18 June 2017

Choosing Welcome

Genesis 18:1-19

Second Sunday after Pentecost

When Abraham saw the three mysterious guests arrive, unannounced, he did what any self-respecting, other-honoring Middle Easterner would have done: he welcomed them.  He really didn’t have a choice.  He was obligated to care for his guests.  Abraham is an “exemplary dispenser of hospitality.”[1]  Abraham doesn’t know who they are.  He doesn’t need to know who they are, doesn’t care to know, in order to be generous.  They are strangers.  They are guests.  And he has an obligation toward them.  That’s all he knows; that’s all he needs to know.  When he sees them, he bows—bows down to the ground.  “Please, Sir, how may I help you?  Maybe some water to quench your thirst or to wash your dusty feet?  How about a place to rest?  Here, let me get you something to eat to regain your strength. I don’t want to detain you.  Rest for a while and then, when you are ready, you can be on your way.” So they said, “Do as you have said,” which translated, might read. “Why thank you, kindly.  That would be great.” 

So, Abraham goes into action.  He runs to Sarah and sends her into action.  She puts the oven on and starts cooking.  Abraham runs out to the herd looking for a calf, slaughters it, and gives it to a servant to prepare it.  Then Abraham sets this feast before them to it.  Did you notice that Abraham went off to the side?  He didn’t join them under the tree as they ate.  This is desert hospitality.

Then Abraham discovers who they are.  They want something more than food and rest.  They are on the way to some place, pilgrims to be sure, but they’re about to implicate Abraham and Sarah in their plans. They are divine messengers and they come with a word for Abraham—and Sarah.  Sarah, although up in years, will have a son.  Abraham running with excitement and disbelief, tells Sarah. And then she laughs at the thought.  Laughs at Abraham.  Laughs at the messengers.  Laughs at God.  And God is all over and through this story.  Next, we hear Yahweh speaking, not the three guests.  Yahweh says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”  Then we have one of the most profound questions found in scripture: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”  Sarah denied laughing. But God said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Hospitality.  Welcome. They're essential practices for people of faith.  It’s not a new subject or theme for us at CPC. Still, we should be striving after new ways to extend hospitality, to deepen the experience of welcome and inclusion. Over the years, we have worked to be hospitable, welcoming the stranger, making space for the marginalized, creating a community where everyone feels at home.  Both of our capital campaigns, several years ago, were all about hospitality and improving accessibility into creating a place that is welcoming, warm, cool. Thank God for air-conditioning and a furnace that works.  There’s no doubt about it, the physical space, both inside and outside, is much more inviting and welcoming.

As we know, this is only the beginning. Scripture calls us to embody hospitality in every aspect of our ministry.  Genesis 18 is a classic text of this, but there are so many other texts in scripture.  Hospitality or welcome is more than just making people feel at home, it’s a matter of going out of one’s way to make one feel at home.  Deeper still, it’s about honoring the other—whoever the other is. It’s about welcoming his/her presence.  It’s about remembering that this person bears the image of God.

Years ago, my friend Michael Koppel became full professor at Wesley Theological Seminary.  We became friends at Yale Divinity School.  Michael lived in China where he learned the importance of the bow in friendships and relationships.  His inaugural lecture at Wesley was on the theological aspects of the bow, which is often associated with the Buddhist greeting, Namaste.  Namaste, a Sanskrit word, means “to bow” or “to adore” or “to worship.”  It can be translated: “The Buddha in me bows to the Buddha in you.”  “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”  Or, with a Christian twist, “The Christ in me bows to the Christ in you.” When Michael passes the peace of Christ he bows.

When we take on similar postures toward the stranger and toward one another, when we gesture this way toward the stranger or pilgrim or traveler among us (and who isn’t a pilgrim or traveler?), our outlook begins to change.  We begin to see them they come into focus instead of remaining invisible to us.  This, then, changes how we treat them, how we avail ourselves to them, how we open the doors of our tents and churches and homes and welcome them as bearers of a message from God.

This open-door practice was found in the early Christian monasteries.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547) is generally known as the founder of Christian monasticism.  He wrote a guidebook for the monks in his community, The Rule of St. Benedict; it’s one of the most influential texts in Western Christendom.  Think of it as an early Book of Order.  While it is true that the Reformation did away with monasticism in the Protestant church, there are still, obviously plenty of monastic orders within Roman Catholicism, orders that have much to teach the children of Luther and Calvin.  At the center of the Rule are guidelines for receiving guests to a monastery or abbey. Benedictines continue to be known for their hospitality.  In the chapter “On the Reception of Guests,” Benedict wrote, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).  Without knowing the identity of guests, the nationality or ethnicity of guests, without knowing what was needed or what they believed (or didn’t), without knowing their past or their intent, they were to be received like Christ, welcomed as if Christ himself walked through their doors.

The Rule continues: “In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown.  Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who is indeed received in their persons.”[2] This is a great way to run a monastery.  It’s also a great practice for a church.  

Practicing hospitality requires intentionality.  It doesn’t just happen.  We must choose it.  But, as we all know (maybe especially these days), choosing welcome is often a risky venture. There are countless (often good) reasons to be suspicious of strangers and fearful of mysterious guests at the door.  There are plenty of examples these days of people acting out of fear of the stranger, the other, the refugee.  Some want to deny entry, build walls and barriers to keep out undesirables.  There are even churches that want to hire their own militias to protect its members.  Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a 4,000-member PCA congregation in Birmingham, AL, wants to have its own police force.[3]  (This is sickening.)

Yes, intentionally choosing welcome is often a risky venture. Abraham and Sarah extended hospitality to three mysterious strangers, sent by God. That act of generosity, however, changed their lives—for the good.  It opened them up to receive God’s gracious will that poured into their lives and overflowed into the following generations of God’s people, right down to you and me.  We are the spiritual heirs of the blessing that Sarah and Abraham received.  So, what happens when we withhold welcome, when we fear the stranger, refuse the guest?  We miss out on the blessing, we miss out on holy encounters with God and with God’s people, we forfeit our role in God’s redemptive plan to save and to care for God’s children.

It’s time for us to deepen our commitment to hospitality at Catonsville Presbyterian Church.  Let us pray, and talk about it, and choose ways to embody God’s welcome as an essential expression God’s good news.  What do we mean by hospitality?  It’s more than being kind or nice.  It’s much deeper.

The Greek word of hospitality is philoxenia.  The word combines philos, the love or affection expressed toward friends, with the word xenos, meaning stranger (as in xenophobia, the fear of the stranger). “Because philoxenia includes the word for stranger, hospitality’s orientation toward strangers is more apparent in Greek than in English.”[4]  Hospitality is love toward the stranger or the strange or the different, the other.  It’s a love that welcomes the other in the name of God, the God who is always Other to us.  It’s also a love that welcomes God! Are we hospitable to God’s presence—the God who always remains a stranger to us, and mysterious, the one who appears on the thresholds of our lives, whose calling and message to us is almost always strange (as Sarah knew).  Are we open to God showing up, unannounced, into our lives?  Or are the flaps to our tents tightly secured, tied shut?

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), the Dutch theologian and priest, said, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by divided lines.”  This is our vocation, he explains, “to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free space and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”[5]

These acts of hospitality and welcome require intention, they require choice. Last week, Session approved a request of our Peace and Justice Committee.  We acted. The Session endorsed participation in the We Choose Welcome campaign of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  #WeChooseWelcome is the rallying call from Presbyterians across the U.S. expressing our commitment to welcome refugees of all nationalities and faiths.  This phrase comes from former Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, who urged Presbyterians to “choose welcome, not fear” in response to growing cries of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiments.  This effort is part of a larger interfaith ministry focused on three important goals: [1]“to demonstrate welcome through our actions with refugees, asylum seekers and the broader community; [2]to promote more generous and welcoming refugee policies, including countering anti-refugee messages and policies; [3] and to promote efforts to end the conflict that cause refugee displacement.”

All of this is timely since Tuesday, June 20th, is World Refugee Day.  We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  60 million people are displaced from their homes. 85,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in 2016 and that number will likely drop in 2017. The highest number of refugees, 16,370, came, not from Syria (as one might guess), but from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Syria was second, with 12,587 refugees.)  46% of the refugees are Muslim; Christians make up 44%.[6]  And, despite what we might hear in the press, the background screening done by the U.S. is extensive.  As Susan Krehbiel has shared with us on many occasions, refugees being resettled to the U.S. undergo the strictest level of scrutiny and security checks of any individuals seeking permission to enter the country. The process takes a long time.  Refugees have already been outside the U.S. for months or even years before they even begin the refugee resettlement process.  On average, the background screening takes 24 months from the time a refugee is referred to the U.S. government. For Syrians hoping to resettle here, the wait is even longer.[7]

You will start to see this banner/tagline: We Choose Welcome.  And we will begin exploring ways to put faith into action.  Several projects are already in the works, but what do you want to do?  How is God calling you to be involved?  Think about it; pray about it. 

Both the Mission and Peace and Justice Committees are committed to this work.  Yes, this is important work for the Church today.  Yes, this is politically-charged work—even partisan, but it doesn’t have to be.  We are called to act, to choose welcome, because that’s what God’s people do—plain and simple.  We welcome God’s children—we choose welcome.  Why?  Because God welcomes us.


A Reflection on the Image: Our attitudes, responses, postures are rooted in how we imagine God being hospitable to us.  God welcomes us into God’s life.  A marvelous expression of this is the Russian icon by Andrei Rublev (b.1360s, d. 1427 or 1430), originally called the “Hospitality of Abraham,” later modified and renamed “The Trinity.”  Some see the “three messengers” who appear to Abraham as the three persons of the Trinity.  There’s a lot going on in this icon, but what is so striking is its spaciousness.  Four sides of the table, but the fourth side is empty, open, free space—for you.  Imagine yourself sitting at that table in the presence of God, welcomed at his table, receptive to God’s reverence and God’s generosity.

[1] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton &Co, 2008), 86.
[2] The Rule of St. Benedict. “On the Reception of Guests,” is chapter 53.
[3] Matt Ford, “To Protect and Serve (and Pray),” The Atlantic, April 21, 2017, 
[4] Christine Pohl, Making Room, cited in Brett Webb-Mitchell, Practicing Pilgrimage: On Being and Becoming God’s Pilgrim People (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 86.
[5] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Image Book, 1986), 55, 66.
[7] Frequently Asked Questions about Refugee Resettlement, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Church (USA).

11 June 2017

Created Good—For Good

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday

“God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).  Not bad.  Not corrupt.  Not broken.  Not sinful.  Good.  Not good enough.  Not pretty good.  Good.  Actually, more than good.  Very good.  And not just part of creation.  All of it.  Everything.  The totality of all that exists, including humankind, male and female, created in the image of God—is good.

That’s essentially the sermon, today’s message.  That’s the gospel I want to proclaim today.  Simple, yet profound.  Staggering, really.  I want to lift up this one verse in this story, the first creation story in Genesis.  (There are actually two creation stories in Genesis, not one.)  And I want to draw your attention to one word: “good.”

In order to flesh out the wider implications of this verse and this word, we need to step back and consider the book of Genesis.  There are some things that we need to know.  And because growing in knowledge always involves un-knowing or unlearning, there are things about the opening chapters of Genesis that we need to set aside.

The first thing we need to set aside is that the Book of Genesis, particularly the creation stories at the beginning, is not science. Genesis wasn’t written to give a scientific account for the creation of the world. This might sound confusing, since the word “genesis” suggests the beginning of something, and the text itself begins with those famous words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  The creation stories in Genesis, both of them, should not be read as theories of origins. And, they should not be read literally. 

The second thing we need to set aside is the notion that Genesis is a book of history, providing an account of what actually took place.  The earth was not created in seven days.  The earth is old, hundreds of millions of years old.  Last Tuesday, I was in New York City to spend the day with my niece, Katia.  She’s almost four and she loves dinosaurs, like many her age. So we went to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, of course. Walking around and under those dinosaur skeletons, considering their age, makes one feel very small and one’s life a mere blip in the history of the universe. It was a humbling experience, almost a religious experience.  Evolution cannot be denied.

What we need to know is that in the first two chapters of Genesis we find not one, but two contrasting creation stories. They come from two different periods in Israel’s history.  The second creation story begins at Genesis 2:4b, and is older than the one we find in chapter 1.  Chapter 1, the first creation story, was probably written in the sixth century B.C. and was addressed to Israelites during their exile in Babylon—this is essential to know.

You see, the authors of this story were not trying to make scientific claims.  They weren’t trying to refute theories of evolution, obviously—which is why we should not use this text to refute theories of evolution.  Instead—and this can’t be stressed enough—the authors of this story are making theological claims about Yahweh, about the Living God of Israel.  They are not trying to refute theories of evolution, but the alien theories or theological worldview of the Babylonians and their gods.  This story was written to a people in exile, people who had difficulty worshipping Yahweh in this strange land.  Doesn’t the Psalmist cry out, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4). How do we worship when we’re in exile?  Where is God?

Actually, scholars have shown that Genesis 1 was probably written as a liturgical text.[1]  It has order, rhythm, repetition that allows it to be used in worship, the worship of Yahweh in an alien land.  And in this liturgy, the worship service is making profound, extraordinary, radical claims about the nature of Yahweh, about Yahweh’s relationship to the world, about the people who believe and trust in Yahweh—all of this is being affirmed in an alien land, in a time of desperation, a time of crisis.  Where is God during this time of exile?  Is Yahweh really in control? Or are we at the mercy of other gods, hostile empires, alien philosophies, unfriendly cultures?  Walter Brueggemann says it so well, “This liturgy cuts underneath the Babylonian experience and grounds the rule of the God of Israel in a more fundamental claim, that of creation.”[2]  This text is addressed to a particular situation and makes this declaration: Yahweh—not the Babylonian gods—can be trusted, even when all the evidence around you might suggest otherwise. All the evidence can include exile, and sickness, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, every feeling of alienation and isolation, every human experience of abandonment.  Amid all of this, Yahweh can be trusted because Yahweh is the creator of the world and Yahweh is good and all that Yahweh creates is very good.

This is the bold theological claim that we find right at the beginning of the Bible.  Again, Brueggemann beautifully captures the essential theme of Genesis, indeed all of scripture: “God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way.  This is the presupposition for everything else that follows in the Bible.  It is the deepest promise from which good news is possible. God and [God’s] creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards creation. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relationship with earth.  The text invites the listening community to celebrate that reality.”[3]

And the way God binds Godself to creation is through speech.  God speaks the universe into being, God said, “Let there be…”  “And there was…”  But the binding is strongest with human beings, created in God’s image.  God speaks only to human beings and summons us to be good stewards of God’s good creation.  This is why the care of creation is an obligation for us as people of faith and why the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is a grievous, disgraceful act for so many, especially people of faith.[4]  All of the good things created by God are given to human beings to extend the purpose of God’s good creation.  God and human beings are partners, creating and then sustaining the goodness of the creation, to ensure that creation fulfills its purpose.

Did you notice there’s no reference to sin or temptation or snakes or apples, mention of trees of different knowledge, no blame, no shame, no nakedness in this creation story, as we find in Genesis 2?  There’s no accounting for evil or the so-called fall.  Genesis 1 provides a very different theological framework for us.  I’m not suggesting that we can forget about Genesis 2 or cut it out of the Bible.  Sin is real, evil is real, our alienation from God, ourselves, from our neighbors is all-too-real in our lives and in the world.  We need to take sin and evil seriously and never underestimate their destructive power. 

But, I wonder if too much emphasis upon sin, too much preaching about total depravity, too much anxiety about possibly breaking God’s moral commands, too much worry about being good, hinders us from hearing the good news embedded in this text, right at the beginning of the Bible, the “presupposition,” as Brueggemann says, for all that follows in the Bible, including the life and witness of Christ.  Yes, sin is real and each of us has fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), but we are also created, called into being, in and through the goodness of God.  The world exists because God is good! You are here because God is good!  God is compassionate and full of grace.  All of the pain and suffering and sorrow and challenges of your life, notwithstanding, it is by virtue of God’s goodness that this world exists and our lives within it.  God is good.  God expresses God’s goodness by being trustworthy, faithful.  

And when we know God as faithful, as trustworthy, as good we can relax and dwell and thrive in God’s good creation as the objects and subjects of God’s benevolence. It means we can rest in God’s beneficence, which is what the Sabbath was given for and remains for.  

Sabbath is time set apart to rest and dwell and delight in God’s goodness.  It’s a time to give our anxious worrying about the future a rest.  It’s a time to refrain from grasping and achieving and controlling and managing and struggling and striving and working, in order to rest and abide and take delight in God’s goodness and the goodness of creation.  Indeed, theologian Jürgen Moltmann suggests that the culminating act of the creation story is not the creation of humankind, on the sixth day, but the creation of the Sabbath on the seventh day.  We were created to enjoy the goodness of God on the Sabbath and through Sabbath enjoyment experience the blessing and renewal of our lives, the renewal of all things.[5]

What we have in the opening of Genesis is a theology of blessing.  Three times the term “blessing” is used: of living creatures (v. 22), of human creatures (v. 28), and of the Sabbath (2:3).  By theology of blessing, I don’t mean financial or material blessing or the heresies of the so-called prosperity gospel (although our financial resources and material possessions should be viewed as a form of blessing and, better, used to bless others).  This theology of blessing is  distinct from a theology of salvation, often found throughout the history of the Church.  A theology of blessing “refers to the generative power of life, fertility, and well-being that God has ordained within the normal flow and mystery of life.”[6]  Creation itself is God’s life-giving act of creating and recreating the world. This act of blessing flows through creation and our lives within it.  God blesses and blesses the creation.  All is given in goodness, in blessing, again and again.  You won’t find a similar theology of blessing in any other text of the ancient Near East.  This understanding of God’s goodness and blessing emerged from Israel’s experience with God.

God’s creative blessing is directly related to the good—and here we step into the world of aesthetics, away from ethics.  Five times God declares his creative work as “good.”  And then in verse 31, God declares the whole creation “very good.” The “good” here does not refer to a moral quality, but an aesthetic quality.  A better translation could be “lovely,” or “pleasing,” or my favorite: “beautiful.”

God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very beautiful.”  This shift of meaning toward the aesthetic changes everything.  It moves us away from a moralistic view of God and the Bible toward the aesthetic, toward a celebration of the good as beautiful.  This was central to John Calvin's (1509-1563) theology and the Reformed tradition, but it got lost over the last five hundred years, sadly.[7]  

What if we saw our lives as created beautiful, created for beauty, created to make something beautiful of our lives and the world?

A sixth century mystic, Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Beauty is the source of all things…. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty…. It is the longing for beauty which actually brings them into being.”[8]

Today is Trinity Sunday.  The Revised Common Lectionary intentionally links the first creation account in Genesis 1 and the Great Commission in Matthew. The Triune God, who called everything into being, continues to call and send disciples to embody the gospel.  The good news of God is this: We were created good, for good, to do good works. We were created to bless the world.  We could also say we were created beautiful, created for beauty, created to do beautiful works, created to bless the world through beauty, through the cultivation of the beautiful.  Karl Barth (1886-1968) said, "God is beautiful."[9]  And, we are created in the image of this beautiful God.

Being a disciple, sharing the gospel, then, means striving after the good, striving after, moving toward, the beautiful. Jesus himself said, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, 14).  The Greek in John is kalos, which doesn’t mean “good,” but “beautiful.” “I am the beautiful shepherd,” Jesus said.  To follow him is to follow after beauty.  We are called to follow beauty, to discern where beauty and goodness lead us.  And, didn’t Paul write to the Ephesians, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10)? “Good works” here could be translated as God’s “poem,” or created as God’s “work of art.”  We are God's work of art.  And aren’t we given gifts of the Spirit, according to Paul, for the benefit of “the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)?

Beauty, like goodness, attracts us, calls to us, lures us in.  Goodness, like beauty, exists.  It comes with creation.  Ann Belford Ulanov, former professor of religion and psychology at Union Seminary (NY), suggests that if we project out upon the world images of goodness and beauty, if we follow after the good and the beautiful, if that’s what we hope for and bring to the world around us, then goodness and beauty will have a way of emerging in our lives.[10]  If our image of God includes goodness, beauty, then our lives will reflect this image of the God we worship, and we will discover the goodness, the beauty of our lives.

So, what if we opened ourselves toward the good, the beautiful?  What if we could better trust the good, see the good within us?  What if we decided to strive after the good, the beautiful in every aspect of our lives? What if we were intentional about receiving the good and the beautiful into our lives.  Just imagine how would transform the work of the Church and shape our personal outlook upon the world.  Consider how it would inform our actions, our choices. What if we sought the good and the beautiful for others?  Isn’t this, too, directly related to the gospel? Isn’t this what Jesus embodied in his beautiful life and why God sent the Spirit, so that we can beautify the world? Isn’t this what we’re sent to do?  

Of course!  

So, you beautiful people, let us goin the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 29ff.
[2] Brueggemann, 25.
[3] Brueggemann, 22.
[4] Some Christians, however, are more skeptical about climate change, see.
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancsico, 1991), 276ff.
[6] Brueggemann, 37.  Brueggemann is drawing upon Samuel Terrien’s The Elusive Presence (1979).
[7] Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[8] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, cited in Lane, vii.
[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1 (1970), cited in Lane, vii.
[10] Ann Belford Ulanov, from a talk given to the Jung Society of Washington at American University, Washington, DC, 3 June 2017.