And the Gospel Is? Hospitality

Have you ever noticed that a lot of our conversations around hospitality are rather one sided? That is, we tend to talk about our hospitable nature, our hospitality as a spiritual gift, our “willingness” to extend hospitality, all the while patting ourselves on the back. But when was the last time you accepted hospitality? When was the last time you relied on hospitality?

Because it’s one thing to be invited to dinner. It’s quite another thing to wonder where dinner will come from if you are not.

According to Jesus, discipleship demands dependence on hospitality (Mark 6:7-12), and this dependence is not just doing it, but more so, receiving it. And needing it? Well, that’s a whole different story — a story witnessed by SCOTUS last week. Regardless of your opinions about healthcare and same-sex marriage, the decisions of the court have major implications for how our imagination works when it comes to hospitality.

Needing hospitality is a story that requires vulnerability and letting go. A story that gives up control and eases into risk. A story that anticipates rejection at every turn and yet gives witness to God’s love regardless.

Of course, as you know, hospitality was indispensable in the ancient world. There were few restaurants or hotels along one’s journeys on the dusty roads of Palestine. Little travel was possible without the assumption and expectation of hospitality. In fact, there would hardly be a mission to the Gentiles without counting on the hospitality of the absolute other. But we should not let 2,000 years and our taming of the Gospel to justify the claim that hospitality is any less essential now.

Hospitality is not just having someone over for a nice meal. Hospitality is not just letting someone in for a spell. And really, there’s no such thing as “radical” hospitality or “genuine” hospitality. We like to add all kinds of adjectives to our hospitality practices as if to suggest that ours is better than others. At its heart, hospitality is, simply, radical. There is no other kind of hospitality. You either are or you aren’t hospitable. If you welcome some and exclude others don’t pretend you are hospitable.

When Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church flung open its doors the Sunday after the shooting did you, could you even, imagine what it would be like to walk through those doors that Sunday? Are you ready for that kind of hospitality? Are you prepared for that kind of showing of mercy? (Psalm 123) Are you willing to be received with that kind of welcome? If you are not, then perhaps discipleship, at least Jesus’ version of it in the Gospel of Mark, is not for you.

And as much as we claim its necessity, its importance, that it’s a mark of the church, we seem hell bent on doing the best we can to communicate our inhospitable nature. We have extended and belabored conversations about who is welcome at the Lord’s Table. We feign that welcome coordinators and nametag stations and visitor cards in the pews suffice as genuine reception to another. We justify biblical interpretations that result in hate and not love. We persist in setting in place systems and rules by which to secure our institutional, synodical, and denominational futures that come from a place of entrenchment and fear rather than openness and hope.

True hospitality is far too vulnerable for most of us. This is the real rub of the story of the good Samaritan. Does the guy in the ditch really want help from the Samaritan or would he rather die? The latter is the point. We would rather die than accept assistance from “those people.”

Maybe this is the sermon to take stock of the hospitality practiced by your parishioners and by your parish as a whole. Maybe this is the sermon to take a good look at yourself and your sermons in general. Does your preaching practice hospitality? When was the last time you took a sermon inventory, that is, read over your sermons from the last year (a good summer exercise!) and addressed seriously your vocabulary, your theology, your images, your illustrations, your stories on the basis of, or through the lens of, hospitality as a theological category? If it’s a rare occurrence that your sermons offend (Mark 6:3) you may not be preaching the true hospitality of the Gospel. If most of your sermons get only nods of acceptance and acquiescence you may not be preaching the kind of hospitality that Jesus lived and on which he insists from his disciples. If most of your proclamation is palatable to your hometown, you may not be preaching hospitality at all but a watered-down version of welcoming the stranger.

Or, maybe this week you admit your own need for hospitality. Maybe this week you walk through the doors opened to you and let go of your excuses about discomfort and time and worthiness. Maybe this week you truly give up control and give in to what others want to do for you.

This won’t be easy. And it will probably be uncomfortable. A theology of hospitality requires a reassessment of everything — practices, language, and symbols; rituals, confessions, and flags; sacraments, rulings, and where we falsely assume power is located. But it’s worth it. Because to experience the kind of hospitality that Jesus has in mind is to experience the love of our God — so deep, so wide, so huge; the love of our God which shows mercy no matter what; the love of our God which became flesh so that the doors of the divine heart might be flung open to all.