'True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person .is receiving the stranger on his own terms and is offered by those who have found the centre of their lives in their own hearts.'
~Kathleen Norris, in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
While I was visiting New York on my study leave I stayed with Annes daughter Catharine and her partner Sergei and their one month old baby Mischa. I wasnt there for much of the time because I was visiting other people, but when I was there I was aware of how central a new-born baby is to family life. This little one was completely dependent, first upon her mother and then upon the environment created by her father and the family together. My first observation, which I should have been well aware of having three of my own children, was how can so much noise come from so small a human being?
The smallest member of the family was the most demanding. In fact, her very survival depends on making sure that those around her know what she needs. She needs to be fed; to be changed; and to sleep! I was reminded of a Bible verse that someone had apparently put on the door of a church crèche. It said quoting I Corinthians 15:51, "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed." Babies tend to want to be changed, rather than sleep; which is the bane of sleepless parents around the world. So tell me why is this little life, which is smaller and perhaps of less significant than those around her, the most important? What world do we live in where the least, these little ones, shall be the greatest and the last shall be the first? Is there a place in this world where we invited the least to be central and the smallest to be greatest?
It is much easier for us to imagine this world when we as parents or grandparents think of our children having a primary place in our lives; and when we think of others, strangers, acquaintances or even friends, who tumble into our lives and then give them a central place.
Hospitality is both the Question and the Answer
I think I wrote some time ago about the root of the word "hospitality." In the Biblical narrative it is most often associated with welcoming the stranger. In the story from Genesis, Abraham welcomed three strangers, who finally declared themselves to be messengers of God, and in fact showed themselves to be God. And throughout the Biblical story there is the command to welcome the stranger:
You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)
Or from the words of Leviticus:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
It seems to me when we contemplate this new consciousness, this new world that Jesus is imagining, that hospitality for the outsider, for the unknown, is central. I would like to share with you this morning something I saw this week that I have shared with a few others in the congregation. On Thursday I spent the morning at a church in Ashburton. During our morning tea I wandered past a table that I realized had a petition on it. I read the petition and it was a document addressed to both the Prime Minister, The Hon Kevin Rudd, and to the leader of the opposition, the equally Hon Mr Tony Abbott. It was a plea to the government of Australia to show compassion to those who are seeking political asylum in Australia. There was no party politics in it, because as we all know, both of the leading political parties agree on a clenched fist policy on this issue. But what moved me was the wording: "We the people of this community are always willing to welcome the stranger and ask our government to show hospitality to those who seek asylum from persecution." What moved me even more was that there were, and I counted them, 190 signatures on that petition. I am not so naïve to assume that everyone in this place today would agree with this action; but what a sign of solidarity from one community in Melbourne.
But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
The Biblical narrative provides two ways of interacting with the stranger. The first is hospitality and the second is hostility. They both come from the same root word. Most often we choose the latter, which is hostility; or if not hostility then indifference. It comes from our legitimate fear of the unknown, the stranger. And yet there is always the question of who we invite to the table and the position we give to that person.
In 1985 I travelled with my family to Canada to study at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario, about an hours drive south of Toronto. Things went well, I stayed and was about to become a permanent resident. About 6 years after we had arrived, and a few years after we had bought a house in Hamilton, a group of neighbours, all men, were building a fence for another neighbour. As always, the conversation wandered on to many topics as we laboured through the day. At one point, we talked about immigrants coming to Canada. One of the neighbours said, "Yes, I know they come here and take our jobs." I said, "Well Im an immigrant." "No I dont mean you," he replied, "I mean those other people." I assumed he meant those who were not Anglo-Saxon. I didnt tell him that my mother was Swedish. But perhaps that wouldnt have excluded me from the table either.
Then Jesus said to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, dont just invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
While I dont want to diminish the power of this story, it is not just about who you invite into your home for dinner. That is certainly a part of the intention of this story. But fundamentally it is about who we invite to the table of fellowship within the church, the community of faith. It is encouraging us to see that it is not only people like us; and it is not only able-bodied people; it is in fact all humanity and in particular those who we and society regard as unworthy and lesser than ourselves.
All are Welcome
I have for many years been an admirer of the vast group of Southern American writers: William Faulkner; Tennessee Williams; Harper Lee, whose book To Kill a Mockingbird remains a classic today; Truman Capote; and in particular Flannery OConnor, who traversed the religious divides of the South. Her essay Revelation, which is found in her collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, embodies the spirit of Jesus words in the passage we have been exploring. Toward the end of this tale the main character, Mrs Turpin, a religious person in the Pharisaic sense, is caught up in the whirlwind of emotion that is her own undoing. Turpin has been cut to the quick by the unsettling realization that, quite unlike herself, God cherishes the weak and foolish things of the world. OConnor invites the reader to contemplate a vision of the last days when the foolish, the unclean, the imperfect and the trash of human existence will lead the parade of creation into the "Kindom" (sic) of God; I am hesitant to quote it for fear of doing it an injustice:
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of purple sunset] as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon [this bridge] a vast horde of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in all their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized as those who, like herself had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. ... In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
Somehow or other, hospitality in this world calls each of us to welcome the strange. For in the unknown, in the mystery, in that which comes to us unbidden, we find a presence of God or the sacred or the divine and recognize that we are all welcome to the table of Gods unconditional love.