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“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’” Matthew 10:40

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

4A Pentecost – July 2, 2017

Heroes seem few and far between these days. I’m not sure if every generation thinks that things were better in the past, but it is hard to look around the current landscape of politics, culture, or sports, and find many candidates whom one might nominate as a hero.

Perhaps for that reason, I believe now more than ever in the importance of learning from heroic lives. It is one thing to study the abstract truths of moral and religious philosophy; but it is altogether more rewarding to see how a real, living and breathing person uses his or her talents to make the world a better or more beautiful or more just place. Which is to say we find such people ‘inspiring’ – or literally ‘filled with the Spirit’ – which is why we call them heroes or saints.

When I was a chaplain to an elementary school many years ago, I taught a fifth grade religion course that was all about “heroic lives,” a unit I entitled “Saints of Yesterday and Today.” In the course, we studied saintly lives, both past and present, and as a final project, I asked each student to select a person whose life the student found to be compelling, and to do a presentation to the class about the saint.

Little Johnny was a quiet, Catholic boy, who was new to the class and whose family came from Hawaii. Johnny came up to me after I had given the assignment, and said to me: “I’d like to do my project on Father Damien.” I had vaguely heard of Father Damien, because the Episcopal Church had at the time recently included him in our own book of saints, but I honestly didn’t know much about him. “Terrific,” I said. “I look forward to learning about Father Damien.”

“Tell me, Johnny,” I asked, “why did you pick him as your saint?” Johnny thought for a moment, and then said: “because he welcomed people who nobody else liked.”

Josef de Veuster was born in Belgium on a farm in 1840, the youngest of seven children. His childhood was uneventful, and his parents assumed he would join his siblings in taking over the family farm when he came of age. But God had other plans for little Josef. Josef was passionate about the Church even at a young age, and in his teens he joined a religious order. After his training as a novitiate, he made his vows as a priest, and then took the name Damien, after an obscure third-century Syrian saint. Josef, now Father Damien, dreamed of becoming a missionary so that he could share God’s good news with people in other parts of the world.

Well, his opportunity came in 1864 when his superiors assigned him to a mission in Hawaii. Initially, it was a pretty sweet assignment, as Father Damien served a number of parishes on the island of Oahu. But things didn’t stay idyllic for very long. One of the vexing social problems that Hawaii faced in the nineteenth century was that immigrants from Europe and Asia brought with them diseases that the native peoples on the islands had never before experienced, including leprosy. Now known as “Hansen’s Disease,” leprosy was then an incurable, highly contagious, and badly disfiguring disease.

Sadly, Hawaii’s response in the 1860s to the disease was much the same as it was in biblical times: all Hawaiians who contracted leprosy were quarantined and shipped off to the remote island of Molokai. Walled off by high mountains on all sides, a 27-square mile portion of the island of Molokai served as a natural prison for these lepers. It was a place such poor souls were sent to languish and die.

When the Catholic Church in Hawaii learned of this hard-hearted “solution” to an epidemic, its bishop felt obliged to respond. The trouble, though, was that the bishop was reluctant to compel any priest to go to Molokai since leprosy was such a lethal disease.

When Father Damien learned of the conundrum, he did what few would dare to do: he volunteered to serve as the priest to the leper colony, and there he remained for the next 16 years of his life. When he arrived, the colony was in chaos. Determined to care for those in this remote community, Father Damien worked to build houses, provide medical care, plant orchards, import cattle, raise money, and most importantly of all, treat the tragic outcasts of Molokai as human beings entitled to dignity. He also brought world-wide attention to the disease and helped to end the fear, loathing, and myths that have clung to the disease since biblical times.

Father Damien’s story is an especially dramatic embodiment of our gospel text: Jesus’ invitation to welcome. Jesus says to his disciples: Whoever welcomes another, welcomes me, and welcomes the one who sent me. To follow Jesus is to welcome.

Few of us will be given the daunting assignment that Father Damien was given, and even fewer still could answer such a call. But, happily, we needn’t be so heroic. As Jesus tells his disciples, to welcome can be as simple as giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty child. We are invited to start small.

Notice for a moment what happens when we welcome someone. To welcome another requires that we make room, by which I mean not just physical space but also time. We have to put aside our own preoccupations, our own absorption with our selves, to make room for the guest in our home and in the rhythm of our life.

But more than merely creating space and time, to welcome requires us to notice the other, to see her as she is, and to attend to her needs and desires and hopes as if they were our own. A gracious host does not impose his own wishes upon his guest, but rather selflessly listens, observes, and receives the other as she is.

And in doing that, we confer dignity on the guest. We recognize the guest as a fellow traveler along the way of life, whose story is just as important as our story, and whose dreams are every bit as worthy as our own. To welcome is to look at a stranger neither as threat nor annoyance, but rather as God looks at him or her: as precious, beloved and worthy.

Too often when we meet strangers, we treat them merely as a means toward our own ends, rather than as ends in themselves. Almost imperceptibly, we think to ourselves, how will engaging with this person benefit me or serve my interests? Or, worse still, we sometimes treat our encounters with others as an unwanted interruption to the perceived urgency of our own important business.

But what if the stranger asking for directions, or the chatty woman behind us in line at Crosbys, or the child tugging at our arm for attention, or the homeless man on the corner asking for a buck, are not annoying interruptions at all, but holy interruptions? What if this is how God works in our lives? The next time you sit down to read the gospels, I want you to notice just how many times Jesus is interrupted by others – by seemingly crazy people, sick people, prostitutes, adversaries, soldiers, children, the list goes on and on – and then, notice how Jesus responds to these ‘interruptions.’ He almost always welcomes them.

The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “What the gospels teach is that we must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with seemingly irritating claims and requests. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our own more important tasks, or we can welcome such interruptions.” “It is a strange fact,” Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “that Christians (and even ministers) frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked yet straight path’ of mysteriously connecting people, one to the other, and to Him.”

Benedictine monks always put a plaque near the entrance of their monasteries that reads: “Let all guests who arrive here be treated like Christ, for He will one day say to us, ‘I came as a guest and you received me.’” The monks want to remind themselves that when we welcome another, we are welcoming Jesus himself; and that this is especially true when we welcome the vulnerable, for Jesus came among us as the most vulnerable.

Let me add a small caution, though: To be a welcoming Christian does not mean that we should allow ourselves to be a doormat. There are times when the right way to welcome another is to gently lead him elsewhere, or to urge him to stand on his own feet, if that is what his best interests and love require. As we mature and gain wisdom, we come to appreciate the very fine but firm line between a generous welcome and enabling another; we learn to spot the unhealthy desire for dependency in others, or a misplaced longing for martyrdom in ourselves.

But that caveat aside, more often than not, to welcome means to invite another into our lives, to make time and room for the interruption of an unexpected visitor, to embrace the guest, and to allow for the mysterious possibility of deep connection between two people, once strangers, now friends.

Today, leprosy is a curable disease, thank God, and has been for nearly a century. Tragically, however, Father Damien didn’t live to see that cure. As you might have guessed, he eventually contracted the disease himself and died from it in 1889. He didn’t die alone, however. For by his side was Sister Marianne of Molokai, a young woman who, inspired by Father Damien’s example, had come to his colony to join him in welcoming the unwelcome. In the last year of his life, she alone cared for him.

Some people may look at Father Damien and Sister Marianne and think that they squandered their lives, subjecting themselves needlessly to a fatal disease. But others of us, like little Johnny, who hear Jesus’ call to welcome the most vulnerable, we know that in opening their hearts to those who were unwelcome to the rest of the world, Father Damien and Sister Marianne were in fact welcoming Christ Himself.

Amen.