Sermon preached September 1, 2013
Texts: Hebrews 13:1-2; Luke 14:1, 7-14
O.K. So it’s becoming a little bit of a cliché’ that I start my sermons with music, but there are worse things, so here goes:
Lovely to see you again, my friend. And it is lovely to see you all. Think for a moment about a time or times when you felt welcomed – warmly, joyously. At their best, class reunions have some of that, and they are especially fun when you are welcomed by someone you never thought really even knew who you were in high school. Family reunions have even more of that feeling of welcome. One of my fond memories from my college days was attending a big family reunion in Rice Lake Wisconsin. It was where my grandmother was from, and her mother was still living. We rented part of the fairgrounds because of the size of the group. It was a lot of fun. I know I have mentioned that the community of Rice Lake was a special place for me growing up because of the warm welcome given by my relatives.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.”
I am kind of thinking that Jesus would not have made a good professional party planner. What kind of lousy guest list is this?
Of course, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. He’s not saying we shouldn’t have dinner with friends or relatives. He is reminding us, with a bit of humor, of how deep, how radical sacred hospitality is. Hospitality means more than being nice. Hospitality means more than simply being cordial or polite. Christian hospitality, rooted in our own experience of being welcomed by God reaches out to embrace strangers and the strange.
In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, in its chapter on hospitality, Diana Butler Bass writes: Although hospitality takes many forms, from the kiss of peace bestowed by a Goth teenager on an elderly woman, to offering bread to a stranger and thanking a homeless person for coming to breakfast, the core practice remains the same: Christian people, themselves wayfarers, welcome strangers into the heart of God’s transformative love. (87) Hospitality – welcoming others into the heart of God’s transformative love, welcoming because we are loved.
When we lived in Texas, we heard a lot of “y’all.” “Y’all want to go for a coke” – which meant any kind of soft drink – you never said “pop” in Texas. But “y’all could mean just one other person. Someone might ask you – “y’all want to get a cup of coffee?” To make it clear that someone was taking about a group, you sometimes would hear “all y’all.” “All y’all want to go to the game tonight?” All y’all was an inclusive term. It is a great way to speak of Christian hospitality. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it. When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed. All y’all.
Hospitality has to do with inclusion. It has to do with making space, warm and welcoming space. Jesus links it with humility in the gospel for this morning. When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.
To the first scenario Jesus describes, we might simply say “awkward.” But do we take a lower place just in hopes of getting a better one? Is that what humility is all about? Seems a recipe for disappointment. Again, I think Jesus is using a little humor to make a point, contrasting the humility with humiliation. Humility is being comfortable enough with oneself that you don’t need to find the place of honor.
I really like what Robert Emmons writes about humility. Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating them. To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, and understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem. (The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171)
Hospitality and humility are interconnected. Recognizing strengths and limitations, we recognize that it helps to make room for another, for more, for different, for change. Humility is recognizing simultaneously that we are loved deeply and wildly by God, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. There is always room to grow and we grow by welcoming the new, the unfamiliar.
Quickly I want to make some of this general discussion more concrete by suggesting how profound the idea of Christian hospitality can be across various areas of our lives.
Hospitality, welcome, all y’all, can be extended to ourselves, and should be. We need to extend hospitality toward ourselves. Positive change often happens not when we feel completely crummy about ourselves, but when we have enough care for ourselves that we want to change for the better. The therapist Tara Brach writes, “when we practice Radical Acceptance, we begin with the fears and wounds of our life and discover that our heart of compassion widens endlessly” (Radical Acceptance, 4). Even in twelve-step programs, which often talk about hitting bottom before you want to change, there is that sense that you are worth the effort to change, relying on a higher power.
Another kind of inner hospitality that we need to practice is to make space for new ideas, welcome space for new ways of looking at our faith, our lives, our world. Spiritual growth, as I talked about last week, has something to do with continuing to learn and grow and mature.
Christian hospitality, sacred hospitality speaks to our wider world. Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and reminded us that our nation was falling short in the area of hospitality. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned.
In a sense, civil rights is about hospitality, about welcome, about making space. The struggle of women to be heard and empowered is, in a sense, about hospitality, about welcome, about making space. On this pride weekend, gay rights can be seen as being about hospitality, about welcome, about making space. Hospitality does not prescribe particular policies, but when we leave it out of our thinking about our social community, we are not thinking with our best Christian minds. As our nation grapples with immigration policy, hospitality should not be left out of the equation. It does not prescribe particular policies, but if we neglect it when we think about immigration reform, we are not thinking about immigration reform with our best Christian minds.
If there is a place where hospitality, where welcoming, where making space should be most evident it should be in our life together as this Christian community of faith, this Jesus community. “Through hospitality, Christians imitate God’s welcome,” Diana Butler Bass reminds us (82). As a church community we should always be making space for people who are trying to make space in their lives for more of God’s Spirit, God’s welcoming love. Butler Bass goes on to write [quoting Henri Nouwen]: Hospitality is the “creation of a free space” where strangers become friends. “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” (79) I will be saying more about the church as an “all y’all” place in a couple of weeks.
Hospitality is not always easy. Opening our arms and hearts wide means that persons and ideas, both strange and wonderful, may arrive. Hospitality, welcoming, making space, is, however, our calling from God who welcomes us warmly, joyously, as warmly, joyously and wildly as a father welcomes a long-lost son in another story Jesus told. By making open, welcoming space in our lives, in our world, in our church, angels in disguise may just arrive. That’s good news for all y’all. Amen.