NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, July 17, 2016. I will beusing Krista Tippett's new book, Becoming Wise, as a guide for the next six weeks. It is very insightful and makes sense for those interested in real hope and compassion in our wounded and broken world.
During part of our vacation, Dianne and I spent a week in Ottawa, Ontario – a truly lovely and humane city – where we took in a portion of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It is much smaller than its more famous cousin in Montreal and that’s why we have fallen in love with it: it is music and hospitality shared on a human scale that doesn’t overwhelm. It is a small is beautiful venue where both performers and concert-goers never lose touch with the fragility and splendor of human beings creating something lovely and unique together. As one of our favorite Quebecois pianists, Maryanne Trudell, said about her most recent jazz composition: “La vie commence ici!” Real life begins right here and right NOW!
That’s what all three readings from the Bible point towards, too: la vie commence ici. All we have been given by God is just this moment. We can choose to embrace it or waste it – knowing that there will always be consequences to our choices. Abraham and Sara chose to feast and laugh with God’s messengers even in their old age – and new life came into being. Mary and Martha have to make comparable choices in the presence of God’s messenger Jesus – and Martha slips into her old habit of distraction and worry even while she aches to be hospitable – causing her nothing but sadness and resentment. Even the Psalmist sings of practicing living in the moment with gentle hospitality when she asks: who will sojourn in your tent, O Lord, and who will dwell upon your holy mountain?
All religions urge us to cultivate a willingness to joyfully share the bounty of God’s creation with tenderness and respect. In this we not only become like the Lord our God, but we advance God’s kingdom in real time and flesh. Lauren Winner, New Testament professor at Duke University, once wrote:
Christians and Jews hold in common one theological basis for hospitality: Creation. Creation is the ultimate expression of God's hospitality to His creatures. In the words of a rabbi: everything God created is a "manifestation of His kindness. [For the] world is one big hospitality inn." Church historian Amy Oden noted that, "God offers hospitality to all humanity... by establishing a home.. for all." To invite people into our home (and hearts) is to respond with gratitude to the God who made a home for us.
To be blunt with you, beloved, I can’t think of anything more important at this moment in my life – in the life of this congregation – and our national existence than the renewal of sacred hospitality shared in the spirit of tenderness and hope. Whether we’re thinking about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile who died in the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, MI or, the five active duty cops who were ruthlessly gunned down in Dallas by a domestic terrorist, the signs of our times are clear: we have lost touch with how to turn our experience of God’s love into acts of healing hospitality that bring hope and safety to kindred flesh and blood. I sense that too often we let ourselves become like Martha in the presence of Jesus: too worried and distracted to advance peace and compassion.
So let me share a story with you about our last night in Ottawa – and a little Biblical background, too – and we’ll see where this leads us, ok? I’m rather fond on the way the late Henri Nouwen described Christian hospitality: only those who have discovered God at the center of their own lives can receive a stranger on her or his own terms. Only those who have become quiet and at rest within, can welcome the other in the real world with true affection.
On July 4th Dianne and I spent a few hours with the L’Arche Community in Ottawa. For those in the know, I have long been attracted to L’Arche and their ministry of presence with people with intellectual disabilities. L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier in 1964: after a career in the navy and studying philosophy in a doctoral program, Vanier, the son of a Canadian diplomat, still felt as if his life was empty. He was outwardly successful, physically powerful and reasonably wealthy, but like the old song asks: Is this all there is?
During an extended spiritual retreat Vanier was encouraged by a priest to help out in a home for those with intellectual disabilities – and before the year was over, he had taken two of the patients out of the asylum and into a small house where he could care for them personally. He, too, began to comprehend that: “La vie commence ici!” Live begins now! Living with Raphael and Philllipe, men who had been wounded in their minds and psyches when they were very young, brought Vanier into a new intimacy with Jesus. “I began to understand a little better,” he wrote, “the message of Jesus and his particular love for the poor in spirit and the impoverished and weak ones of our society… They have shown me what it is to live simply, to love tenderly, to speak in truth, to pardon, to receive openly, to be humble in weakness and to accept handicaps and hardships with love.They have revealed Jesus to me.” In the despised and rejected, Vanier found a new way of living into hospitality and a new way of making Christ’s love real in his world And now there are over 144 L’Arche communities throughout the world. Vanier likes to say that the L’Arche experiment puts into action the virtues and values Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount. And I have long wanted to see what this love looked like in person.
So, we went to a community meeting at 7 pm on July 4th – and it was a gas. There were about 60 people in the community room – residents ,who are living with their various intellectual disabilities, alongside their personal assistants and a cadre of volunteers. When we arrived some folks were helping a wheel-chair bound woman out of public transportation, so we went through the front door and immediately found ourselves created by Henri who smiled broadly at us, shook my hand vigorously and said, “SO good to see you – tell, how are you, buddy?” Man, I was just knocked on my butt with blessing by his embrace and it kept getting better.
To be honest, I was a little nervous about going to L’Arche because I had done some custodial work in an institution in my early 20s. It was not easy work and the very challenging differences in ability and appearance sometimes frightened me. I was a little anxious because back in that home I had been attacked and thought my head was going to be cracked open as a very upset young man pounded me against the concrete floor. But Henri just took me under his wing and ushered us into the gathering like we were long lost companions. Same was true with Robert, another resident who went out of his way to introduce us as his new friends. There was lots of French alongside English, lots of hugs and handshakes and to tell you the truth, it felt like a party.
When it came time for new guests to introduce themselves, Dianne and I stood up and said a few words – along with a few others – and we were applauded just for showing up. Then we sang songs, stood and held one another’s hands for the Lord’s Prayer – en Francais, I might add – and prayed for one another before the business meeting started. As the community met, we spoke with a few others who simply affirmed in our short visit that this was the real deal: no worries or distractions, just a whole lotta love in the moment.
At dinner a few hours later Dianne said, “I have never seen you look so beatific. You are radiating and beaming.” And all I could do was weep – tears of joy and gratitude, for sure – but also a few tears of sorrow for how rare such bold, healing and hope-filled love like that is in our world. So imagine my surprise when we came home and I saw that the stories assigned for today we ALL about sharing God’s healing hospitality!
It caused me to go on a search for a quote from the Henri Nouwen, who also spent the last 10years of his life at L’Arche Toronto, that says: “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful vacuum, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his or her own way in the world.
That’s part of what’s missing in our contemporary culture: the willingness to be surprised by grace. To take the risk of creating open, empty and free space where we might discover new beauty – even friendship and love – among former strangers, don’t you think? We want it all buttoned-down, figured-out, bought and paid for, not a sojourn with Jesus along the road filled with who knows what or whom?
+ Think of Abraham and Sarah: by the time we get to their story in Genesis, they have new names and a new direction in life, but they are still chronologically old. God has assured both of them that they will give birth to a child, but being 100 years old they were highly dubious. That’s why Sarah laughs when the angels disguised as travelers come seeking hospitality at their tent and promise progeny: Yeah, sure, a baby at my age? But… stranger things have happened, yes? So when their new son is born they call him, Isaac, which means “God has brought me laughter.” They were willing to be surprised.
+ And here’s something else: both Abraham and Sarah go the extra mile when it comes to hospitality. Yes, it was a legal obligation to offer a stranger food and rest, wash and drink, but even in the heat of the day, they put on a feast: Sarah cooks up a storm and Abraham plays the gracious host – and there is no grudging fellowship in this tent. This is a full-fledged feast.
There’s a clue and a take-away for us: the willingness to be surprised, and, a commitment to feast rather than play it safe and cheap. I think that’s part of what Jesus tries to tell Martha when the Master shows up at their home in Bethany outside of Jerusalem. Both sisters are kind and this story should never just be a comparison between one who is active and the other who contemplative. Both are critical virtues to nourish. No, what is at stake here how much Martha frets in distraction and worry about her obligations. She doesn’t enjoy being hospitable. She doesn’t evoke much rest or open space either; so it is no wonder that Jesus said, “Come on, girl, take a break and sit down and get centered for a while like your sister. She isn’t better, but her way of being in the world is… she has chosen the better part while you complain and get tied up in resentments.” Bible scholar, Elizabeth Johnson, writes:
Martha’s distraction and worry leave no room for the most important aspect of hospitality -- gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she breaks all the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest, and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute. She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her (Lord, do you not care…?)
Our culture is so tied up in knots – and afraid of one another – that it often looks to me like it is easier to kill our neighbors than host a feast for them. I have shared this with you before, but a poem the late Erma Bombeck wrote after discovering she had a fatal illness strikes me as timely:
If I had my life to live over, I would have talked less and listened more. I would haveinvited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded. I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage. I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television - and more while watching life. I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband. I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day. I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil or was guaranteed to last a lifetime. Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, "Later. Now go get washed up for dinner." There would have been more "I love you's".. More "I'm sorrys" .. But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute... look at it and really see it ... live it...and never give it back.
From my vantage point, ALL the law and the prophets, the psalms and gospels, too urge us to seize the moment and live into it fully: la vie commence ici, indeed! That’s why over the next six weeks of summer worship, I will be using a new book by Krista Tippett to help us reclaim ways of embracing the present moment in our ministries of hospitality and compassion. Her text, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is a gem – so maybe you’ll want to read it along with me. Together we’ll see how it amplifies or challenges the Bible readings for each week and offers living, practical examples of how to honor the blessings of mindfulness in the 21st century. After worship each week, I would like to spend a little time having a conversation with you about any questions or concerns, too, ok?
One of the truths that Tippett articulates about the quest for wisdom in real life is that there is only one constant among wise people throughout the ages: they all let themselves be surprised by the events of reality. They don’t resent them. They don’t oppose them. They don’t deny or hide them, they just accept the surprises – and cultivate a sense of humor in the moment - even when life spins out of control.
So like Abraham and Sara and Jesus and Mary in today’s readings, I thought we too might practice a little bit of surprise together in a fun way that lets us enjoy being in one another’s company even as we pursue the blessings of being fully present in this moment.
Now what we’re going to do is silly – it has no biblical precedent or profound theological point except to help us be fully awake in community for a moment. So I want us to try to sing three very different songs, from very different cultures, all at the same time. Dianne tells me that when she and her sisters were young, they learned to sing When the Saints Go Marching In combined with both Swing Low, Sweet Chariot AND a French folk song called Dominique about St. Dominic.
Many of you already know When the Saints and Swing Low – we’ll practice them right now as a refresher – then we’ll put them all together with Di and myself singing Dominque: NOT because we have to, NOT because it is deep and transformative but SIMPLY because it would be fun to do this all together in the spirit of community – and when we are having fun together as God’s people, we are fully alive and present in this moment. That’s one of the ways we become more tender in sharing hospitality, you know? By creating, enjoying, experiencing and loving space, we create a little oasis of blessing amidst the fear and pain of real life. So let’s give this a shot…
Oh when the saints, go marching in, oh when the saints go marching in:
O Lord I want to be in that number…
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home;
swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home
Dominique, nique, nique s’en allait tout simplement, routier pauvre et chantant
En tous chemins, en tous lieu il ne parle que du bon Dieu
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu
En tous chemins, en tous lieu il ne parle que du bon Dieu
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu