You’re Not One of Us

BLM

Mark 9: 38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

I love when people ask me about the kids. People ask “how old are they now?” and “how are they getting along?” and invariably, “how are you still standing?” Desmond and Anna are twins – 4 and a half now, can you believe it? And Ozzie is 2 and a half – it seems the Presbyterian Mission Agency board in particular has watched them – watched me grow up these last almost six years. When people ask me about the kids it’s a way to connect over something ordinary, normal and commonplace, human – we talk about the way kids play and make up games and tell stories and demand apple-pretzels-cheese. All. Day. Long.

It’s a way to feel that I am one of you.

The scripture passage we read together this morning continues a lengthy generative discussion on discipleship and ministry, vocation and call. Earlier in the chapter we have the transfiguration, Jesus starts to talk about his death, the disciples come to Jesus because they need help with casting out a particularly stubborn demon, and Jesus reminds them again who is the greatest in the kingdom by the example of the least of these – a child.

And then, John, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

He was not following us. He was not like us. He was not part of us.  

He was not one of us.

Do you remember that video during the cultural humility training – the ABC News Video with the children responding to different pictures – “20/20” brought together three groups of kids and showed them pictures of two men — one Arab, the other Asian. When we asked the children which man they liked better, over and over, more kids said they preferred “the Chinese guy.” One child preferred the Chinese man “because he looks nicer and he has a smile on.” But both men were smiling. Several children weighed in on the Arab man’s personality, basing their opinions on just seeing his picture. One child said, “I think he’s weird.” Another child said, “He’s like the scary dude.”

Next, “20/20” showed the kids pictures of a black man and white man. This time the pictures were different. Here were some of the comments the kids made about the photo of the black man. One said, “He looks mean.” Another referred to him as “FBI’s Most Wanted.” Another commented, “He looks like he’s a basketball player.” When the white man’s picture was shown, one child said, “He’s nice.” Another said, “I think he’s nice except he might be mad about something.” The boy was probably picking up on something. The photo of a white man was of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Admittedly, the pictures were a little bit different, but when we asked which man is a criminal, most kids pointed to the black man. When we asked which man was a teacher, most pointed to McVeigh. This is ironic because the black man pictured was Harvard University professor Roland Fryer.

It starts early - all the biases, assumptions, judgments, like Wendy said yesterday, it’s in the air we breathe. They’re not part of us. They’re not us.Click To Tweet

Our words and efforts around inclusion, multiculturalism, and diversity mean very little when we see and still say, he is not one of us. She is not part of us. They’re not us.

The disciples said, “Jesus, we saw someone, casting out demons in your name, but we stopped him because he was not one of us…” Jesus “we saw someone” – our penchant for “we saw someone” needs to be replaced by “we see Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see God. Our God is here. But therein lies the irony of the statement, “We saw someone” because the point is, do you see God? Do you see God in the persons who do deeds in God’s name? More than that, and simply, do you see God in that human being?

Foreigner. Alien. Immigrant. Minority. Outsider. Stranger.

Friends, what does it mean for us that we were once strangers, once foreign and alien, but in God’s radical love, we were brought near? More than that, what does it mean for us that Jesus took on this same foreignness – this status of outsider – to be one of us? To be a part of us?

I blogged a couple of months ago:

I keep hearing that chant – the call and response on the short Vine video posted the day after the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. “This is what theology looks like.”

I see them standing huddled together heads down laying hands on each other like it’s an ordination – these demonstrators are being commissioned for something massively important as they shout #blacklivesmatter and #nojusticenopeace anointed with sweat and tears and blood and Spirit and set apart for a holy work in which liturgy is wailing and protest. They are demonstrating resistance in the flesh-and-blood and show us what survival means in its purest form by simply breathing and lamenting together. Hands clutching each other eyes set on the heavenly prize which is the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before them and surround them even now.

This is what theology looks like – this is what faith looks like – this is what love looks like – the way we answer these questions, when “we saw someone” becomes we see Jesus, we see God, in every human being around us – it says who we are and leads us in what we do – with our ministries and with our lives.

It’s not that they become us. We become them, and in doing so we become more like Jesus.Click To Tweet

Isn’t that the ultimate expression of Christian discipleship? To become more like Jesus? 

The Great Equalizer: Our Bellies

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”


It is quite often the most consuming question of the day, literally.

“What are we going to eat?”

Well, it definitely is a constant question in our home – particularly late at night when Andy and I have both been gone all day because of meetings or on a Sunday afternoon after we have come home from church…and all we want is to take a nice long nap…Except that we realize we’re starving and neither of us has a clue what do about a late lunch or early dinner. Those are the moments when one of our moms suddenly materializing in our home would really come in handy…or one of you suddenly appearing on porch, too, that would be great.

“What are we going to eat?” Food is central to any culture, and especially to ours with all our obsession with food plans – the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the Lemon Juice diet – and recently with food movements – local food movements, eating seasonally, and of course, buying organic foods. We worry about how much to eat, what we are eating, and sometimes how our eating impacts others.

These are all complicated but interesting issues, and we could easily mine the Bible for many examples on how food is good and meant to be good for us at many levels. Food can represent so much more than mere sustenance for an individual. Eating – that most human and most necessary of activities – and all that we associate with it are entwined with our spiritual lives, so it’s no surprise that meals and food are significant themes in the Bible. As Fred Craddock observes: “Bread was important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present.”

And so this is what our text is about today – not so much what we are eating [that comes later in Romans – conflicts between meat eaters and vegetarians], but who is eating, and who we are eating with on a regular basis…for it has eternal implications.

This may seem a little odd. Why should Jesus care who sits at our table? Isn’t our plain hospitality enough?

In today’s passage, here we are, in the home of a Pharisee who has extended the honor of hospitality toward Jesus. And how does Jesus respond to the honor of being included in this social occasion? Not surprisingly, he does and says things that inevitably cause either dead silence or an uproar of protest. Setting the scene in the very first verse of this week’s passage, Luke writes that “they were watching him closely,” and he has, of course, already tipped us off that things are going to be tense: One commentator tells us that Luke’s word here “implies ‘hostile observation.’” And Jesus does not let them down:

“Don’t sit down in the best seats because the host might come to you and ask you to move to another seat in case someone better than you is at the dinner. Instead sit at a lower seat, and you won’t be asked to moved down, but there may be a chance for you to move to a better seat.”

You might think – What’s the big deal? Everyone has their seat at the table. I can think of growing up we all had our seats around the table – dad sat at the head, mom’s was nearest the kitchen, I sat across from my mom, and my brother sat across from him. Or you might think – How strange…and awkward – Can you imagine if you were hosting a dinner party and someone made that comment to everyone?

But he goes on, speaking directly to the host, and it gets even more bizarre: “When you have a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, family, or rich neighbors, instead invite those who are dirty, those you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, and those who would inconvenience you the most.”

Hm.

One pastor asks, “Are the Pharisees hopelessly prideful, and are they “the bad guys” here?” Maybe not. He goes on to touch a nerve when he “challenges us – the contemporary Christian audience – to identify with this group. The Pharisees were the good people of their day. They never missed a service – in fact, they sit in the same seat every week, they studied the Scriptures, they tithed, and they set the moral standard for their cultures. Today, we might consider them faithful, active church members.”

On the other hand, he says, “the people that Jesus holds up as worthy of inviting to dinner are the very people who would not be permitted in the homes of ‘the respectable,’ or in places of worship either, for they were considered ‘unclean’: ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.’ Today, we might have different names and designations for those on the margins” – the dayworkers, the homeless, the foreigners – but Jesus’ instructions are the same.

“Don’t seek to fill your stomach. Be fulfilled by filling others.”

And what greater way is there then to extend this kind of table fellowship to those who can in no way possibly repay you? It is one thing to do as the Jewish people naturally did at the time – which isn’t too foreign to us, I think – that is, to keep the wealth and resources in the same circle, and invite those who will reciprocate the hospitality, and return the favor back to us. It is another matter to fight the traffic at Wegman’s or slave over our stoves and grills for hours for those whose only gift to us will be to enjoy the meal.

So, we come back to the issue of hospitality, one that is a topic of conversation for many in our church. Kate Huey, a UCC pastor writes – sadly, “we have domesticated hospitality, shaped a kind of eco-system of inviting that keeps the welcome circulating among our own ‘kind’ of people, or at least those we can feel comfortable around. Our generosity toward strangers and all those we might consider ‘strange’ is often offered from a distance, without personal contact.”

She goes to remind us that the, “The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means ‘love of the stranger.” The list of those ‘strangers’ changes from one time and place to another, but Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to avert our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues – that is, we are to include at our tables ‘those who do not take an invitation for granted.’ In those moments, we will catch a glimpse of the way things will be in the reign of God, but not because we have condescended to welcome those “beneath” us; rather, we will understand that Jesus has changed ‘the rules’ for he ‘redefines’ both ‘honorable behavior’ and ‘honored guests.’”

As Anthony Bourdain has said a couple of times on his travel show “No Reservations,” – The table is the great equalizer.

Unfortunately, we forget that the table – or the necessity of food – levels the playing field. One commentator says, “We become consumed with accomplishment – even fame and honor. Spend a little time wandering around a bookstore provides some sense of the deep contradiction, or at least tension, in our culture: on the one hand, there are plenty of books to help a person “get ahead,” make it to the top (and maybe even the corner – office, that is), to succeed and be recognized and rewarded. I suspect that not one of those books advises the reader to make a habit of seeking the margins, the lowest places of invisibility and inconsequence, far from the “important” action…after all, how can one make one’s mark on the world from way out there? On the other hand, there’s also shelf after shelf of books and tapes that promise to help us find inner peace, wholeness, wellness – books that will tell us how to relax, to enjoy fulfilled, happy lives. Perhaps it depends on your definition of being fulfilled. Or at least of being filled.”

But when we discard the need to be filled or fulfilled by what the rules of the world, and we reject the rules of propriety and places of honor to sit down with those who seem to have no humanity…when we break bread with them and look in their eyes, we will not only see their humanity, but see and remember our own…our own need and fragility. When we hear only the familiar rumbling of stomachs indicating hunger all around the table, we will see that there is no difference between ourselves and those others, which will tie us together even more. And, we will eat and drink – banquet – together with hearts that are truly full. This is a taste of God’s kingdom – the truest blessing, and the deepest fulfillment.

Friends, this is more than gastronomics or economics for we were once strangers, even more, enemies to God, but God, the Heavenly Host, did not hesitate to break down those walls to eat and fellowship with us. May we have the love and courage to do so with others, and make it our first priority as we live and breathe, eat and drink in this world.

The Heart of Hospitality

The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
-Luke 5

Over this past program year I’ve been attending (with a few folks from our church) a Synod workshop/training events called “20/20 Vision: Moving Towards the Church God Imagines for Us.” There have been some relatively interesting conversations, but nothing terribly new. The first workshop was back in November and it was a general introduction and on the topic of the “physics of church transformation.” A lot of the material was on spirituality and prayer. The second workshop was last month, and it was on evangelism and telling our stories. There were some nice contemplative activities that helped me to walk away refreshed. We finished up the third session today, which was on hospitality and connecting with our neighbors, led by Philip Lotspeich, Coordinator of Church Growth for PCUSA and Bill Golderer, Pastor of Broad Street Ministries. Both had some meaty thoughts, which I’m looking forward to mulling over for a while. I liked the turns of phrases that Bill used in talking about the importance of hospitality in a church’s ministry and mission.

In general, what I took from it began with the Dwelling in the Word activity where we spent some time with Luke 5. In a conversation with a “friendly stranger,” I was struck by the Pharisees and scribes’ complaints towards the disciples eating and drinking with the sinners. She wondered why they were complaining that Jesus was sitting down with these sinners since he had been spending so much time with them anyway – healing, teaching, and ministering to them. This was clearly his MO from the beginning. But, then we realized that there was a difference in this type of interaction with people. Perhaps it is one thing to help someone in need – whether it is donating canned foods or writing a check to support a charity – where the expectation is to keep “these kinds of people” at arm’s length. There has to be an appropriate distance. It’s kind of top-down. But, Jesus didn’t do the expected. Eating and drinking with the “low-lifes” was another expression of his ministry. In some ways, his receiving their hospitality, which was also an expression of his own vulnerability and need, was a form of ministry, too…poignant and palpable.

I wonder if I’m on this food kick since I just blogged about Jamie Oliver. But, food and eating are such important activities, and something that connects all of us – we spent much of our break chatting about food places in the Lehigh Valley, the farmer’s markets, and our favorite foods in general.

…It makes me think how it is empowering and enabling (in a good way) when we eat with someone. It’s eucharistic. I’m almost positive I’ve blogged about this before: the ministry of dignity…how we help to humanize those on the margins by the simple act of eating and drinking with someone…accepting their hospitality, whether it’s an extravagant dinner or a cup of cold water. I experienced this in the DR over and over…the experience of the Other becoming more and more human…makes me feel and be more present in my own humanness, too. Bill mentioned something about this connection rooted in compassion, and truly suffering with someone, I think he quoted Aquinas – how I can only flourish when my fellow human being is flourishing, too. James Cone said something similar, about how I can only be free when my fellow human being is truly free, too.

Some tidbits in general from the workshop:

  • In small groups we chatted about where we experienced the most genuine hospitality. Some of the experiences we highlighted had components of presence and preparation. This included attention to details, going the extra mile, continuous thoughtfulness, and joy.
  • We also shared the biblical narratives that spoke to us about hospitality. These included Rahab, Abraham and Sarah with the visitors, the Good Samaritan, the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion.
  • Philip and Bill talked about the importance of breaking down barriers, the need for cultural proficiency, living in solidarity with others, and doing neighborhood exegesis (taking a walk around the neighborhood and trying to understand what are the needs).

I’d say that what I got the most out of this particular workshop was thinking and moving towards articulating how hospitality needs to be central to ministry, and what is central to hospitality is very basic (the roots are Greek – xenos meaning “stranger,” and philos meaning “love”) – love of the stranger. This is incredibly clear, and very powerful to me. Now how do we/I act this perspective – a “kingdom economics,” as Bill put it – out in courageous ways?…in radical ways beyond the “welcoming hostess” or mint-on-the-pillow kind of ministry?