It’s Not Radical; It’s Just Christian

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Rev. Dr. Gennifer Bengamin Brooks

Romans 12:9-12 and Matthew 13:24-30

A few years ago, the theme of radical hospitality was bandied about in ecclesial circles as a necessity, not specifically for living as Christians, but for encouraging persons to become part of the church community. It was a campaign that ran through congregations as they tried inventive and imaginative ways to live into that slogan. Based on my unscientific observation however, although many churches sincerely instituted new and laudable programs to attract newcomers, searchers if you will, from my perspective they missed the most critical element of Christianity, namely the need to live a holy life. The call to holy living was for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the sine qua non of Christianity and his mandate to the people called Methodists was to live holy lives individually and to practice social holiness as the gathered community.

Wesley called himself “a man of one book,” the Bible and he preached many sermons specifically about what it meant to live the holy life of a Christian.  Certainly this list of requirements that we heard read from Paul’s letter to the Romans was familiar to him and featured in several of his sermons in one way or another. But if you are anything like me, looking at this list, you just might come to the conclusion that being a Christian is hard. And you would be correct. It is hard to live the holy life required of a Christian. Now Paul had to know how difficult it was for the people of the church in Rome, living in the midst of the decadent Roman culture, and being persecuted as well. He had to know how hard it would be for them to adhere to his teaching. In fact Paul did know. Paul knew about the many challenges that the fledging Christian communities faced. That’s why he wrote to them again and again.

His letter to the church at Rome is prime evidence that he was aware of the difficulties faced by adherents in following the way of Christ. Paul is on his way to Rome, to a church community that he did not establish and a people he did not know. He takes the time to write to them, to prepare them to receive him; to enable them to know something about him before he shows up; and to address some theological issues that he considered critical to their Christian identity. Scholars are certain that this letter was in no way intended to be a kind of theological treatise, it is simply Paul’s way of priming the pump, so to speak, so that the people of the Roman church will be prepared to accept his teaching, which is focused particularly on the righteousness of God.

Paul considers it of great importance that the community understands both their call to live a holy life and that they are undergirded in that life by divine love; that they can count on the grace of God to sustain them through the trials of their lives so that they can live as Christ ordained.  In calling them to a life of holiness he encourages them to reject the values of their culture through non-conformance to its practices, and to allow their belief in Christ to transform and renew their minds. That’s a tall order for persons who are being persecuted by their society. In fact it’s a tall order for any people in any time and place and certainly for us in our post-Christian era.

The idea of a post-Christian era is based on the fact that Christianity has declined significantly in the Western world, but that does not mean that it has lost its place in the world. Just ask some of those so-called third world nations in Africa where Christianity is flourishing. But as I see the state of the Christian Church and hear the statistics from our own United Methodist Church, I wonder if indeed we, the Church, the body of Christ, are not living as post-Christians, where Christ has no established or significant place in our individual lives, or sadder still, in our congregations. And when I am confronted by texts such as Paul’s list of requirements, I wonder if it is really possible to live up to the criteria that name us as Christians. Whether we are in a post-Christian era or not, the truth is that it is not easy to be Christian. It is very hard to follow the dictates of Christian living all the time. It has always been.

Consider for a moment Jesus’ two summative commandments to us: Love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And right away we have the same problem as the rich young ruler who asked the original question: who is my neighbor? The world tells us to look out for number one; to take care of ourselves first, lest we are trampled by the hordes that are reaching for the same brass ring – tarnished though it might be. So what if that means that you step on the little people that made you big; what if that means that you gladly accept the six-figure bonus for your stock transactions that bankrupted your smaller clients; what if you enjoy the best health care money can buy, while so many of the most needy, on whose backs you rose to your position, have no way of getting the most basic care of their urgent needs – and forget about preventive care. I’ve got mine you get yours. It’s not my fault; it’s the system; that’s the way of the world. And anyway I think I should have the right to choose my neighbors, that’s why I live in a gated community.

And as if Jesus is not hard enough to deal with, Paul’s message is over the top. It’s just too complicated. It has too many requirements. How am I to remember everything it says? I can do some things, like genuine love – I’m not faking it; I hate anything evil and I give honor where honor is due. I’m patient most of the time and I pray pretty regularly. But suffering, why do I have to put up with that? And I’m a good contributor, especially to my special interests, but this thing about strangers and hospitality – well I’m not inviting anyone and everyone to my parties, they’re not part of my community. Yes, it’s hard and it would take all day to deal with every one of the thirteen items on Paul’s list so for this moment of preaching, all I want us to focus on is Paul’s command to extend hospitality to strangers. And I’m not talking about the old radical hospitality.  I want us look at hospitality as an essential Christian characteristic.

Since it appears last in Paul’s list, one would be forgiven for believing that there are other things more important to which Christians should give their attention, but this list is not hierarchical, so we must assume it has equal value in the requirement of holy living as requisite to a Christian life. So the question is: how does one live up to this mandate, especially in our post-Christian Western world? It’s a conundrum. And it gets even more complicated as we are confronted by these other words that are intrinsically part of the culture of these United States of America:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me …”

Emma Lazarus wrote these words in her poem “The New Colossus” that is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty that stands in the New York harbor. They were important words of welcome to the myriad immigrants fleeing persecution from other lands to the New World of America. They spoke of hospitality, of openness to receive whoever came to these shores, and were an open invitation to a new life. Reflecting on them in light of both Paul’s words and Jesus’ teaching through his many parables and his actions of welcome and open reception to the outcast and ignored of his society, it seems to me that hospitality is essential for life and especially for Christian living in our time and place. But if hospitality to strangers means reaching out to huddled masses and wretched refuse and homeless, smelly people, count me out. I give money for that sort of thing. There’s no need for me to be involved with those people. What you are asking is radical stuff. Who are these people anyway? They are not part of my community. How can I help them if I don’t know who they are? And where did they come from anyway?

Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, speaking at the opening convocation of my school, Garrett-Evangelical, last September, said something about hospitality, a theme we adopted for the year, that made me stop and think. He said “true hospitality is openness to new ideas.” I had never heard such a definition before. It was both new and radical to my way of thinking, but as I thought about the call to holy living, it made perfect sense to me. It moved hospitality from being simply how we welcomed people into our sphere of life, and into the realm of new thoughts and open acceptance of unfamiliar ideas and persons. Hospitality as openness to the new frees our minds from societal boundaries of race and clan and class and all the many unnatural barriers that separate us one from the other. True hospitality enables us to welcome the new in each person and in the world, and perhaps as Christians it can help us to see more clearly and to receive more readily the people of the world, Christian or otherwise.

As Christians we are called to love. Jesus is clear in his command to love God totally and love neighbor as ourselves. And using Dr. Mouw’s definition, the question of the identity of one’s neighbor can open us up to a greater vision in seeing our neighbors for who they are in their fullness as children of God, which would then move us to offer true hospitality to all. Sounds radical, doesn’t it? But it’s not radical, it’s just Christian. So again I ask, who are those strangers and neighbors that are entitled to our hospitality? It’s certainly not those people who are crossing our borders illegally. They must be rooted out. They don’t belong here. They’re stealing the substance of our land and taking from the rightful owners. They are illegal, non-persons. They are the weeds that Jesus spoke of in his parable.

Well … perhaps we should apply the analogy of weeds and wheat to the issue of illegal immigration from the perspective of the native peoples of this land. They showed hospitality to strangers, and paid a high price for it, namely the genocide of their people. Maybe that is the fear we reflect in our treatment of immigrants of color, legal or otherwise. And what about those who live among us, unknown, unseen, dismissed because of their situation in life. For too many they are the weeds of our society, because of their lack of resources, their poverty; they are strangers, persons we do not want to know, who are different than we are in all kinds of ways, who speak a different language, dress differently, enjoy unfamiliar foods, choose differently the persons on whom they will lavish care and love in the fullness of their sexual identity; even hold different religious or political beliefs. These are the ones on whom we are to lavish love and extend hospitality. What? This is radical stuff, preacher. No it’s not. It’s not radical, it’s just Christian.

It is the way of Christ who counsels us through this parable to let all people live and grow together as the whole people of God; to celebrate our differences; to welcome and care for lost and the lonely, the depressed and the dispossessed, and all the strangers that come among us until Christ returns.  It is the call of the Christian in the assurance that God and God alone will determine who belongs in the realm of God. Only God has the right to decide who goes and who stays; who’s in and who’s out; who’s up and who’s down. The Christ who fills our hearts with love calls us to show that same love through our hospitality to all people, in all the ways we can – by providing healthcare for everyone, by accepting differently-abled people into all walks of life; by receiving and honoring the way each person lovingly lives in their sexual identity; by sharing with and caring for the poor and needy; by showing compassion in all the ways that it is needed.  And as Paul tells us, we can do so because of the righteousness of God that is made manifest in the redemption of Jesus Christ. Christ with the righteousness of God fills us with grace, God’s amazing love, unexpected and undeserved, so that we can be persons of love and live holy, Christian lives in this post-Christian world.

Not only that but with arms outstretched, Christ stands ready to support us as we reach out our arms to receive the strangers in our midst. On the cross Jesus stretched out his arms embracing the whole world. When we get weary from opening our arms, just lean back on Christ, rest your open arms on his and experience the support that he provides as you try to live in holiness and righteousness through your hospitality offered to the stranger, the unknown neighbor and the whole world.

In some place, at some time, in some way that we may not even know, much less understand, we too are or have been regarded as weeds to be plucked out, thrown out, abandoned or destroyed.  But Christ reclaims us. Christ not only cherishes and nourishes us so that we can grow in the fullness of life, but Christ with open arms supports our efforts to live a holy Christian life enabling us to reach out in welcome and hospitality to all people.  So will you do it? Will you try? Through Christ and with Christ we can extend true Christian hospitality to strangers as well as to family and friends. We can do it. With Christ we can. Through Christ we can live holy lives; we can be true Christians. It is his will for our lives, so we must. And by the way, it’s not radical, it’s just Christian.