Building Strange Communities
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Well, isn’t that a great gospel reading, now we can all just relax a bit on this Canada 150+ long weekend. We like welcoming! Welcoming is nice, it’s pleasant, it’s a welcome change from all the stuff we heard about in last week’s gospel. You remember last week’s gospel reading, the text in Matthew about discipleship. It comes right before what we heard today. There was that stuff about the sword, about division, division in families even. There was suffering, there were accusations, there were people being put to death. And that stuff wasn’t just imagined or predicted, that was the real experience of the community that Matthew was part of, that he was writing for. Following Jesus was unbelievably disruptive for them. It was dark, it was a heavy text last week.
But today, we get welcoming. And who can argue with that? Every church that I’ve ever been a part of thinks of itself as a welcoming community. One theme in this weekend’s Canada 150 events is the celebration of Canada as a welcoming country, one that welcomes people from around the world. We even had a citizenship ceremony for new Canadians on Parliament Hill yesterday. Who could object to that? Welcoming is good, welcoming is basically benign. Isn’t it?
Well if welcoming is so good and benign, why is it one of the things that got Jesus nailed to a cross?
The very first complaint leveled by the authorities at Jesus was this: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And after a few more equally outrageous incidents, those complaints had turned into a plot to destroy him.
For Jesus, welcoming, or hospitality, to use another word, did not consist of putting up a sign outside a building that says “All are welcome.” No, for Jesus hospitality was this dangerous, radical, subversive activity that crossed boundaries, broke the rules and defied social conventions. And it certainly wasn’t passive. Jesus never set up shop and waited for people to come to him. No, he went out. He went from town to town, he visited people, he received and enjoyed their hospitality, even if they were the wrong people. When Jesus saw Zaccheus, the short and despised tax collector sitting in a tree because he couldn’t see over the crowds, he said to him, “get down from there, tonight I’m coming to your house for dinner.” And he did, and he paid a price for it.
So let’s try to get this idea of welcoming as a nice, benign, activity out of our heads, and replace it with something more subversive, something a little more dangerous. Something that crosses boundaries, creates unlikely relationships and changes us as a result.
Just before he sends out his disciples, Jesus tells them that they are to take no money, and instead they rely on the hospitality of those who will welcome them. Don’t you think that put them in a bit of a vulnerable situation? Of course it did, that’s the point. Relationships happen exactly at that point of vulnerability, at the point where we give up control, at the place where we’re open to being transformed by the encounter with another. It’s not enough to always be the one who offers hospitality – if we constantly place ourselves in that role, we create the illusion for ourselves that we’re in control, that we are in the position of power. That’s why Jesus’ instructions to his disciples insist on mutual hospitality. You are to welcome others, but you also need to learn what it’s like to rely on others to welcome you. And to learn how hard it is when you are not welcome.
I think that the reason Jesus insists on this practice of both giving and receiving hospitality is because he knows that it’s the key to building community. And the reason that his practice of hospitality insists on crossing boundaries, breaking rules and defying social conventions is because the community he is trying to build is a strange community, it’s an unlikely community.
Because all of this welcoming, all of this giving and receiving of hospitality would be a lot easier for me if I could do it with a bunch of people who were, well, a lot like me. Then we’d all know the rules and social conventions, we would do the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” thing, we really wouldn’t have to be very vulnerable, and we wouldn’t have to change very much as a result. And we could build some nice, good, relatively homogeneous communities that way. But that’s not what Jesus is looking for. He wants us to build strange communities, diverse communities. And the key to building these strange, diverse communities is unlikely relationships.
Do you know what a triad is? I’m not talking about organized crime here. I’m talking about the practice of using groups of three when speaking to create an emphasis. Let me give you a few famous examples. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony’s famous speech begins, “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. That’s an example of a triad. It’s a figure of speech which builds emphasis and then places it on the third element. Let me try a few famous ones with you, and see how well you know them.
How about this French motto which originated in the French revolution:
Liberté, Egalité, . . . - What comes next? Fraternité.
Or how about from the movies:
The good, the bad and . . . the ugly. Tells you something about the movie doesn’t it.
Blood, sweat and . . . tears.
How about this from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:
Government of the people, by the people, . . . for the people. Do you see the way the emphasis builds and then is placed on the third element. Do you see how that works?
Here’s another example, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: Faith, hope and . . . love.
Or this favourite from real estate agents: Location, location, location.
Those are some examples of triads, groups of three, and how they work.
Today’s text is built on two triads, I don’t know if you noticed? And these two triads actually are the foundation for the strange community that I’ve been talking about.
The first triad is this one: Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
You, me and the one who sent me. And because this is Jesus talking, that means you, Jesus and God. That’s the first relationship that underlies the community that we’re building together. We are in relationship with God through Jesus. That is, if you think about it, an unlikely relationship. But it’s at the core of who we are as a church community. That’s one dimension. That’s the first triad.
Here’s the second triad and I want you to see if you can guess the third element.
The first is prophet. The second is the righteous person, better understood perhaps as the one who seeks justice, God’s justice.
What do you think the third element is? Prophet, righteous person, then what. (Allow some guesses)
Well, in today’s text, the third element of this triad is something I find surprising. It is “the little one”.
“whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives 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, truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
The prophet, the righteous person, and the little one. Does that seem to you an unlikely sequence? A strange emphasis? We might think of the little one as a child. Or as a newcomer or a stranger. Or as someone who is weak or vulnerable or marginalized. Or as someone we regard as disposable, invisible or unimportant.
For Jesus, hospitality means a community where the heroes and the little ones are on an equal footing, if anything, with the emphasis on the little one. That’s a strange community by most standards. But that’s what we’re trying to build. It’s a community where every single member gets to participate in the work of the community, in the work God calls us to do. You don’t have to be a hero or a prophet. Even the smallest acts of kindness and generosity, even giving someone a cup of cold water reverberates with cosmic significance because it is part of God’s work.
That’s the sort of strange community that we are building here, a community of unlikely relationships, a community where the only thing we really hold in common is that we are all created in the image of God and we’re loved and valued as children of God. We build that community by practicing hospitality, hospitality not as a nice and pleasant add-on, but hospitality as a dangerous, subversive, boundary crossing activity that is mutual, vulnerable and opens us up to being changed as individuals and as a community. That’s how Jesus did it, that’s what he’s calling us to do and be.
So may we be daring in our practice of hospitality and continue to build this strange community together.
Homily: Yr A Proper 13, July 2 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 12.1-9; Ps 33.1-12; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42
Image by Ray Morris (Creative Commons)