Thirteen Sunday of the Year June 28, 2020
A number of themes emerge from this week’s readings. A common thread is of God’s continuous care, presence and protection. Paul reminds us that we are called to embrace a life founded in ‘righteousness’.
For Jesus, this is life lived and expressed in receiving, welcoming, and providing hospitality especially the least. God’s hospitality towards us, and ours for one another, defines ‘righteousness’. It is summed up in the statement: 'The person receiving (welcoming) you receives me and the one receiving me receives the one who sent me.' It is a call we all share in. We have the capacity to heal and restore as well as disrupt and provoke. The ‘good news’ is disruptive because it reorders relationship and calls for greater inclusivity. We are challenged to intervene on behalf of people sacrificed on the altars of ignorance, legalism and fear-based religion. An example of this was in an article titled ‘The destructive blindness of #Blacklivesmatter’ (Dr Kevin Donnelly The Catholic Weekly June 10, 2020 https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/the-destructive-blindness-of-blacklivesmatter/). Black deaths in custody in Australia was minimized and US police officers chided for taking the knee in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter protestors. Unacknowledged was the the police officer who ‘took the knee’ on the throat of a black man and killing him, an action the symbolised the treatment of black people and people of colour for centuries whether former slaves, Indigenous people in Australia and the peoples of Latin America and Africa. What was not articulated was the white fragility many feel when confronted with white privilege.
We are called to speak truth to those who proclaim the status quo and say that nothing needs to change or can change or who refuse to take responsibility for the privileges resulting from past injustices such as colonisation and slavery. Yes, in Australia too! Our hospitality must extend to those who have suffered and continue to suffer. I believe that hospitality begins by making space for others so that they can share. It is about listening. They must become part of the conversation. We can also express hospitality by refusing to engage in stereotyping, pre-judging and rejecting people in speech and action and being willing to listen, understand and welcome the other. This attitude includes refusing to engage in attitudes of exceptionalism, of being above or better than others.
Some years ago, in a late Sunday night radio program, a young 23 year old student (Andrew Forsthoefel) shared about an incredible journey he took in 2011. Before the program was over I had already bought the Kindle version of his book Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time. He had set off with books by Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke and Kahlil Gibran, and an eagerness to listen by walking 4000 miles across the USA with a sign attached to his backpack: ‘Walking to listen’. This reflective journey contained many heartfelt encounters with some people threatening but also with strangers who had in different ways opened their homes to him. He met widowers, waitresses, ranchers, veterans, religious leaders, mystics, glass blowers, delusional walkers, firefighters, Navajo drummers, artists, new fathers, and families who shared various perspectives on their lives. His hospitality of listening resulted in receiving hospitality such as food, lodging, and a hospitality of the heart. Beneath the suffering he encountered in people he discovered a new reality - a deeper presence in them and in himself. This may be the prophet’s reward in Matthew’s Gospel today. In a word, it is by going again and again to the peripheries and finding in face to face people, as Pope Francis often reminds us, the heart or centre of our mission. We discover a deeper presence in our lives and in the lives of others.
Where we draw a dead end, God breaks through offering life and a new beginning. Baptism, our rising and dying, is not a once and for all experience. We face many deaths daily: dying to our narrow vision or narrow-mindedness; our white privilege and exceptionalism; broadening our tent pegs that includes more and more people; and, opening our hearts and minds to Jesus' way of seeing others. This is certainly a challenge to Christians at present before #BlackLivesMatter and the Covid-19 pandemic.
We know what happens when the gospel is taken seriously. Even the police officers who took the knee in solidarity with protestors showed not just where they stood but where they would ‘sit’ and who they would ‘sit with.’ It was a rebuke to power and injustice and meeting face to face with people. Jesus saw that when a person's analysis of relationship changes, the world is turned upside down and one opts for new birth to a new society. Yet, many will be unable to handle the shocking rejection of the old and the frightening embrace of the new.
Matthew continues to emphasise Jesus' love, the Reign of God, over all else-including personal comfort and safety. In God’s Reign, this way of being in the world (in solidarity with all, even at the cost of one's own life) cannot co-exist with the ‘normal’ way of doing business – whether in business or leadership. This can be crucifiable language, but the sacredness of God's will is above the most wide-ranging of social arrangements. The seemingly benign ‘option for the poor’ questions the basic way we negotiate and order the world. By choosing the sick and demon-possessed, Jesus moved them from the ones most judged to that of judge. Without any disclaimers, Jesus warns that the way one responds to his mediators will testify to the way one receive him. The ‘reward’ received is a by-product of one's receptivity to those people and situations that represent the good news of Jesus. Hospitality was a matter of life and death. It was one of the chief responsibilities of a caring and God-like people. The stranger, the outsider and the traveler - anyone outside of his own territory - was to be regarded as a person in need of special care. [Cf. Lev 19:33-34].
In politics there is the view that once people get scared, they need to be kept scared. The spiral of fear is an old psychological trap. When fear hits us, our desire for security becomes more obsessive and our natural sense of freedom and justice wanes. Symbolically, we stay at home. These fears are open to exploitation by politicians and sometimes churchmen [there are no women] who sniff the power they can have if those fears can be reinforced whilst appearing to allay them. What better way to address those fears than by demonising certain groups of people: Middle Eastern people threaten our security; gay and lesbian people threaten family values; and the list goes on. But today’s message is to trust in God’s love and welcome to us. And to embody that in our reaching out to those on the margins of society as well as those on the margins in our families and communities. Death to sin is death to selfishness, is death to our inability to welcome others.
When we think about encountering Christ in human form, most often we think of Matthew 25:31–46, in which the Son of Man appears as ‘the least of these.’ But, in Matthew 10 Jesus also appears as a disciple empowered to go forth: ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.’ He is speaking to each of us. As well as being visible in others, we can also see him in us as if looking back at us in a mirror. It is our privilege and our responsibility to make Christ visible. Jesus cannot be welcomed if we stay at home and never encounter strangers. The divisions in church and society have made us strangers. The call is to bring God with us when we cross the thresholds of division and the unfamiliar. It has been particularly interesting especially in public places to encounter complete strangers during the Covid-19 pandemic and find connection in various ways. But it does take initiative and allow ourselves to go beyond the daily routine to encounter in the other especially overcoming fear of the other because of the pandemic. Hospitality reminds us to live our Christian call to turn outwards, to reach out, to love our neighbor whoever that might be. It reminds us to encounter and receive Jesus in our lives through the other, known or unknown, alike or different, in a new way. Sister Joan Chittister says, ‘Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.’
Despite the sense of dislocation at the moment, a new reality could be emerging. This is not to downplay the gravity of the moment where people are dying, losing their jobs, families losing their businesses, people wandering in unsafe places and ways. We have seen and acknowledged so many people who have reached out and touched complete strangers during the pandemic: health care professionals and ancillary staff; public transport workers, and so many more. Many of these have been taken for granted. For once they have been ‘welcomed’ by showing a human face to others. In the new reality, could it be that we will not just welcome people from places of power but looking at being welcomed or not welcomed at the front lines of the neighborhoods where people live?
Fr Claude Mostowik msc