Preached on 21 July 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year C (Thematic track)
How do you express hospitality? Or maybe I should ask, how do we express hospitality? We have claimed hospitality as one of our core values, after all; as one of our charisms as a community. You’re getting ready to welcome your new rector at the end of the summer. And you are hoping to invite and welcome new people from the neighborhood and welcome back old parishioners who may have drifted away over the years. In the meantime, you will welcome guest priests who will preach and preside at communion.
The Transition Committee is offering a lot of guidance about tasks to complete to get ready, including a work party next Saturday to prepare the buildings and grounds.
You know, though, that even more important than welcoming a new rector, each and every week we welcome the beloved children of God into this space – the Body of Christ. Every week. And sometimes, some of them have never been here before.
It seems to me, that now might be a good time to take a closer look at hospitality and how we express it. And it just so happens that our lectionary helps us out.
In the reading from Genesis, we find Abraham resting in the shade of the trees during the heat of the day. When three strangers show up, he springs into action, anticipating the needs of the travelers. “Let me help you. Here’s some water to wash your feet. Rest in the shade, I’ll bring you something to eat. You honor me if you allow me to serve you.”
Then he enlists the help of the whole household – Sarah is to use the finest flour to make cakes. The servants are to slaughter a calf and prepare a feast! Of course, the story doesn’t end where our reading does. Abraham attends them as they eat and listens carefully to what they have to say; open to something new, to something impossible.
The gospel reading from Luke, also shows us aspects of hospitality. A woman, Martha, welcomes Jesus into her home. She expresses hospitality doing “many tasks.” I have always assumed she’s preparing a meal. Mary expresses hospitality by being present and listening, being open to what their guest has to offer them in his teaching.
In both stories, we find that hospitality is a group effort. Some may see to the immediate needs of the guest: freshening up after a journey, rest, a meal. Others may ready the space, the environment, ensuring everything is in place, ready to be used when needed. In each case, there is someone to personally attend to the guest and to listen to them. The guest is never left to fend for themselves. In each case, they listen to what the guest has to say; there is an openness to what they have to offer; a recognition that they may be a bearer of God’s grace and blessing.
What can we learn from these stories?
In our society, we often think hospitality is a matter of good manners, of being nice; that it’s optional. That hospitality is something we can buy – in fact, we refer to it as the hospitality industry! – and we expect to receive better treatment when we spend more money. And when it doesn’t happen that way, well, we’re offended, irritated, maybe even angry. We may post a low-rating and a poor review on TripAdvisor or Yelp.
This idea of hospitality as a commodity can influence our own expressions of hospitality. We may find ourselves judging who is worthy of our hospitality or even rationing it – some deserve more and others less. We may shrug it off completely, saying it’s not “our gift,” not our responsibility, assuming someone else will take care of it.
That is not the Hospitality that we claim as a core value. It is not the Hospitality that is a Christian Virtue.
What do you think the Christian Virtue of Hospitality would look like here, at Ascension?
While to-do lists are extremely helpful, hospitality can’t be reduced to a check-list. It’s not about how we look; it’s more than what we do. Hospitality is a way of being. It’s about who we are.
Now I’m going to turn this on its head.
We are in God’s house. Here, Christ is the host.
We are all guests. Each of us is invited here by Christ and welcomed as God’s beloved. As fellow guests, hospitality makes some demands of us. We have certain obligations to one another.
At the same time, it is up to us to embody the Hospitality of Christ to one another. Remember, we are the Body of Christ in the world. How do we express the Hospitality of God?
Hospitality is, in part, about what we have to offer. We share what we have with our guests. Abraham offered his guests shelter from the sun, water for their feet, the finest cakes, and a feast.
But hospitality is more about sharing of ourselves. Offering our presence, our attention, our ears, and even our vulnerability and our own story. It includes an openness to our guests and what they have to offer us. It’s an openness to the new, the different. An openness to the transformation we may experience. Think about how Abraham and Sarah’s lives were changed; how Mary and Martha were transformed.
Who knows? The person who walks through the door, whether for the first time today or the person who has been sitting next to you for the past fifty years, they may be the bearers of God’s blessing and grace, today. They may even be here to bring about the impossible.