On this weekend that people in this country prepare for the national holiday, Independence Day, I’d like to reflect on the following question: what makes an American, or to be more precise, a U.S. American? Is it the passport? Is it the pledge to uphold the constitution and follow the law? Is it the allegiance to the flag? Is it the will to fight for democracy and freedom for all? Is it a zealous patriotism? Is it shared culture? Is it a joint language? Is it a certain skin color? A certain heritage? A certain religion?
One would think it’s an easy answer. Anyone who is born to a U.S. citizen, anyone who is born here to parents who are legally in this country, and everyone who is, after due process, naturalized is, per constitution and law, a U.S. citizen. The background theoretically doesn’t matter: ‘E pluribus unum’, ‘out of many, one’, we probably have all heard this motto, which was first coined during the American Revolution in 1776 and ever since has been part of the Great Seal of the United States; this motto seems to emphasize that many, and by implication many different entities, can indeed become one.
But then we also know that the U.S. has always struggled with the real and practical implications of this motto. Even in the land of the free, some are more equal than others, and that there are disputes going on – and have been since the founding of this country – what makes a real American. At different times, there have always been those groups of people who were suspicious, rejected and discriminated against: the Irish, the Chinese, the Germans, the Japanese, and today the Mexicans and people from predominantly Muslim countries. And throughout U.S. history, African Americans have had to fight to be accepted as equal citizens of this country.
Let me tell you that, even after 20 years in this country, I am utterly confused about the discussion what a ‘real’ American looks like. Isn’t this the country that is founded on immigration and has always benefited from immigration and the amazing diversity of people? Wasn’t this country originally founded on the principle that people of any background, socio-economic status and religious belief would find a safe place to live here? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” So we read at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Why do certain groups feel threatened when a group of people that may look different or have a different background, language, culture or sexual expression pursues the same dreams, the same goals, as anyone else?
Why do we have the notion in this country that some folks are somehow more American than others? What makes it so hard for many human beings to be truly welcoming those and accepting those who either are quite different or are perceived to be different from the norm, whatever that is?
In today’s gospel story, Jesus has some very clear words about welcome , about offering hospitality and acceptance. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. This may sound simple enough, but, as so often with the words of Jesus, it isn’t. Jesus lived in a time and society when national and religious identity were very strong. In fact, in Jesus’ days and in his environment, the idea of the human being as an individual was foreign. Everyone was defined and identified by the groups they belonged to: family, tribe, religion, region, social status, profession. Take a person out of their social context, and they are basically nothing. Of course this concept is rather foreign to us today, since it’s all about individualism in our times and our part of the world – to the extreme that some can’t forego their ego for the sake of something greater, like an office they hold, like the welfare and commonwealth of all.
But back to Jesus’ environment. The Jewish society was very structured, and there were very clear ideas about who belongs – and who doesn’t. That’s why the Roman occupiers and those who collaborated with them were so despised. Certain people were just not welcomed into a proper Jewish household, the temple or synagogues: strangers, non-believers, those who were declared unclean – be it because of a physical or mental illness, or, for women, if they were menstruating or had just given birth – sinners. On the flipside, a pious Jew would not enter the house of someone considered improper.
But Jesus, ever so subtly, turns the tables. Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. And maybe the most important word in here is ‘whoever’. It doesn’t matter who it is. The welcome itself is the essential thing here, it is not important who extends the welcome. Jesus sends his followers out into the world, teaching them to be open and to not discriminate. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. That’s quite revolutionary for Jesus’ days. Jesus calls his followers to overcome prejudices and preconceived notions of people’s worthiness. And, just as a footnote, this revolutionary idea helped the apostles who went out after Christ’s death and resurrection spread the word in all the known world. The entered the houses of Roman citizens, of pagans, of women, they mingled with slaves of all kinds – and spread the kingdom of God.
Whoever welcomed them welcomed Christ, welcomed God. On the flipside is not only about being welcomed, but also about being welcoming. ‘And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones’ – meaning the lowly ones, the vulnerable ones, the despised – ‘in the name of a disciple – truly, I tell you, none of these will lose their reward’. As followers of Christ, we are called to not discriminate to whom we extend hospitality – for even and maybe especially in the little ones, we encounter God.
Jesus really started something here – a movement that was all about indiscriminate welcome, be it on the giving or the receiving side. And the Christian movement thus quickly became a truly catholic, which means all-encompassing, movement, a movement where nationality and background and gender and socio-economic status and language and skin color and a previous religiosity didn’t matter. E pluribus unum. All were – and still are – made one in Christ, through the gift of baptism and faith.
We know all human structures on earth are imperfect and fallible, and that includes governments and societies. As we commemorate the founding of the U.S. and its independence from Britain, we are aware that this nation is far from perfect, and that its ideals have not been fulfilled yet – and probably never will be. People probably and sadly will always be wary or maybe even afraid of someone else – one of those whoevers – who is somehow different from them.
But in all that we shouldn’t lose Christ’s vision, God’s vision, out of sight: which is humanity reconciled with each other and with God. To extend the welcome Christ extended to the little ones, to the ones who were, by and large, considered unworthy or even dangerous. To receive the welcome from people who are not part of our immediate social group. And to recognize Christ’s presence in every welcome we experience. To be open to Christ’s often mysterious and surprising presence in unexpected situations and places, through people who may be so unlike us.
This way we see the kingdom of heaven unfold among us. Once we understand that God makes one amazing and wonderful and diverse body with many different and important gifts and tasks out of many – a pluribus unum. United in Christ, whose open arms on the cross extend a welcome to all.
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