Matthew 10: 40-42
I read an article in the newspaper last week that warmed my heart, and it got me to thinking that we Christians may actually do some things right. The writer, a man named Peter from suburban Rochester, New York, was bothered by the fact that the bonds of neighbors or the notion of a tight-knit community is almost non-existent in this day and time. He writes, “There’s talk today about how as a society we’ve become fragmented by ethnicity, income, city versus suburb, red state versus blue. But we also divide ourselves with invisible dotted lines. I’m talking about the property lines that isolate us from the people we are physically closest to: our neighbors.” End quote.
The impetus for Peter’s reevaluation of what it means to be one’s neighbor was a tragic murder/suicide that took place within one of the families on his block. He described how this couple had lived on his street for seven years, and how he and his wife hardly knew them, even though their children would share carpool. He went on to say that a few neighbors attended the funerals and called on their relatives. Someone even laid a single bunch of yellow flowers at the family’s front door, but nothing else was done to mark the loss. The only indication that anything had changed was the “For Sale” sign on the lawn. This calamity forced him to ask these questions: “Did he live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate? Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, but we often don’t know the people who live next door?”
Peter began a quest to get to know the people whose houses he passed each day—not just what they did for a living and how many children they had, but the depth of their experience and what kind of people they were. So at the age of 50 and feeling nostalgic for the childhood ritual in which intimacy and friendship mean a sleepover he did a pretty crazy thing. He telephoned his neighbors, sent e-mail messages; and in some cases, he just walked up to the door and rang the bell and asked if he could come and spend the night, yes, you heard me, have a sleepover. The first neighbor turned him down, but then he called on an older gentleman, named Lou, who had recently lost his wife of 52 years. Lou’s grown children were scattered across the country so he welcomed Peter’s company. Needlesstosay, the two men became buddies and confidants and remained friends until Lou’s death this past spring.
Remarkably, of the 18 or so neighbors Peter approached about sleeping over, more than half said yes. He described the recently married young couple, both working in business; the real estate agent and her two small children; the pathologist married to a pediatrician who specializes in autism. Eventually, he met a woman living three doors away, the opposite direction from Lou, who was seriously ill with breast cancer and in need of help. He writes, “My goal shifted: I thought, could we build a supportive community around her — in effect, patch together a real neighborhood? Lou and I and some of the other neighbors ended up taking turns driving her to doctors’ appointments and watching her children.”i
Like this story, the last three verses of Matthew 10 are about the power of an extravagant welcome. A welcome based on taking a chance on the inherent goodness of God’s creation and humanity. Peter’s quest was a powerful gesture of mutual hospitality. It means, “I want to get to know you and love you just as God does.” “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (vs. 41). And the person at the door responds, “I’ll let you in because this is what God wants me to do.” “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (vs. 42). It is also a sense of hospitality that says we really are in this life together. No life exists on its own. We share the same air, drink the same water, and walk on the same earth. We live together in one history, all part of one story, and we will finish history in each other’s company. “Whoever gives even cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (vs. 42).
Earlier in the chapter we see Jesus sending out his disciples to preach and heal. He warns them that they will be rejected in some places but welcomed in others. This means that their welcome must be extravagant in sincerity and persistent in order to overcome opposition to it. But is also means those who cross paths with God’s emissaries must be willing to open their hearts and minds to receive a freely given gift of God’s grace and trust that there are no strings attached. The neighborhood that Peter and Lou patched together to take care of one another was a community birthed from this sense of hospitality. This is what I mean when I say we Christians usually get this part right.
Just this week, I had made arrangements to visit and pray with a parishioner and her family at home after her recent surgery. Her husband called me to postpone because they were inundated with visits from neighbors bearing food and prayers–neighbors who also happened to be parishioners. We are trustworthy messengers—apostles, prophets, righteous persons and children.
At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, at this very minute, we can be on the way to the peaceable kingdom. The way into it is simply to live in awareness of God’s presence dwelling in those who barely touch our lives and in those who are consume our lives. We are not forced to love. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation we can accept or decline. Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’ (verse 40). His words mean that those who risk welcoming the Apostles will also welcome Jesus and his Father and one will find a reward in that hospitality. God’s presence is always and forever available to us in and through Jesus. The only requirement is that we open our hearts.
The kingdom will also receive us, Jesus says, because we are willing to respond to others as if they are him. The duty of faith, the sign of membership in the kingdom of God, is that we make the world around us more Godly by trying to pull other people through. We are saved because we are willing to care for the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. We are saved because we care for unattractive strangers, anonymous neighbors, annoying relatives, even those who threaten us. We are saved because we allow the mercy of God to enter our lives and pass through into another’s life through gestures of hospitality, great and small. The more extravagant the welcome, the greater the refreshment, the deeper the grounding, the clearer the enlightenment. The more extravagant the welcome, the stronger the inspiration to believe that life is good. Amen.
 Peter Lovenheim, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” OP-ED, The New York Times, June 23, 2008, p. A25.