“We can never make peace in the outer world until we make peace within ourselves.” As I read these words, spoken by the Dali Lama, I thought of the 4th of July. Odd? What does a Tibetan religious leader’s philosophical prose have to do with the summer weekend when we celebrate our nation’s independence and rekindle our civic pride. What does an expression of peace have to do with a holiday has become synonymous with getting outdoors, cooking-out, and going fishing or boating. The 4th of July is about cheering at a parade, eating burgers and brats at the park, and of course, watching fireworks. The 4th of July weekend is a time to celebrate with family and friends not burden ourselves with things like world peace. Right?
But the 4th of July, I think, offers us an opportunity; the opportunity to be introspective. Independence Day offers us the chance to be thoughtful about our direction as a people of faith and to discern how we will live-into our role in society. What do I mean? Well, consider the final words we say as we cover our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “…with liberty and justice for all.” It seems to me that if this weekend is indeed about civic pride and celebrating our independence, then we ought to take a serious look at what were proud of and the responsibilities that come with being an independent nation. In other words, are we striving toward a day when America is truly a place where there’s “liberty and justice for all” or are we just blindly uttering the words? And if we are committed to this ideal, as I believe we as a congregation and as the United Church of Christ most certainly are; what’s our next move? How do we proceed toward a goal of “liberty and justice for all?”
Well, our Gospel text for today may help us out here. In the 10th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us some instruction about the meaning of “liberty and justice for all.” And that instruction begins with something as simple as offering a cool drink of water to someone who’s thirsty; it’s as simple as offering hospitality.
Henri Nouwen once said, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”[I]
Dan De Leon reinforced this understanding when he wrote, “Hospitality is crucial to the advancement of forgiveness and healing, of justice and mercy, of righteousness and hope. No hospitality, no gospel message. But if hospitality is so important, how do we practice it? Apparently, according to Jesus’ instructions in today’s text, by offering a cup of cold water.”[ii]
But come on? Is it really that simple? How is one simple act of kindness going to change anything? Well, as the Buddha once said, “we become what we think.” And that gets to the core of what Jesus was talking about here. If we consciously practice hospitality in all phases of our lives, we will become more hospitable. If we practice compassion we will naturally become more compassionate beings. Practicing kindness leads to becoming kinder. And so on.
In more spiritual terms, that small gesture of offering a cool drink takes seriously the instructions Jesus gave to the disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” According to the Jewish law of Jesus’ time, a person’s emissary was synonymous with that very person. Like Paul says in Galatians, “You welcomed me as Christ Jesus.” To welcome a disciple with even a cup of cold water is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive God.
I read a story once about a young parish priest visiting with an older priest. The young priest mentioned the homeless people who would come by his church seeking help. He said to his elder, “I know we’re supposed to help the poor, but these people are asking for help with a bus ticket or a utility bill or money for food. Is that really their story? They’ll probably just going to buy liquor or cigarettes.” Finally, the young priest said, “It gets exhausting justifying who I’m going to help and why.” Now, the older priest just sat back and let the young priest’s words float around the room for a while. Then he said, “What business is it of yours determining who gets help and who doesn’t? Why exhaust yourself with that burden? You are a follower of Jesus Christ. Your task, therefore, is simply to share out of the wealth of God’s abundance. Your requirement is simply to love others as God loves you. Your job is simply to give.”[iii]
My friends, Jesus says that we are to extend hospitality and kindness to every human being. He didn’t waver on that one bit. Jesus charges us to welcome all members of what Maya Angelou so beautifully called “the human family.” And specially, we are to extend hospitality to those who are among the most vulnerable; the outcast and the marginalized groups in our society, the immigrant families and the displaced refugees, those fleeing oppression and war. To welcome all people is to welcome Jesus himself and thereby to welcome the Divine.
Yvette Flunder, the senior pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, writes, “Oppressive theology, or a theology that welcomes those who fit a normative definition of the dominant culture while excluding those who do not, is a ball and chain on the heart of the body of Christ, and with it we keep each other in bondage.”[iv]
My friends, hospitality frees us from that bondage. It frees us to offer a cup of cold water to someone who might be in a situation completely foreign to our experience. And when we are brought into relationship with one another by the bond that hospitality creates, there is no more host and guest, no more insider and outsider, no more room for foreigner or citizen; there is only a space in which we listen to and learn from each another, value and honor one another until all the uneven ground on which we stand becomes level. And it’s through this process of finding peace within ourselves, peace among the diversity we call America, that world peace can become a reality.
So, on this 4th of July weekend. I encourage you to eat a brat, to cheer at the parade, and to watch the fireworks. But I also commend to you the challenge that Jesus has put before us as a people of faith and as a nation. The challenge to continue to move toward that day, when we truly live in a nation, where there is “liberty and justice for all.”
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Crown Publishing Group) 1986
[iv] Yvette A. Flunder, Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (The Pilgrim Press) 2005. Pg. 7.