A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 26, 2011.
Lord’s Supper Meditation:
Psalm 38:1-4, 15-18; Matthew 10:40-42
We who are followers of Jesus do not have a corner on being nice. In fact, some of the most miserable people I have ever known were active in church and sang on a regular basis, Oh, How I Love Jesus, while treating others like poor stepchildren. I’m speaking of past history, of course. So please don’t take that personally!
Don’t do something else as well… don’t think that the passage we read a moment ago from Matthew’s gospel is simply an encouragement to be kind. Not that being kind is not a good thing to be, whether that kindness is random or comes about because you put it on your daily agenda. It doesn’t hurt at all to be kind, and can go a long way in a world that needs all the kindness it can get.
I have become a fan of a young man named Rory McIlroy. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Last Sunday, at the ripe old age of 22, he became the U.S. Open golf champion, having led all four rounds at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, and winning by a huge margin of eight strokes. But that isn’t why I like the kid. He appears to be a genuinely nice young man whose father Gerry instilled in him a simple credo: “It’s nice to be nice. And it doesn’t cost you a penny.”1
When asked earlier this week about my thoughts in regard to his win, my response was that I have always been in awe of Tiger Woods’ ability. It’s just that I’ve never been pleased by his behavior, and that was long before his now well-known shenanigans came to light. I have become convinced that when it comes to both ability and behavior, Rory McIlroy, from Holywood, Northern Ireland, is the real deal. He may not win as many majors as has Tiger, but I am convinced he will definitely be nicer in the process.
But being nice isn’t on page one of the gospels. Nor did Jesus come into the world to teach us how to be kind. He came to model for us how to be authentic people of God’s kingdom so that when we recite the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we really mean it. If kindness comes as a result of that, fine and good. But it is not Jesus’ ulterior motive, nor is it his final goal for us. He would, however, want us to be accepting of others, especially when we do so in his name.
Though the word is not used specifically in our gospel reading for this morning, you will find it elsewhere in scripture, and it conveys the same meaning as found in what we read a few moments ago. It speaks of hospitality and acceptance, and as is often the case in the Greek language, it is a combination word. It is philoxenia. Philo you might recognize. It comes from the word philos, and it means love. Xenia is the name of a city in Ohio, but before that it was the Greek word for stranger. Put them together and hospitality, or philoxenia, means “love of stranger.” It is not an easy word by which to live in our day and age.
In our world today we tend to treat others as if we were all transportation safety agents at the airport going through other peoples’ luggage to see if they have any bombs attached. We look upon anyone who does not look like us or talk like us as an alien. And we all know that one of the biggest challenges our country faces today has to do with immigration, the accepting of those who want to come inside our borders to find a new and better way of life. So what do we do? We build walls, we hold out our hands, not to receive theirs but to stop them in their tracks.
That’s the world we live in. But don’t think we’re all that unique. It was the world Jesus lived in too. Hear what Jesus had to say, but take a look at how he practiced what he preached. If you know your New Testament at all, you’ll be aware that he rubbed elbows with Roman centurions, with women who demanded things of him and those who were considered to be beneath him and everybody else. He touched – he actually put his hands on! – lepers (and some of them, especially those who were the most grateful to him, were Samaritans), and he forgave those who put nails through his body when they strung him up on that cross.
Jesus was more than kind. He was accepting.
He did not come up with this on his own. It was his tradition. Hospitality – I will remind you, the love of the stranger – is a belief rooted deeply in Hebrew scripture. And do you want to know why? Well, whether you do or not, you’ve already figured out that I’m going to tell you, haven’t you? It is because Abraham, the father of Jesus’ people, had been a stranger too, called by his God to wander into a land that was not his own. It is because God’s people, the Israelites, were strangers those four centuries in Egypt. It is because, once they escaped the grasp of Pharaoh, and after wandering in the wilderness forty years, they finally came into a promised land that was not their own. They knew what it was to be strangers in someone else’s backyard.
Knowing what it feels like to be treated as aliens, the chosen people of God – not without God’s urging, of course – said that if given the opportunity to welcome the stranger in the camp, they would do it. And they would do it with a smile on their face and a gladness in their hearts.
Speaking of alien… there’s a practice fairly commonly used around these parts that is so alien to my way of thinking and doing that I can feel it down deep in my bones. For lack of a better way of putting it, some of our brothers and sisters call it “close communion.” If you’re fairly new to Baptist ways, this may be an expression you’ve never heard before. But if Baptist is ingrained in you, then chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Back in the day, when I still attended such gatherings, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s annual meeting took place on Ouachita’s campus in Arkadelphia. As I recall, we met in Mitchell Hall before it was torn down. A group of people did their best to try and get this provision about close communion stricken from the by-laws of the state-wide group. Yes, as far as I know, it is still in the official documents that close communion will be the standard practice for congregations that seek to be in good standing with the convention.
Now, for you who are uninformed, you may be wondering what I am talking about. Close communion is the practice of not allowing non-members to take the Lord’s Supper in that congregation’s worship. If you want to take communion, you must do it in your own church and in your own church only.
I wonder what Moses would think about that. I think I know how Jesus would feel, the Jesus, I remind you, who touched lepers and ate and drank with sinners. I certainly know how I feel about it, and if you are a first-time guest with us today, I’ll repeat myself in just a few minutes when it comes time to issue the invitation to the Lord’s table.
Yes, I am aware that Paul said something about having to be worthy before one could come to come to the table. But he also said it was a matter of the heart for each individual to consider. He didn’t say you had to earn the right to sit at God’s table, you had to be willing to be the recipient of God’s free and undeserved grace. I doubt that would exclude any of us here today, would it?
I mentioned Rory McIlroy and told you he is from Northern Ireland. A professor at Yale University, who is of Irish descent, tells of visiting a Protestant church in the country of her ancestors. She was pleased to be greeted at the door by two women who invited her into conversation. She identified them as ushers, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that their responsibilities were not simply to welcome guests; it was to interview them. Their questions had to do with one’s cultural and religious identity, and finally, it dawned on her. Those with Protestant names were welcomed warmly and shown their seats. But if your name was Maria or Catherine or Patrick, which “betrayed” you as Catholic, you were told that surely you were at the wrong church and were sent on your way.2
This is what I have to say about that… When it comes to Northern Ireland, if we are so inclined, it would be good for us to emulate the way they play golf. Since they’ve produced the last two U.S. Open champions, they are obviously very good at it. But when it comes to following Jesus, and coming by his invitation to God’s table, let’s find our inspiration elsewhere. Shall we?
Lord, we come to your table not because we are worthy or kind to others. We come because we are sinners saved by your eternal grace. Help us not to forget that the next time we are given the opportunity to love a stranger. Amen.
1Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated, June 27, 2011, p. 36.
2William Goettler, Feasting On the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 188.