There once was…. “A young widower, who loved his five-year-old son very much, was away on business, and bandits came, burned down his whole village, and took his son away. When the man returned, he saw the ruins and panicked. He took the charred corpse of an infant to be his own child, and he began to pull his hair and beat his chest, crying uncontrollably. He organized a cremation ceremony, collected the ashes, and put them in a very beautiful velvet pouch. Working, sleeping, or eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him. One day his real son escaped from the robbers and found his way home. He arrived at his father’s new cottage at midnight, and knocked at the door. You can imagine, at that time, the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes and crying. He asked, “Who is there?” And the child answered, “It’s me, Papa. Open the door, it’s your son.”
In his agitated state of mind the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away, and continued to cry. The boy knocked again and again, but the father refused to let him in. Some time passed, and finally the child left. From that time on, father and son never saw one another.
After telling this story, the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. If you cling to it so much, when the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you will not open it.”
Jesus said, “Those who welcome you also welcome me, and those who welcome me welcome the One who sent me.” But what does it mean to welcome Jesus. Maybe we are, even today, carrying a velvet bag of ashes around with us. They may have value to us as the ashes of our child and they may represent something dear to us, like our love for God. But in the end, the ashes can never be the real Jesus. We carry around with us some of our earliest learnings about this Jesus, and we keep them carefully wrapped up tightly, bound in our doctrines and dogmas and early prayer life experiences. Sometimes we cling so tightly to these things that we miss entirely the radical nature and extravagant love of this man whose life and teaching changed the world. Sometimes our own selfish desires about what Jesus might be able to do for us can cause us to be completely blind to who Jesus was and is.
Here is a contemporary parable that gives us a valuable insight I think: Late one evening a group of disciples packed their belongings and left for a distant shore, because they couldn’t stand living in the same place where Jesus had been crucified. Weighed down with sorrow, they left, vowing never to return. They traveled far and wide, in search of a place to call home once more. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as Jesus had taught them. The members of this community lived in isolation for over a century, devoting their time to reflecting on Jesus and his teaching, and remaining as faithful as they could to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their heart. But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached them.
The missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection or the ascension of Christ, because they had left Jerusalem before Christ returned from the dead. Without hesitation the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of Jesus. That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping. “Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”
It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued Christ’s ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated Christ and would one day defeat us also.” The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary in the eye.
“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for Christ because we judged Christ wholly worth of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow Christ, not because of his trading of his life for ours, but rather, that they will selfishly follow him because they will get personal salvation and heaven.” With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary weeping on the floor.
In order for us to find Jesus, to be willing to embrace him to the point of becoming his Body and Blood, we need to lay aside our own bag of ashes in order to move beyond what we know, or think we know. The storyteller known as Matthew has Jesus giving his disciples some instructions about how they are to represent him. He doesn’t baptize them first. He doesn’t have them memorize a creed. He doesn’t give them any veterinary training or advice on how to distinguish sheep from goats. He never asks them if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He doesn’t promise any salvation beyond the present moment; in fact he tells them it’s not about them at all. He suggests they have to have a conversion of heart, a change of attitude. As important as family is, they need to understand that what Jesus represents is more important. What he represents is even more important than life itself. He tells them their task is to represent him and in doing so they represent the ONE whom he represents.
I can hear the disciples saying, “Huh? What do you mean? How do we that? Do we wear special clothes? Do we need a collar? Should we memorize all the Scriptures so we can quote it chapter and verse?” And Jesus shakes his head, bemused, and responds: “Naw, just welcome people into your lives. Welcome everyone, but especially welcome those no one else even wants to acknowledge. You think you have nothing to offer, but you will find that even a cup of water can become a miracle.”
“Is that all,” they ask.
“Yep. That’s it. Be the hospitality of God, and everything else will follow.”
Hospitality it turns out is at the heart of our faith. A Christian is simply someone who is hospitable, which sounds crazy easy until we try to put it into daily practice. It is easy to be hospitable to people who look, act and vote like us, or who might be good contacts to network with in case we ever want a new job. We can easily seat them at our table, but those occasions are their own reward. It is another story to invite those of a different feather: people of a different culture, gender-identy, class or race—the ones who will never in a million years be able to offer anything resembling an advantage to us. So why does Jesus make sharing a meal (which is the central historical method of extending hospitality) the cornerstone of his ministry? Because sharing a meal, sharing communion is the essential building block that undergirds authentic relationships. It’s the first step to overcoming fear, finding understanding, and giving respect. We’ve tried killing the strangers among us praying for peace while we committed violence—not very successful. That’s because we’ve ignored the teaching of Jesus, namely that only through open hospitality can we find peace.
You’re thinking, “Oh, my, this pastor of ours is too old to be this naïve!” Well, think about a time when you were shown unexpected hospitality that at least improved your day and may even have changed your life. Jesus lived to change the world and change it, he did. One person at a time. Christ still lives in, with and through us to change the world one person at a time. Each act of kindness, each word of welcome, each act of hospitality binds us together in real love, inching the universe that much closer to the peace God has always dreamed for humanity. Not the phony peace that the world tries to impose through force of Empire; but the peace of God, that transcends selfishness, greed, hostility, prejudice, tribalism, classism, hatred and all forms of violence.
Peace begins with something stupidly and naively simple: a glass of water, a shared meal, a dollar for bus fare. And for those who are the Body of Christ for US, let us in turn be the Bread and Cup for them. And as we welcome Christ, we welcome the One who sent Christ to us—not found in the bag of ashes we cling to, but in the gritty real world work of loving someone we never thought loveable.