September 12, 2010
David A. Davis
“The Aroma of Hospitality”
There is a heaviness in the air these days; a weight, an anxiety, a tension. Something’s in the air. Something’s up that sort of pushes back on the celebrations and the new beginnings here at the church. Certainly yesterday’s commemoration of the World Trade Center attack must be part of it. And the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina a few days ago. The economic climate. Creation groaning in the gulf. The mid-term elections. Property re-evaluations. Islamic-Christian relations. School starting. News coverage of the darnedest things. Maybe its everything sort of all mixed in. But there seems to be an elevated temperature of sorts, a fever going around. Amid the swirling winds of public discourse (much of it about important things), I have observed folks in the everyday, ordinary parts of life, just lashing out more, people quick to get angry, a lot more grumbling (much of it about unimportant things).
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus breathes these parables into an atmosphere that is heavy with grumbling. The parable of the lost sheep. The parable of the lost coin. What comes next in the 15th chapter , you may know, is the parable of the lost son, the prodigal son. The grumbling is in response to Jesus welcoming sinners, eating with sinners, hanging with the wrong crowd. As one writer puts it, “when you eat with sinners, you’re choosing sides.” The grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees comes when Jesus welcomes sinners. Of the various reactions of the religious leaders toward Jesus described throughout the gospels (questioning, anger, plotting) the grumbling comes when he welcomes.
The opposite of their grumbling, is his welcoming. Grumbling-welcoming. The two themes, two actions, are put together by the writer I Peter later in the New Testament. The text offers an exhortation to discipleship, an exhortation that comes with bits and pieces of wisdom like: be serious for the sake of your prayers and love covers a multitude of sins, like good stewards of the manifold grace of God serve one another, serve with the strength God provides, and this: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining”, without grumbling.
Jesus hears the grumbling and complaining and with the parables he describes such joy. The shepherd finds the one lost sheep and he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices. The woman lights a lamp and sweeps the house and searches carefully until she finds the coin. When she finds it, she calls out to her friends and neighbors, “come, rejoice with me!” Notice that Jesus offers an editorial comment after each little parable, the “just so, I tell” part. Like “anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear” or “you have heard it said, but I say unto to”. Jesus steps out of the parable proper at that point and talks about the joy in heaven when one sinner repents, the joy of the angels when one sinner repents. The commentary makes it all sound so spiritual at that point, so religious, so about repentance.
When you read on in Luke 15, when you encounter the most familiar of the parables about lost things, the signature parable of the prodigal son, when you get to the bold type of that major parable that takes up the rest of Luke 15, Jesus doesn’t offer one of those religious, churchy, editorial comments. No, the parable of the lost ends with the father saying to the older brother, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost, and has been found.” The reader is left to assume that all the angels in heaven rejoiced. As to the father’s joy, the woman’s joy, the shepherd’s joy, it was in the finding, the har work of a search completed, the homecoming, the welcoming. The running, tearful embrace, the coin in hand gasp and sigh, the sheep on the shoulder shout. The divinely inspired joy that comes from heaven is revealed in a grace-filled hospitality that drives you to every lost one, every last one, every one.
In her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine Pohl suggests that “a life of hospitality begins in worship- with a recognition of God’s grace and generosity.” The logic is something like this: disciples of Jesus can only offer welcome and can only embody a counter-cultural kindness, they can only exhibit a hospitality that is pleasing to God because they themselves have been found, been overwhelmed, been saved by grace. Our holy embrace is in proportion to our experience, our knowledge, our own taste, our feel, our own whiff of God’s grace. That’s why every sacramental gathering at the fount is a remembering of your own baptism. The joy of the welcome begins as you know yourself to be that sheep, that coin, that wandering child. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
The welcome begins there, as you come face to face with the generosity of God. But the joy described in the parable reaches its fullest when you find yourself searching and finding and celebrating and reaching and caring and embracing, grasping, shouting for every last one. Now at the risk of playing the role of captain obvious, we won’t be singing this line anytime soon, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like you.” But hospitality in the Body of Christ can never be defined by, restricted to, or settle for “me”, “just me”. I think a pastor’s worst fear is not hearing “that was the worst sermon ever” or “our stewardship numbers are down” or “I can’t believe we sang that song” or “if you just keep telling stories from the pulpit, I’m out of here”, I think it is meeting someone on the street who says, “you know, I visited your church last Sunday and no one welcomed me.” Because that welcoming ought to be the first thing you think of around here, welcoming someone, everyone, every last one, welcoming them into the Body of Christ. The extent of your reach, the extent of your search, the extent of your embrace is the very reach, search, embrace of Christ himself. You sense the double meaning? The power of it all? The grace-filled wonder of it? As you serve as the arms of Christ, offering a sacred embrace of the other, you are in embracing Christ himself. To use a Bonhoeffer-like phrase, it is as if Christ is welcoming Christ.
A few Saturdays ago our congregation served the midday meal at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Trenton. “Loaves and Fishes” they call it. As you could guess there were more guests this year, especially families with children, more children that I have seen in the years of those August Saturdays. Hundreds of meals served, lunches packed and handed out, a whole lot of coffee and juice served. My job this year was to be a spotter. I like to think of it has head-waiter. Our responsibility was to guide the servers come from the kitchen as they brought plates of food out into the fellowship hall that was packed with tables, chairs, people. Our hope was to be orderly, efficient, and gracious. With all the people and the noise, the bustle, it is quite chaotic and a bit overwhelming. The tables and the chairs were too close together, I would often take the plates from the servers and reach them over, or asked folks to pass the plates down.
At one point, I think in our second serving, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 9 or ten, she had been working hard getting the plates out along with her mother and older sister, and the other 25-30 servers working the floor…she came my direction and we were headed to a table a bit less crowded this time. I went to take the plate and give it to the older man at the end of the table who was looking in every way like things were hard in his life. Before I could take the plate, the girl said to me, “Can I do it?” “Sure”. She moved over to the table to the gentleman waiting for his dinner. I couldn’t hear if she said anything. I couldn’t see her face, only his. And he smiled, look right at her, and said, “Thank you.” And in that moment, for me, the room got really, really, quiet, downright peaceful. “Can I do it?” is what she said to me.
“Can I serve the plate” was all she asked. “Can I be the hands of Christ” here and now? That’s what I saw.
On a morning when we celebrate two baptisms and answer that congregational question yet again, on a morning when we commission church teachers and youth advisers for another year, on a morning when we install Matt and Elizabeth Schultz as associate pastors sharing a position in youth ministry, let’s let her lead the way. For a congregation that understands that the baptismal answer calls us to make welcoming sacred, a hospitality that is pleasing to God. For a congregation that commits to Christian education where learning the faith may begin in scripture, and living the faith begins in serving one another. A congregation that nurtures a youth ministry that yes, that offers a place for the one, for everyone, for every last one…but a youth ministry that nurtures young people in God’s call to each of them, each of us, to every one of us, to be searching and finding and celebrating and reaching and caring and embracing and grasping and shouting for every last one. “Can I be the hands of Christ here and now?”
My guess is that the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling not just because Jesus was eating with sinners, but because he wasn’t eating with them. It’s an odd thing to say around here, I guess, but instead of asking if anyone welcomes you, maybe we all ought to be asking if this is place where I can welcome others.
Because when the atmosphere is heavy with grumbling, the people of God are called to breath into it such a grace-filled hospitality that joy just sort of spills out; like a bowl of water all splashed up. You can feel it, see it, smell it. A running tearful embrace. A grasping gasp. A sheep on the shoulder shout. The hands of Christ serving the one, and in the face of the one, seeing Christ himself.
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