Worship notes: humility, hospitality and hope - part two...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 9 2014 - part two of a series re: humility, hospitality and hope in the 21st century.
“Hospitality” writes the late Henri Nouwen “is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.  Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers and makes close-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights.”  And I have to say, dear people of God, that after the ignorant, obnoxious and ill-informed reaction of so many Americans to Coca-Cola’s diversity commercial at the Super Bowl, I have been persuaded that the practice of biblical hospitality is one of the essential; ancient commitments that contemporary people of faith MUST reclaim both for the sake of our society AND our the salvation of own souls.

·   Hospitality, you see, invites others to prayer before it checks credentials and welcomes travelers to the table before administering the entrance exam.  (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian's Companion)

·   In the German language, the word for hospitality is Gastfreundschft which means friendship for the guest.  It is an embodied and tangible way of creating a safe space in the midst of our prejudices where strangers can enter and become a friend instead an enemy. 

·   As Sr. Joan Chittister says:  Christian spirituality teaches that “to become whole ourselves we must learn to let the other in, if for no other reason than to stretch our own vision, to take responsibility for our part of the world by giving to it out of our abundance rather than our fear and to make the neighborhood safer by guarding its people ourselves.”

In a word, authentic biblical hospitality saves us from selfishness and strengthens our capacity to life as people of humility and hope even in times like our own. So today I want to share with you five broad insights hewn from our tradition about the practice of hospitality. Not only are they personally transformative, but from the wisdom of the spirituality of Epiphany where we are searching for signs of God’s light breaking into the present darkness, they offer a healing alternative to the status quo that is often too busy or afraid to even notice the stranger within or among us.

Sometime during Advent I was shown just how inhospitable we have grown as a culture and people when I rushed into Price Chopper to pick up something for supper. Like many of you, when I go into the grocery store I become mono-minded – I am a man on a mission – who wants to get in and out as quickly as possible.  So it isn’t unusual for me to move through the crowds without really seeing anybody.  In fact, sometimes when a person calls out my name in the store – when they recognize me and want to say hello – it takes a few tries before I even register that they are speaking to me.  I am just in another zone and don’t really experience much of the humanity all around me.

On this particular day, I was feeling harried and hassled and apparently had dropped one of my winter gloves on the floor as I darted from one display counter to the next.  And as I was dashing to pick up some toilet paper, a small voice behind me said, “Excuse me, is this yours?”
When I turned there was a little man who often stocks the shelves and helps out with the bagging holding out my glove.  “Oh, wow, yeah that is mine,” I said quietly.  “Thanks.  I would have really missed it when I went outside.” To which he replied, “Glad to help.”  Then he paused and said to me, “I really like what you preach when I watch you on PCTV… so keep up the good work” before turning to go back to his job.  Not only did he take the time to help me, but to encourage me, too.  Dianne looked at me and smiled and when we left the store said, “If you ever wonder why you keep doing this gig THAT is the reason right there, ok?  Don’t forget.”

But it is so easy to forget, isn’t it? We live in a culture where hospitality has “been domesticated and is now seen more as one of the social graces than as a spiritual act or holy event.” (Joan Chittister) People work in something called the hospitality industry where their job is to make our trips as easy and painless as possible.  Don’t get me wrong, I like clean sheets in a quiet room when I have to travel as much as anybody else. And I am grateful that when your plane gets in after midnight in Hartford there is a sandwich shop that is still open at 2 in the morning.
But the industry is different from what our faith tradition teaches us about hospitality. So let me remind you of two non-negotiables about the practice of Christian hospitality:

·   First, hospitality is a practice – it is something we do – not merely think about.  It is a virtue we make flesh – and unless hospitality is practiced, it doesn’t happen.  This morning’s text tells us: You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Hospitality is NOT about thinking vague, disembodied spiritual thoughts – it is about being salty and earthy and welcoming with real people. Peterson’s reworking of our text makes this clear when Jesus tells us: Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. That is one essential.

·   The second is that authentic and life-giving hospitality is a paradox born NOT of a happy but rather a broken heart.  Sentimentality does not produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit we know as compassionate welcome and hospitality; no, hospitality only ripens within us after we have known what deep sorrow, suffering or solitude feels like. St. Paul tells us that: we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

When we have been humbled by life – brought low or even humiliated by pain, sorrow, grief or disappointment -  then we discover how needy and empty we really are.  And like Jesus said last week: When you are at the end of your rope then there is a chance to experience some of God’s blessings because with less of you there is more room for God. Without the experience of feeling our emptiness and our NEED for others, chances are we won’t be very good at practicing hospitality. 

That’s because hospitality is intimately intertwined with humility and hope – each builds on the other – and each informs and strengthens the others, too.  Fr. Richard Rohr, whom I value greatly, has recently been writing about the journey towards spiritual maturity.  Not long ago he observed that people who haven’t been taken down a peg – those who haven’t been humbled – still believe they are special.  What both the ancient saints and the practitioners of the 12 steps teach, however, is that “some event, struggle, relationship, or suffering in your life has to lead you to the edge of your own resources. There has to be something that you by yourself cannot understand, fix, control, change or even begin to deal with. It is the raw experience of “I cannot do this.” When you hit this wall, he continues, all you can do at is wait and ask and trust.

This is where you learn real patience, compassion and forgiveness. I don’t know how else you learn to forgive other people until you see seventy-times-seven your own broken-ness, your own incapacity to love and in this stage, your inability to do anything about it except throw yourself into the arms of mercy and love (Luke 7:47).This is the darkness of faith, and now you can trust that this darkness is a much better teacher than supposed certainty or rightness. Now God is about to become very real. Some even call this dark emptiness “God’s Waiting Room!” (Richard Rohr)

That’s why we say that humility – knowing from the inside out that you are not God – and hope – encountering God’s spirit of grace from the inside out – are essential for the practice of hospitality – making the stranger feel welcomed and safe in a dangerous world.  Now I don’t know about you, but time and again I discover this truth in the strangest places. Take the Thanksgiving Eve concerts we’ve been doing for the past six years to raise funds for emergency fuel assist6ance for our neighbors in need in the Berkshires.  Once upon a time, First Church was known throughout the Berkshires as a place of great classical music; now our reputation is spreading as place of eclectic music where jazz is celebrated alongside the sacred sounds of Bach and folk music is as welcomed as organ recitals.

·   And here’s what I have found fascinating:  the musical guests that I have invited to join this show continue to tell me how important it is for them to be present. Not only do they love the opportunity to sing and play in our beautiful old Sanctuary, but they cherish the experience of making music together with people they love.  As one artist said to me, “This has become one of the ways I celebrate Thanksgiving – by opening myself to the blessings of this musical family – and I look forward to being here all year long.”

·   Isn’t that intriguing?  That the chance to make beautiful American music together with others of different faiths and traditions has become a source of blessing? And the love, respect and affection these musicians share is palpable – especially at our first and often only full rehearsal – when people greet one another after a year’s absence. For a moment those embraces and smiles - those guitars and saxophones, drums and voices and tambourines – become hallowed ground.  It is very humbling – and a total gas.

One of the songs we always sing at this Thanksgiving Eve gig is a
rambling, shaggy dog country tune called “The Weight.”  And before I give you the concluding biblical references that give shape and form to a transformational type of hospitality, we’re going to sing this song and ask you to join in on the chorus.  And as my mates are getting into place, let me share with you a little secret about the way hospitality is taking place within and beyond the music:

·   First of all, it is one of my deepest commitments that we find a way to celebrate and honor everyone’s gifts.  That takes time – and trust – and a whole lot of listening; you see, sometimes a person’s gift is hidden under a bushel basket and their light does NOT shine out like a city on a hill.  So my job – and somebody has to do it because this doesn’t happen automatically – my job is find ways to get rid of that bushel basket so that our inner light has a chance to shine.

·  Second, whatever song we sing or play as a group needs to encourage cooperation – no prima donnas need apply for this gig – because what I’m looking for is a way to honor both our individuality and our commitment to community.  Individuals, you see, are often selected to sing the verses – they get a chance to share their unique and holy personalities through the song – and then practice a little humility by creating harmony during the chorus.  There is a sacred rhythm and method to my madness and see if you experience it when we do this song.

·   And third, notice how this wild and wooly secular song reinforces a biblical commitment.  In a variety of ways, this song tells the story of a lonely stranger who arrives in Nazareth looking for a place to rest after a long journey.  Sadly, nobody is willing or able to help him “take a load and weight” off except, of course, someone called Miss Annie:  she’s the only one who cares enough to go out of her way to help the stranger feel welcomed.  People in the so-called musical counter culture have been singing this song for years – it is an ironic albeit funny commentary on loneliness and our need for hospitality – and that’s why I want to sing it in the Sanctuary every year at the close of our show.  By bringing it into church we create the possibility that those who might have given up on God – or been wounded by the church – might actually see that WE not only share their concerns about the world we live in, but also speak the same language.

Now I know that song isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but were you able to sense how it celebrates individual gifts during the verses while honoring hospitality in the chorus?  Did you hear both the social critique and the call to take a load off… for free?  It is my conviction that our still speaking God works through culture and advertising as much as worship and sacred hymns to give us the resources we need to strengthen hospitality, humility and hope.  But you need to know what you’re looking for, right?  So here are a few key biblical principles to help you in the quest.

·   First, a healing and authentically Christian hospitality seeks to transform strangers into guests.  The apostle Paul puts it clear in Romans 12: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit and serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to strangers.

Now Paul uses a compound Greek word to describe our practice with strangers – philozenia – which comes from two other words:  philos that means affection or love and zenos that means stranger.  You might know zenos from the English word xenophobia – the fear of strangers – and that is the polar opposite of Paul’s admonition.  Literally he is telling us that hospitality is all about loving the stranger.  Creating a place that is safe so that strangers actually become our guests.  First, Christian hospitality is about welcoming those outside of our circle, loving them and making them safe.

·   Second there is an ethical component to Christian hospitality.  Hospitality to those who are different from us not only attends to their physical needs of food, rest and safety, but shows the world that we can see our common humanity in their eyes, too.  How did Jesse Jackson put it?  We may speak different languages and have come to the shores of this nation on different ships – as slaves or pilgrims or immigrants – but at this point in time we need to recognize that we are ALL in the same boat together.  Think about what Jesus communicated when he broke bread with sinners – or strangers – or those who were considered to be unclean.  He changed the world at a banquet table and actually strengthened and healed a polarized community.  Table fellowship is a simple but revolutionary way of healing fear and selfishness: it simultaneously shows the world an alternative to segregation and physically and emotionally nourishes flesh and blood, too.

·   Third practicing hospitality advances respect and tolerance in an age of fear and judgment.  This week marks the 12th anniversary of Daniel Pearl’s execution by the Taliban in Pakistan.  That was a brutal, wicked and sinful act by people who have polluted their own religion and fomented hatred and fear rather than hope and hospitality. So I don’t have any illusions that the practice of hospitality doesn’t have certain limitations, ok?  At the same time, this sad anniversary underscores for me what Martin Luther King, Jr. once said about the upside-down alternatives of the gospel (and I am going to update his words to make them more inclusive):  When evil  people plot, good souls must plan. When evil ones burn and bomb, good folk must build and bind. When evil men and women shout ugly words of hatred, good men and women must commit themselves to the glories of love.

I understand, you see, that evil exists – within me and my country as well in the wider world among very real opponents – but the way of Jesus goes beyond evil and fear. “Fear destroys intimacy,” said the late William Sloan Coffin.  “It distances us from each other or else makes us cling to each other which is the death of freedom. Fear has so many ways to destroy life.  That is why our tradition teaches that love alone can hold onto and create life.  Only love can create intimacy and freedom… for when all hearts are one, nothing else has to be one, neither fashion nor age, neither sex or gender, neither race, religion or mind-set.”

Someone once said to me, “When I let strange people into my heart – and listen to their strange ideas with respect and reverence – I help change the world with love.” One of the joys and indeed opportunities that confronts us as a congregation during our year marking the 250th anniversary of our founding is the recognition that we are no longer really first.  Yes, yes, we were the first church in this town – and we used to first in status, wealth and influence – but that is no longer true. Now, like almost every other faith community in town, we must struggle for financial resources – and forget about influencing the culture.  At this moment in time, we really don’t have much power to exert.

·   And that saddens some of us – it is humbling and even humiliating to have fallen from such greatness – but in the upside-down and paradoxical lexicon of Jesus it is also a blessing for when there is less of us there is more room for God’s grace and God’s kingdom.

·   So I am coming to believe more and more that this reversal and diminishment from our once lofty stature to a more humble reality is actually a sacred gift to us: it not only gives us permission to practice radical and authentic hospitality with others in town as partners, but invites us to put our trust in the Lord more profoundly rather than our endowments, our advanced degrees in theology or our social status.

Theologian Douglas John Hall likes to say:  the disestablishment of the once mainstream church liberates us from all the fluff and bother of previous generations so that we can now follow the Lord in humility and hope. The gospel, you see, “does not ask first whether the church finances are in order or community relationships are congenial or even if parishioners are contented and active…. No the gospel offers glad tidings of a great joy” in the Cross of Jesus Christ showing us again and again that even in our deepest sorrow God has not quit on us – and will NOT quit on us.

Hall goes on to say that “the only Christians who can address the anxiety of meaningless and emptiness are those who allow themselves to know that they themselves – with a doubting and perhaps deeply repressed part of their own being – are also participants in the anxiety of this age… we do not need to hear sermons that want to demonstrate once more that God really exists – the new atheism notwithstanding. No, we need sermons that know how frequently I doubt the purpose of my own existence! Gospel today… must speak to that kind of doubt – and the only preachers who can do that, however hesitantly and unprofessionally, are those who know and live with the consequences of their own anxious doubt. There are no experts here… just wounded and needy human beings who can pray, “Lord, I believe, help my disbelief.”

And therein lays the real good news, beloved, for those who have ears to hear.  As we move deeper into humility, hospitality and hope, may we trust that the light of Christ’s cross will guide us.


Here's something for you, James:
RJ said…
thank you Peter...

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