My congregation, Scottdale Mennonite Church, is participating in The Twelve Scriptures Project, part of an effort by Mennonite Church USA to encourage christian formation within the denomination. Participating congregations are reflecting on biblical stories and scriptures that have been influential, individually or corporately. When our pastor asked me if whether I had a scripture to share, I didn’t even need time to think. I chose Matthew 25.31-46.
This morning, I shared the sermon at our congregation, and my family transferred our membership from Lombard Mennonite Church to our new church home. (Quite the day!) Here are my words from this morning.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of an invitation she received to preach at a church in Alabama. She asked the priest,
What do you want me to talk about?
“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered. It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.
I find it somewhat surprising how much I’ve looked forward to sharing this morning. I think I’ve experienced something like what she describes. Our congregation is in the process of reflecting on scriptures that have been formational or meaningful in our lives. When Conrad asked if I had a scripture to share, it was as if he had said, “Come tell us what is saving your life now. What does your life depend on?” Answering that question this morning will be, I hope, like sharing good news. I hope you will be encouraged, and I invite you to also reflect on scriptures that are meaningful in your own life or meaningful to our congregation as a whole.
The other reason I’m glad to share this morning is that Laurie and I are asking to transfer our membership today from Lombard Mennonite Church in Illinois to Scottdale. I figure you should know something about me before that happens…
Let me begin, just briefly, by saying what I won’t be discussing this morning. As you heard, I’ve chosen the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. When I was younger, the aspects of this story that deal with judgment concerned me. I worried about heaven and hell, and whether I was a sheep or a goat. And though that isn’t the case now, and though that might be an interesting discussion (why do I not worry anymore), we’ll leave that for another time. Ok – with that out of the way…
For nearly all my life, I anticipated a career in science. Those of you who know my father won’t be surprised by this. He was a biology professor from the time he left school until he retired a few years ago. And I expected that I would follow a similar path. After finishing school in 2002, I began working in X-ray science, doing exactly what I was trained to do. It was work I liked; it was work that I did well.
But a couple of things, related to each other, were haunting me, slowly pushing me in a new direction and eventually leading to our move to Laurelville one year ago.
The first was the sense that my career and my faith just weren’t communicating with each other. Now I’ve been asked whether I felt conflicted working at a U.S. government lab. The answer is ‘no’. Not really. I wasn’t doing weapons research or anything like that. The things I worked on were mostly connected to biology and medicine and had useful, beneficial end results. No – my faith and career weren’t in opposition to each other; they just didn’t interact much at all.
I describe it this way…
Every morning, the “gate” on my home – really the garage door, but we’ll call it a ‘gate’ for the sake of the story – the gate went up, I spent twenty minutes on the interstate, I exited the interstate, and drove through another gate – the gate of the laboratory where I worked. In the evenings, I made the journey in reverse. It was all very clean and sterile, living life in these two “gated” communities. All I ever saw was white, suburban, middle-class America. It was as if nothing else existed. I didn’t think that my life looked much different from the lives of my colleagues; and I couldn’t see that my life reflected a commitment to being a disciple of Jesus.
Throughout that time of searching and longing for something more, some coherence, something that would tie the loose ends together, I compared myself to my father. Why was he comfortable with his career? How was he able to make the connection between science and faith? He spent forty years in science. Why was I having such difficulties? I quote Barbara Brown Taylor again…
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those [who are] wise about the spiritual life suggests the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.
I was fully familiar with her thoughts before we left Illinois. Should I have continued my searching there? I think it’s a valid question, but I don’t know that I’ll ever have an answer. I just get to live with the question.
The other thing that has shaped my life in the last number of years is doubt. Perhaps it’s the analytical side of my brain; maybe it’s the post-modern generation I’m a part of; I’m sure it has a little bit to do with the theological question of pain (why does a good God allow bad things) – whatever it is, doubt is an ever-present part of faith for me. This doesn’t bother me – not any more. I’m comfortable with the mixture of the two. But it does form the ways I experience God. I’m drawn to the prophets wrestling with God; I find comfort in the story of Job who asks question after question – and all he gets are questions in return. I’m inspired (and not discouraged) when I hear about the struggles of a person like Mother Teresa, who experienced a “dark night” for more than half her life.
We often think of our relationship with God as a vertical encounter. We meet God in prayer or in worship. And although that is true for me, as well, the connection is fuzzy. Do I hear God? Or do I just hear the blood rushing in my ears? How shall I find God? Where do I seek?
Let’s return to this morning’s scripture. Jesus says to the people on his right, “I was hungry; you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger; you welcomed me. I was naked; I was sick; I was in prison. You took care of me.” And the people at Jesus’ right hand are saying, “When did we see you?” I can imagine myself in their position. Maybe they’re frustrated. Some of them are thinking that there has been a mistake “When? When did we see you? We looked and looked. We prayed; we never heard you…” “My friends – just as you did these things for my family, you have done them for me.”
The service to Jesus that is described here – these acts of hospitality – this is what I learned at Laurelville when I worked here 20 years ago. In the midst of my faith and doubt, this is how I still most fully experience God – in the midst of these horizontal relationships with others. This is why I chose Matthew 25 as this morning’s scripture, and this is why we moved here last year.
Ok – that’s enough about my story. Let’s talk about hospitality.
Luke records the story of two folks walking along a road one evening, trying to understand the senseless killing of their teacher at the hands of those in power. A stranger walks up, asks what they’re talking about, and they respond with incredulity. “Haven’t you heard about Jesus?”
Well – you probably know the story. Evidently, the stranger had heard about Jesus, because he explains to them how things really are. The two people reach their destination, and the stranger is going to go on. But it’s getting dark, and the roads aren’t safe, and they insist that he come in and stay for the night because that’s the hospitable thing to do. The stranger accepts their offer.
They sit down to the evening meal; they ask their wise guest to say the blessing; and their eyes are opened to Jesus sitting with them. And then he’s gone.
Now tell me – who is the guest in this story? And who is the host? Who is in need? Who provides for those needs? Hospitality creates a safe space where guests may enter and be authentically themselves, and in that space to encounter and be transformed by God. True hospitality allows for this role reversal. When we welcome the stranger among us, do we create the space where this role reversal can happen? Are we willing to yield to the guest, and are we willing to receive, instead of being the one who gives?
Speaking of receiving, instead of giving – our culture privileges independence and self-sufficiency. Disciples of Jesus, however, need to acknowledge our weaknesses and our interdependence on one another. We cannot extend hospitality, we cannot be good hosts, without also being good guests.
Imagine this scene – I’m sure you’ve witnessed it. One person offers something to another person. It could be a gift, some food, some money, some time… And the second person says, “No – it’s too much. Too much of hassle. Too generous. Too… whatever. I couldn’t accept it.”
Yes. Yes you could. And I could. We could receive humbly, graciously, thankfully. You can be the guest – acknowledging that we are all strangers, sojourners in this life, as the writer of Hebrews tells us.
It has been helpful for me to remember this during the past year – to remember that we are all strangers. The question I try to ask each day – some days with more success than others – is, “What will Jesus look like today?” Many days it is obvious to me. Guests are constantly arriving at Laurelville, and it’s usually a joy to extend hospitality to them. Even when it’s not, I find that I’m transformed by the encounter, if I’m open and receptive to the possibility of encountering Jesus in these strangers.
But some days Jesus shows up in the faces of those I work with or live with. And to be honest, those encounters may be more joyful, or they may be more difficult. What does it mean for me to extend hospitality to my co-worker, or my wife, or one of my children? Am I sensitive to their needs? Am I receptive to the gifts they bring?
And what if look in the mirror and find that the person looking back is a stranger? What if I don’t like what I see? Are we hospitable to ourselves? What would that hospitality look like?
Laurie suggested to me that hospitality to ourselves and to those closest to us might come in the form of time. I think this is right. For ourselves, we honor the Sabbath. We rest. For others, we set aside our distractions and invest in their lives.
You know – our time, our lives are limited. In some sense, we are always dying. When we extend hospitality, we die to ourselves. Our life is given away, given as an offering, an offering to Jesus, who comes to us as the stranger.
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, my sisters or brothers, you did it to me.