Sermon for September 1, 2019
Happy September. Happy Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost and Day before Labor Day. I am so grateful to be here this morning and to help lead us through our Sunday worship and scripture contemplation. On this beautiful September 1st, I am also acutely aware that this is my penultimate sermon as your Interim Rector of All Saints. Next Sunday, we will joyfully welcome Richard back from sabbatical and I will take my leave of this remarkable community.
Stay tuned for a much more mushy reflection next week. This week we are blessed to have scripture passages that are wonderfully clear and obvious, offering repeated reminders and insights about God as our sustenance and the abundant hospitality that is expected of us.
I am grateful for this confluence of timing and scripture, as I have been the beneficiary and witness of the hospitality offered in this place.
One of the gifts of an active and intentional Interimship is the expectation of being an observant and invested stranger in a worshipping community. Sabbaticals are critically important to keep communities vital, not only as a time of respite and restoration for the clergy member and family departing, but also as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth in the community the Rector leaves behind.
You and Richard were clear that you did not want this summer to be a fallow or stagnant period, but rather you wanted to continue to evolve and discover insights about God and the practices Jesus prescribes for us. This period after Pentecost – the longest season in our church’s liturgical calendar is a time to practice the teachings of Jesus, hearing them with the grace of a gentler summer schedule. This summer in this sanctuary you’ve had a completely different voice proclaiming the gospel and the challenges issued by Jesus.
I am grateful for your continuing curiosity and have found it deeply nourishing and satisfying to try new things as a community. Many of the changes that we have tried on this summer have been based on Jesus’ call for radical hospitality – the sense that we are called not simply to welcome people, but to offer to be transformed by them. To greet and welcome each stranger as if we are greeting God.
Each of the three Abrahamic faiths are full of stories of divine strangers receiving kind hospitality or being turned away, with moral lessons for the hosts who failed to manifest God’s love with generous hospitality.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters would be familiar with the hospitality extended by Abraham and Sarah who welcomed strangers for food, shelter and protection. In the Muslim tradition, Mohammad spoke of being generous not only to strangers but he specifically extended his teachings to call on his followers as good Muslims to be generous and hospitable to captives and people in prison. As Anoma just read, we are to remember those being tortured or imprisoned as though we ourselves are being tortured or in prison.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus not only teaches the crowd gathered about the importance of hospitality on God’s behalf rather than for the participant’s benefit, but he offers a revolutionary, radical take on hospitality. Jesus tells us not to invite friends, relatives or rich neighbors to dinner parties, because we extend those invitations based on the selfish notion of being repaid.
Jesus, who was very comfortable quoting scripture, advises his listeners to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”. He singles out these groups for favored status because his Jewish listeners would connect this specific list of human suffering to those that the 21stchapter of Leviticus identifies as people being unclean or unworthy of God’s love and attention. Jesus is signaling that in his kingdom, God’s ways are radically different from the ways in which people are comfortable socializing – from the way most of us are used to socializing. He is naming a very different, perhaps discomfiting expectation for inclusivity.
While we grapple with how we might go about hosting dinner parties full of destitute and disabled strangers; the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, we are offered reassurance throughout this morning’s scripture passages that our own nourishment for this work is God.
The Prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God is the fountain of living water, a life source without which we will perish. Our psalm includes God’s instruction that we “open wide our mouths, and God will fill them with the finest wheat and honey from the rock”, and our passage from Hebrews includes the reminder that the sacrifice of praising God is the fruit of our lips and that those sacrifices are pleasing to God, and that we must share what we have.
God wants us to be fed, physically and spiritually nourished, and Jesus advises that we must share those gifts with others who are truly needy, others who are otherwise separated or deprived of this life sustaining food and drink.
Each Sunday we offer divine hospitality to anyone brave enough to cross the church’s threshold. As a newcomer, I can confirm that from the outside, this is a daunting structure, conveying a sense that each of us in here already belongs and knows what we are doing. From which door to come in, to where to sit, to whento sit and stand during our service – how loud to pray and recite or sing. The truth is, we are all still learning. But how do we signal our hospitality and availability to be joined by strangers? How do we convey our commitment to entertain angels and others each Sunday?
One of the changes that we are experimenting with this summer is a return to an all-inclusive bulletin, in the hope that it removes some of the stumbling blocks to making worship a profound and gratitude fueled connection to God.
I don’t know when the last time you visited another church or denomination, but as a priest I can attest to the insider/outsider split that happens when a newcomer tries to follow and participate in a service with an outline of a service leaflet. If you have been a stranger in a church service or have worshipped with a different denomination, it might be helpful to connect to your outsider experience and remember what helped you to connect, to feel comfortable to participate and enjoy the service and hospitality that was extended.
I give great thanks to the All Saints welcome ministers and each of the worship leaders and ministries that are focused on welcoming the stranger, making crossing our threshold seem like a grace-filled good idea with each step. I appreciate the work that goes into feeding us each Sunday so that we can worship together, be edified and then go out to serve in the world.
Jesus calls on us to offer radical hospitality, not to enhance ourselves, to honor God and we have two distinct metaphorical dinner parties each Sunday. We have the Eucharist, to which everyone is welcome, and is convened with reverence, prayers, and an invitation for the Holy Spirit to transform the elements. Hospitality is manifest in the Host bread and the table wine which become for us the body and blood – the bread and living, sustaining water and blood of Christ. Then we have social hour after church which is the extension of the hospitality proclaimed and lived in this sanctuary.
All are welcome at social hour and our hosts each Sunday invite us to enjoy an array of food and drink, enhanced by conversation and the possibility of connection. Successful and abundant coffee hours are often cited by newcomers as the reason they return. Social hour is our second spiritual meal of the day and is a reality test of our theology.
This Sunday, scripture asks us to offer abundant and extravagant hospitality to strangers and the disenfranchised who may join us – and importantly to take these gifts into the world – to remember those in prison or those being tortured as though we ourselves are in those circumstances. This morning we add to this difficult list, the strangers in Texas whose lives changed forever in Midland and Odessa.
We extend our prayers and wonder whether we will have the opportunity to extend extravagant hospitality to people along the Southern and Atlantic coasts who are fleeing Hurricane Dorian.
We continue to grapple with how to extend hospitality and presence to the asylum seekers and refugees who are mischaracterized and maligned and who we know to be God’s beloved children.
Our prayers are with them as we struggle with what sort of presence will be most helpful in these challenging times and circumstances. With policies pursuing mass deportations, in the aftermath of another mass shooting in Texas and the damage anticipated from an enormous hurricane. How might we express and live into abundant hospitality for those truly in need?
I invite our prayers too for the reentry and return of our rector Richard, who will rejoin us on Sunday not as a stranger, but as a member of the community who was seeking respite and transformation and who has encountered God in new ways during his sabbatical journey. As we joyfully welcome him next Sunday, I hope that each of us will give him the time and opportunity to reenter this community gently and deliberately. It is so easy to fall back into well worn patterns established over years of his rectorship, but he has faithfully pursued sabbath here and away, and each of you has experienced church in new ways this summer. So, let’s be mindful that it will take a minute, if not a couple of months to fully reintegrate, honor and understand the changes here and with Richard.
And wonderfully as God has commanded, we have abundant hospitality planned for next Sunday. Our welcome back parish picnic will have abundant and delicious food, friends, strangers and visitors alike. All are welcome and invited to bring something delicious to share as an expression of God’s extravagant love.
As we prayed in this morning’s collect – We will ask God to help nourish us with all goodness and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.
The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
Sermon for Sunday 10:30 am service, September 1, 2019 || All Saints Parish Brookline || Proper 17 Year C || Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14