I’ve been listening to Brené Brown’s podcast recently: Unlocking Us. It is rich with stories and insights about the universal experience of being human. It’s worth the listen. At the end of every podcast she asks her guests a series of the same questions, one of which is to describe a snapshot of an ordinary moment that brings joy. Kids — you could think of it this way: what’s your happy place? If you brought paper and colors today, go ahead and draw a picture of what comes to mind. If drawing’s not your thing, use words to describe what comes to mind as you imagine an ordinary moment that brings you joy — the people, the location, the scenery, the sounds…
You can also make a note in the chat box right now if you’d like. I encourage you to share your drawings/words with another following worship. Good coffee conversation, or while you’re on a walk, or at the supper table. Calling to mind ordinary moments that bring joy provides some respite from the heaviness of all that’s going on these days. It’s been three months since the coronavirus changed how we gather for worship, just one pattern of change among many. And it’s been one month since George Floyd was killed and the subsequent, continued social unrest not far from Bethlehem’s Minneapolis campus. These realities are going to be with us awhile.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, writer David Brooks reflects that Americans are facing five epic crises all at the same time: the fight against COVID-19; a rapid education for white americans on the burdens that African-Americans carry every day: a political realignment; a shift in control of America’s institutions and the possibility of a prolonged economic crises.
He writes: “These five changes, each reflecting a huge crisis and hitting all at once, have created a moral, spiritual and emotional disaster. Americans are now less happy than at any time since they started measuring happiness nearly 50 years ago.”
So I would argue, intentionally calling to mind ordinary moments that bring joy isn’t just a pleasant distraction — it’s a necessary act for the sake of our well-being. Engaging our imaginations in this way fosters gratitude in our hearts, keeping us mindful who and what brings us joy. Sharing our stories of highs and lows keeps us connected to each other too.
Today’s gospel passage is the last few verses of what’s sometimes called Matthew’s missionary discourse. We’ve had three weeks in a row of Jesus instructing his disciples. First he calls them. Next he empowers them to do the same work that he does: to cast out unclean spirits, to cure every disease and sickness, to proclaim the good news.
Jesus then describes the cost of discipleship: the hostility, rejection, betrayal and persecution that they will face. We heard those words as part of last week’s worship service. The disciples will embody God’s love and they will still be hated.
But Jesus doesn’t end his instructions there. His words today are a promise that their lives will also include ordinary moments that give joy. This gives hope. Jesus is encouraging them in faith. Tough times are ahead but compassion and care will be part of their story too. The gift of hospitality is theirs — to receive and to give.
This passage landed differently with me this last week than in the past. I’ve always heard them as a directive to me, a directive to anyone who seeks to be a Christ follower.
Here’s what I imagine Jesus saying to me: “So Mary, you want to follow me? Then be sure you are at work to always welcome others. Be kind. Gracious. Do what you can to make someone feel valued, loved, appreciated. Every act matters. Even something you might think small makes a difference. Offer a cup of water to someone who’s thirsty and it changes things. It has immediate impact and eternal significance.”
This isn’t a wrong way to interpret what Jesus is saying. It’s just not the whole of what he is saying. The gift of hospitality is to be shared and received because, truth is, we are all in need of compassion and care. To be human is to be vulnerable. Remembering our shared vulnerability changes the way we show up for others.
When you are the one who welcomes, you are in control of what happens. You get to decide to whom you will extend hospitality and what that act of hospitality will be. You’re in the driver’s seat, so to speak.
But the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking don’t have that kind of control over their circumstances. They’re not the ones with power or status to welcome another. They have no resources to offer. Remember, earlier in this chapter, after Jesus gives them authority to preach and heal, he sends them out with nothing. “Take nothing with you,” he says. As they travel to preach, teach and heal, they are at the mercy of others; they are vulnerable and in need of care.
As we all are. Every one of us is dependent on God’s grace and our well-being is interdependent, one with another.
Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes: “When we start to imagine what it must feel like to rely on the welcome of others, perhaps then we will have a sense of the kind of vulnerability Jesus knew and Jesus lived. When you have to depend on another, perhaps even for a meal and a place to sleep, trust steps through that door first.”
At the heart of every relationship is welcome. Jesus embodies this. In God’s desire to be in relationship with us, God set aside divine power to take on the limits of human flesh and blood. God made this choice for all humanity. The Word made flesh was God’s choice to become vulnerable for the sake of the world God loved. Becoming human is God’s commitment to being in relationship with you.
Lewis continues: “By instigating a relationship with us, God decided and determined that vulnerability is at the heart of faith… In the end, God had to trust in the welcome of the world to make a home here, to abide here, to make the Kingdom of Heaven be known here.”
This past Thursday I shared with you a request we had received from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, located in the heart of the third precinct that continues to suffer following the initial uprising in response to George Floyd’s death. The pastor asked if Bethlehem could help them meet their goal of 1,000 items of five different basic household goods.
When the initial tragedy happened and the destruction followed, Ben and I heard from many of you… What can I do? What can Bethlehem do? You are a community that has a long history of being incredibly generous. So you were ready and eager to do whatever needed to be done to help our neighbors. Your commitment to being the body of Christ alive and at work in the world is unwavering. I’m grateful.
But this time our neighbors asked us to wait and see… to listen and learn. Our neighbors asked us to practice a particular kind of hospitality — one that follows the platinum rule instead of the golden: to do unto others as they would have done unto them. So we listened and this is what we heard: “It’s too soon for us to know. But please, stick around because we need each other to figure this out.”
It’s hard to wait. It takes patience and trust. Our vulnerability comes into focus as we turn from familiar ways of showing up and turn toward new ways of being found in God.
So thanks for sticking around. For waiting. For listening. For learning. For giving space to neighbors to invite us in. I doubt any of us would have identified 1,000 bottles of cooking oil or laundry soap as a necessary next step. Not something any of us could have accomplished independently either. But together… wow! Look at what God can accomplish through us.
You did you show up! I knew you would. Your generosity is faithful, a reflection of our generous God. Here are some photos of what’s shown up so far… Many of you have made gifts to the church community fund too. Thank you!
This last weekend’s effort is not a one off. We will continue to listen and learn and to be changed by the relationships that emerge with God’s grace-filled, holy hospitality that equips us to be the body of Christ in and for the world God loves.