Friday, October 3, 2008

Sermon for September 28, 2008

Core Values: Hospitality
Genesis 18:1-7; 19:1-3

When I think about hospitality, I think about the lessons I learned from my family. My Grammy Braddock always had people in her house. It was inevitable – she had 16 children. Every Christmas Eve we would go to her tiny apartment at the senior living complex. Every room would be stuffed with Braddocks. Our family overflowed into the sidewalks and parking lots. She never had much money, but she always put some food out – mashed potato salad with peas sticks in my memory for some reason. And she always had gifts for her 55 grandchildren – a pair of mittens or a box of chocolate covered cherries. She would go into her room and pick something from her stockpile of gifts, wrap it up, and hand it to you as if she had seen this gift in the store and thought only of you.

My mother’s mother was also famous for her hospitality. She had more money and lived in a bigger house. It was also stuffed with people – and animals. Holidays were not just for the family. Friends would come over. Friends of friends would come over. Friends of friends would bring their pets over. We would sometimes bring our elderly neighbor to my grandparent’s house, just so she wouldn’t be alone on the holidays. My grandmother welcomed anyone in and treated guests as part of the family. Even her annoying neighbors had a spot at the table.

My parents also had the gift of hospitality. I remember a bike rider stopping by our house. He was on a long distance ride, and he wanted a place to pitch his tent for the night. My parents offered our yard. They stayed up long into the night talking, eating, and laughing with this visitor. His trip became a yearly event – the biker in the back yard. I also remember how my parents hired unemployed guys to do odd jobs around the house, knowing full well that my father and brother and me could do it ourselves.

I remember the older woman who lived down the street. Mildred would walk by the house every day, deadhead my mother’s flowers by the mailbox, and then scream for my mother to come out of the house. “Debby. Deeeeebyyyyy!” she would screech. When my mother appeared, the Mildred would ask “Is your dog tied up.” Mildred was deathly afraid of dogs. Of course, all of her screaming would make Natasha, our 200 pound malamute, go wild --lunging for the mailbox until her chain yanked her back. Mildred became a member of the family – the strange spinster aunt who trembled and cried a lot.

Of course. Nothing at the Braddock house was ever idyllic. Our dogs reminded the neighborhood that they did not contribute to our famous Braddock hospitality. Our dogs would break into the neighbor’s rabbit hutch and eat the residents. We would come home and find a visitor perched on the hood of his car as a dog circled around the car like a hungry shark. It wasn’t wise to visit the house when nobody was home. One of our dogs backed a girl scout into a corner of the yard when she came to sell cookies. Even though our dogs had electric shock collars around their necks, they would break free of the perimeter and terrorize the neighborhood.

I like to think that I have inherited the famous gift of hospitality, but something may have gone wrong. I remember a dark, windy November night out in Western New York. Zoe was just a baby. Chris and I sat down for dinner in the parsonage when we hard a knock on the door. I opened the door to a young, scruffy man with Tourette ’s syndrome looking for odd jobs and a few bucks. There was no work to do – all our leaves had long ago blown over into the neighbor’s yard. We invited him in for dinner. Unfortunately for him, I was on my latest diet kick, and had cooked a disgusting casserole with turkey, artichokes, and cottage cheese. He ate it without complaint and, in between shouting out random obscenities, he politely declined seconds. However, when Chris offered him a peanut butter sandwich, he inhaled three of them down.

These stories remind me of the true meaning of the word hospitality. It comes from a Latin word, meaning “guest.” The same root word makes hospital, and host. It has to do with making a guest out of a stranger or an enemy. “Hospitality” is also connected to the Latin word hostio, from which we get the English word “hostility.” It means to give retribution or to pay back. A hostio is a victim – one who is treated with hostility.

Hospitality and hostility – they come from the same root. The first pays a stranger with kindness. The second pays back a victim with revenge. Our attitude is what determines whether a stranger ends up as a guest or an enemy.

Customs of hospitality vary widely, of course, from one culture to another and from one generation to the next. How the Bedouin out in the desert treat guests is different from how a white New Englander from Westport might do it or how a Latino family in Bridgeport might do it. How you entertain guests today may be quite different from how your grandma used to do it. The details may vary but what has remained constant across cultures and time is that most basic gesture of the host handing the guest food and drink. Hosts serve up meals. In the days before Burger King, travelers were dependent on the hospitality of strangers. If there were no people along the way to hand you a cup of soup and a hunk of bread, you would never reach your destination alive in the ancient world.

Handing food to a guest is basic Hospitality 101. When we pass bowl of turkey, artichoke, cottage cheese casserole, or that platter of peanut butter sandwiches, we declare to our guests, “I want you to live! Eat more. I want you to flourish.” The more we fuss, the more we tell our guests that we want to celebrate life with them. Think of the stereotypical European grandmother who keeps shoving food at you, even though you feel like you are about to explode. “Eat. Eat!” she’ll say as she scoops that fourth serving of eggplant parmigiana on your plate. You can’t NOT eat it. Her food is a sign of her fierce desire to see her family prosper.

The idea of biblical hospitality begins with today’s text from Genesis 18. In some ways this is such an ordinary scene. It was just another day -- a lazy, hot afternoon, maybe around 1pm or so. It was siesta time -- that time of the day when it is so dangerously hot, work stops. Sleep comes naturally after lunch on a hot day with a full stomach. I imagine old Abraham drowsing in a hammock under some big shade trees. As his head dips forward and then snaps back up (as so often happens at nap time), his eyes also pop open long enough to see three figures shimmering in the heat vapors from the hot desert sands.

Maybe he thought he was dreaming at first: who in their right mind would be out walking in the heat of the day like that? But as he shakes the mustiness out of his head he realizes this is no dream. Abraham rolls himself out of the hammock and moves toward the strangers as fast as his 100-old legs will carry him. “Please,” Abraham says, “you’re in danger out there. Let me get some cool water for your feet--they must be about burning up by now! Sit down and I’ll find some food. Just consider me your servant.” Abraham bursts into the tent. His ancient wife Sarah had just been drifting off into the delicious sleep of a well-earned nap. "I need you to bake some bread!” Abraham exclaims. “In this heat?!” Sarah no doubt wanted to reply. But she heaves her own antique bones off the cot and sets to work. Meanwhile Abraham dashes out to fetch some fresh veal, some yogurt, and some cool milk.

Sarah couldn’t grab a box of Bisquick and throw together some of those quickie dropped biscuits on the fire. Nor did Abraham scrounge around for the leftovers from their own lunch He literally put on the fatted calf. A person doesn’t slaughter, butcher, dress, and cook veal in fifteen or twenty minutes! Abraham and Sarah devoted their day to putting on a feast for these three people whom they didn’t know. And don’t think for a minute that they suspected these wayward travelers were really a gang of angels. Abraham and Sarah’s gracious hospitality to complete strangers speak volumes about their character. Abraham and Sarah are blessed for their kindness. They are promised a son, even in their advanced age. God’s promise to Abraham, made so long ago, will finally come true.

Abraham’s nephew, Lot, inherited the family’s famous hospitality. When visitors come to destroy the city of Sodom, Lot invites them in. They don’t want to stay, but Lot is so insistent, the visitors eat, and sleep. That night, the house is surrounded by the men of town. They are ready to hurt Lot’s guests and break the ancient hospitality ethic. Lot protects his guests, even at the expense of his own family. Biblical hospitality treats strangers as guests – more precious than one’s own children. Lot is blessed for his kindness. He and his family are allowed to escape before the destruction of the city.

In both accounts, the hosts become the guests. Human hostility is overcome by divine hospitality. God finds a way to sustain and nourish the life of every one of us, despite our living in a world where many see death as destiny. God declares a firm “No” to the idea that death will be the final and ultimate undoing of humanity.

Hospitality remains a core concept of Judaism. As a Jewish tradition insists, “Let the poor be members of your household.” This means that one should make poor guests feel totally at home by showing them a happy face and by giving them free reign of your home, just as you do with the members of your family. In this way they will not feel embarrassment through receiving hospitality.

Have you ever been with a people who are so full of themselves that they cannot be hospitable to you? Think about this for a moment. Let’s say there is a person who is so full of her own ideas, and so sure that her ideas are fascinating and correct, that her entire time with you is spent talking at you, convincing you, and directing the conversation, so that there is no hospitable space into which you can bring your own ideas.

Then there is the person who is so full of his own needs that he can’t greet you with the open, honest question, “Who are you?” but rather, “What can I get from you?” When you speak to him, you get the uncomfortable feeling that he is not listening to what you say. He only thinks about what he can do with it. You feel invisible, because you perceive that in his eyes you do not exist as a person for your own sake, but only as a means to his ends. Such a person cannot offer hospitality.

Contrast that with a description I read of an elderly Quaker man. “His gaze was not assessing, not suggesting, but completely even. His face was just there, beneath his wide-brimmed hat. He was so comfortable in his face. His eyes simply received me, like a lake.” The author wrote: “What if I were more like that? What if I suspended my reflex judgments, my endless impressions, and gave every person I met the spaciousness of the benefit of the doubt? What if I took time, made space, opened my heart, and invited them in?”

That’s hospitality. It’s a spiritual quality. It’s not just something we do. Hospitality is a way of being. It may end up with the concrete acts of offering food, drink, and shelter to a stranger, but it begins with a letting go of suspicion . . . a suspension of judgments . . . the cultivation of a spacious and welcoming heart.

Our core values here at TCC affirm that we encourage hospitality, extending a generous welcome to all our members, friends and visitors. No one is a stranger here. Church must provide an alternative to what we see in the world around us. We’ve got to feel comfortable and accepted here, even if we don’t have expensive clothes, perfect bodies, or white collar jobs. We’ve got to be accepted here even if we’re not entirely whole -- battling addiction or depression, self-esteem in the pits, so overwhelmed by life that we can’t do anything more than sit in a pew on Sunday and maybe shed a tear or two. We’ve got to be accepted here if we’re carrying unruly children, or bad luck in relationships or jobs, or a prison record.

Listen to me, and listen well. You are accepted here. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are part of us. We welcome you. We accept you. We want you. Strangers become our guests – no strings attached.


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