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Strangers and Friends
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
March 18, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of John:
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The thing about South by Southwest is that anybody can buy a badge. That may seem obvious to you, but to me, from the outside, South By always sounded like some incredibly exclusive thing, all the fanciest people holed up having very trendy conversations that I might watch later on You Tube. But it turns out, as you probably know, that as long as you have a lot of discretionary cash lying around, South By will sell anybody a badge, or, if you’re local, like me, for a smaller amount of discretionary cash, you can buy a wristband, and they just let you in. I know this because it’s what I did with part of the quiet week here over spring break; I wandered downtown in the evenings, I got myself a wristband, I found some bands I wanted to see, I stood in a few lines, I stood in a few lines surrounded by people who looked considerably cooler than I did, mostly with people who were ten years younger than I was and much better dressed than I was and looking much more the part for whatever venue we were trying to get into, and then we’d get to the front of the line and some festival volunteer would scan by wristband and wave me in and every time I would think, “Really? Don’t know you know uncool I am?”
I mean, I get it. My money is as good as anybody’s. Not to mention that I live here. But still, it was hard to walk into a few of those rooms and feel like I fundamentally did not make any sense. Never was this more true than at about 10:30 Wednesday night when I walked into the inside stage room at Stubbs down on Red River for the NPR Music South By showcase. The big outdoor stage is programmed with high-profile acts but the inside stage is featuring some indie up-and-comers and one of them is this Gospel/Blues/Rock singer from Memphis that I really wanted to hear so now I’m in this tiny room, maybe there are 75 of us and we’ve packed it to capacity, and I stick out. I have missed some kind of black-leather-jacket memo. I have missed some kind of be-fifteen-years-younger memo. Actually there are no shortage of folks my age and look around South By but most of them are journalists with big cameras around their necks but I have missed the big-camera-around-your-neck memo. So I immediately identify myself as the most uncool person in the room, and then, I see this woman who is giving me quite a run for my money.
She’s right up front, she could touch the stage. She is dancing like her life depended on it. But there is no way that she would blend in with the crowd. Not because she’s dressed effusively — South By is so full of people who are dressed effusively that it would be hard for any one of them to stand out. No, it’s quite the contrary. This woman is probably twenty years older than me, and she’s dressed like she just came from work at University Presbyterian Church. She’s dressed in the equivalent of the outfit I just changed out of because I didn’t want to stick out too much when I got there. A very respectable blouse. Some very respectable slacks. Some very respectable spectacles. If I had seen her walk into that room and not just encountered her as I found her I would have assumed — I will confess this out loud if you will also confess it in your hearts, because you would have thought the same thing — I would have assumed that she was there looking for one of her children. But she was having the time of her life, big South By festival badge swinging around neck, because anybody can buy a badge. And then I figured I couldn’t be that far off after all. Maybe the room isn’t what I thought it was. Maybe I belong after all. That’s kind of the nice thing about the festival. All the money notwithstanding. You come as you are.
Hats off, also, to the lectionary, which cues up this story about outsiders at a festival just in time for South By weekend. As with last week’s story of Jesus cleansing the temple, the Gospel stories for this season have now shifted to events taking place during the first Holy Week itself, after Jesus and his disciples have entered Jerusalem with the crowds waving Palms and singing Hosanna. Of course one of the reasons Jesus comes to Jerusalem at this particular time is because it is the festival of Passover and Jerusalem is the place to be during Passover, the site of the Jewish temple and ground zero for Passover festivities; this is the major Jewish religious and cultural event of any given year and it takes place right here and Jews will come from all over to celebrate and pray and remember and give thanks. And then, in our text today, some Greeks show up. “Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks,” John says. They come to Philip, one of the disciples who is apparently working the door, and they say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” And then everything breaks down.
Philip doesn’t know what to do. I mean, Greek. At a Jewish festival. Whoever heard of such a thing? To be honest it’s been pretty hard for Israel to keep and maintain its cultural and religious heritage while under Roman occupation and the Greeks are just part of the problem; they are the consummate outsiders. They’re not dressed right. They don’t look right. They don’t fit in. But they show up with wristbands and now, what? Philip is dumbfounded. In the next verse John narrates a pretty good early example of church bureaucracy: “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus,” like Philip don’t know what to do with this, let’s make a committee, but Andrew’s not much more help, so they figure they’d better go to the big guy together, they go to Jesus together, it has never occurred to them that Greeks would ever want to be a part of this thing they’re a part of. It has never occurred to them that Greeks would ever be welcome at this thing they’re a part of. But Jesus has other words. “When I am lifted up,” he says. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
It is hard to feel the scandal of this in 2018, as Christianity has spread all over the world and folks from all kinds of different backgrounds have found their way to this festival looking for Jesus. Even by the time John writes his Gospel, Paul has already famously planted seeds of this Gospel throughout the Greek-speaking Gentile regions of the eastern Mediterranean. But for these disciples, this is earth-shattering. They have thought from the first moment that they were part of a story about a Jewish Messiah. All of a sudden they’re part of something much different, a story about a Messiah who draws all people. So these Greeks aren’t just going to be those visitors who look like visitors and act like visitors and even if you invite them in they’ll keep on being visitors. These Greeks are going to have just a big a part in this story as anybody else. That’s what makes this so shocking, so revealing, so difficult for these hard-fought disciples. Because being welcoming, and being hospitable, doing it right means opening yourself to change. And that’s never easy.
All of which means this is very much a story for the church. After all, churches love talking about hospitality. We love talking about hospitality. We love talking about hospitality because we love church and we want to show off all the things about church that we love. We love talking about hospitality because we’d love to put a few more seats in pews on Sunday morning. We love talking about hospitality because it sounds like the easiest kind of Christian discipline: stand here, do your thing, put up a nice-looking sign and a friendly website, maybe get some baked goods, and be welcoming. Anybody can do it. It’s so easy. Except that it’s not. Not really. Because the dirty truth about church hospitality is that most of the time we’re only interested in welcoming people who seem like they won’t change the story. The people who dress like us. The people who act like us. The people who look like they’ve come to the same festival we’ve come to. We like our story. We like our story so much we want to share it with everybody. We just don’t want to change it. But real hospitality is change. Real hospitality changes who we are. We become who we welcome. Philip and Andrew know it. That’s why they freak out.
I have mentioned to you before the little congregation of Slackwood Presbyterian Church, this curious part of the body of Christ just outside of Trenton, New Jersey, where I interned for a year during seminary. Slackwood was founded back at the turn of the last century by an enclave of Scots who had marked out a bit of the Trenton outskirts, but the area was quickly overtaken by Italian immigrants and then later by Mexican ones, and since both of those groups brought their Catholicism with them, our little Presbyterian friends hadn’t had much luck with community evangelism. By time I showed up, what remained of the Scottish enclave of Slackwood was really just a few families living in the homes their grandparents had settled and celebrating Robbie Burns night with a very particular zeal. To be honest, I’m not sure what the long-term strategy for that congregation was at that point in time; they weren’t far enough away from the big program-sized Presbyterian Church one town over, and most of the folks living round them were well-churched in other traditions. The whole time I was there, I think Slackwood was just bobbing along for the sake of bobbing along.
But then a thing happened. One Sunday, a woman showed up that nobody had seen before, let’s call her Margaret. It was immediately obvious that Margaret needed a bit of extra help. Margaret had some cognitive impairment; not to mention that Margaret also didn’t come with any baked-in understanding of Presbyterian worship; Margaret didn’t pray at the same speed as anybody else or sing at the same register as anybody else.
To be blunt, Margaret was a disruption. Margaret would have changed the rhythms of a congregation the size of UPC and you can only imagine how much she changed the rhythms at Slackwood where fifteen or twenty on a Sunday morning was par for the course. At which point, of course, Slackwood had two choices. The first choice is easy. You just don’t do anything. You say hello, of course, you can greet Margaret in the name of Christ, but you don’t do anything fundamental; you just keep on being yourself, and eventually Margaret will discover that she doesn’t really blend in and honestly I’d give you really good odds that Margaret won’t show up for long.
Fortunately, Slackwood did the other thing. They discovered that Margaret had walked to church that morning from a building down the street that nobody had paid much attention to before — a low-income apartment complex that had become a favorite spot for folks who were under the care of Trenton’s mental health umbrella. It was a whole building of folks who sometimes needed a bit of extra help. And so Slackwood decided they would throw a party. Actually one elder at Slackwood decided they would throw a party. A festival, in their backyard, a block party, and they would invite the whole building. They were going to welcome everybody in that building, anybody who would come, in the name of Christ. It was, on its face, an experiment. It was entirely possible that nobody would come, which, in some ways, is the easiest outcome. But the other thing happened. Everybody came.
Everybody came to the party. You throw a party and you’ve never quite sure who’s going to show up but in this case everybody came. And then a bunch of them came to church. And then a bunch of them came back. And that sounds like an amazing outcome but the point of the story is that this is where the work actually starts. Because now all of a sudden Slackwood was no longer a church of Scottish immigrants and their grandchildren. Now all of a sudden Slackwood was no longer defined by its old roots in Presbyterian liturgy and old-world practice. When you worship with 20 on a Sunday morning it does not take many new faces to totally upset the fabric of the congregation and many new faces is exactly what they got. Today Slackwood is a thriving church, but it is not the church it was. The old life has gone. A new life has begun. Because of the hard work of hospitality. The faithful work. The Christian work. Hospitality which is an offering not just of food and drink but an offering of self. An offering of identity. An offering that says you are as much a part of this family as I am. We are children of God together. You matter here, at least as much as I do. Because when Christ is lifted up, he gathers all people to himself.
After all, that’s where this story goes, in the end. It was never really first about us. It was never really first about us opening our doors and opening ourselves. First, it was about Jesus Christ who welcomed strangers and outcasts, who broke bread with sinners, who became human so that he could welcome us into the love and grace of God. We become who we welcome. But this party has been his the whole time. It never belonged to us. It never will belong to us. But you’ve got a badge. And I’ve got a badge. And everybody gets a badge. And we are all welcome at the feast of God’s love. And we are all welcome at table of God’s mercy. And we are all welcome at the festival of God’s grace. And we will not all be dressed the same, but trust on me on this. Because I was standing in the inside room at Stubbs listening to the NPR showcase, watching this very respectable-looking woman stand out like a sore thumb and work the dance floor like she owned the place. And then the song ended. And then the set ended. And then this woman, much to my horror, gets up on stage. And then she takes the microphone. And then, on behalf of the local NPR affiliate that she works for, she thanked the artist and thanked us. And then it all made sense.
It was her party all along. She did own the place. And I was so glad to be her guest, thanks be to God.