Search

ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger

Tag

Matthew 25

How not to Facebook

I messed up a few days ago.

One of my friends was extolling the virtues of the Trump/Pence ticket on Facebook. He went so far as to say he’d question the salvation of any Christian who wouldn’t vote for them on election day.

I responded with something snarky like, “Better start questioning my salvation then, but just remember Romans 14 as you do.”

I was blocked. Just like that. Not a word in response.


I have lots of opinions about Trump and Pence, but since I’ve already messed up online political talk once this week, let’s not go there.

Instead, let’s talk about hospitality.

You’d think I’d know by now… tongue-in-cheek jokes don’t work online. No one hears your tone of voice when you’re attempting some light-hearted teasing about sensitive topics. But somehow, I forgot once again how the voice in my head doesn’t make it through the ether.

On Facebook, you can’t tell that I’m smiling when I say, “Go ahead… question my salvation. I’m ok with that. It will probably make me a better Christian.” You can’t tell that I’m asking for gentleness and mercy for myself as you judge me, because I’m always in need of a little grace. (If you haven’t already looked up Romans 14 this might be the time to stop and read it.)

I failed to think about context.

I failed to remember the needs of my friend.

I failed to consider that a little teasing among friends that you see frequently is not the same as teasing someone that you haven’t seen for many years.

I failed to extend hospitality.

And that’s sad, because nothing matters more to me than hospitality.

When I fail to extend hospitality, that’s when you can really start questioning my salvation…

“Lord, when was it that we saw you. . . .a stranger. . . .and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

(Matthew 25:44-46, NRSV)

So if you read this, and I’ve offended you, I apologize. I’m deeply sorry.

And if that’s not you—if I haven’t managed to offend you yet—thank God. Maybe you can learn something from my crap, because God knows we need a little grace here.

Advertisements

A reminder to myself

Sometimes you extend hospitality to others, and it’s warmly received. And sometimes people take advantage of you and spit you out. It’s mostly for that last bunch that I created a reminder for myself…

Reminder wristbandIt says…

Hospes venit, Christus venit

Which is Latin for “When the stranger (or guest) comes, Christ comes.”

Inspired by Matthew 25 and the Rule of St. Benedict (Chapter 53: On the reception of guests):

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.

Matthew 25.35-36, NRSV

 

“When did we see you?”

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.

Amen.

The practice of encountering others (“An Altar in the World”, Chapter 6)

The wisdom of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers] includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self…

It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

– Barbara Brown Taylor

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorAs I re-read An Altar in the World, I’m reminded that this chapter is one of my favorites. It is heavy on the theme of hospitality – a theme which has been formational in my life recently. Hospitality is the reason we moved to Laurelville in June; it is the reason I love my job; it is the natural result of working out my faith, based on a theology of Matthew 25.

I’m also reminded I’m not very skilled in this practice of encountering others. As Taylor notes, it demands action, not just thought. Which is to say, it requires me to see myself in someone else at the precise moment when I’d rather not be around that someone else. Or is it that they don’t want to be around me? Sometimes both.

One of the challenges I face at Laurelville is the wide diversity of people we welcome to the camp. It is our mission to offer “Christ-like hospitality with welcome and safety for all“, and ‘all’ tends to encompass quite a few people. Of course, many of our guests either don’t know about this little phrase, or they don’t quite grasp ‘all’, or they fail to realize that it’s hard to extend this hospitality if one harbors prejudice.

In any case, they’ll strike up a conversation regarding politics or hot-button issues in the Church and society, and assume that I must be in agreement with them, since I work at church camp. (It’s funny how one can hear such a variety of “biblical” opinions that are in complete disagreement with one another.) Anyway, it is easy enough to welcome people who see things as I do, but much more difficult when it’s clear that my conversation partner isn’t on the same page. Sometimes the best I can do is to simply listen and then try to change the topic. I’d like to do better, though. I’d like to learn to affirm the beauty and truth in each person. I’m still learning.*

* I’ve tried to do some learning by watching our director, John Denlinger, who is gifted in this practice of encountering others. I am sad that John will soon be leaving Laurelville, but am thankful that one of his legacies at Laurelville is a rich and broad vision of hospitality.

My goal is to begin each day by asking…

Lord, when will I see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when will I see you a stranger and welcome you…?

And then to close the day by reflecting back and asking the same thing. Eventually, I may learn the answer…

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

The practice of wearing skin (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 3)

With my work schedule at Laurelville, “weekends” tend to fall at odd times — this week, it’s Tuesday and Wednesday — and we’ve come to my parents place for a couple of days. This morning, I was sitting at breakfast feeling the aches and pains of work — “wearing skin”, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it. I’ve got some minor tendinitis in my elbow, and I’ve stoved (staved?) my thumb, both from moving firewood around, I think. A yellow jacket sting on my ankle has been a major annoyance. My hands feel swollen from the summer heat and humidity.

But it wasn’t all bad. There was also the joy of slowly sipping a warm almond mocha. Coffee is one of the best simple pleasures of wearing skin.

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorThere is no faith, says Taylor, besides the one that we live and express in our skin:

If one of our orthodox beliefs has no corporeal value, if we cannot come up with a single consequence it has for our embodied life together, then there is good reason to ask why we should bother with it at all.

After all, God “so loved the world” and its bodies that God took on a body, too. In affirming the Incarnation, we affirm that our bodies matter.

Mennonites have always done well in this affirmation – at least, in theory. When we pray, we stress “on earth as it is in Heaven”. We confess with James that “faith without works” — in other words, faith without a corresponding bodily action — is dead.

Nevertheless, this chapter of An Altar in the World made me uncomfortable — uncomfortable because I’m uncomfortable with myself. Mostly, it’s this ongoing battle with the extra weight I’m carrying around. I just don’t want to be reminded of it. And then there’s an awkward relationship with sexuality that I imagine a lot of Mennonites have. Could we have a switch to turn it on and off?

My discomfort aside, there is much wisdom in this chapter…

One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.

And I’m reminded that by showing reverence to your body, I show reverence to Christ (think Matthew 25, which has become a focus of faith for me). So in this one practice of wearing skin, I may simultaneously learn to love myself, my neighbor, and my God.

A few days ago, I confessed to my wife that I didn’t have much use for a faith concerned only with a life after this one. If my belief doesn’t have much to say about here and now, I don’t have use for it. That is why wearing skin (and this chapter) are important for me now.

Amen.

This is what happens when I think of Matthew 21…

Here’s something I wonder. What do you think?

There were two men. The first proclaimed himself to be a Christian. He preached the gospel in word and in tract on the city’s street corners and in the city’s parks, regularly beseeching the drunks and homeless to be saved, sober, and gainfully employed. The second man was either an agnostic or an atheist, depending on the day. In his most optimistic moments, he acknowledged that there might be a God, but most of the time he was filled with doubt. He was occasionally accosted by the man of faith as he walked down the city streets, but he generally ignored him. The man of doubt was usually too busy looking for a way to comfort his friends who were dying from the hardships of street life.

Now – which of these two was a child of God?


(Matthew 21, Matthew 25, James 2)

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: