NYE Reflection #2: Extending Extravagant Welcome
You just heard from Carissa Yinmed, a high school student from Wailuku, Maui, in Hawai’i. Carissa shared her experiences as an outsider who at the age of ten, left her Micronesian community of Yap for Hawai’i. Carissa was one of the featured speakers at the National Youth Event at Purdue University, during the day themed “extravagant welcome.” Carissa talked about her struggles and the isolation she felt when she was not accepted by others, simply because she spoke another language or practiced different customs. She also shared her gratefulness for the tutors from her church who smoothed the way for her immersion into her new culture and new school experience. “Christ’s extravagant welcome brings us all together as one family even when no one looks like anyone else,” she said. “That welcome breaks down the barriers of race, color, sexual orientation, everything.” Carissa finished with a challenge, encouraging all of us present to remember the welcome that we have received, and to strive to offer that welcome to others. “God extends that welcome through us,” she said. “I will do it, will you?”
Carissa’s experiences and her spoken challenge to us shine light on an important truth for people of all faiths: hospitality is important. No matter what culture we come from, or where we live, hospitality is important. We all want to feel welcomed, don’t we? If someone invites you over to her house, you hope that when you walk in the door, your host will make you feel comfortable and welcome. If you host a dinner at your house, certainly you want your guests to feel that they matter and that you truly want them to be there in your home. We do all sorts of things to make people feel welcome. Sometimes it’s as simple as preparing great food and sharing it. Other times it could mean asking someone beforehand if they have any dietary restrictions. Or perhaps you greet them at the front door, take their coats, offer them something to drink. Hospitality extends beyond our homes, too. Schools and organizations make their buildings accessible to those with special needs. Teachers and administrators wear name badges. Some monitor the hallways and help anyone who gets lost. Hospitality can take many forms. But in every case, in order to truly be hospitable, one has to be intentional about it. We cannot be hospitable to someone unless we do something that helps them feel welcome, as Carissa shared. Hospitality requires work and even risk-taking sometimes.
Of course, the other question about hospitality is: to whom do we extend our welcome? Is hospitality limited to our family and close friends, those we share commonalities with and are used to? That is safe hospitality, for sure. But what about those who are different? What about welcoming someone who looks and acts totally different than we do? What about people who speak other languages, eat different foods, have different customs? A few weeks ago, I was co-leading a day of interfaith learning for 25 gifted HS students from around the world. They were Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, and Catholics. Part of our day was eating lunch together. Tricky. There were lots of scenarios we had to consider. It wasn’t as simple as just ordering a hoagies tray. We had to be sure that the food was kosher or halal and also that any meat was not on the same plate as vegetables. It wasn’t easy. It was work. It was more complicated to show our hospitality. We did figure it out, eventually. We were able to find a pizza place that actually followed both kosher, halal, and strict vegetarian guidelines. The way they made the dough, the kinds of vegetables and cheese—it was all acceptable. So what happened? A tricky moment became a great one. 25 high school students, as they are known to do around the world, ate to their heart’s content and got to know each other better. The pizzas disappeared. They felt welcomed.
Our story today in John is all about hospitality and welcome. We actually get two stories in this passage: the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. Remember that John, the 4th Gospel, is very different from the other three [called Synoptic Gospels], Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John often borrows from the others, but some of John’s storytelling details are different; or nuanced. And the order of events is often different. Each Gospel has its purpose for telling the story a bit differently. Today we will focus on just the story of the feeding of the 5000, which does in fact appear in all four Gospels. Many of the details are the same in all four: 5000 people always get fed, there are always 5 loaves of bread and two fish from the start, and there are 12 baskets of leftovers.
But John’s story differs thematically: in John, Jesus initiates the concern about feeding the crowd—not the disciples. The story begins with Jesus on a mountain just like Moses and Elijah before him. He comes down from the mountain with a great idea. And like many of his great ideas, it starts with a question. Jesus says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It was a test, because again, Jesus already had his great idea. Philip, like most people, could only think in dollars and cents. Feed all these people? No way.
Then another disciple, Andrew, spots the boy. He’s got barley loaves—the poorest quality of bread. Two fishes. The disciples saw the low numbers of food and the high number of people. No chance for this to turn out well. But Jesus saw things differently. Let’s rewind a bit in John’s Gospel to chapter 4. Jesus urged the disciples to “look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:35). They had been in Samaritan territory and the Samaritans were now coming to Jesus. Fill in the word Samaritan with any group of people that is hated, gets their stores vandalized, or their good name walked all over. Jesus was asking the disciples to look past what they normally saw to see Samaritans who were coming over to follow Jesus.
And here again in chapter 6, Jesus “looked”–or “lifted up the eyes”–“and saw that a great crowd was coming to him.”
So our first lesson in extravagant welcome is to look up and see people—to look at them in the eye, to not ignore them, to see them as human beings—people like us with the same needs and hopes. Of course, we cannot overlook another detail in this story. A child is the one with the food to feed everybody. The kid is the hero. And the kid shares. My experience for the entire week of NYE was so positive because of what I saw the youth doing, saying, and living out. We’re usually taught from the time that we are young that we ought to share—our toys, our food, our time. But then kids grow up and are often taught the opposite. I bet if we paid more attention to the children and youth around us, we just might realize that extending extravagant welcome means sharing what we have with others.
The details continue to lead us on this path. Look at where they were. It’s a place full of grass, says the story, reminiscent of the image of Psalm 23—perhaps a field, a safe, nice place where people can be together, a welcome place. Besides, Jesus made it clear that this was not some sort of drive-thru fast food experience. Recline, he told the crowds. Stay a while. And they did stay—maybe 5000 people? We could play around with this number’s significance, I suppose. 5000 people gathered in one place appears like a Roman legion or a military force, girding up for battle. But this was an alternative gathering, a beloved community of people of all sorts. This community gathered to be fed, cared for, and welcomed. John’s Gospel continues to draw us in with ties to what we call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Jesus took the food items, gave thanks, and then gave them. The people received as much as they wanted and were satisfied. They were made whole. And a wonderful detail at the end: Jesus told the disciples to gather the fragments of what was left over. Nothing and no one would be lost or left behind.
In John’s version of this story, the event is uniquely called a sign. It’s a miracle of community. The sign of this community points us to the miracle of God’s extravagant welcome. Jesus feeds this crowd simply because they are there. Jesus is a good host who shows hospitality to those who have come to visit him. He not only provides food, but he also serves the crowd himself. By doing this, he teaches his disciples (and us) an important lesson. As I mentioned before, there is hospitality far beyond what our societies and cultures define as welcoming others. The hospitality of God’s grace welcomes all people wherever they are. As followers of this Jesus the Great Host, we are called to welcome all whom we meet as an honored guest, as a child of God.
This is the sign of a welcoming community. We don’t focus on how the world defines people. We care less about where they went to school, grew up, what language they speak, the clothes they wear; it doesn’t matter if they are straight or gay or lesbian or bisexual or whatever; it doesn’t matter if they are rich, poor, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, agnostic or atheist. If we follow the call of Christ to this radical welcome, our purpose clearly is to show all people love and compassion. We look up and see them in the world, and we welcome them. We share. We eat together. We are made whole. I want to allow someone else to close this sermon. Miah Noel Yager, a recent HS graduate, a young person with Down’s syndrome, brought down the house at NYE. It’s hard to describe just how much her speech moved us. And it was a sign of blessed community, because as she spoke, often she struggled to get the words out. And then something miraculous happened. The youth among the 2500+ in the crowd shouted out encouragement to her. They cheered and applauded. And as you will see in this clip, towards the end of her speech, Miah was overwhelmed by this hospitality.