Sunday, November 9, 2014

Phil Kniss: Fully present and hospitable

Church matters: Hospitality
Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

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I can think of a lot of reasons why now,
in our particular place, and time, and season, and context,
hospitality might just be one of the most important things 
we can be talking about as a church.
Not one of those reasons is connected to food, 
at least not directly.

I’ve preached sermons on hospitality before, and will again.
I need to, if I want to be a Christian preacher.
It’s so central to Christian faith and life.
I decided to make hospitality the last installment
in this series on the practices of the church for the 21st century,
not because it’s the least important, but the opposite.

Hospitality is not just one more practice we add to the list. 
It’s different from the others in that
it’s an undergirding practice, 
a defining practice,
a practice that is often invisible. 

When some other practices are being done, it’s obvious.
We know when footwashing is happening.
We know it when we are practicing communion, or baptism,
or worship, or prayer, or fasting, or reading scripture.

It doesn’t always occur to us when we practice hospitality,
or when we see someone else practicing it.
We know it, only on further reflection.
We know it by its impact, by its effect on relationships.
We see it often after the fact.
You might even argue that hospitality is an attitude or human virtue,
more than a practice of the church.
But I’m going to stick with the notion that it’s a practice.

First, I need to clear away some wrong ideas about hospitality.
Being able to put on amazing dinner parties,
set beautiful tables,
add just the right spice to a dish,
and just the right atmosphere to an occasion,
has nothing whatsoever to do with hospitality.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest
that people known for beautiful table settings,
tasty food,
artistic atmosphere,
smart conversation,
and funny jokes,
are less likely to have the gift of hospitality.
I wouldn’t go that far, even if I’m tempted to.

I’ve been to gorgeous homes and perfectly-set tables
where it was obvious that the guests were the most important thing,
where the hosts acted
like nothing else really mattered in that moment,
except being fully present, attentive, and open, to their guests.
And I’ve had the same experience in the humblest of homes,
with the stuff of life scattered on the floor and table and everywhere,
without apology,
only welcome, attentiveness, and presence to me as their guest.

I’ve also been ignored as a guest,
in both kinds of houses.
So I say, there is no connection whatsoever
between entertaining skills, and hospitality.

Nothing wrong about being the “host with the most.”
I love a good dinner party.
Wholesome parties are good for our health and relationships.
The more the merrier.
Just don’t confuse them with hospitality.

If our aim is to orchestrate an event,
to manage the environment,
to entertain the guests,
hospitality actually works against that.

Hospitality is radical openness to the unexpected,
it is letting go of the outcome,
it is welcoming the stranger.
Hospitality never makes the encounter about us—
our space, our skills, our taste, our style.
It is always about the other.
It is about being fully present to another,
in whatever way they need us to be present.

So hospitality is hard work.
It can be exhausting.
It can hardly be done 24/7.
We need respite sometimes.
We need our own space.
It’s a lot easier, truth be told,
to put on a perfectly dazzling dinner party,
than it is to practice a life of deep hospitality.

Now that I’ve established what hospitality is not,
let’s explore more what hospitality might look like
in the 21st century church,
in everyday followers of Jesus,
in the workplace,
in the public square,
in the face of conflicting values,
in the presence, even, of the enemy.

A quick word study shows “hospitality” is derived from 
the Latin word hospes, meaning “host” . . .
but—get this—it also means “guest” or “stranger.”
Originally, there is no clear separation of guest and host.
The same root word branches off into all kinds 
of other interesting words we commonly use—
like hospital, hospice, hotel, and hostel.
Hostel, as in a boarding house.
But also, hostile, as in the posture of an enemy.
The related Latin hostis, actually means “stranger or enemy,”
which is where the word “hostile” comes from.

Are you confused yet?
Is hospitality about being the host, or about being the guest?
Is about friends, or about strangers and enemies?
The answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

I’m not trying to build my whole case on word origin,
but I think it’s at least worth pondering the notion
that in earlier times, and in other cultures,
hospitality was an expected duty;
hospitality was more about protection and survival,
in the days of traveling long distances on foot,
than it was about dinner etiquette and entertainment.

We’ve come a long way,
from the cultural expectation to feed and house the stranger,
to now gated communities and triple-locked doors
with alarm systems and video surveillance.
I fear that some perfectly reasonable safety measures
meant to manage risk in a modern world,
have had unintended consequences.

Self-protection starts to seem normal, and even noble.
We start living lives that are locked and dead-bolted
against anything that might disturb them.
We close ourselves to whatever it is 
that we fear has potential to harm us.
We make our circle of trust smaller and smaller.
And we become inhospitable Christians.
Guarded Christians.
Fearful Christians.
Christians who are thus paralyzed,
rendered incapable of stepping out into the unknown,
unable to engage boldly in the risk-filled mission of God,
ready to move, with God, 
into the broken and abandoned places of society.

For the Western church today, 
the practice of deep hospitality is counter-cultural,
and leads us to places we cannot foresee.

In the two scripture readings this morning,
the ones granting hospitality
had no way of knowing where that simple act was going to lead.

Had they known,
would they have taken that first step 
of opening themselves to the other?

When Abraham offered his time, and his tent, and his table,
to the three unknown visitors,
he could not have envisioned where that visit would lead—
to a promise that Sarah would bear a child in her old age,
to an impending disaster awaiting his nephew Lot
in the nearby cities about to be destroyed,
and the family disaster that followed.

But hospitality, from the moment the three strangers approached,
demanded openness to the unknown.
And Abraham, true to the multi-layered meaning of the word,
was both host and guest.
He gave and received hospitality,
and his life was changed forever.

And in today’s Gospel reading,
another example of hospitality—actually two kinds of hospitality.
Martha cared, meticulously, for Jesus’ physical needs.
Mary sat at Jesus’ feet in deep listening, and contemplation.

Both were valid expressions of care.
But Martha missed an opportunity for deep hospitality,
when she, rather than be fully present and open,
chose to manage and control the event, and her sister.
Mary, meanwhile, chose to be fully present to their guest Jesus.
She opened herself, her mind, her spirit, her life,
without knowing where it would lead.
Had she known she was befriending one who later
would be executed as an enemy of the state,
and enemy of her own people,
would she have allowed herself to get so close?
would she have been so hospitable?

This is a challenging time in our world,
the clash of civilizations and religions has never been more heated,
and more dangerous.
This is a challenging time in our nation,
political polarization is becoming more pronounced,
rather than less.
And we know this is a challenging time for the church,
with conflicting practices and convictions,
taking a toll on our church body, and on our leadership,
and certainly, taking a toll on our witness in the world.

This is the season, now, for deep hospitality—
in the world, in our nation, in the church,
this is the time for the followers of Jesus 
to renew the practice of hospitality.

This is the time for us to make the difficult choice,
not to manage and control, but to yield to the future God has for us.
This is the time to, like Mary, sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen.
This is the time to, like Abraham, 
to be fully present with the visiting stranger, the “other,”
whether that “other” be an Iraqi Muslim,
a Palestinian refugee,
a Jewish settler,
a Tea-Party Republican,
a far left Democrat,
a God-and-country southern evangelical,
a bleeding-heart liberal secularist,
a socially conservative Christian,
a gay or lesbian Christian,
a veteran, a soldier, a peace activist,
an environmentalist, or a climate-change denier.

This is the time not to walk away from those who are different,
but to walk toward,
with open hearts, open minds, open arms.

This is the time for the practice of giving and receiving hospitality,
the practice of being fully present,

All of which, by the way, 
are nearly impossible to achieve on social media & public forums.
It takes being with. Being fully with. 
Being face to face, with eye contact.

If, in our present church conflict over sexuality,
or in any other kind of difficult conflict we may face,
you hear rhetoric from either side 
that sounds hard, and positional, and ideological, and polarizing,
and frames the conflict entirely as an “issue,”
instead of speech seasoned with grace and kindness,
referring to people we know and relationships we value,
then you can pretty well determine
that person would benefit from the practice of hospitality.

In so many matters that are divisive,
whether theological matters in the church,
or different political visions,
or conflict between cultures and religions,
it’s easy to spot those who practice hospitality,
and those who don’t.
Hospitality honors the other, and moves toward difference,
and engages difference with respect and reverence.
Hospitality is fully present with the other.
Fully present. Attentive. Compassionate. Responsive.
The practice of hospitality will result, brothers and sisters,
it will result in speaking differently 
about the matters that divide us.
It won’t guarantee that we come to the same conclusions.
But we will speak differently about our differences.
And we will choose to remain in meaningful relationship
through our differences.

But now, lest you take me to be talking only about
getting along with people who have different points of view . . .
lest you think I am only preaching a gospel of mutual human respect,
which you will hear preached in every religion,
in almost any house of worship,
and in any secular civil gathering of reasonable people . . .
lest you think that,
let me add this to the Christian practice of hospitality:
We, as individuals, and as a church,
are called, are invited, are mandated by Jesus,
to be hospitable to the Holy Spirit.

Hospitality doesn’t begin and end with interpersonal relationships.
We create a space in our lives and in our churches
to welcome God, and open ourselves to God’s purposes and will.
Just as being fully present 
is essential to meaningful human relationships,
so being fully present with God,
being attentive, 
being responsive (that is, obedient),
is an essential component of the Christian journey.

We can hardly talk about faithfulness to the way of Jesus,
and faithfulness to scripture,
if we are not practicing hospitality toward the Holy Spirit,
if we are not in a posture of yielding to the Spirit.

Again, just listening to the Spirit doesn’t guarantee uniformity.
Obviously, we each are listening with less than perfect ears.
We each are listening through the filters that have shaped us.
We are certain to hear only part of what the Spirit is saying.

So it requires great humility,
and continued listening to each other.

But we still have to be in a listening mode,
and in a posture of openness to truth that the Spirit may yet reveal,
and a willingness to obey that which the Spirit reveals,
even if it’s a hard obedience,
that takes us in a different direction than we were heading.

That is simply what it means to practice hospitality.
It’s what it means to practice church.

So hospitality is easy to spot.

If all we’re hearing is noisy debates over issues and ideas,
and all we’re seeing is people pounding in stakes
and declaring immovable positions,
or organizing into affinity groups
whose purpose is to confront rather than listen,
or seeing people choose to walk away
rather than engage the other respectfully,
then we have become just another partisan political machine,
and we have neglected the church practice of hospitality,
and probably many other communal practices of the church,
at the same time.
If that is what we are seeing,
then we as a church are called to repent.

If, on the other hand,
we are observing compassionate reaching out to the other,
careful listening and waiting on the Holy Spirit,
if we are seeing yielding, and mutual submission,
and a desire to obey the call of Jesus and the will of God,
if we are noticing persons who strongly disagree,
truly honoring each other,
being fully present with and attentive to each other,
and together listening for the Spirit of God to speak,
then, thanks be to God, hospitality is being practiced,
church is being practiced,
and God is on the move!

—Phil Kniss, November 9, 2014

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