Radical hospitallity and humility...

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There is an old American folk proverb that goes: “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you so; it’s what you do know that ain’t exactly so!” I think it is safe to say that there’s a whole world of truth in those 18 short words. And that’s what I want to talk about with you today: the importance – or better still the necessity – of cultivating honesty and humility in our lives as we seek to embody Christ’s radical hospitality.

Honesty and humility – along with authentic Christian love – helps each and all of us become fertile ground for God’s grace.

+ In tandem, they cultivate hearts through which the Holy Spirit can work; apart, however, honesty often become a blunt club – a brutal weapon of selfishness – while humility is discarded as wimpy and irrelevant!

+ You know what I’m talking about: how many times have you heard someone say – or even said yourself – “I’m just trying to be honest…” when the real motivation was anger or worse?

St. Paul cut to the chase concerning honesty and humility in Galatians 5 when he wrote: What happens when we live God's way? God brings gifts into our lives much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard: things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Without this unity… well let’s have Paul speak for himself when he says: If we choose NOT to be led by the Spirit…

Then it is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; Cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn't the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God's kingdom.

There is a sacred union between honesty and humility – it is one of the laws of kingdom living that God has tried to teach us repeatedly throughout history – and it is a part of all and every living spirituality. So what I’m going to try to do this morning is:

+ First give you a context from our tradition for reclaiming a radical commitment to both honesty and humility.

+ And second, show you how Jesus made this flesh during his celebration of Passover.

Our tradition has regularly claimed the words of the ancient prophet of Israel, Jeremiah, as foundational. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, said that Jeremiah’s vision has always pointed people towards a gospel of grace and forgiveness. Listen to what the prophet said:

This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and be their God. And they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I'll forget they ever sinned!" God's Decree. (Jeremiah 31: 33-34)

I love these words: they speak to my heart and inspire my soul to live fully into the liberating grace of God made real for me in Jesus Christ. What is often forgotten, however, is that while Jeremiah was clearly celebrating a spirituality of grace and freedom, he was doing so in a context of covenant – and too many contemporary people either don’t know or don’t remember what a covenantal relationship between God, grace and humanity is all about.

Covenant talk – sacred contract language – is a holy promise made between two parties: in this case, God and God’s people. It is a vow with two parts: what God will do and we will do to maintain the covenant. Are you with me? In this covenant, God promises to fill us from the inside out – write sacred Torah upon our hearts and bathe us in grace – if we, in turn, become clear and living parables of this grace.

No longer will it be enough to go about just talking and teaching about God – using words and ideas only – no, now we will live so that our lives make the words flesh. From the inside out, we have known the Lord first hand, so we are called to make this blessing visible.
Anything less, said the theologian who challenged Hitler in World War II, Dietrich Bonheoffer, is cheap grace. And it abrogates the covenant – violates the contract – nullifies the relationship. God promises spiritual intimacy and grace, if we promise to turn these blessing into lives of honesty and humility and love.

Is that clear? This is a covenant – a new way of living – costly grace that is always free but saturated with consequences. This is essential because like I said at the outset: “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you so; it’s what you do know that ain’t exactly so!”

That’s the context for honesty and humility in community – our covenant with God and one another – point one. Point two is what Jesus did with this covenant and for that let’s take a look at what happened at the celebration of his last Passover feast.

Now, what do you know about Passover? It is an annual feast celebrated in Jewish homes that marks both God’s liberating grace and every Jew’s ongoing commitment to freedom and justice. But it goes deeper, as Harvey Cox writes in his reflection on being a Christian married to a practicing Jew, in Common Prayers: it is also an on-going reflection upon the dialectic of exile and return.

For thirty-five hundred years – in history, myth and imagination – the dialectic or exile and return has throbbed in Jewish thought like a symphony. It has colored Jewish thinking about history, human nature, God and the cosmos itself… What is the spiritual meaning of exile? The Hasidic teacher… held that exile is both corporate and personal. They believed that just as the Jewish people, however dislocated and mistreated, always retained a core of dignity and freedom, so individuals also bear within themselves a nucleus of freedom that can never be eradicated. They suggest that Torah and the prayers of Jewish worship nourished this inner flame… and it became a paradigm for the individual soul of all Jews – and ultimately of all people.

There is a social, spiritual and personal nature to what happens at Passover, yes? Using food, story, song and table fellowship, those at the feast not only remember an event in the past but actually participate and experience in a deeply spiritual way what that exile, suffering and joyful liberation of the Exodus means right now. So, it is not surprising that Jesus would choose a Passover feast to teach and advance some of his insights about radical community: it was a time when all of his friends and followers might be open to a new way of living into the blessings of God’s covenant.

Now remember one thing more: the gospel of John tells us that as the disciples were getting ready for their last Passover together, they were also arguing about who was the greatest. They were also bickering about who might betray the Master. Some were getting haughty and others were pointing fingers – just your typical church potluck – but Jesus wanted more than business as usual. He wanted to give them one more example of a different way – a healing way – a way of hope and integrity.

So the story tells us that rather than use words alone, he knelt at the table and began to wash their feet. He acted as a servant – or slave – to his followers. He did not scold them nor offer a verbal lesson: he just showed them with his life what his new community might look like. This is part of the new covenant, right?

Letting our lives become a living parable of the blessings of the Lord in our hearts – an alternative to shame and judgment – the word of love made flesh in honesty and humility? It would have been easy to scold the disciples – it would have been simple to look the other way, too – but Jesus chose to put his flesh into action and offer a better way. He held his tongue and acted with humble and honest love – and this is what cut through the pride and fear at that Passover. It changed everything.

And even when Peter got uppity and protested in embarrassment – which I suspect happened all the time – Jesus still acted with humble honesty. In fact, what he documented for Peter was the importance of knowing how to receive as well as give a gift. Peter, we might guess, liked to be in control. He enjoyed helping others and found deep personal satisfaction and worth in being the one who gave gifts to others.

But Jesus showed him that his way was not complete: to be a true person of the covenant means knowing how to receive as well as give a gift. To practice radical hospitality in the real world means knowing how to be good guests as much as generous hosts, yes? And just think of the implications that has for us – as peace makers – people committed to finding common ground rather than hurtful division – those who cherish sharing as much or more than consuming?

+ First, we use our bodies to make flesh the humble and honest love of God in our hearts.

+ Second, we refuse to scold or humiliate, but use our lives as gentle and generous guests as well as hosts.

+ And third, we revel in honesty and humility because it nourishes God’s joy within and among us.

After washing his disciples feet and showing them with his flesh a better way, Christ said: "Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as 'Teacher' and 'Master,' and rightly so… That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other's feet. I've laid down a pattern for you. What I've done, you do. I'm only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his or her master; an employee doesn't give orders to the employer. If you understand what I'm telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life. "

As the ancients tell us, “what we ourselves do not live, we have no right to require.” The promise is blessing – in covenant – not as free agents or independent contractors but in community – in sharing love with honesty and humility. And when this word become flesh we find that we can laugh at ourselves, not take life too seriously and even give one another the space and freedom to stumble and fall and then get back up again in dignity. I leave you with this story from our mystical sisters and brothers in Islam:

One day the poet Rumi asked one of his young, arrogant disciples to give him an enormous picnic basket filled with rich and delicious food. This alarmed the young disciple because it was known that Rumi was living a life of fasting and prayer. “Aha, now I’ve really got the master – what he really wants to do is go off by himself and become a hog!”

So, he prepared the feast and then secrete followed Rumi through the dark streets of Konya, out into the fields and finally into the wilderness. Eventually he saw his master go into a ruined tomb and thought, “I am going to bust him and unmask his haughty pretensions.” But when he entered the tomb he saw Rumi feeding by hand an exhausted momma dog with six starving puppies.

Knowing that he had been followed Rumi turned to his disciple and said, “Don’t stand there, man, help me!” Extremely moved by Rumi’s compassion he said, “How on earth did you know that this dog was out here? And how did you know she was hungry? She’s miles away from where you live.” To which Rumi laughed softly and then said, “When you have become awakened, your ears are so acute that they can hear even the cries of a sparrow ten thousand miles away.”

“If you understand what I'm telling you,” Jesus said, “act like it—and you will live a blessed life.”


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