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.

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