Text: Jeremiah 2:11: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?”
Martin Luther was a man of such magnetic personality that the people who had dinner with him collected the things he said in dinner conversations in a book that became known as the Tischreden, literally the “table sayings,” a book that we now have as Luther’s Table Talk. I suppose the people who gathered those snippets of conversation may well have been inspired by scripture passages like the one we heard this morning—a record of Jesus’ dinner-time conversations while a guest in the house of the Pharisee.
Something about the intimacy and familiarity of that setting makes reading the record of a dinner conversation feel immediate and accessible. We’ve all been around a table at dinner time; we’ve all known what it’s like to be entertained and beguiled by a good conversationalist at dinner.
There is one pretty obvious theme this morning, one we just plain can’t escape—and that theme is hospitality. We get it in the story of the dinner conversation in the home of the leader of the Pharisees, where Jesus is the guest; we get it in the counsel of the letter to the Hebrews, teaching us to remember to show hospitality not just to the people we know but to strangers.
But the theme does not really help us get to specifics. It does not help us much with the how, or with the whom.
Here’s what we think hospitality is supposed to be about: We’re the host, and it’s within our power to invite people around our table, whether it’s in our home or in our church, and we can divide the world into the tiny number of people we know whom we’d love to invite in and the countless host of strangers whom we don’t know, and will never know, and have no idea how to invite in.
Of course we think we’re welcoming to strangers, on the rare occasions that they come through our doors at the church. We may be somewhat less welcoming of strangers if they come through the doors of our house. I’m from the midwest, where we’d be too embarrassed to ask them to leave, and would probably apologize for not having coffee ready for them.
But you know, that isn’t really a very helpful teaching about hospitality. Because if we’re honest about it, we don’t see that many strangers. We do once in a while; we’re glad when we do. But really, the place we’re most likely to meet up with the people on the outside—whatever we imagine the “outside” to be—isn’t inside. It’s not at our own dinner tables, and it’s not here in our pews.
I wonder whether we have to think anew about how disciples practice the Christian virtue of hospitality—really, what may the the single most important Christian virtue, the one by which our claim to be disciples will be measured one day. The business of hospitality is the business of welcoming people, period. We’re used to doing that on our own ground; and two hundred years of Christian ascendance in this country perhaps made us a little to presuming about how the business of hospitality worked. We would welcome you, if first you came here to be welcomed.
But how shall we live out this call to hospitality if they don’t come?
I would bet that you share with me the particular blessing of having a few friends among your broader circle of acquaintances that you really admire for their character and compassion. They are the friends that you feel so much in common with, friends you feel a depth of connection with, yet who are not part of the faith community—not this one or any other.
To say it differently, they are the people we never see in church—even though we quite easily can see church in them. They have a well-tuned and functionally engaged moral compass; they are compassionate to others; they show mercy and hesitate from judgment; they care about the less fortunate and the despairing.
And yet, for some reason, they want nothing to do with us.
When you are in a job like mine, you meet quite a few of those folks. They are the people my age whose parents grew up in the church and raised them there; they are the people who disappeared from the church directory the day after they were confirmed and never returned.
They are the people who show up in my office when one or another of those parents have died, asking for the church to offer its services to celebrate that beloved life. And of course we say yes, because it doesn’t matter to us that that daughter or son has never been part of our community or any other, has never taken on part of the task of keeping these places going.
As I learn about them I hear about all the things they have grown up to do that are beyond any question acts of discipleship. But I always wonder just how it is they imagine we will keep going, keep being here to provide the prayers of the gathered faithful and move the tradition of the past into the hope of the future, without them—without their help, without their support, without the strengthening rigor of their doubts.
If we are going to exercise the discipleship of hospitality in our own day, and in our own circumstances, we are going to have to do it more effectively, and more engagingly, with those folks right where they are. We are going to have to show our hospitality not in our own homes, not in our own church, but in the places they call home—which is, by the way, exactly what Jesus is doing this morning.
I was in touch with one of those friends of mine this week, one of those people I genuinely admire and in whom I see the compassion and urgency for justice that is so much at the center of the church’s life, too. I’d written to her to ask her opinion on an author I thought she might be familiar with, and indeed she was; she is fiercely bright, and immensely capable, and long ago checked out of the church.
In the midst of our exchange she told me that one of her earliest memories of resistance was rebelling against the expectation of memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in third grade. She explained that the language of it felt left her heart feeling empty, that it didn’t offer either sense of guidance on her journey or a sense of a home in which to dwell.
I tried to respond by saying that I felt that despite our struggles with these traditions and this language, we need the form, the structure, of faith and its traditions to somehow keep us between the lines when we encounter the things that are beyond us—the great losses, the great joys, the heavy burdens, the times we know we somehow need forgiveness in order to be set free from the stuff we’re carrying.
What I got in response to this completely floored me. Instead of resisting, my friend sent me a direct request. Teach me why these are relevant today, she wrote me. Teach me how I can see this path as a way to make meaning rather than merely engage in a habit.
Now, that is a high-wire moment. That is an invitation to show hospitality. That is a stranger inviting you into their house, and giving you a chance to demonstrate the hospitality Christ expected disciples to show.
I can’t say that I think my response was worthy of the invitation I received, and I can’t say that I did a good job of showing that hospitality. I learned that her understanding of the church, and of our tradition, is that at its center is an agenda of judgment, and that that’s what she finds an insuperable obstacle.
We might protest at that; we might say that what’s at the heart of the gospel is acceptance and the reconciling love that God offers us. But we need to acknowledge that when you see it from the perspective of that stranger, of millions of strangers, what we say doesn’t often align with what we do.
To say it differently, when people show up in our pews for the first time just seeking some sort of connection with the loving heart of God, that is preparation enough for God to welcome them. So probably ought to be sufficient for us, too.
I love having people around my table in my home. But my friend taught me an important lesson about where it is I am called to show true hospitality, demonstrate a true welcome to doubts and fears and questions—not in the places where I am most comfortable, but in the places where the people who hold those, and struggle with them, live.
After all, that is what Christ did. Yes, he showed up at church and taught there from time to time. But you know, not once do I find him in the Gospels telling people to go there. Instead he is more focused on giving them reasons to want to go—giving folks reasons for wanting to be within the community of faith. It’s not that we get it right here, and everyone who stands outside gets it wrong. It’s that we need them to be better at this work ourselves. So we’d better be prepared to receive their invitations, sit at their tables, and show hospitality to all the unknown angels. Amen.