Jeremiah 28;5-9 and Matthew 10:40-42
The Gospel passage is pretty straight forward:
Unswervingly, Jesus is giving us every reason to throw ourselves int extravagant embraces, no holding back, arms and hearts outstretched until they reach all the way around the stranger, even to include the ones we find hardest to hug.
Because that kind of hospitality is a two-fold blessing, sanctifying the lives of those who are received as they are as well as those who truly show up to meet others, presenting their true selves. These kinds of interactions, Jesus is saying, are the holiest welcomes.
We know that at Old First. We’ve been working on hospitality for the past few years. Recently, over lunch, newer members of our community said to me, “Old First is definitely the friendliest congregation we’ve encountered.” Well done, church. I hope, though probably know better, that’s everyone’s experience of us.
But it is a hard lesson to really get down and put into practice: not because we don’t want or mean to be friendly, but because it’s so much easier to get caught up in catching up with the people you already know. So we need to keep reminding ourselves, and practicing!
A side note and an advertisement: name tags go a long way towards being hospitable, making it easier for the newcomer and the old timers alike. It’s just nicer, a better beginning to any interaction, to be able to address each other by name. (We’re about to put an order in for name tags: anyone who’s going to be around can have one. Just let the church office know; or write it in the friendship pads or on an offering envelope!)
Welcoming the other is crucial to our faith. But that’s not where I’m going with the sermon today.
When I read the passage last Sunday evening, it occurred to me instead, “the message is most obviously about others, but one might do well to go a second mile welcoming ourselves as well.”
Do we REALLY, can we welcome ourselves, all of our selves? …here in church or in any of the other settings of our varied lives?
I think it’s a good question for church, where sometimes, understandably, we show up here putting are best face forward, cleaned up, dressed up (well, maybe not so dressed up at Old First) for our Sunday visit with God. More like we’d like to be, or at least how we want to be seen.
But I’m talking about a bigger demand, not just to clean up nice for Sunday morning, but to really show up completely: the parts that are all together, ok. But also the parts that are a bit more unfinished. And the parts that we’re really struggling with, or scared of, or ashamed of. Friends, none of us takes even a step without some baggage coming along with us, even though we prefer to appear as if we’re traveling light.
Why not, here of all place, stop pretending and admit — not just at the entrance downstairs, but to ourselves deeply, that there are parts of ourselves we wish we could give the cold shoulder, deny, cast out. Do we really think we’re fooling God? …That God doesn’t know and see us just as we are (and better than we see ourselves)?
What if church is really a full frontal naked scene? No holding back, at least between you and God. A full embrace… Hugging all the way to the parts of your self or your past or your present or the future you find hardest to admit, much less embrace…
I can’t explain exactly where my take on this passage came from. Maybe it’s some of my own struggle bubbling up and affecting what I hear. But even if that’s so, I’m hoping it is also of the Spirit.
Twice this past week, I had THAT experience: when something innocuous enough was said, and the speaker could not have foreseen how the hearer received the message. Once I was the hearer. The other time I was the speaker. And in both cases, neither the other person nor I could have imagined the connections made and how important they would be. Someone other than the two people in the conversation, it seems, had a hand in our communications, was even in charge.
I’m hoping my direction this morning is a similar situation. That the message I can’t quite explain why I feel compelled to offer might be why someone came to church this morning, what one of you needs to hear, even in ways that I do not know and may never know…
So let me get going: Could Jesus be inviting you to stop trying to change yourself into someone you are not, someone you wish to be… stop trying to be someone different long enough that you might figure out and welcome who you really are?
Maybe that’s why he was always going after the hypocrites!
Imagine Jesus looking you directly in the eye this morning and asking, “Do you — Nancy, Larry, Bethany, Andrew, Mike, Delilah, Alice, Linda… Do you accept yourself as you are?
It’s a straightforward question that many of us find difficult to answer. Because most basically, it’s sort of an all or nothing proposition. One can’t say, “Sure, I accept myself, just who I am. Well, all of myself, except…”
Nope, it’s the same challenge we receive when Jesus is challenging us to fully welcome each other. I can’t say, “I like most of Bob. But you know when he gets like that…” That’s not really welcoming him. You can’t pick and choose; can’t welcome what’s attractive; and hold at bay or reject what’s harder to handle…
Oh we do that, but when we do, and call that welcoming, we’re putting ourselves in the camp that Jesus vilifies as hypocrites.
So let’s spend a bit of time thinking about welcoming ourselves — here of all places — this morning. When you stop and really think about it, most of us aren’t really who we want to be, pretend we are. Since childhood, we’ve been building up a persona in order to present our “best face” and succeed. To function in our families. To be attractive and make friends. To excel in school or on the athletic field or at a party on Saturday night. We build a persona just generally to face the world. You might remember James’ Baldwin’s insight — “the masks we fear we cannot live without, but no we cannot live within?”
Beloved, I bet none of us is completely who we want to be. That’s ok. God’s given us some more time to work on it. But I’d also wager that most of us aren’t even who we think we are. Or don’t admit who we are. And there lies a problem. We can’t work on what we haven’t acknowledged…
Instead, we see or choose an image of ourselves, a refraction that happens through this complicated lens that sometimes we’re quite unaware of– our own and others’ judgements, and our fears, and shame, some good degree of narrowness and jealousy, and in the light of, or better, in the shadow of some painful rejections… what we have picked up along the way or heaped on ourselves.
What if, listening closely today, you could hear Jesus whisper to you: “Today is your new day. Your time to start over. To try something new. To make room for your whole and holy self. To acknowledge it all: the good and the bad and so much mixed up in between. And not just acknowledge and be overwhelmed by it all, but to acknowledge it on the way to really loving yourself. Not because you are all right. Or because you’ve got it all togther. But because, however you are,
God already loves you. And if God love you, you can love yourself too.”
That’s the trick to this whole demand of holy welcomes: we owe it to others and to ourselves, to show that much love, that kind of love. God loves us, even the awful parts, that much, and that means you are worthy of love. Able to be loved. Able to love yourself.
Think about it: according to the Gospel lesson today, in welcoming yourself, you are welcoming Jesus, and welcoming God whose image you reflect.
Therefore, beloved, welcome the aspects of yourself that are challenging. And the aspects of yourself that are stodgy and stiff. And the parts that are thirsty and needy… Or that still haven’t grown up, or never got past your childhood, or some high degree of childishness.
It’s a different way of going about being yourself. And that’s difficult to be sure.
But promising, Jesus reassures.
Can we do it? I’m not sure…
I wasn’t sure how to finish this sermon, so I asked a whole bunch of preachers I admire, “Do you have any suggestions I can offer in my sermon about how we might do a better job of accepting, even loving ourselves?”
Everyone, but one person I asked this week responded with a suggestion. …Maybe I’m not the only person thinking about this. Or struggling to embrace myself more completely! Here’s what the preachers offered — even at the risk of turning my sermon into an advice column or a self-help program:
“Leave off with the put downs, of others for sure, so that you can stop putting yourself down as well!”
“Try regularly– at least each Sunday in church — to see yourself through God’s eyes of love.”
“Aim to be ruthlessly honest, at least with yourself.”
“Stop telling yourself ‘no’ — the world does that often and easily enough.
No more denying your desires, burying your needs or eclipsing your hopes.”
“Leave off all your endless searching, and instead, stand still and wait.”
“Figure out what trusting yourself would look like?”
“Imagine, and then believe and act as if you are cosmically important (and so is everyone else too.)”
“The time and place you find yourself in, your situation, good or bad —
God circled the map and the calendar for you to be right here.”
“No more self-improvement plans.”
Ok, that last one sort of undercuts all the rest. And maybe this sermon!
But, beloved, what’s the risk of welcoming the parts of yourself that are strange to you? Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away! And what might the reward be?
What would happen if you treated yourself to the hospitality and respect you are to offer a newcomer? What if you became a newcomer to yourself? What a joy in the end to be able to give yourself a great big, no holding back, hug?
What if you could be the recipient of the double blessing, get both blessings in one person: blessed by showing up, presenting one’s true self, completely, faithfully, AND blessed by being finally received as you truly are.
Even more promising, rather than one more thing you need to do, I think this is one of those spiritual processes where it’s more about our needing to get out of our own and God’s way, and letting God act in and on and for us. Let God or Jesus help introduce you to yourself. You might not only meet someone knew. You might make a new friend. Or a couple of new friends.
May it be so…