Sunday, June 8, 2008

Radical Hospitality

By Brian Kirk
Text: Genesis 18:1-15 Matthew 9:35 - 10:23

I decided long ago that I'm not they type of preacher who should try to deal with more than one text per sermon. I just like to cram so much in that two texts would end up causing worship to run way past lunchtime (and we can't have that!)

These two texts this week certainly offer up individually much more content than a wise preacher should cover in a single sermon. However, it seems to me that there is a common thread running through portions of each of these readings. The story of Abraham welcoming strangers and the story of Jesus sending out the disciples both give us different perspectives on the theme of radical hospitality.

When Abraham notices three strangers approaching (3: a nice folkloric number), he runs to meet them and bows down before them. He insists on welcoming them by providing only the best food: fresh water, newly baked breads, the meat of a tender calf. He is, of course, following the well-established practice in the ANE of welcoming strangers, but it would seem that he is going above-and-beyond the call of duty. Particularly as one remembers that, as far as we can tell from the text, Abraham has no idea that these strangers are messengers from God (or, that perhaps they ARE God). And in his willingness to, in essence, "entertain angels unaware" (Hebrews 13:2) and to live out his call to be a blessing to the world, Abraham is blessed himself by receiving the good news that his wife will bear a child.

Perhaps there are shadows and signs here of Jesus' own teaching: "When you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me." When we are willing to practice radical hospitality, to welcome the stranger and the alien with the best we have to offer, we are also welcoming God. It seems that a deeper truth to be unearthed here is that we don't welcome the other just in case they happen to be God in disguise. Rather, we are called to develop the discipline of seeing the reality of God's presence in all we meet.

The passage from Matthew picks up this theme of radical hospitality, but this time we are on the other side of the transaction. Rather than offering hospitality, we identify with those whom Jesus sends out seeking hospitality. He instructs the disciples: "Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff...." Some biblical scholars suggest that those hearing this text in the first century would have recognized that Matthew's Jesus is telling his disciples, in essence, "Do not go out into the world like the Cynics do." The Cynics were somewhat like travelling philosophers, rejecting conventional life in a sort of back-to-nature movement and publicly displaying their disdain for the injustices and pretensions of culture. They prized themselves on their self-sufficiency, carrying with them all they needed to get by without the help of strangers. In contrast, Jesus here specifically tells his followers not to take provisions with them, guaranteeing that they will have to rely on the hospitality of others. They will have to trust that God will provide and, as we see over and over in the biblical text, God most often provides through the actions of the stranger -- of those we encounter on the road of life. In these experiences, we come face to face with God only as we are open to what the "other" has to offer us.
[Note also the reference in verse 15 to Sodom and Gomorrah, another indication of this passage's focus on the theme of hospitality. Despite common understandings, Sodom's real sin was their lack of hospitality to the stranger.]

It is perhaps easier for us to offer hospitality than to receive it. When offering hospitality, we maintain a measure of control over a situation. But when we place ourselves in the position of needing to receive hospitality, we make ourselves vulnerable. Perhaps it would be useful to consider how these two relationships reflect our own relationships with God. Are we willing to make ourselves vulnerable to God/vulnerable to the other? Are we willing to offer radical hospitality to the stranger, providing for them not necessarily what we want to give but what they need to receive?

I'm reminded of the old story of the new pastor whose church had coffee and donuts in the courtyard every Sunday morning after worship. The food was served off of fine silver platters and drinks were served from china cups and saucers. One day, a homeless man wandered in from the street. He strolled around the courtyard, smiling at people as they passed. They in turn began to whisper amongst themselves, not certain what to do about this. But when the man found his way to the table of food and began stuffing donuts in his pockets, the head of the church council had seen enough. She marched quickly across the courtyard to the new pastor and said in a loud whisper, "Well? Aren't you going to do something about this?" The preacher thought for a moment, and then she made her way over to the table where the homeless man was eating. The young pastor took an empty pastry box, filled it with donuts and handed it to the man. "We are here every Sunday, "she said to him. " And you are always welcome." The pastor then walked back to the head of the church council and, enjoying the stunned looked on the woman's face, declared, "That's what you meant when you told me to "do something," wasn't it?"

1 comment:

Dan Mayes said...

Good thoughts, Brian! Thanks for sharing.