Hospitality 101

Birthday Balloons(Creative Commons Image by Mae Noelle on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

Save the date. You know those postcards you get in the mail? Well, we all just got one. God is throwing a big party — and you are all invited.

An extravagant banquet with God as the host is clearly the focus for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost given the selection of texts from Matthew, Isaiah, and Psalm 23. Most of us are aware of this biblical image for describing God’s eschatological feast, symbolic of God’s reign, the arrival of the Kingdom of heaven, and God’s abundant grace. But while we all like a good party, it’s a curious metaphor indeed — because parties never seem to go as planned.

Take the guest list, for example. According to Isaiah, all are invited, it seems. The word “all” is used no less than five times in only three verses. Really? All? Is there no care to crafting a guest list? Then there’s Matthew whose celebration begins with a select list of invitees who refuse to come so that the host is then forced to invite everyone in sight. Somebody has to eat this food and drink the wine. Finally, there are those guests you simply don’t know what to do with who show up and clearly did not pay attention to the dress code on the invitation.

You see, when you think about it, hosting a party is not so easy. In fact, it is vulnerable. Risky. Did I invite the “right” people? Will they get along? Who should sit next to whom? Will the guests like the food? Will the timing work out? Did I choose the right wine pairing (that’s always my worry).

Furthermore, parties, events, well, they are always a cause for reflection on their success — was it a good party? Did people have a nice time? Should I have served that dish? Did I tend to all of the guests equally? Will they want to come back if invited again?

And we haven’t yet even touched on the actual act of inviting people into your home. That’s a lot of exposure. A lot of intimacy — where the guests might see your attempts at controlled imperfection. When they might observe a disconnect between the you they know outside your home and now what you look like in your home. How they might wonder about your personal life, not to mention the inevitable fear of judgment, expectation, and competition.

And the reverse, from host to guest, is also on the line. We might ponder our motivations for how we respond to invitations. When do we decline an invitation and why? Is it because we are already booked? Busy? Tired of obligation? We just don’t like the company? It doesn’t sound fun? We have better things to do? We don’t want to be seen or known in places and environments we cannot control?

In the end, hospitality is not always a positive thing. There is risk involved, on the part of both host and guest. And hospitality, both offering it and receiving it, can be downright uncomfortable and sometimes even hurtful.

When it comes to the parable from Matthew in particular, we certainly go to that personal place, thinking about ourselves and our fate, as we are wont to do when it comes to the First Gospel. Am I the invited? The chosen? Will I choose the right outfit to wear? And, if we are honest, we also find ourselves in the space of wondering about others. Who will be invited? Why were they invited? Who put this guest list together anyway? If the sense is that I have reduced the parable to mere frivolity and party planning 101, then we have yet to explore the depths of what it means not to be offered hospitality; not to be invited; perhaps even rejected. We know it. We have experienced it — what it feels like not to be included. Maybe with this kind of willingness to name the underside of hospitality, then we will truly be able to hear the “all” of Isaiah that includes those deemed unworthy by others and sadly, by themselves.

And lest we get all caught up in ourselves, have we thought about the fact that God may feel the very same? What difference does it make that the way in which God chooses to depict life with God is an invitation to dinner? Where God has planned the menu, bought the wine, set the table, perhaps arranged for music or entertainment? Only to have the invitation refused because invitations are always susceptible to rejection.

There’s a lot at stake for God in this hospitality venture, and not just the satisfaction of throwing a good party. God puts God’s very self out there, vulnerable, open to having those invited, through God’s presence as Immanuel, decide not to save the date and opt for a better opportunity. But in the end, God simply won’t give up until the dining room is full, even over-flowing, perhaps embarrassingly so, uncomfortably so, disquietingly so.

Save the date, preachers. It’s going to be quite the party.