reception their words receive. It’s not usually a comfortable feeling to make ourselves available to the values of the kingdom, and to place ourselves on the line for them. If it does feel comfortable, then we should probably be asking whether God’s values are indeed the ones being promulgated.

And yet, despite the discomfort created by God’s call to attentiveness, the other side of the coin, the gift of attentiveness, is one of God’s most profound. Probably most of us in this sanctuary have had the experience of seeing life, or some small aspect of it, revealed in a completely new light following a devastating experience. It is often just in the wake of a great loss that we see most clearly. Many of you know that my stepmother lost her brief and brutal battle with cancer this past spring. I stroked her hand as she died and, a few hours later as I walked down the woodland path to my father’s house, I was utterly saturated by the magic of an early spring morning that she was no longer here to witness. Two gifts born of attentiveness: the opportunity to bear witness to a beloved relative’s passage from this world to another, and the dazzling intensity of the passing of the planet from winter to spring on the cusp of the equinox.
For most of us, the call to attentiveness in the form of welcome comes in the small dailiness of mornings like that. Most of us are not called to become Isaiahs or Micahs; most of us are not even called to preach in theNational Cathedral. Most of us are simply called to be grandmothers welcoming granddaughters, Calpurnias welcoming grungy little boys, daughters helping women welcome the next life. Our rewards are a combination of hard work and discomfort mixed with the awareness of the presence of God, all brought about by attentiveness to the kingdom. It is perhaps for that “most of us” that Christ spoke the final words of today’s passage: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”


I haven't been here for awhile, but I thought I would post this sermon, my first one ever, which I had the privilege of preaching at our service this morning. Before the reading I thanked the congregation for singing the opening hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy," which is the traditional opening for the Sunday morning services at the Chautauqua Institution. Today is opening day at Chautauqua and, as I told them, about 45 minutes after we got started, 5,000 people would be singing that hymn in an outdoor ampitheatre, so our singing it was a present to me.
Here are the introduction and prayer, after the reading and before the sermon:

I want to thank C. and J. for the opportunity to preach from the pulpit which they distinguish every week. I'm sure that when we called C. to the position of Director of Lay Leadership, no one was expecting her to go to this extreme. And you would know just how far she's gone had you known me in high school -- a religious high school, in which I frequently slipped out the back door of the chapel just after attendance was taken in order to pursue decidedly non-churchlike activities. But, here I am and here you are, and we have no choice except to work with the material we are given. In that vein, we should definitely begin this enterprise with a prayer.

Gracious God, we are present in gratitude for this magnificent summer morning. We have not forgotten that long, dark, damp, cold, and dreary winter, but we give thanks for the reality that the snow and rain of that season prepared the earth for the lush green respite of these summer days. Enable us to pause now to hear and ruminate upon your word. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.