On Hospitality: Of Grandmothers, Friends, & Jesus

(*something akin to the sermon preached for The Second Sunday after Pentecost)

Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-17) | Psalm 116:1, 10-17 | Romans 5:1-8 | Matthew 9:35-10:23

While I went to a traditional church camp once in my childhood, my sleep-away camps during the summer mostly alternated between my sets of grandparents, fortunate as we were to live close to them. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many times I dusted furniture for my grandmothers or how many times I dried and put away the dishes after the endless stream of meals. With the patience of saints, my grandmas would let me watch them closely as they baked and cooked. While one grandmother tended toward silence, the other chatted away, filling me with her wisdom. It would usually be early afternoon as she prepared a dessert that she would sagely tell me the proportions of everything for the cobbler filling, remind me to cool the shortbread crusts first, or tell me that a toaster strudel cut in half would work for a crust in a pinch. She preferred to have a cake or a cobbler at the table, but she said for the unexpected guests, she kept cookie dough (homemade, of course) in the freezer. Unexpected guests meant they called the day of to let you know they were coming, I guess, because she had time to bake, but I promise you, if you stopped by completely unannounced, there were at least some Little Debbie snack cakes still in their wrappers but tastefully arranged on a cake plate or platter on the table.

It’s not a far stretch for me to think about Abraham welcoming his three visitors to his tent, humbly offering a little bread and a little water, only to go tell Sarah to bake cakes and the servant to prepare the meat while he surely goes for the curds and milk. How many of us have sat down to feasts where our hostess has told us it’s “just a little something (she) threw together”? Abraham, full of duty and obedience, has followed through on his generous welcome to these strangers, and I can imagine Sarah listening from the other side of the tent to listen for their praise of her cakes, utterly surprised when she hears that she’s going to have a child in her and Abraham’s old age. Very much not laughing, Abraham is asked by one of the three: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

With kids of my own, I find I’m not nearly as patient with my kids in the kitchen as my grandmother was with me. I’m not nearly as diligent about keeping my house clean (though there was a phase early in my motherhood that about made me crazy; I let the house be messy and preserved what was left of my sanity). Between storytimes, gymnastics, and park dates, along with keeping the kids relatively clean and fed, I was doing good to do dishes and laundry. Fortunately, there were other mamas like me whose husbands were working outside the home while we were holding down the fort. We scheduled weekly playdates for the kids when in all actuality they were mama dates. Whoever’s house we met at, we would let the kids loose while we gathered in the living room or around the kitchen table to vent or brag and always to laugh. There might be a couch full of laundry, a sink full of dirty dishes, and spots of God only knows what on the floors, but we greeted one another in solidarity and friendship and non-judgment. When snacktime or lunchtime rolled around, we’d bake some sweet potatoes and throw together a salad, putting everything in the middle of the table, and there would always be plenty. Eventually naptime would send everyone on our separate ways. We’d try to make sure the kids cleaned up behind themselves, but the hosts were always gracious (or eager) enough to let everyone get fussy kids home to bed. It would be a morning well-spent, leaving us all full and tired as good work does.

My older kids tell me this was part of our hippie phase, but maybe it was just another aspect of being hipster, of doing something before it was cool. In 2014, a priest circulated an article about what he called “scruffy hospitality,” and a follow-up article by another writer has been circulating this month. The point of these articles is that too often today we let our expectations of entertaining with excellence prohibit us from actually having anyone over, that we’ve actually prioritized  lawn maintenance and bathroom cleanliness over genuine friendship and fellowship. So, introduce “scruffy hospitality,” entertaining with open doors and hearts while leaving the judgment out of the picture.

Then there’s the hospitality of Jesus. I imagine Jesus looking out over the crowds, seeing with the eyes of God all the needs of the whole world. Jesus didn’t have his own house to worry about. Wherever he was, there was the hospitality. The New Testament version of hospitality isn’t just about offering room and board. It’s based on φιλόξενος (philoxenos). Philos, brotherly love, and xenos, stranger or immigrant or even enemy. In 2016, “xenophobia” was the #1 looked-up word on dictionary.com. It means fear of the stranger/others. Jesus’ hospitality is exactly the opposite, and it doesn’t require a fancy dinner or even a house: Jesus’ hospitality is in his very being, in his very presence. True love of others is “radical hospitality”–a catchphrase used often these days but not always with a matching sentiment. We can say we have “radical hospitality” and offer excellent food and open doors and fake smiles and broken, judging hearts . . . and newcomers to the church will not feel welcome. But in the midst of our gatherings when we acknowledge how good it is, how surely this is something like the kingdom of heaven, this heavenly banquet of love and laughter and song and silence, we know this is good news worth sharing with others, and others will know they are already part of the goodness and want to stay or come back for more.

As curate here at St. Luke’s, I have felt the generosity of Spirit from everyone here, whether we’ve shared stories or just smiles and handshakes. I know the importance of the obedience of Abraham–the hospitality of our grandmothers–and the significance of sharing wholly who we are where we are among friends. And I have seen with a sense of the Christ-mind and the eyes of compassion the work that is done and still needs to be done in our community. We have much work to do, but I know full well there is abundance of Spirit to do it. The same hospitality that has been shown to me needs to be shown to everyone we meet, with and for the love of God.

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All in a Word

Identity

Who are you at the deepest level? When Jesus looks at you and loves you, who does he see? What is it which truly makes you come alive? Is God inviting you to take a risk and to go deeper?

-Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

The church’s new year comes at the first of Advent. The calendrical new year comes January first, without fail. My bursts of energy and momentum to get going come in fits and starts like an old Model T; when I’m rearing to go, I’m full throttle, but when I’m not, there’s no end to the strain of getting motivated.

Except now.

At least, for these past few days or weeks.

Or has it been months already?

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I feel I’m awakening a bit more, becoming more fully who I truly am, realizing the amazing depth of growth. It’s not just about getting older, which I am, but it’s also about being more fully aware. One thing I find most interesting is that when I hear something–even if I’ve heard it before–there are implications and meaning. I am rarely dismissive. Our lives call for interaction, so I either act or not in any given circumstance, fully aware that my non-action has as much repercussion as any action I might take.

Awareness.

That’s a word.

But it’s not my word for this year, which I was trying so hard to have before January One. Like a child’s cooperation, though, I couldn’t force it and have it be authentic. I went through most of Advent following along with SSJE’s “Brother, Give Us a Word,” trying to increase my awareness and attention . . . and intention, probably. My motivation sputtered until it wasn’t even idling. I remained parked through Christmas.

A magical thing about the liturgical cycle is that it gets ingrained in us, and like any habitual practice, it can carry us, moving us onward even when it feels like we aren’t going anywhere. Along comes Epiphany, and maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s work among the people with whom he lived and breathed that I’ve been thinking deeply about my own work–not as a comparison, mind you, but as a what-am-I-doing-if-I’m-living-into-who-I-truly-am kind of way.

For better or for worse, in our American culture, what we do, what our work is, can be a reflection of who we are, who we identify ourselves as. (Not always, of course, but sometimes.) I work as a priest, which means I have a varied list of tasks and responsibilities. Working at being a Christian is a huge (if not whole) part of who I am. If I whittle down through what I do and filter through my gifts, I remember that as a child, I was always writing stories. I was always listening. Imagining. Think what you will about all the associations of the inner child, but I hear her loudly and clearly calling out to me with every writing utensil and journal I receive or buy, “WRITE!”

And that scares the bejesus out of me. (Pardon the expression.)

Which probably means it is one of the truest things that I can do.

This comes to mind:

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. ~ Romans 7:18b-20, NRSV

Writing scares me because in the process I tend to more clearly hear the voice of God, walk alongside Spirit, come face to face with Christ because it is right for me and probably right for others, too. Not doing it encourages me farther away from God, allows me to fill that energy with other, less life-giving things.

Writing scares me because in the sharing of my words, I open my heart even more than I already do (and I think I’m a pretty open-hearted person), making myself even more vulnerable. Vulnerable on many levels but especially the one where what I say might not please you, the reader.

So I’m reading Brené Brown after loving her TEDx talks but not reading the books lest they call me to actually do something daring. Obviously. I’m working on embracing my Wholeheartedness because that’s where I experience Joy. If I embrace the part of me who writes, then I can, perhaps, become even more Wholehearted which, in turn, means an even better Christian.

I accept the challenge. My word for 2016 is WRITE.

Doing that which is hard and scary is best not done alone. So I’m doing an even more ridiculous thing by asking for help. Dammit. <–Apparently my ego doesn’t like this.

  • Ask me how my writing is going, whether it be in my journal or blog or projects. (What writer doesn’t have multiple projects going?)
  • Share what your identity calls you to do.
  • Connect. If not with me, then with others. Find those who are trustworthy with your Wholehearted self, those who are there to help keep us focused when we slip and succumb to that which is not life-giving.

Giving full credit to Ciara Barsotti for the art and Brené Brown for the words, this sits as encouragement on my desk.

And I give myself a gold star today for writing.

 

 

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