17 August 2011

The Gift of Hospitality

Genesis 18:1-15

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost/14th August 2011/ Sacrament of Baptism

When Abraham saw the arrival of three guests, unannounced, he did what any other self-respecting, other-honoring Middle Eastern man would have done:  he welcomed them.  What we have here in this well-known text is a demonstration of ancient hospitality.  Abraham doesn’t know who they are – he doesn’t care who they are, they are strangers, they are guests.  When he sees them, he bows, bows down to the ground.  “Please, Sir, how may I help you?  Maybe some water to quench your thirst or to wash your dusty feet?  How about a place to rest?  Here, let me get you something to eat, to help regain your strength.  Then I wouldn’t wish to detain you, you may go on your way.” So they said, “Do as you have said,” which translated, could read. “Why thank you, kindly.  That would be great.” 

            So Abraham goes into action.  He runs to Sarah and sends her into action.  She puts the oven on and starts cooking.  Abraham runs out to the herd looking for a calf, slaughters it, and gives it to a servant to prepare it.  Then he took the meal, this feast, set it before them – and then note that Abraham went off to the side, he didn’t sit with them under the tree.  This is the very model of hospitality.

            Then Abraham discovers who they are.  They want something more than food and rest.  They are on the way to some place, pilgrims to be sure, but they’re about to implicate both Abraham and Sarah into their plans.  We discover that these men are divine messengers and they have a word for Abraham.  Sarah, although up in years, will have a son.  Abraham running with excitement and disbelief, tells Sarah. And then she laughs.  Laughs at the thought.  Laughs at Abraham.  Laughs at the messengers.  Laughs at God.  And God is all over and in this story, because then we hear Yahweh speaking and says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”  Followed by one of the great questions of the Bible:  “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”  Sarah denied laughing.  Maybe it happened so fast, in the moment, a thoughtless reaction, that she didn’t realize she laughed.  But God remembers.  “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

            There’s a lot going on this text, to be sure, but today, at least, I’m drawn to this notion of hospitality, of welcome.  It’s not a new subject or theme for us. For several years now we’ve been talking and doing a lot about hospitality, of welcoming the stranger, of creating a community where everyone feels welcome.  Our capital campaign several years ago was all about hospitality and accessibility, making it easier for people with special needs to get into the building.  And once in the building, we offer an invitation to share a space that is warm or cool – thank God for air-conditioning and a furnace that works – and welcoming, hospitable, clean.  There’s no doubt about it, the physical space is so much more inviting and welcoming.

            But this is only the beginning. Scripture calls us to embody hospitality in every aspect of our ministry.  This story from Genesis 18 is a classic text for this, but there are so many other moments in both testaments in which hospitality plays itself out.  It’s more than just making people feel at home, it’s a matter of going out of one’s way to make one feel at home.  But it’s more than that; it’s about really honoring them, acknowledging another’s presence.  When my friend Michael Koppel was here several weeks ago to preach (he’ll be back again next week), you might have noticed that when he passed the peace of Christ to me, he bowed.  Michael used to live in China and is fluent in Chinese.  He came to value the importance of the bow in friendships and relationships.  His inaugural lecture at Wesley Seminary after becoming full professor was on the theological aspects of the bow.  The bow is often associated with the Buddhist greeting, Namaste.  It’s a Sanskrit word that means to bow or to adore or to worship.  It can be translated:  The Buddha in me bows to the Buddha in you.  Or, my spirit bows to your spirit.  The divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.  Or maybe even from a Christian perspective it would be similar to saying, “The Christ in me bows to the Christ in you.”

            When this is the posture we take toward the stranger and toward one another, when these are the gestures we make toward the pilgrim or traveler among us (and who isn’t a pilgrim or traveler?), then this changes how we respond to them, how we treat them, how we avail ourselves to them, how we open the doors of our tents and churches and homes and welcome them as bearers of a message from God.

            This open-door practice was found in the early Christian monasteries.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547) is generally known as the founder of Christian monasticism.  He wrote a guidebook for the monks in his community, a Rule, The Rule of St. Benedict, one of the most influential texts in Western Christendom.  Think of it as an early Book of Order.  While it is true that the Reformation did away with monasticism in the Protestant church, there are still, obviously plenty of monastic orders within Roman Catholicism, orders that have much to teach the children of Luther and Calvin.  When I was on my sabbatical three years ago, I stayed for a time at Christ in the Desert Abbey, a Benedictine community situated in the Chama River canyon, near Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.  That was my first experience in a monastery.  The brothers sought to embody what they believed in everything they did.  At the center of Benedict’s Rule are guidelines on how best to receive guests to a monastery or abbey – and there were many.  As a result, the Benedictines came to be known for their hospitality.  In the chapter “On the Reception of Guests,” Benedict wrote, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).  Without even knowing who they were, or what they believed (or didn’t), without knowing their past or their intent, they were to be received like Christ, welcomed as if Christ himself was walking through their doors.

            Benedict continues:  “In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown.  Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who is indeed received in their persons.”[1]

            This is a great way to run a monastery.  It’s also a great practice for a church.  But Benedict didn’t invent this practice; it stands at the center of the Judeo-Christian experience.  Part of it is rooted in desert hospitality (for we need to remember that both Judaism and Christianity are desert religions, they emerge in desert places), but it’s more than this.  It’s this style of hospitality that is displayed in the way Israel related to God and God to Israel.  And it’s directly related to the way Jesus displayed the welcome of God to everyone he met.

            What if we as a church took up hospitality, prayed about it, talked about it, embodied it here at CPC, over the next couple of months, as if it were the essential core expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ?  What if we identified it as an essential spiritual practice?  These are themes that emerged from our Vision Study Task Force and themes that Session talks about regularly.  How do we embody hospitality?

            I’m grateful for the writings and ministry of Nanette Sawyer, a Presbyterian minister serving outside Chicago.  She provides a guide.  I recently came across an interview with her, inspired by her book Hospitality: The Sacred Art.[2]  She has some insightful things to say about the subject.  When asked, how is the kind of hospitality we practice when we invite friends into our home different than hospitality as a spiritual practice?  She says the two kinds aren’t different.  “Spiritual hospitality is about the internal posture we hold towards others, and then how that posture affects our actions and interactions.”  She defines hospitality as a practice of “receptivity, reverence, and generosity – the three deeply shape and inform each other.”  This is helpful.  We can see all three – receptivity, reverence, and generosity – at work in the Genesis text.

            How does she come to this definition?  In Jesus himself, “the epitome of hospitality,” she says.  “Every biblical story of compassion and grace and love inspires me to practice receptivity, reverence and generosity – the core of hospitality.  Jesus was generous and radical because he saw persons, not categories of people.  He looked at them deeply and listened to them truly enough to get to the heart of matters quickly.  With this posture of awareness and acceptance, his actions took on incredible transformative power.  He invited people, and continues to invite us all, out of denial and avoidance, and into authentic relationship.”

            A turning point came in her life when she discovered the Communion Table as a specific place of radical hospitality.  Why?  Because it was at the Table where she discovered God’s posture toward her, God’s welcome and nurture of her through Jesus’ Table.  Her posture toward God, God’s posture toward her, changed her inner disposition, which then shaped the way she lives out her life.

            We often think of hospitality as a response toward others.  Sawyer reminds us that we also need to consider hospitality toward self, toward ourselves.  Do we practice “receptivity, reverence, and generosity” toward ourselves? 

            And what about God?  How are we hospitable to God’s presence?  Do we practice “receptivity, reverence, and generosity” toward God?  Are we open to God showing up, unannounced, into our lives?  Or do we keep the flaps of our tents tightly secured?

            Our attitudes, responses, postures are rooted in how we imagine God being hospitable to us.  God welcomes us into God’s life.  A good expression of this is the Russian icon by Andrei Rublev (b.1360s, d. 1427 or 1430), originally called the “Hospitality of Abraham,” later modified and renamed “The Trinity.”  Some see the “three messengers” who appear to Abraham as the three persons of the Trinity.  There’s a lot going on in this icon, but what is so striking is its spaciousness.

            Four sides of the table, but the fourth side is empty, open, free space – for you.  You can imagine yourself sitting at that Table in the presence of God, welcomed at his Table, receptive to God’s reverence and God’s generosity.

            And we need to remember that the font, too, is a place of welcome, an extraordinary expression of God’s hospitality.  Because before we can even begin to welcome God into our lives, God, through Christ, has welcomed us into God’s life, into God’s household, into this family of faith.  Thanks be to God!

[1] The Rule of St. Benedict maybe be found online at  http://www.osb.org/rb/.  “On the Reception of Guests,” is chapter 53. http://www.osb.org/rb/text/rbeaad1.html#53.

08 August 2011

Formed by Forgiveness

Matthew 18:15-22
Eight Sunday after Pentecost/7th August 2011/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

In this season of Vacation Bible School and thinking back upon my own experience of VBS, I’m reminded of a poem I came across several years ago.  My brother, Craig, and I went to VBS every year; we had to—our mother was VBS director for many years at our home church in North Arlington, NJ—but we also wanted to.  The poem I’m thinking about is by contemporary poet, Stephen Dunn, in which he reflects upon his daughter’s experience attending a summer Vacation Bible Church.  It’s called “At the Smithville Methodist Church.”  Dunn and his wife are basically agnostic, skeptical about religion in general and not sure what to make of their daughter’s emerging faith.  In the end, they are humbled by it.  Here’s how he captures it in verse:

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so," it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

          What is this “wonderful story” Dunn is so envious of?  How do you sum up the Christian story?  I’m not exactly sure there’s one story we tell.  The story is Jesus and Jesus is the story of God’s love.  But how do we tell this story?  It’s really more like a multi-faceted-gemstone-kind-of-story.  There are many aspects to it, and we approach it from many perspectives and angles. And we need to respect this.

It seems to me that everything we do in a church is grounded in the belief that we have a story for our children.  Our worship, our fellowship, our community around this table are all because we have a wonderful story for our children.  It’s also our story.  Our ministries of sympathy, service, and witness, our educational and missional aims are all because of this story.  Our $1.8 million capital campaign several years ago, as well as our most recent campaign is all because of this wondrous story.

There are plenty of great stories to shape the lives of our children, but what makes this story different is the way it speaks to the “why” question.  Evolution, for example, speaks to the “how” question.  How we got here.  But evolution doesn’t love you.  The Christian story is less about how we came to be, than why—it’s about who we are and why we are.  This is the deeper story of Genesis and why, by the way, we must not read it as a science text.  I believe in evolution, of course, but our job in the church is to speak to the deeper question why.  What is a life?  And why do we live it?[2] Parents can tell them how (in time), how they came to be, but the deeper more profound question of why?  Why do they exist?  Why do we exist? That’s something else.  It’s our story that puts them – and us – into this deeply disturbing and scary, yet wildly wondrous and glorious world – puts them and us into this amazing world with meaning, purpose, love, and grace.  The story tells them why they exist.  It gives them and us a song to sing and sanctifies their lives and ours, and makes them holy.  They can’t discover this on their own; neither can we.  It doesn’t emerge from the depths of our psyche when we’re alone awake at night and fearful.  The story tells us that we are loved more than we could ever possibly imagine, that we’re not alone, that Jesus is present within us and among us.

          For Matthew here, one significant part of the gospel story is forgiveness.  Forgiveness, which, of course, is related to God’s love and grace.  Forgiveness stands at the center of the gospel narrative, the church’s story.

However, neither Jesus nor Matthew had any romantic illusions about the nature of the church.  We might sing our hymns, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” yet painful breaks can occur in our relationships.  We might sing, “We are one in the Spirit,” yet cruel words and thoughtless actions can separate us from on another.  We might sing, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,” but there’s plenty to threaten the stability of even the strongest of churches.[3] 

Matthew tells us how to live together.  Work it out.  Seek reconciliation.  Try to make amends.  Reach out.  Why?  Because wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name he’s there too.  When we’re quick to accuse and judge and shun someone from community, remember that Christ is among us, and in the other we want to shun.  By focusing on Jesus in the center of the community we remember it’s not about us; the church doesn’t exist for us, we exist for the church; God doesn’t exist for us, we exist for us.  The focus on Christ draws us out of our isolation and narcissism and self-absorption and allows us to live together.

But Peter, always the practical one says, “Okay, Lord, fine.  Sounds great in theory.  But just tell me the minimum number of times I have to forgive so I know when I don’t have to forgive any more and can then throw that person out of the church.”  Peter wants to put a limit on the generosity of grace.  But if we’re like him, act like him, think like him, then we really don’t understand what it feels like to be forgiven, to know grace.  Seventy-seven times.  In other words, don’t count.  Don’t keep track.  Just keep on doing it.  Why?  There can be no community without forgiveness.

          Now it’s possible to just tell or teach the story of forgiveness without being shaped by it.  We can teach our children how they ought to forgive (because it’s the Christian thing to do), but ignore it ourselves.  And, sometimes we Christians forgive too soon because we are not willing to acknowledge the depth of our hurt and pain.  However, this is not just a story of forgiveness that we teach or tell (and when we do, we’ve missed the point).  It’s a story we have to experience even as we tell it because already we’re in it, we’re within the narrative of God’s grace.  We can tell the influence of the story by the difference it makes in our lives – how followers of Jesus relate to others, especially when the family of Jesus gathers and tries to be faithful together.

          Knowing the undeserved and unearned forgiveness of God becomes the cornerstone of the Christian experience and sits at the center of who we are.  It’s embodied in the Table.  I remember the Sunday I was worshipping at Iona Abbey in Scotland, during my sabbatical, a long Communion Table was set up right down the center of the nave.   Several weeks ago when I was in Savannah for Doris and Craig’s wedding, I had time to visit the Independent Presbyterian Church, originally established by the Church of Scotland.  I couldn’t figure out why the center aisle was so wide.  I later learned it was so that they could practice the Scottish custom of setting up a long table in the center of the church so that everyone can sit at the table for Communion.   I wish we could do the same in our church, but our aisle is too narrow.  It’s a powerful way to express that the Table sits at the center of what we do, and we worship around it.  That’s why Jesus gives it to us, and even why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted Communion served every Sunday in Geneva (and to go to the Table), because it helps to remind us that Christ is among us and within. 

It makes tangible the story of God’s forgiving love.  And this meal is offered again and again and again in the hope that someday we’ll finally get it – that we and our children will know we’re forgiven in the eyes of God and then, in the words of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), “accept our acceptance.”[4]  People long to know they’re forgiven, whether they believe in God or not.  Such is the depth of guilt and shame and sorrow and regret so many carry around with them.  We know there’s nothing that can separate us from God (Romans 8).  We can live from within this story. 

To know we’ve been forgiven by God, but withhold forgiveness toward others is, in the end, to be ungrateful.  To know we’re forgiven, yet withhold forgiveness toward ourselves is to be ungrateful.  But with grateful hearts, accepting God’s forgiveness at the Table, we can rejoice, we can jump up and down—yes, even Presbyterians—singing hallelujahs, beaming all the way home.

[1] Stephen Dunn, New and Selected Poems, 1974-1994 (New York:  W. W. Norton & Co., 1994), 183-184.
[2] A question raised by James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998).
[3] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 209.
[4] Paul Tillich, from his sermon, “You Are Accepted,” Shaking the Foundations (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955).