A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
July 2, 2023
Sometimes summer can feel like an interruption, as if we had previously scheduled programming, you get into a rhythm of work and life and tasks and duties and family routines, and then summer rolls through and interrupts all of that, breaking our stride, throwing us off our rhythm, begging us to slow down, take a break, for the few that are privileged enough to do so, and interrupting all the things we deem so important and necessary and essential. In this way, summer is a holy interruption. Over a decade ago, when Dusty Mairs was our parish administrator, she was and still is fond of reminding me that ministry is all about the interruptions.
Those of you who know me well know that I don’t always do well with interruptions. I like the sense of control that comes from having a plan and keeping it, of going where I want to go and doing what I want to do.
But, more than a dozen years into being your rector and almost 15 years in ordained ministry, I can say with certainty that the interruptions are most certainly where genuine and beautiful ministry happens. Not a week goes by when a call from someone in need comes to me prefaced by “I’m so sorry to interrupt your”…day off, afternoon, morning, fill in the blank. And almost always my response is, this is why I went into ministry, to be present with people in the midst of the chaos of life, in the unexpected crisis, the tragedy or joy that bursts upon us interrupting our well-planned lives.
A long time ago, before I was a priest, my wife Erin and I were sent as a part of the Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corp to live and serve in the Episcopal Church in Taiwan. As a part of our time there we were deployed weekly to Keelung, just northeast of Taipei, but a full 30 miles from our apartment on the northwest shore of the island. We would go to Keelung once a week via public transportation; a two hour ride up and over the northern tip of the island to serve at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church’s after school program where we helped out by teaching English lessons. The church was located in a small lowrise building in an urban neighborhood of largely poor and working class residents. One arrived at the 4 story building from the bus stop via a circuitous network of narrow streets lined with scooters and repair shops. The first floor was a church office and a few multipurpose rooms, the second floor, a parish hall and classrooms, the third floor, the worship space, and the fourth floor the home of the priest and their family. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to live at the place where one worked, to have been at all times, at the office, to have one’s personal life continuously interrupted by the life of the church.
Yet, the priest and his wife who served at Holy Trinity, Richard and Belinda, were the epitome of joyful hospitality, seeming at times to almost draw energy from the interruptions and the chaos and noise of small children coming and going from their home late into the afternoon. I remember one particular visit, close to Christmas, we made the trek to Keelung feeling exhausted and near sick after a week of challenging work at our regular appointments at the local Episcopal University. We arrived to find Belinda in the entry hall of the church, on all fours, rubber gloves on her hands, scrubbing the floor at the entry of the boys bathroom. In the humidity and the heat, the smell coming from the washroom was, as you might imagine, overwhelming. Yet, when we arrived, Belinda stood up with a smile on her face, peeling off the gloves to wipe the hair from her sweaty forehead, to welcome us with a joyful hug, and offers of cold drinks and a place to sit while we prepared for the day’s lessons.
In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
I don’t know if we were, in the truest sense, “one of these little ones”, pitiful as I felt that day, and small as my own ministry and importance felt as we made the long trek by bus to Keelung, but I can assure you that I felt more welcome in that moment than I have in most places ever since. And, at the same time, I have never felt like more of an interruption than I did in that moment. Here Belinda was, elbow deep in the smelliest ministry most of us will ever do, literally cleaning up after children, and she stopped everything to welcome us. What’s more, her welcome of us was an echo of hers and the church’s ongoing welcome of hundreds of children, literally the little ones coming and going in noise and chaos all afternoon long. Belinda remains the ideal, in my mind, of what it looks like to welcome the ministry of interruptions and what it means to welcome Christ in the person of the strangers who cross our paths.
In her profound book of wisdom The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, Sister Joan Chittister describes the way Benedictine spirituality compels her monastic community to welcome all guests as if they were Jesus himself. She says,
“‘Hospitality is one form of worship,’ the rabbis wrote. Benedictine spirituality takes this tendency seriously. The welcome at the door is not only loving – a telephone operator at a jail can do that. It is total, as well. Both the community and the abbot receive the guest. The message to the stranger is clear. Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You are the Christ for us today.”
Herein is the truth of the gospel, what Jesus has been on about in the whole of Matthew, whatever you have done to one of the least of these, you have done it unto Jesus himself, and if to him, then to the one who sent him. To follow Jesus then, to be his disciple, is to enter into a new social order, one where allegiance to Christ and through Christ to God, subverts every other allegiance that we have – our careers, our country, even our family. And, there are many things that tug at our attention, that desire our allegiance.
Like many of you, I have struggled and still struggle with the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in the Genesis lesson we heard this morning. Some have seen this as a story about God testing Abraham’s faithfulness. Others see this as a prefiguring of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. Still others have tried to psychologize the story, trying to get into Abraham’s reasoning. And many of us recognize it as a painfully disturbing tale, a seeming perversion of what a God of love should look like and rightly avoid this as yet another element of toxic faith. But, this week as I prepared for this morning’s sermon, I came upon a biblical scholar who noted that in this story the call to Abraham comes from God, but that the word used in this call sequence, the instruction to sacrifice his son, comes from the Hebrew word “Elohim” a generic term for God or gods. But, the interruption of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, the voice that stays his hand and stops the knife, is issued from Yahweh, the one true God of Israel. This scholar wondered then if this shift lends us to read the story etiologically, that is, as a myth pointing to Israel’s wrestling with their sometime and past allegiance to other gods, into a new relationship and covenant with Yahweh.
The call of God on our lives interrupts our allegiance to the often death dealing, sacrificial systems of the world. God’s call, interrupts the economies that exploit, interrupts the politics that prioritize power over generosity, that prizes our love of guns over the lives of our children, that puts “national interest” over the imperative to welcome strangers and immigrants. The call of the one true God, the God of Abraham and Sarah of Isaac and Rebekah and Leah, of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, is a call away from the all the plans we once had, interrupts the business as usual of the world and calls us into a faith that feeds the hungry, visits and cares for the sick, listens to the story of the lonely and the abandoned, that let’s Christ show up in all the interruptions of the life of ministry and discipleship.
The word host has a lot of meanings in the English language. It can mean invading hordes or the work of hospitality. One thing is shared in common across all definitions, both negative and positive, that of interruption. When the host encamps at our gates or when the guest crosses our threshold, our worlds are turned upside down, and we are thrust into the presence of Christ. One definition that stands in particular need of attention to us who gather here, is the host we encounter in the Eucharist. As Christians we refer to the element we consume as the host, and through it, we encounter Christ yet again, drawing us together as one body in the one bread. In all ways, we are called to a new order, a new allegiance that compels us to regard each person, every hungry, sick, tired, lonely, and beautiful person as we would regard the very presence of Jesus, and the God who sent him, and to there find our new identity and allegiance across all lines of difference. As Chittister reminds us using the words of mystic Ram Das,
“When people meet and part they often say, ‘Namaste,’ which means: I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides; I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us…”