4 Pentecost A—7/2/17
Pr. Scott Kramer
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Hospitality is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. But through the example of Jesus himself we discover that the welcome we extend to family or friends is only the barest beginning of God’s welcome. God’s welcome is more than a handshake or a greeting. Christian hospitality represents the wide embrace of God’s love that sets aside one’s own self-interest, even for the sake of one who might be considered not only a stranger but an enemy.
This point was driven home to me this past week through a story shared by a pastor friend and colleague. This story began decades ago, when she baptized a young boy named Jonathan. But this story is bigger than Jonathan, because on the day he was baptized it wasn’t just Jonathan but his whole family that was baptized with him by my pastor friend.
From an early age Jonathan had in mind the goal of becoming a police officer. And sure enough, one day not so long ago that dream was fulfilled. At a young age, Jonathan became a police officer.
About a month ago Jonathan’s parents arrived at the office of my pastor friend. And they presented her with a candle. It was Jonathan’s baptismal candle. And they said to her, We need you to preside at a memorial service because yesterday Jonathan was shot and killed.
Where do you turn when it feels like your world has come to an end?
In matters of grief and loss, life and death, we likely turn to what’s most important to us. When we’re at the end of our rope we reach for symbols that represent our core beliefs and values. Many people in every age turn to their national identity. Others turn to symbols of wealth or health, fame or power, success or personal accomplishment. Although all of these things have value, none of these things has saving power. None of these things is able to provide deep and lasting hope when it’s needed most.
Jonathan’s parents, wild with shock and grief, had invested so deeply in their faith that when they lost their young son they remembered their baptism. They remembered his baptism. They laid hold of a symbol of the one thing—the only thing—that has saving power, the assurance that Jonathan is God’s beloved child, whether their son is dead or alive.
In response to this experience, my pastor friend exclaimed, “Who holds on to their baptismal candle as a sign of eternal hope?” Well, Jonathan’s parents did! That would be enough of a story–except that it doesn’t really get us back to today’s reading and the Christian task of representing God’s welcome in the world. To get there we need to hear the rest of Jonathan’s story, and if you think that parents losing a child to a sudden and violent death is about as bad as it gets, for Jonathan’s family it actually gets worse before it gets better.
Faced with planning a memorial service, Jonathan’s parents realized that their small church couldn’t possibly provide space enough for the hundreds of people they knew would attend his service. So, they approached the pastor of a larger local church and asked if he would allow their pastor to lead a memorial service in that church. The pastor of the larger church agreed, and Jonathan’s parents informed their pastor, my friend.
The day of the memorial service arrived, and Jonathan’s parents met their pastor at the large church. The pastor of the larger church was there and he said to the parents, “This is your pastor?” Yes, they said. And he said to my pastor friend, “You will never preach in this church.” Jonathan’s parents replied, “But you said it was okay!” And he responded, You didn’t tell me your pastor is a woman.
Faced with an unexpected and traumatic crisis—the death of their son—Jonathan’s parents nevertheless remembered what was most important: God’s amazing grace. In contrast, the pastor of the larger church missed an opportunity to show that he also understood what’s most important. Although he was no doubt sincere in following the rules of his church and probably believed he was doing God’s will, habits of belief, doctrine, tradition–and maybe even fear of getting into trouble with his denomination–these had become more important than extending God’s welcome to the stranger, who in this case was both a fellow pastor and a grieving family.
Well, my pastor friend was stunned and felt completely humiliated. But rather than causing a public scene, she humbly and graciously stepped back and allowed the host church’s pastor to preside at the memorial service while she sat in the pews with the family.
It’s easy to judge that large church pastor, but if his behavior is all we remember from the story we miss an opportunity for spiritual growth in ourselves. In times of crisis, in times of unexpected grief and loss—whether great or small–where do you turn? Do you remember what’s most important? Even to the extent of breaking rules and beliefs of a lifetime, do you remember your baptism?
In their hour of unspeakable loss, Jonathan’s parents reached for what mattered most. Somehow the promise of God’s love had taken root so deeply in their hearts that they turned instinctively to their baptism, and their son’s baptism, with the symbol of his baptismal candle.
Do you know where your baptismal candle is? I don’t necessarily mean an actual baptismal candle. Maybe you’re like me, and at your baptism never received a candle. But an actual candle, of course, is not the point. Any of us can have a baptismal candle. Any of us can be baptized and nevertheless allow our lives to be formed and shaped by distractions—rules and habits and things that have little eternal value or saving power.
God’s Word, on the other hand, has the power to remake and reshape our hearts and minds. What we do on Sunday morning—the music, the readings, the meal, the fellowship—all these things can help form a faith that is able to be ready for and weather even the fiercest of life’s storms.
Beloved people of God, in all of life’s circumstances, we are the recipients of God’s lavish, gracious welcome. We in turn are the face of Christ to the world, at our best offering the wide embrace of God to friend, family, stranger and even enemy. May we offer our best efforts to be that welcome!