Sermon preached at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, Ohio)—January 18, 2015—Genesis 12:1-3; Leviticus 19:33-34; Matthew 25:34-40
I am happy to be with you this morning. I bring you greetings from Shalom Mennonite Congregation, from the eastern edge of Central District Conference. Also, since we are in the heart of Ohio, I assume some of you may be college football fans. As a lifelong Oregon Duck I have been in mourning this past week, but I am glad that some people I know are happy about Ohio State’s victory last Monday.
Though the title of my sermon is “How does Jesus challenge us most?” I actually plan to start with the Old Testament. Sometimes I think Christians don’t appreciate enough how much Jesus was an Old Testament person. Even as he brought a message of newness and transformation, he still drew heavily on those who came before him. He did not come to abolish the Old Testament law but to fulfill it.
I think about a friend of mine years ago. A Bible study group in our church had just finished the Gospel of Mark. Someone suggested we should do something from the Old Testament. Gwen, an 80-something student of the Bible known for being outspoken stated flatly—“I don’t want to have anything to do with that bloody book!” We persuaded her at least to give it a try and we actually had a good time studying the book of Amos.
What’s at the heart of the Old Testament?
The Old Testament, I believe, when we read it as a whole, can be seen as a book of peace. And it is the source of most of Jesus’s message. So, when we ask how does Jesus challenge us most, one answer—the one I will test this morning—comes from an old fashioned concept that is actually at the heart of the Old Testament.
If we were in a smaller, more intimate setting, I would ask you to come up with one word to describe what the Old Testament presents as crucial to the life of faith. I imagine we would have several possibilities. Think for a second about what you would say. What is the one word you’d use to describe what’s crucial to the life of faith? Then, let me ask, how many of you would say “hospitality”? I am not going to insist that this is the only true answer. But I will insist that hospitality is a very important virtue—something central for Jesus as well—and something very challenging for us.
Think about just how important the practice of hospitality would have been in the desert world of the ancient near east. People lived close to the edge, vulnerable, dependent especially on that scarce and oh so precious resource, water. They needed each other. Especially when they were traveling. In a time and place long before motels and restaurants and campgrounds, people counted on spontaneous hospitality for their survival.
Hospitality is also a profoundly theological motif. For a people who know how important human hospitality was, the notion of God as a hospitable God would have been vivid and present. Yes, God cares for fragile humankind. Yes, God gives us shelter. Yes, God gives us water. So, let’s think about how the Bible tells the story of God’s hospitality—and God’s call for God’s people also to be hospitable.
The tragedy that becomes a blessing
The story begins with a great creative act by God—“and it was good, very good.” God creates the earth to be a home for all the living creatures, including human beings. But then brokenness enters. And scarcity. And all too much violence. When we get to the end of the 11th chapter of Genesis, we have a little story of personal tragedy that may be seen as reflecting the human predicament in general.
We meet an elderly couple, Abram and Sarai. And, we are told, Sarai was barren. She had no children and no hope of children. And thus, no future. This symbolizes the human project at a dead end. But it’s not a dead end. What seems like a grim conclusion becomes a joyful beginning. God performs a second act of creation—giving Abram and Sarai a child—gifting them with descendents who become God’s chosen people, through whom God will bless all the families of the earth.
Abraham takes his calling seriously
We get a sense of how this blessing will work in a story involving Abram himself. He had been told several times that he and Sarai would bear a child and they would have descendants beyond counting and these descendants would be a blessing. And his name is changed to “Abraham” (that is, “ancestor of a multitude”). Right after being given this new name, Abraham is visited by three travelers. Not knowing them, he immediately welcomed them and gave them food and drink—he modeled hospitality.
It turns out these are messengers from God. They tell Abraham that when they return his wife, now called Sarah, barren, elderly Sarah, will bear a son. The promise will happen. But then God also reveals to Abraham that God is going to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, takes his calling to be a blessing for all families seriously. He argues with God. He tries desperately to change God’s mind.
That took a lot of nerve. I can’t imagine doing such a thing. It would like, when I got the call from EMU’s dean offering me my dream job, I would say great, thanks so much—and then the next day I call her up and tell her some big decision she had just made was wrong. It wouldn’t have been the best way to start my new job….
It turns out, as we read much later in Ezekiel, that the big sin of Sodom was inhospitality toward the poor and needy (16:48). Abraham’s visitors go on to Sodom and themselves meet with inhospitality. And God is ready to punish. But Abraham pleads with God please back off, please be merciful. In the end, though, God does punish.
But Abraham’s witness (and his own example of hospitality) echoes down through the ages. Abraham shows us what it means to be chosen by God. Be hospitable, seek to bless and not curse. Stand for mercy, not retribution. Even when it means arguing with God.
In fact, later, in the book of Hosea, it’s as if God learned from Abraham. We read of God facing another situation calling for punishment. This time God acts differently. Instead of punishing rebellious Israel, God cries out—“How can I treat you like Sodom. My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger. I am God and no mortal, and I will not come in wrath” (11:8-9). So, the message from Abraham is that being God’s people means to care for the vulnerable, to offer hospitality, to stand for mercy and not vengeance. The Old Testament makes this point over and over.
Special care for the “alien” in your midst
One important example comes in the middle of the law codes. These books of the law—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—gave a blueprint for a society that would be made up of former slaves, now free. They have experienced the opposite of hospitality in Egypt. They were made into slaves and almost crushed out of existence. God stepped in, got them out, kept the promise to Abraham and Sarah alive—you are my people, God says, so you may be a blessing to all.
And the law codes emphasize this call to remember the inhospitality of Egypt, this call to live in the opposite way. We see this clearly in Leviticus 19. Care for the widows and orphans. Offer hospitality to the alien (that is, the migrant worker). Love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. Love others because you knew what it was like not to be loved.
I think of a wealthy pro athlete I heard about recently who was homeless for a time as a youth. He now devotes much of his wealth to providing housing for people in need—hospitality flowing out of knowing just how important it is. Show hospitality toward others just as God showed hospitality toward you. See your identity as God’s chosen people as a call to bless others, not as a reason to boast. This is the message, then, that Jesus took to heart. He got it from the Bible: Abraham, the law codes, the prophets.
Two of Jesus’s most famous parables emphasize his message about hospitality —and his powerful challenge to his followers. Both link the question of eternal life with the practice of hospitality. Nothing could be more important.
The radical call to love
In the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus a challenging question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back: what do you say? The lawyer knows his Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He quotes: “Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, great, “you have given the right answer.”
But the lawyer is not satisfied. He presses Jesus further: “And who is my neighbor?” I think his intent here is actually to say, there are some who are not my neighbors, right? I don’t have to love, I don’t have to be hospitable, toward people who don’t deserve it, right?
So Jesus tells a story that shows just how challenging this call to love the neighbor is. He tells, as we know so well, about a traveler beaten bloody, robbed, and left to die alongside the road. A priest and another religious leader both see the beaten man and pass by on the opposite side of the road. But then a Samaritan stops and offers generous aid. He takes the beaten man to a nearby inn and pays for his room and care. So this is radical on an obvious level—the neighbor is the one who helps a person in need, even when it is costly, even when it is risky.
But there is another level. The Samaritan was part of a people that Jesus and his hearers, Jews as they were, would have seen as their enemy. Their hostility went back hundreds of years. Obviously, the Samaritan’s acts of mercy and hospitality were impressive. But could the lawyer bring himself to commend his people’s sworn enemy? To his credit he does. The true neighbor, the one who shows how to gain eternal life, is “the one who showed mercy,” the Samaritan.
I once heard an evangelist tell a modern version of this story—with a twist. This guy’s Cadillac ran out of gas—and fancy car after fancy car drove by without stopping to help. Finally someone did stop—a ragged hippie driving an old clunker. So what lesson did the evangelist draw? “I told this hippie about Jesus Christ; the lesson—you should never miss a chance to evangelize.” Not, this hippie challenged my stereotypes and showed me who my neighbor actually is…. Jesus’s lawyer at least understood the punch line.
So, how does Jesus challenge us the most? Here in this story, he challenges us on at least three levels. First, the heart of our quest for eternal life, our quest for connecting with God, is love. It is not obeying rules or enforcing rigorous membership requirements. Love God and love neighbor.
The second level: Put this love into practice. The story models what neighbor love is—it is risky, it is costly, it is practical. It reaches out to the one who needs it, it offers genuine help. And then, the third level. First, we are challenged to love. Second, it is to be embodied, practical love.
This is the third level: we are called to love those we don’t necessarily want to love. Maybe Jesus challenges us the very most by challenging us to imagine who the Samaritans are in our lives. Who are the people we think of as “other,” as different, as in some sense outside our circle of fellow human beings? That is precisely where the call to love truly matters.
To “the least of these”
There’s a second challenging parable. In Matthew 25, near the end of the gospel story. Jesus, in this gospel especially, teaches at great length. The parable of the sheep and goats here is his final extended teaching before he faces arrest and the final hours of his life. So it is kind of his last lecture, the conclusion to his teaching career. And he talks about serious stuff—the bases for judgment, for the separation between those who will be with God and those who will not.
Who will inherit the kingdom? We could answer, if we wanted to use just one word, with this; those who have been hospitable to the king will inherit the kingdom—as he says, you fed me when I was hungry, welcomed me when I was a stranger, and other acts of care, of radical hospitality.
But the righteous are confused. When have we done these things to you? And here’s the main point: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40). Here is where Jesus challenges us most. Show hospitality to those who need it. Hospitality lies right at the center of everything Jesus cares about. To be Jesus’s people in the world today means to practice hospitality.
I leave it to later discussion to think about how this call applies to how we think about “homosexuality” and related issues. Let me just finish with one more thought. Probably one of the best ways to take on this challenge Jesus gives us can be seen in Leviticus. The call is given to love the “alien”—love the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. Offer hospitality to all who you can because you surely have received hospitality yourself, perhaps even at times when you most desperately needed it.
I remember one point in my life, years ago, when I went through a shattering experience of personal loss. I felt very alone. And, then, several friends reached out. There were two, in particular, old friends that I had lost touch with. They learned of my situation and called me up. I was pretty shocked, and humbled, because I felt like I had not been that great of a friend to either of them. But their care was crucial. So, when I wonder what it would be like to be hospitable, and whether I really want to be, I can think back to how I felt when I was in such need. It can be a powerful reminder.
Let me finish with a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:34: “Love the other who is in need as yourself, for you too were once in need. I am the Lord your God.” Amen.