September 1, 2013
It’s Labor Day weekend. My guess is that a lot of you have been to or are going to a picnic or party this weekend. Or perhaps you are hosting one. How convenient then that all of our texts today speak of parties. What makes a host or hostess hospitable?
I heard a story once about Queen Victoria, who was entertaining a foreign dignitary at a large state dinner. At the end of the meal, the wait staff brought finger bowls to each person at the table. The queen’s visitor had never seen a fingerbowl before, and had no idea that it was presented so that the guests could wash their hands after the meal. He looked at it for awhile, and then lifted it to his lips and drank the water in it. The other guests at the table looked on, aghast. And then they all looked at the Queen. After a moment, she, too, lifted her fingerbowl to her lips and drank from it. So did every lord and lady seated at the table. Hospitality is ensuring that your guests feel welcome and comfortable, even if you are uncomfortable.
Today’s texts push us beyond our usual parameters for what hospitality involves. All the things we do to make others feel welcome tend to be things we do for people we love or, as in the case of Queen Victoria, at least for people with whom we are in some kind of relationship. But today’s lessons from Luke and Hebrews are both about showing hospitality not just to friends, not just to professional acquaintances, but also to total strangers, people we might never choose to associate. How do we do that? How do we accommodate ourselves, humble ourselves, to people we do not know? And why should we?
Hospitality is very rarely pain-free. It involves work. I don’t know about you, by I know my home is never as clean as it is when I am expecting company. You have to make sure there are fresh sheets on the guest bed, find out if your guests are vegetarian or have any allergies, and stock up on toilet paper. And lots of other stuff. All of these little details are part of hospitality. It’s all about ensuring that your guests are made to feel welcome and comfortable.
Jesus, however, turns our thoughts about hospitality upside down and inside out. Typical! For starters, he chooses to tell a story about hospitality not when he is hosting a dinner party, but when he is an invited guest at someone else’s party. And it’s not just anyone else’s party. It’s a dinner in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Often we think of the Pharisees as Jesus’ opponents, representing the traditional expression of religion, which Jesus never stops challenging. But here he is, sitting down for a meal with these folks.
The first lesson Jesus teaches us about hospitality is that it has to be extended in every direction—one must graciously both give and receive it. For many people—especially nice, Midwestern church people—it’s a lot easier to give than to receive. The giver, the host, holds a position of power, and the guests, positions of vulnerability. Yet Jesus demonstrates that accepting whatever invitations and gifts people offer to you is a vital part of hospitality. It is important to share power. In receiving, the honor is the giver’s; in giving, the honor is the receiver’s. We must be familiar with both to fully understand the unsettling but powerful concept of hospitality.
As the guests arrive, Jesus notices people jockeying for the best seats. Kind of like general admission seating at a really good concert or sporting event. People arrive hours before the event is to begin, just to make sure they get the best spot. Jesus watches this for awhile and then observes that it’s wiser to choose a bad seat and have the host invite you to a better spot than to take a choice seat, only to have the host ask you to move out when the guest of honor arrives. (Maybe he learned that from the book of Proverbs lesson we heard this morning). Part of hospitality is assuming that other people have as much a right to feel special as you do. Conversely, you are just as special as everyone else. You have as much a right to be in the room as anyone else. Jesus never tires of teaching this particular lesson—that everyone is simultaneously a saint and a sinner. Maybe it’s because his hearers never seem to learn it.
But Jesus really pushes his hearers buttons when he tells them that hospitality is to be extended not only to their friends and family, not only to members of their synagogue or the folks in their neighborhood, but to strangers off the street. He suggests that the next time they throw a party, they should invite the poor, the lame, and the blind. In other words, people who could never dream of returning the favor. People these good religious folks considered beneath them, unacceptable dining companions. There was an assumption in Jesus’ time that people who suffered from physical illnesses had done something sinful and were being punished by God.
Now that we understand that being disabled is not the result of sin but of medical conditions, I wonder how Jesus would tell this story today? Probably he’d begin wherever we put up walls. Who are the outcasts in our world? Who would we rather not invite into our homes for a Labor Day barbeque? Addicts? Syrian soldiers? Homosexuals? Right-wing fundamentalist Christians? Of whose values or morals or ethics or lifestyle do we most heartily disapprove? If you can think of the last person on earth you’d want sitting on the couch in your living room, then you can imagine exactly what Jesus would say about your next party. And not just so that you can feel noble and good for inviting them. Jesus would want you to actually entertain and relate to that person, to figure out what makes them tick, what makes them happy. How you could serve them. I tell you, that Jesus is a trouble maker. It’s not hard to see why people got so angry with him that they wanted to get rid of him.
The amazing thing about Jesus is that apparently he really enjoyed hanging out with Pharisees. Not so he could prove them wrong, but because he genuinely liked their company. He liked talking theology with them. He loved them enough to push them to be their best selves. He invited them to be transformed, even when it was uncomfortable. He called them to be accountable for their actions, and to make their words gentle. He called them to see God in everyone else, and to treat them accordingly.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews reiterates this for us, reminding us that strangers are sometimes angels. But we never know which ones. Each stranger we meet might be Jesus undercover. Those people of whom we disapprove, the ones we perceive to be strange, might just turn out to be angels, bearing messages from God. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but that’s Jesus’ way. Always welcome everyone. Always make more room at the table. Always search for the one lost one. Always open the door for more and more and more. Always widen the circle of inclusion. That’s hospitality.
It’s only possible for us because, of course, Jesus has first welcomed us to his party. He didn’t just invite us because it was the right thing to do, but because he sincerely enjoys our company, and delights in our senses of humor, our passions and questions. Jesus has made sure that we know we belong and that we matter. That’s the only way we can get up the courage and stamina to welcome strangers.
We have many opportunities to do just that here at Trinity. Our facility is used by many different groups every week. Later this week, people struggling with addictions or with parenting concerns will meet to support and encourage one another. Special needs students from East High School will come here for their schooling, because they need a smaller, more intimate setting than they can get in the big bldg. on Washington Ave. Musicians and counselors and children and maintenance people will all visit here in the next week or so. How can we share Jesus’ radical hospitality with them? What does God whisper in your ear when you ask about how Trinity can be a faithful ministry partner in the kingdom?
Some people are nervous about having so many strangers in “our building.” And maybe it’s foolish to welcome strangers. Maybe they won’t appreciate or understand what we offer to them. Maybe they’ll drink out of their fingerbowls. But it’s not our church. It’s not even our building. This is God’s house, where we are both guests and hosts. Just as Jesus is guest, host, and meal at the table around which we gather weekly. Jesus has promised never to leave us. What do we have to be afraid of? No matter what, this is still God’s house, and we are still God’s family. And whether we like it or not, Jesus will keep on sending folks to join us at the table in an ever-expanding circle. Jesus will keep on extending forgiveness and friendship to us and to all kinds of people we think he shouldn’t.
No matter what we think the seating chart ought to look like, Jesus inevitably invites us to come up to the best seat at the table where he will inevitably serve us with the most extravagant feast in the world—his very own self. Each time we participate in this gracious event, as we immerse ourselves in Jesus’ hospitality, we are transformed. We find it possible to practice hospitality, even with—maybe even especially with—those we don’t particularly want to welcome.
Perhaps that is the message that the angels bring to us in stranger’s bodies. The message that our gracious host becomes present in the world through us. That the circle is ever-expanding, despite our misgivings. That there is always room at God’s table for one more and one more and one more …
~Pastor Susan Schneider