Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proper 8A: Making room for God

Say the word "hospitality," and what comes to mind? Do you think of a relative -a grandmother or an aunt, perhaps - who had the gift of hospitality? Who made everyone feel welcome in her home? Whose dinner table always had an extra place and who never let anyone leave the table without an extra helping of peach cobbler?Hospitality is an important and often overlooked theme in the Bible. God instructs Israel in no uncertain terms to show hospitality to strangers. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10.19) According to the Old Testament, hospitality is not optional. It's a mitzvah, a commandment, a matter of justice.

The New Testament, too, places a premium on hospitality. When the religious leadership accused Jesus of "welcoming sinners and eating with them," (Luke 15.2) they were saying that he had showed hospitality to the wrong people. When Paul criticized the Christians at Corinth for letting the poor go hungry when the celebrated the Lord's Supper, (1 Cor. 11.20-21) he was accusing them of a breach of hospitality. And the author of Hebrews says that hospitality is important because some have "entertained angels unawares." (Heb. 13.2)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus commends hospitality four times: Normally, a rabbi would argue "from the lesser to the greater," but Jesus reverses the usual order and argues from the greater to the lesser. "Whoever receives you, receives me; whoever receives a prophet, will receive a prophet's reward; whoever receives a righteous person, will receive the reward of the righteous, and whoever "gives even a cup of cold water" to a "little one" will be rewarded.

Just prior to today's gospel reading Jesus sent out the Twelve to do the works they had seen him do - proclaim the nearness of the kingdom, heal the sick, and cast out demons. He sent them out with only the essentials - no money, no bag, no change of clothes - In other words, they were entirely dependent on hospitality.

We need to hear the Bible's message of hospitality because we live in a remarkably inhospitable world, a world of gated communities and exclusive country clubs. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam sounded the alarm in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam argues that since World War II social engagement between Americans of all kinds has fallen off drastically. We no longer join the PTA and the Rotary Club; church and synagogue attendance has fallen off; we less frequently entertain people in our homes. Instead, we live in a world in which people are "cocooning" - staying at home, watching DVDs instead of going to the movies and having pizza delivered to their door. In short, we live in a world that needs hospitality.

Hospitality has two dimensions: First and foremost, the Bible commands hospitality because of the vulnerability of the stranger. In the ancient world the stranger was just as vulnerable and marginalized as the widow or orphan. Indeed, when the Bible speaks of widows and orphans, it often speaks of the stranger, too. “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you.” (Ezek. 22.7) Travelers who were miles away from their homes had no claim on the protection or hospitality of those among whom they traveled. There were no hotels and restaurants, no police forces, no means of easy communication in times of crisis. The Bible's command to show hospitality to strangers is of a piece with the imperative of justice. The imperative of justice is to care for those who have no right to claim our kindness and hospitality. In other words, we are to behave toward others as God has behaved toward us: compassionate toward those who have no claim on our compassion.

The second dimension of hospitality is how it affects those who show hospitality. Why do you suppose our world is so inhospitable? I think the answer is simple: fear. To be hospitable makes us vulnerable and we are afraid of vulnerability. To open our homes to others, especially strangers but even friends, opens us to criticism, the judgment of others; it could even open us to crime. So we wall out the world. We isolate ourselves behind the walls of our houses; behind fences and security systems; behind police forces and deadly weapons. We isolate ourselves in front of our televisions and computer terminals, not letting in anyone - the stranger on the corner, the friend down the street, not even God. In short, the failure to be hospitable is a failure of faith. We do not admit the stranger to our homes and lives because we are not sure that we can depend on the God who mandates hospitality.

What would happen if we heard and heeded the Bible's message of hospitality? It would certainly be good news for the hungry and homeless. The streets of our great cities are full of those who would be glad of a blanket, a warm place to sleep, and a bowl of soup. But it might be even better news for those of us who show hospitality to them, because it would bring us out of the cocoons of our own making into the light and fresh air. It would free us to show compassion and mercy. And most of all, it would open us to God. The outrageous promise that Jesus makes to those who show hospitality is that if they open themselves to those with no claim on their compassion and kindness, they will be opening themselves to God. "Whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me..." And after all, who really needs hospitality? Is it the bag lady rooting through the dumpster? The vet who stands at the end of the freeway offramp with his American flag and homemade sign? Of course, they need our hospitality, but not as much as every single one of us needs God's hospitality. God shows us what hospitality is all about by receiving those who have no claim on the divine love, by extending the circle of divine compassion to include the unlovely and unloveable, and by inviting every single one of us to sit down at the heavenly banquet.