“Making Room” 03/17/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

March 17

“Making Space”

Matthew 18:1-9

               The news of the shooting of our brothers and sisters while they were at prayer in those New Zealand Mosques on Friday was shattering.  We know what it is to pray together in the sanctuary of sacred space.  We know how tender and transcendent such a time can be.  To have such a moment torn apart by gunfire is horrific.

               Shaken by this explosion of hate, I have found heightened importance and urgency in our Gospel passage for today.  I hear in it more than a call to get in touch with our inner child.  I hear in it more than the call to cultivate a practice of humility.  I hear in it something even deeper still.  I hear in it a call to hospitality, to a way of being with each other and in the world that stands in sharp contrast to the dominant and prevailing social norms.  A way of not just making space for each other but of filling that space with reverence so that the transformative holiness of encounter may emerge and so that we may find ourselves on the very threshold of the kingdom of God.

So let us pray. Holy God, seeker of the lost and healer of the broken hearted, enter into the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts so that we may enter more fully into your presence.  For you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

               It had been a long day, the last stretch of which called for a long winding uphill walk to a little town nestled on a ridge.  When we turned that last bend and saw the alberge, (the hostel), at last within reach, we could not get there soon enough.

               Pushing open the heavy wooden door and ducking under the massive lintel we entered a warm room that smelled like something delicious was being prepared.  We were greeted by our David, our Host David who could not cross the room fast enough to receive us. “Bienvenido, Entre, Entre, Bienvenido Peregrinos!”  In the warmth of his welcome, Backpacks slipped from tired shoulders, boots were unlaced then placed on the rack by the door.  Tired hands released walking sticks that found a home in a large upright basket by the door. 

               David then took us upstairs to our bunks.  He showed us the showers and said that once we had cleaned up and had rested to come down for some hot soup.

               Later, clean and rested, I descended the steps from the dormitory into the warmth of the crowded community dining room.  As I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude – gratitude for having been received so warmly and tended to with such love and generosity.  And at the same time, I felt a bit bewildered.  I had not experienced anything like this before and at some level, it did not make sense to me.  This lovely soul David did not know me at all.  Nor did the others.  And yet gathered around tables of steaming garlic soup, they seemed genuinely delighted to see me as they beaconed me over to a free chair as if I were an old friend that had suddenly stopped by. 

               As I pulled up the chair and tucked into a big bowl of steaming soup I wondered at it all.  Why such a warm welcome of me?  Me, clearly an American, from far away, living a different reality and speaking a different language and yet they welcomed me. They welcomed me as if I were the prodigal daughter returning.  And as I shared in the meal and the conversation, healing began to happen.  It was as if something deep inside me was being lovingly coxed out of hiding. 


               We don’t know who asks the question in our Gospel passage this morning. Perhaps because “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” was the question all of them were asking.   This Jesus movement is clearly starting to build steam and the disciples have been talking amongst themselves about who do they think is going to get which position in the cabinet when Jesus come into his administration.  The question bristles with privilege and power.

               They know what kingdoms look like and the power they wield.  They remember the time when King David reigned and how ever since then, for generations and generations, they have been oppressed by foreign rulers and the rules of foreign kingdoms.  They long for a time when they will get to set the agenda and dictate what is and is not to be. 

               And it looks like that time is coming.  For this Rabbi Jesus is drawing huge crowds and is performing great acts of power.  They are convinced it will not be long now.  And so they have been debating among themselves how it is going to play out for them.  Surely when Jesus comes into power they too will take up their place, but that means they too will be ranked by status and importance. So the question – Who is the greatest? 

               Their question reveals that even several years into their ministry with Jesus, the disciples have not really internalized who Jesus is and what following him is all about.  Now before we succumb to any temptation to shake our heads at how much these disciples seem to be missing the mark, let us take a good hard look at the prevailing power structures and status markers of our day.  Just this week we learned the lengths to which some will go to get their child into a “top notch college” so that they will have a shot of being the greatest. 


“Who is the greatest Jesus?”

               With the question hanging in the air, Jesus looks beyond those crowding around him, and motions to a child over on the edge of the gathering, a child who had been peeking out from behind her mother’s skirt.  Jesus must have smiled the warmest of smiles and his eyes must have held her with pure delight for that little one makes her way through parting crowd and over to Jesus’ side.  Turning to the rest, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

               The disciples are vying for the corner office but Jesus has left that power structure all together.   For you see, in the first century, life did not revolve around children in the way that it can tend to do today.  Instead at that time, the child was on the margins, close to the edge.   Children were certainly loved and cared for I am sure. Parents are parents across the ages, but in the social structures of that day and given high child mortality rates, being young was risky and fragile and rather precarious. Children were loved but they were not the priority.  In their weakness, they occupied a marginal space, shared with the widow and the infirm.  They were certainly deserving of our pity and care but they were low down on the greatness scale.

               What Jesus is doing here is turning upside down the social constructions and expectations of the day.  And in that lies the good news.  For the kingdom of heaven cannot simply replace our world view.  It must, I believe, completely transform it.  

               For that reason, Jesus challenges his disciples to become like this child.  To humble themselves.  This means doing the good work of becoming right sized again.  For the disciples it may mean the need to dial down from an overly grand sense of self-worth and importance.  But for others of us, humbling ourselves may mean dialing it up a bit. To come out of hiding and to discover that we really do deserve a place at the table. 


               Fr. Gregory Boyle in his book “Tattoos on the Heart” shares a story about his work a gang intervention program in a rough neighborhood of Los Angeles.   He tells of sitting in his office rushing to get some work done.  He has 15 minutes before a 1:00 baptism when a woman named Carmen comes into and sits down heavily in a chair by the door.  Carmen was well known on the streets.  She a heroin addict, a gang member, street person, and occasional prostitute.  And now I am reading from the text “With now just seven minutes before the Baptism, Carmen begins “I need help.”  “I went to Catholic school all my life.  Fact, I graduated from high school even. Fact, right after graduation, is when I started to use heroin.”  Carmen enters some kind of trance at this point, and her speech slows to deliberate and halting.  “And I have been trying to … Stop… the moment I began.”  Then I watch as Carmen tilts her head back until it meets the wall.  She stares at the ceiling, and in an instant her eyes become these two ponds, water rising to meet their edges, swollen banks spilling over.  Then, for the first time she really looks at me, and straightened.

“I … am… a … .disgrace.”

Suddenly, her shame meets mine.  For when Carmen walked through that door.  I had mistaken her for an interruption. (p. 42).


               When we become no more and no less that who God created us to be, there is more space to really see and behold others.  This is where the reverence that begets hospitality begins. 

               The kingdom of God is revealed not just when we become right sized again but when we can dwell with each other in what Martin Buber calls an “I-Thou” way of being.  Where you are not object to my subject nor I object to your subject, but instead where there is mutual vulnerability in the reverential embracing of seeing and honoring. 

               To share in a reverent space of hospitality is to reveal the kingdom of heaven amongst us.   In such a space there is no one is greater than another.  In such a space, there are no power dynamic.  Hospitality is a sacred meeting place of equals where by God’s grace, healing and transformation may arise.  Hospitality is the birthplace of a new humanity.  

               So as we continue our Lenten journey I would like to ask us to consider three key questions. 

               The first, what would it look like to extend this kind of reverential hospitality to ourselves.  What would it look like to make space inside of our souls for the pain, and hurt and whatever else may be keeping us small to come out from its hiding.  Or to do the good work of coming down to size by dialing back the arrogance of ego. 

               Second, what could it look like to extend this kind of reverential hospitality to each other here in this church community?  What would it look like to really dismantle the hierarchy of worth and status and come to see each other as I – and Thou in a mutuality of giving and receiving?  Could this place come to be a revelation of a new way of being.  A way of being grounded in the transformative love and communion of Christ?

               And what then, as practitioners of such hospitality could we be called to offer to our larger community and world?  We are heartbroken at the violence in Christchurch this week but we also need to be aware hate is in our own back yard as anti-Semitism fliers were found is several location throughout Newton just this past January and according to the Atlantic we live in or right next door to one of the most intolerant counties in all of the United States. [1] 


               That amazing alberge that I was given the grace of stumbling into after that long day on the camino was not unique.  Over and over again on that 500 mile pilgrimage, I found welcome and in welcomes’ embrace I found healing.  And it is no surprise really that I did.  You see these alberges are part of an ancient tradition of welcoming  in the stranger and tending to his or her need because it was believed that in doing so one was welcoming the Christ.  It should also come as no surprise that these alberges where often housed within churches and monasteries and were the first hospitals, houses of healing.  May it be so for this space as well and all who enter in!  Amen

[1]  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/03/us-counties-vary-their-degree-partisan-prejudice/583072/