The Hospitable Community
By Charles Rush
August 21, 2011
Lk. 14: 15-23 and Romans 12: 9-18
(mp3, 6.5Mb) ]
far as we can tell, the general admonition to hospitality towards strangers pre-dates Christianity and Judaism. We have examples of it in the religious admonitions in the Middle East as far back as we have records. Indeed, there is a remarkable similarity with the oral traditions from the cultures in northern Africa which suggests a special place for welcoming the stranger that has been with us for a very, very long time. Personally, I am grateful for the teaching.
The year I
stayed out of college, I eventually found myself diving with a friend from Holland
on the Red Sea in Egypt. We rode a motorcycle down to
the tip of the Sinai desert which was a military occupation at the time. Not
having the internet or cell phones or common sense, it didn't occur to us that
there might be some special questions we would want to ask before we started
off on such a venture- questions like 'are there any gas stations open in a
military occupation zone?'
When I remember this now, there were
also, of course, no actual phones or any way to contact anyone if we got in
trouble. Nor, of course, were there any people at that time that spoke English.
Nowadays, we parents go ballistic if our kids show up at 11:02 rather than 11:00 and make these speeches about pacing the floor. For
months my parents had no idea where I was, no way to contact me, and they
hugged me 'goodbye' with a smile.
Sure enough, we
were headed back towards Gaza,
driving across an absolutely barren stretch of highway where you passed maybe
one person every hour. The sun is going down. The Sinai is not a casual place
to travel. The temperature swings up to 50 degrees during the course of a day.
It will be 110 in the day and down to 60 at night… which makes 60 feel like 40
with the wind.
The sun is
going down, the motorcycle coughs for lack of fuel, we
glide down the road to a stop. There is nothing but sand as far as you can see
in every direction, no lights, no people, nothing. We have only a bit of water,
no food, not much clothing, and no bedding of any kind. It was about this point
that it first occurred to me that this plan needed some more work.
We pushed the
bike down the highway for about an hour, the sun was completely down. Above us the absolutely stunning canopy of
stars that seem so much closer with no water vapor to refract our vision. The
temperature was dropping rapidly and now genuinely uncomfortable.
could see lights in the distance, some 6-8 miles away which prompted a
discussion about what we should do, hide or ask for help. Since there was
really no good place to hide, we waited.
Around the bend
from a massive dune, eventually came a late model Ford truck, something I would
have seen on my grandfather's farm. As it drew near, it slowed to a stop and
out came three Bedouins. All of them had knives- big knives- strapped to their
robes and one of them had a sword. I remember at some point in this exchange
seeing the scars on one chest neck area suggesting that these knives have been
used in the past.
Thank God, I
was with a Dutchman- they seem to know a few phrases in literally every
language on earth. Somehow, a bit of Arabic, a bit of Hebrew, a bit of English-
we explained our situation. The three of them retreated for a huddle that
lasted for a couple of very long minutes. Right about then, I'm thinking to
myself how I am going to explain to the Dean at Wake Forest
and my Mother that I came to be robbed and knifed in the desert. I could
certainly outrun them but not the truck and now I noticed the pistol on the
the huddle, grabbed the motorcycle, and all 5 of us barely lifted it up to the
back of the truck. We get in the back, they pile in the cab, and we drive about
3 blocks, the truck stops. I'm thinking, "Oh God, this is where we get
shot or invited off the truck to the freezing desert for the night." One
of the passengers hops out of the cab, comes back to me, hands me a tub of
yogurt and half a wedge of bread, gets back in the cab… I must have looked like
I'd just seen a ghost because the Dutchman was smiling at me. Over and over, he
kept talking like the Arabs, "No problem my friend".
I'm really glad
for that ethic of hospitality in the Middle East.
I've wondered if they were discussing among themselves what their moral and
spiritual obligations were to these idiotic Europeans.
tradition begins with the story of hospitality. It is told in the story of Mary
and Joseph, poor, young and pregnant, looking for lodging. Each year that story
is re-enacted in Hispanic communities in the ritual of Las Posadas.[i]
For days leading up to Christmas, Mary and Joseph wander door to door in the
neighborhood, knock, and then say "En nombre del
cielo, Buenos moradores,
dad a unos viajeros posada esta noche" (In the name of
God, we ask those who dwell here, give to some travelers lodging this
evening") From inside, they hear back "This is not an inn; move on- I
cannot open lest you be a scoundrel). Joseph pleads with them, even telling
them that he has with him 'The Queen of Heaven" Mary. All
to no avail. For 8 days they repeat the same scene.
Finally on the
ninth night, Christmas eve, Joseph's plea moves a
innkeeper. And the innkeeper makes a speech that overflows with love,
hospitality, and acceptance. The couple enters, candy is given to all of the
children and a big feast with great food and drink is set out. The celebration
that line in the Letter to the Hebrews that says, "be gracious to the
stranger as you may be entertaining Angels unawares." And that story
remembers the ethic of hospitality that undergirds the story of Ruth, the story
of Lot, the life of Abraham and the like.
underscored that ethic as well. He tells us that 'our neighbor' is not only the
people that we are in close physical proximity to but also 'Samaritan's',
people that may be subject to discrimination but who are in need. He tells us
that God is like a man that throws a party but the invited people are too busy
to come… and you know who you are… so God seeks out the maimed, the poor, those
who have lost their way. It is an expansive invitation literally to the ends of
the earth, everyone, everyone indeed.
To all of us
multi-culturalist's gathered here that may not seem
like a big deal but I have met some of our converts from India's lowest caste
who wept openly the first time they heard that story because they have never
known that kind of acceptance. I've met some of the girls we bought out of
prostitution in Thailand
who wept because God's love for them filled them with the foundation of
self-esteem and a start towards a new identity, a new personhood, a new life.
Jesus did have
a way of scandalizing the world because he gathered lepers, women, prostitutes,
and tax-collectors- the great hypocrites of the Roman period. He used to say
that the physician comes to heal those that are sick, so the 'good news of the
gospel is good news first and foremost for those most broken. The rest of us
get to be part of it too.
More than that
what strikes me more and more each year that I've been a pastor in the church
is the hope that St. Paul
put on us as a community to help each other be healed and grow more profoundly
as people. Every one of his letters has an injunction like the one in Romans 12
where he describes what we can be for each other.
love. Stand against evil. Show each other respect and honor. Develop compassion
and help each other through the times of suffering that we have to endure.
Bless one another. Help each other out.
limited by the revenge scenarios that are the norm in our
world but grow deeper as people by learning to be people of
reconciliation. Truly, genuinely, work things out.
your moral imagination to beating your enemies to a pulp, even though that is a
natural desire. But together, go beyond that, and learn what it means to be a
people of peace. You are going to have evil arise inside you because it is all
around us in this world. But ultimately, together, you can cultivate goodness
in and among each other that surrounds and inoculates evil. And it is more
important to cultivate good for our souls than it is to simply hate evil. As
Bill Coffin used to say, "If you hate evil more than you love the good,
that just proves that you are a damn good hater and of that the world has more
than enough already."
spiritual life, in other words, is what you create in community with each other.
It is how we develop and actualize compassion, hospitality, reconciliation,
forgiveness, peace. It is how we become people that live out of love.
psychologist Heinz Kohut says that for us to realize
our potential and to grow as communal, social beings, we need three things:
"mirroring". We need people around us that understand and identify with
what we are going through. That is the foundation of compassion, to be
surrounded by people that 'get you' and empathize with your particular struggle
at the moment.
"twinning". We need people around us that are our genuine peers. We
need people that we can trust with our hopes, dreams, and our foibles. We need
friends. I heard someone say to another couple that were
good friends. "I love when you all come over. It's like I just got in my
jimmies". Frankly, I don't want to see all of you in your jimmies, but
what a blessing to have friends that you really relax with.
And the third
thing we need is people we can look up to, people that inspire us to be better
people. They live it. They are the real deal. We need role models.
That is the
grand experiment that the Church is supposed to be on it's
good days. The Church, as Paul describes what it can be, is like an extended
Spiritual family of families. We need people from all ages that can help out
others across the generations. We need people of many different walks of life, we need people from different cultures, people with a
broad range of talents and interests. We need people that want to develop
themselves and others to become people of sturdy character. This is what the
spiritual life is all about.
We want to
become a hospitable community? Don't you want to be part of that.
I do. We want to become a hospitable community. I have so many images in my
mind from our life together, but just two will do:
Every year in
the winter we have a progressive dinner. It ends at my house with dessert. Couple years ago, Mike Paytas decided we needed music for the
dessert and he packed over some gigando size speakers
and cleared out a room in the house. We had dessert like usual but when
a certain group of people showed up- and you know who you are- suddenly a Christ Church
disco broke out.
happened at church socials when I was a child, so I wondered to myself for a
moment, how are my 70 year olds going to handle this? But, by the time I could
cross the room to get to the dance floor, my question had been answered. Mike
Paytas was steering them over to the dance floor to boogie down with Mike. And
who wouldn't want to dance with Mike Paytas. I want to dance with Mike Paytas. Inter-generational dancing… joy… that is a living metaphor of the
hospitable community. We could do a lot worse than to be known as the
church where everyone can shake their booty.
The other image
was an evening at the Church. I was walking back to my office and there was a
table set. The table had table cloth on it, elegant place settings. There were
candles on the table lit. There was some music set up, beautiful music softly
playing in the background… I had no idea what it was. I was thinking that maybe
we were having a wedding rehersal dinner or something
I didn't know about.
Turns out, it
was our homeless guests that were staying with us. I came back through again,
and there was… Mike Paytas… serving a meal with his family that was just the
kind of meal you would serve for your guests on a Saturday evening dinner
party. What a great gesture.
And the moral
for the day is 'Be like Mike'- our Mike. These were just two little things that
he believed in, two little things but he was really intentional and a blessing
to others. And he is going to kill me after this sermon.
community… We all want to find our place. We all want to be part of the
blessing. What is it that you can bring to the table? What is that you believe
in that you would like to do really well in this community just because it
would be- just because… What can you be intentional about that makes those
around you feel included, supported, and uplifted?
You don't have
to do everything. But we need you to think about one thing for this year. What
is it that you are willing to do to be a blessing to others? Let's take our
game to the next level as a community. Let's become intentional about making
people feel welcome here. Let's become a people that really want to understand
each other and empathize with what they are going through. Let's open ourselves
to developing deep friendships where we can not only be ourselves but help each
other to grow. Let's grow people that have sturdy enough character that the
younger generation will have a model to follow.
You know what?
This is our life. We don't get a do-over. We don't get a replay. Let's be
intentional about actualizing the good in our midst. We can do something great.
Make yourself count. I want someone to say to you, "you know… because of
you… I was confident enough to try something I wouldn't have tried"…
"you know because of you… I got on through a very
tough patch"…. "Because of you"…. Amen.