Thoughts on 3 Pentecost, 6/30/2019

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3 Pentecost
30 June 2019
St. James, Somerville

Luke 9. 58  Foxes have their holes and birds their roosts, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

In approximately four weeks hence, we will observe the Sacrament of Baptism, the first time since you have privileged me to serve among you and, as far as I have been able to ascertain from parish records, the first time in many years.  Lest you believe that I am about to say that this is an achievement which we have earned, I point immediately to the Spirit of God.  Remember the Day of the Pentecost, when the Spirit of God was portrayed as a mighty wind?  I like to think of the Spirit as the Will of God, at work in this instance, as we try to live out our vow to follow God’s Messiah, the Christ.

I mention the pending baptism today, because not only should we give thanks for this new addition to our Christian family, but also that we might begin to think about our own baptism and what it has meant to each of us individually and how we might share the Christian life of commitment to the Commandment of LOVE of God and LOVE of neighbor to the young infant whose parents will present him to us.

What may seem to you as extremely odd, if not ill-chosen, is the use of the sentence from today’s gospel, as a way of centering our reflections.  Hear again from St. Luke’s Gospel: Foxes have their holes and birds their roosts, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. (9:58)

The child, whose parents Kathryn and Andrew or Andy Doharty are coming to us, a Christian community, for welcome, bears the name Charles, or as known to family as Charlie.  My question to you today, even though you have yet to meet him and if you did, he could not respond verbally,–my question is: what could you tell Baby Charlie about your own life as a baptized Christian that might benefit him, as he grows and makes his way as a preadolescent, adolescent, and young man, who will be beset by the norms of a world, of a society which seems often to value individual enhancement over life that is lived in community?

I ask you to think about today’s gospel lesson from Luke, for Charlie is going to need us all, you and me, mature thinkers, as he makes his journey through life.  How would your “Dear Charlie” letter read? You have four weeks to compose your letter.  This is a pastoral and professorial assignment which I intend to collect!

Many preachers use today’s gospel, and appropriately so, to talk about discipleship, its rigors, its high expectations, its uncertainty.  After all, the message could not be clearer: foxes have dens, birds have nests.  Let the dead bury the dead.  Stop whatever you’re doing, and follow Jesus; if you do follow him, don’t dare look back.

However, even conceding that the admonitions illustrate just how difficult it would be, to live a life as a disciple of Jesus—and this is where Charlie is headed through his baptism—this very same gospel story begs another review.  In the middle of all his disclaimers and his attempts to dissuade the dilettante and the fainthearted from taking his gospel lightly, “you don’t really want to join up with me, for if you do, your life won’t be easy!”  Jesus declares, concerning himself, to drive home his point: “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”  Tucked away, as it were, among all the verbal scare tactics, is this one-liner that on the surface would seem to say, even I have it bad and I cannot promise you anything better.

Yet, like a two-year old, I find myself asking, over and over again, the question “Why?”  Why does the Son of Man have no place to lay his head, if what he is bringing is ‘good news which shall be for all people?’    What is the problem?  You and I, as devout Christians and mentors to Charlie, should be able to answer that question.

The solution is, so it appears to me, how we, not just we at St. James, but how all of us Christians engage in the ministry of hospitality. We Christians in our various parishes have formulated as our mission, our slogan, our motto, as it were, a statement which comes from two sources, our baptismal vows (to respect the dignity of every human being) and the rule of St. Benedict (to treat every person who enters our doors, as if he/she were Christ).

Whenever Jesus did not receive the customary kiss of welcome, no water for the ceremonial washing of his feet, no oil for his head, the host heard about it, and in the clearest of fashion and in his own home!  Although for all practical purposes, Jesus, on that one evening, did have a place to lay his head, theoretically, he had not yet been properly welcomed and, therefore, had no place to lay his head.

So important and so ingrained into social interactions, across nations and cultures, is the concept of hospitality, that the messenger, the ambassador from one nation to another is welcomed with almost the same pomp and circumstance, reserved for the head of state being represented.  In the Middle Ages, to maim or slay the messenger, i.e. not to accord him the dignity of hospitality, was an affront to the one who sent him.  Wars have been fought, because the messenger was maltreated or slain.

The slogan or mission statement of every church should be: Here at St. James, we are engaged in a ministry of hospitality.  Jesus was shown hospitality in the acknowledgement “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

This ministry of hospitality, then, should not be perceived as a gimmick, but as a genuine response to the question “why does the son of man have no place to lay his head?”  The importance of this mission lies not in trying to gain new members, even though there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  The important aspect of this ministry of hospitality is that the church is the representative, the bodily form of Christ.   Therefore, we must live out, to the best of our ability, Christ’s instructions to welcome the stranger, the sojourner, and to maintain an atmosphere within the church that says to everyone who passes by, “You are welcome here.”

Because of our technological advancements, this seemingly simple admonition, if you will, is sometimes lost on us, although a ministry of hospitality speaks directly to the very nature and purpose of the church.  In biblical times, welcoming the stranger meant giving a traveler a safe haven for the night, providing sustenance to satisfy the day’s hunger, and much needed rest.

It was a matter of survival to welcome those who were travelers.  It was not as today, when we can just pull into the Ramada Inn or Hampton Inn or Motel 6, or drive up to any of the myriad restaurants along the Mass Pike and other highways.  There was danger on those roads, and a safe place to sleep for the night meant the difference between completing one’s journey in one piece and perhaps not making it at all.

We live in a world vastly different, but that basic human need is still present.  When Jesus speaks to us about welcoming others, i.e. responding to the “why,” to the lack of accommodations for him, I see our task as fulfilling basic emotional and spiritual needs that are often just as urgent as the physical needs of the ancient sojourner.  And, unfortunately, because they are unseen, they are far more likely to go unmet.

So, where except in our churches, can a stranger come to talk about the issues of life?  Where except in our churches should a person come, no matter his/her status or past, and be welcomed?  Where except in our churches can we connect with people who care about us and who struggle with those issues?  Where except in our churches can we find meaning?  If we set up preconditions, we have for certain made sure that the Son of Man will have nowhere to lay his head.  The church can mean the difference between a fulfilling and meaningful journey through life, and not making it at all.  And this happens only when we are willing to hang out the vacancy sign that reads: “You are welcome, you are valued, we are glad to see you here.”EasterCoffeeHour2016

So here we are, with outstretched arms to welcome in a few weeks’ time not only young Charlie, but also everyone who walks across the threshold into St. James.  How we welcome Charlie and his parents, will determine how he welcomes others on the Way, as he matures.  There is a saying in Latin, non nobis solum, not for us alone.

This phrase should be the motto (or mission) of every congregation, that this place, this gathering is not for us alone, but for all who would come in the name of Christ.  For their sake, for our sake as a parish family, for Christ’s sake, let us welcome one and all in such a ministry of hospitality.  When we do so, we will have given by our example an answer to the question a two-year old will ask, “Why does the son of man not have a place to lay his head?”  For Jesus said, “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” (Mt.10.40-42)


–The Reverend Clarence E. Butler