Loving the Strange: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year C

 

Radical Hospitality.

All are welcome here.

Inclusion. Diversity.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

These buzz words and slogans are everywhere. In public discourse and especially among progressive Christians. Hospitality comes up in conversations around ethnic diversity and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. If you were to read current literature on congregational growth and vitality, hospitality is always one of the key themes. Like many other churches, at Grace we pride ourselves on our hospitality. If you’re visiting today, join us for coffee hour to test whether we put our words into action.

Hospitality can also be a challenge. We struggle to find the right balance between hospitality and safety, and the perception we might make on ourselves or outsiders if we hesitate to welcome the stranger. Perhaps some of you noticed last Sunday a man hanging out on the tower steps, blocking entrance to the nave from N. Carroll St. He’s someone who spends a lot of time around Grace when he’s not in jail or in mental health treatment. Over the years, I’ve talked to his case worker, I’ve had to call the police when he was especially belligerent or acting inappropriately. The presence of people like him on our property or in our services is something that comes along with our location downtown and the fact that we host the men’s homeless shelter.

Today’s reading from Hebrews provides a larger context for thinking about hospitality. It’s not politeness or courtesy. Our reading comes from the last section of the book after the author has laid out very carefully and in great detail his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death. Central to that understanding is the argument that the death of Christ or to use the author’s language, Christ’s sacrifice, has rendered unnecessary and obsolete the sacrifices of the Jewish temple cult.

But that raises a question. If ritual sacrifice is no longer necessary, what sort of divine worship is appropriate in the new age ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? The last verses in our reading suggest an answer: “a sacrifice of praise”—by the way, that’s a phrase we use in our Eucharistic prayers.

There’s another dimension to that worship, however. For the author of Hebrews, divine service includes the sacrifices of doing good and sharing what we have for they are also “sacrifices to God.” So when the author speaks of hospitality, of visiting the prisoner and the torture victim, he intends us to see those acts not as some sort of add-on to our faith, but at the very heart of our relationship to God. He underscores the centrality of these acts by encouraging us to see those in need as if they were ourselves.

Such acts are worship; they are not done to a stranger, but to ourselves. But there is something strange here. The word translated as hospitality is literally rendered “love of the strange.” In the ancient Greco-Roman world, to open one’s home to guests was to risk the encounter with the strange and different. Travelers brought news of the outside world, information and experience that shattered the narrow confines of ordinary life. There was a sense in which inviting outsiders in was almost dangerous. That’s a feeling we all know.

But the biblical tradition had a very different emphasis. Welcom of the stranger was a crucial value. Our passage alludes to it when it refers to the possibility of entertaining angels unknowingly, as Abraham did when he invited the three men to stay for dinner by the oaks of Mamre. The idea of welcoming the stranger was central to Hebrew self-understanding, for they dwelt as “aliens and sojourners” in a land that was not their own. The memory of having been “aliens and sojourners” pervades the law, dictating how the Israelites were to treat strangers and aliens who lived among them.

The focus of the gospel is somewhat different. Jesus and his disciples are dining at the home of a Pharisee and as the group goes in to dinner, Jesus notices the guests’ behavior, offering commentary on it. On the surface, his advice sounds rather like the advice one might have received from an expert on manners, or even, perhaps, a self-help book intended to help on succeed in life or business. And it has been taken as such. There’s a book published a couple of decades ago, still in print, titled “Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership.”

But Jesus isn’t giving his listeners a lesson in etiquette. He is reminding them, and us, that meals are about more than filling your stomach. In the gospels, meals, the eating and the fellowship are also about the kingdom of God. He adds one of his characteristic statements: all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He is expressing one of the key values in the kingdom of God, that it is a world turned upside-down; a world in which the values we cherish and hold dear are upended, undone by God’s values.

That point is made even more clear by Jesus’ next statement, advice he gives to the dinner host: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your neighbors, in case they might 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.” That hardly sounds like the Hollywood A-list. Instead of thinking about our self-interest, what we might gain by hosting, or attending a dinner party, Jesus tells us that we should be thinking about something else—throwing a dinner party for the sake of those who really need it, and who could never repay us.

Banquets may have been places where the social order was reinforced in the ancient world, but among Jews, banquets were also a symbol of God’s reign. The image of the messianic banquet, where the food was plentiful and rich and the wine flowed freely, was one of the dominant ways Jews articulated their hopes for a new age. That symbol was retained by early Christians, and here Jesus lays out his vision of the heavenly banquet, where all would find a place. The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled, those were the same groups Jesus preached about at his very first public appearance in Luke’s gospel. Now they are included in the promised banquet.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of hospitality, of radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, embracing those different from ourselves. But I’m uncomfortable with the structure of the discourse around hospitality. It comes from a place of privilege and power—the wealthy host inviting–the less fortunate to dine with him.

Think about the setting of this story in the gospel. Jesus and his disciples are traveling; they are on a journey to Jerusalem that will end with Jesus’ crucifixion. On that journey, they are receiving hospitality. Luke tells us at there were women with them along the way who ministered him. But Jesus also received hospitality as he did here.

The story takes place at the home of a Pharisee. It’s not the first time Jesus dined at a Pharisee’s table but it’s worth noting. At various points in Luke’s gospel, Jesus engages in controversy with the Pharisees. It’s a conflict within Judaism, a conflict over how to interpret the law, not over whether the Jewish law is valid. We saw that last week as Jesus and the leader of the synagogue disagreed on whether it was appropriate to heal on the Sabbath, and coincidentally, in the verses of chapter 14 not included in today’s reading, a similar controversy over Sabbath healing takes place at this very dinner.

So the Pharisee, as he offers hospitality to Jesus, is welcoming an opponent, perhaps even an enemy into his home. Their conversation is not convivial but adversarial. Jesus is not being a polite guest and he disses the other guests as they seek out their places at the table.

There is wisdom here for us. We ought to think about receiving as well as giving hospitality, for as I said, offering hospitality comes from a place of power and privilege. To cede that power and privilege, to step out of our comfort zones and encounter the other, the stranger or alien, in neutral space. Or better yet, to meet them where they are—as the author of Hebrews reminds us, to visit the prisoner –is to open ourselves in vulnerability to that encounter, to risk receiving and learning, to risk being transformed.

 

 

 

 

 

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