Web of Contempt

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Few of us are immune to this temptation: Few of us can resist the chance to meet a celebrity!

Those of us who aren’t rich and famous ourselves leap at such a chance. We may be willing to donate a large amount of money to a charity so we can go to a benefit in the company of the rich and famous.

If we’re not invited but we know someone on the organizing committee of the benefit we may try to wangle an invitation.

Now the Gospel set for today presents some intriguing comments from Jesus about invitations. Jesus gives us an idea of the invitations Christians should look for.

For Disciples of Christ aren’t supposed to try to get the best seats! Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Christians should stand back and let others take the good places.

But this requirement that old members of the church should always defer to newer members must have been galling to the early Christians. The first disciples had, after all, given up so much to follow Jesus.

They had left their homes and their families and their jobs. They must have expected that their extreme commitment would give them some perks.

They were like hard-working volunteers on a political campaign. The volunteers spend all their free time handing out leaflets and making unsolicited phone calls. When their candidate comes to town, the workers expect to be invited to the party.

So these volunteers aren’t pleased if they have to give up their places on the receiving line to rich people who have bought a chance to meet the candidate.

Yet that, in fact, is what Christians are supposed to do! We are supposed to give up the good seats to outsiders! We are supposed to welcome those who don’t have a clue about religion or those who distrust and criticize our faith.

In the Gospel text, Jesus gives a moving illustration of the invitations God wants us to make. Christ looks at the group of people that he has been addressing, and he points to a child and he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

At the time of Jesus, this gesture would have been almost shocking. For the cultures of the Roman world had a much lower regard for children than we do. They were the opposite of celebrities.

In some countries, at the time of Jesus, child sacrifice was still part of religious worship. And throughout the Roman Empire, it was common for parents of unwanted children simply to abandon them in the wilderness.

Unlike adults, children weren’t seen as “persons”. They often succumbed to childhood diseases. Until they reached puberty, they had few rights, little attention seems to have been paid to them by anyone other than their families. When Jesus pointed to the child in front of him, the, he was saying, in effect: – “If you welcome this child – this apparently insignificant being – in my name, you’ll be welcoming me and you’ll be welcoming the great and most holy God.”

Again, the idea here is not welcoming someone you want to welcome. Today, we all love to greet cute kids.

Christ’s audience would have heard his message differently. They would have noticed the challenge in his voice. One way to see what Jesus is getting at is to recall how difficult it is to back people who were once vital part of our lives.

In our counseling, we clergy often hear sad and painful stories of broken bonds. Think of someone with whom you once had a close relationship – a relationship that later fell apart. A boyfriend or girlfriend, a colleague, a neighbor, a classmate. Your friend now no longer returns your phone calls. Or you’ve gotten to the point where you don’t want to see that person again, anyway!

Then imagine that Jesus, instead of pointing to a little child, had pointed to your ex-friend. Christ wants you to greet that friend with the same enthusiasm that you would greet a celebrity – with the same warmth that you would have for Christ himself. You’re supposed to be ready to welcome that person back into your life – to defer to him – or to offer her whatever help she might need.

Now this would be a tough invitation! Quite different from doling out seats to an exclusive dinner. With your ex-friend, any pleasure in inviting takes second place to the pain of memory.

Yet this is how it is. Pain accompanies a lot of “welcoming” that we are called to do when we share the love of Christ. While “Love your neighbor” is a fine principle in theory, it’s hard in reality.

Nobody gets along with everyone. Some people are just plain annoying. In real life, it’s hard for us human beings to be inviting.

Perhaps the best strategy when we need to welcome people we dislike is to recognize that the big problem is our own capacity to be wounded. Our past suffering keeps us from welcoming those who have hurt us back into our lives.

But precisely because of our resentment, Christ’s admonition has a surprising practical value. If I welcome the person I can’t stand as though I were welcoming a little child, as though I were welcoming Christ – well, there is the glimmer of a chance that I will be able to see beyond my past hurt. As I struggle with my natural aggressiveness toward the person who once hurt me, and as I try to offer Christ’s welcome, I find a way to escape my feelings.

By looking – as Jesus suggests – for a quality worth loving in the person I despise, I get out of the web of contempt that the past has spun in my soul.

The halting welcome I manage to offer to my enemy opens a window out of the past into the future. And even if the two of us are not reconciled, I may still be touched by the grace of Christ in whose name I am welcoming.

I may be touched by God’s Son – God who always offers to us the ultimate invitation: “come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Cast my yoke upon you” – the yoke of forgiveness and healing – “cast my yoke upon you and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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