Questions Welcome

David Finnegan-Hosey
Kay Spiritual Life Center
September 13, 2015
Romans 12:9-18, Luke 10:25-37

Audio available here.

Artwork by Alex Gamscik

Romans 12:9-18 • Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic–be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you–bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.

Luke 10:25-37 • A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Stick around this community for a little while, and you are going to hear me repeat six simple words. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to repeat them yourself. These six words make up the mission statement of the United Methodist-Protestant Community here at AU. They describe the core of who we try to be and what we try to do. They are: Love God. Serve Others. Welcome All.

There’s nothing particularly unique about our mission statement. Plenty of faith communities use similar language to describe what they’re about. Lots of Christian communities have worship services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies that are aimed to grow their members’ love of God; lots of churches have service projects and social justice activities that seek to foster an active faith; and if you ask any group of church members to describe themselves, the words “welcoming” and “friendly” will probably come up. Taken by itself, our 6-word mission statement –Love God. Serve Others. Welcome All. — doesn’t sound all that complicated.

Actually living the thing out, however, is harder than you might think. Figuring out what love and service look like in practice can be a pretty complex and difficult thing. And then there’s those last two words, the real kickers: Welcome. All.

If “All” really means “All,” then “Welcoming All” is gonna take a lot of work. Here’s an excerpt from our community’s reconciling statement, which is where we articulate our vision for what it means to “Welcome All”: “We are a community of love and grace open to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, races and ethnicities, differing abilities, diverse economic levels, ages, and personal background, whether they be students, faculty, staff, community members, or visitors. We welcome all people and commit to be a community in which differences, whether in theology, ideology, political affiliation, academic interests, ministerial gifts, or spiritual callings, can form a community of Christian disciples through God’s love. We covenant to ministering with all people on this campus and in the community, especially those who feel alienated from the Church.”

If we’re really going to do all that, it’s going to mean some discomfort. It’s going to mean a lot of encounter with difference. A lot of talking to people we don’t necessarily agree with. A lot of sitting with people we don’t know yet. A lot of reminding ourselves not to get too complacent or too insular. “Welcoming all” is hard work. It’s not a passive, “it’s ok if you’re here.” It’s an active practice that involves challenge and risk.

And it’s a practice that is deeply rooted in the Christian faith tradition. Earlier, we heard a brief excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It’s the beginning of a section of this letter in which Paul is offering moral guidance to a young church. And right smack in the middle of this list of ethical exhortations, the first century apostle encourages the church to extend hospitality to strangers and to live in harmony and peace with all. The writings of the early church are packed with stories of the community extending hospitality to strangers and outcasts. Dr. Amy Oden, a historian of the early church, puts it this way:

“One of the big discoveries in [my] research was how radically early Christians practiced hospitality, not because they were trying to be good, but because they were profoundly moved by God’s welcome in their own lives and wanted to share it in concrete ways – tending to the contagious sick that no one would help, receiving foreign refugees seeking aid, welcoming the poor and outcasts in their communities. They offered hospitality because they believed God really had new and abundant life to offer everyone. My time with these ancient faithful ones over the last few years has brought home to me the stark contrast between their understanding of hospitality and our own brand today, which can sometimes border on Wal-Mart greeter-ism.”[i]

This week, we begin a sermon series called “Big Questions.” Each Sunday, from now until the middle of November, we’ll spend some time dwelling on and wrestling with a series of big questions, the type of questions that keep people awake at night and keep your philosophy profs and chaplains employed. We’ll look at how figures in scripture and in the history of the church have grappled with these questions – questions like, “Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What happens when I die? Will I find love? Where is God when it hurts?” I’ll offer some reflections, and some guests will offer reflections, and I hope that you all will offer reflections, too, and will engage each other in conversations about your own big questions.

Just as welcoming people is an active, intentional, risky thing, so too is welcoming questions. Just as “Welcome All” doesn’t just mean, “it’s ok that you’re here,” so too “welcoming questions” doesn’t just mean that it’s ok to ask a question if you don’t know something. It means that we seek out questions, that we take time to sit with doubts and unfamiliarity. It means that we develop a level of comfort with discomfort – not rushing too quickly to pat responses. Just as truly welcoming all isn’t the same as Wal-Mart greeter-ism, so too is truly welcoming questions not the same as allowing people to pose questions and then rushing to give a satisfying answer.

In the story from Luke’s gospel that we heard tonight, we get to see Jesus’ comfort with questions. An expert in the Jewish law stands up and asks Jesus a question. The gospel writer describes this as a “test” – so maybe it’s meant to be a bit of a gotcha-question.

“Teacher,” he says – that, is “Rabbi” – “what do I have to do to get eternal life?”

And Jesus, proving that he’s a good rabbi, doesn’t give an answer. He turns the question back around, asks how the legal expert interprets the law, and then goes along with the response that the expert gives: love God, and love your neighbor.

But of course, the legal expert has more up his sleeve, so he pushes back on Jesus: “Ok, but who’s my neighbor?”

And again, Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer. He doesn’t offer a definition of neighbor, doesn’t clarify who is and is not included in the term, who is and who is not included in the commandment to love.

Instead, he tells a story.

The story itself has become quite familiar in our culture, even outside of the church. The term “Good Samaritan” has come to refer to an everyday person who does a good deed. This popularized term misses the point of the story in a lot of ways – it misses, for example, the ethno-religious tensions between Samaritans and Jews. For Jesus, who is Jewish, to tell a story to a Jewish religious scholar in front of a largely Jewish crowd about a Samaritan who does what two Jewish religious leaders fail to do is a radical, jarring rhetorical move.
But story content aside for a second, I want us to just pause and notice what Jesus is doing here. He offers, not a direct answer, but rather a story that is open to interpretation. And then, to conclude the story, he throws a couple more questions back at his questioner: “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

Remember what the legal expert – the theologian – had originally asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus turns the question around: “Who was a neighbor?” Who acted like a neighbor? Or, to make a verb out of it: Who in the story neighbored?

Jesus doesn’t ever really give an answer to the question or a definition of neighbor. He turns it around and makes the theoretical question into an active, lived out reality. From “Who is my neighbor?” to “How can I be a neighbor?” From “Who do we have to welcome?” to “How can we be better at welcoming?”

Over the course of these next several weeks, we’re going to be asking a lot of questions. And those of you who’ve known me for a little while won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not going to offer many easy answers. Instead, I hope we’ll live into these questions, like Jesus asks the legal expert to live into his question about the shape of neighborly love.

In the early 1900s, the Austrian poet Rainer Marie Rilke exchanged a series of letters with a younger poet who had written to him for advice. Rilke steadfastly refused to critique or offer poetry tips, but instead gave a series of reflections about the life of a poet and artist. In one letter, Rilke shared this with his young admirer:

“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”[ii]

The life of faith, as it turns out, is more like poetry than it is like being a legal expert. This pains me to say, seeing as I’ve just finished up my Masters of Divinity at Wesley Theological Seminary and thus really feel for the young, earnest theologian in today’s text — who just wants to apply some critical scholarship to this popular Jesus fella. But faith is more about living into our big questions than it is about coming up with answers. What is love? What is service? Who are the “others” who we are meant to serve? What does “welcome” look like? Who is included in this “all” that we’re supposed to welcome?

We live into these questions. We live into them, not just on a Sunday evening here in Kay Spiritual Life Center, but every day, in dorms and on the Quad and in TDR and in this city we call home for a while and in this world that is desperately, desperately in need of the kind of welcoming, other-serving, loving community that we strive to be.

Faith isn’t the same as certainty. A young legal expert learned this when he exchanged questions with Jesus, and we are in the process of living into that reality, too.

It bears repeating: Faith isn’t the same as certainty. Here in the AU United Methodist-Protestant Community, doubts and questions aren’t just ok.

They are welcome.

And so are you.

So – what do you think?

 


Notes

[i] Amy Oden. God’s Welcome: Hospitality for a Gospel-Hungry World. Pilgrim Press. 2008.

[ii] Rainer Marie Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. Merchant Books. 2012.