Rooted In Faith, Growing In Hospitality

Steve Lindsley
(Deuteronomy 10:12-21; Luke 14:12-14)

Her name was Ashley.  She was in my 5th grade class in elementary school.  Her seat, if I remember right, was about three up from mine on the left, just under the chalkboard.  I remember if our teacher got a little over-zealous with the chalk, which happened a good bit, the dust would fly into Ashley’s bushy brown hair, making her frantically brush it out.  I remember we worked on our big science project together.  I remember her brother played football for his middle school. 

But what I remember most about Ashley was the huge birthday party her parents threw for her that year.  I don’t know exactly what her dad did for a living, but it was apparently something with a good paycheck, because Ashley’s birthday party was shaping up to be the party of the year.  Something about dozens of Domino’s Pizzas, a three-decker cake and a live rock band caught my attention.  Everyone was going to be there, so I heard.

Except that was the thing – who exactly was “everyone?”  And more to the point, was I one of them?

All these years later and I’m a little embarrassed at how consumed I got over whether I was invited to Ashley’s birthday party or not.  One day a couple of weeks out, I heard from a friend who heard from a friend who heard from a friend who heard from Ashley that she was sending out the invitations.  I cannot recall a time when I was more interested in the inner-workings of the US Postal service.  Every afternoon I’d rush home from school, bypass my afternoon snack, and head straight for the pile of mail on the kitchen counter.  Thumbing through things like bills and junk mail, I’d look frantically for some small-sized envelope with a kid’s handwriting on it. 

I started hearing eye-witness reports: the invitations were a little larger than an index card; multi-colored letters plastered on the front proclaiming almost triumphantly: YOU’RE INVITED!  Inside was the standard “what,” “who,” when,” and “where,” and some reference about it being the “party of the year.” 

As each day passed with nothing of note in the Lindsley mailbox, I started getting worried.  Surely mine was in the mail, right?  Maybe it was just taking a little longer.  But what if it wasn’t in the mail?  What if she’d forgotten about me?  Or, worse, what if chose not to invite me at all?  How could I ever show my face in public again?  What would it mean for the rest of my life?

So – did I get invited or not ?  I’ll come back to that a little later.  Because whether I got invited to this birthday party some decades ago is not really the point of why I’m talking about it now.  The point is how I let it consume my young life for a couple of weeks.  Because that’s what we do with things like this, don’t we?    We want that invitation because it means something to us.  It means we’re part of the “in-crowd.”  Part of something bigger than ourselves.

Our New Testament scripture today is also about a party and an invite list.  Some scholars refer to the 14th chapter of Luke as “The Perfect Banquet.”  Jesus himself has gotten an invite; this one to a dinner hosted by some Pharisees.  Everything about this meal runs counter to the gospel Jesus has given his life to; and so Jesus uses the occasion to paint a picture of a whole different kind of meal, one that more closely reflects the kingdom Jesus has come to build.  It is the “perfect banquet.”

And suffice to say it is not what we – or those dinner guests – might’ve expected.  By the time we get to the 12th verse, Jesus has already berated the host, broken party etiquette, and thrown the traditional seating assignments out the window.  And he’s not done – not even close.  Next up: the heralded invitation list.

Listen again to what he tells them to do:

When you give a dinner, Jesus says, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

Can we stop right here and play this scenario out in our heads a bit?  Imagine you’re putting on a party.  Maybe it’s a birthday party like Ashley’s; or maybe it’s a holiday gathering, or a graduation party, or just a party for the sake of having a party.  You’ve got all the goodies and supplies tucked away in the pantry and freezer.  The Buffalo wings have been ordered and the raspberry lemonade recipe has been located.  Food-wise you are good to go.

So you sit down next to work on the invitation list.  You’ve got your colleagues from work that you enjoy.  You’ve got some family that live nearby and can make a two-hour round trip.  You’ve got some neighbors a few houses around you that you hang out with.  And you’ve got some of your church friends as well, they’re always good to party with.

You write all of those names down, and you take a look at it, and it’s a marvelous list, really; an ideal gathering.  You can see all those folks getting along, even the ones that don’t know each other.  It’s the perfect invite list.

But you take that list, crumple it up, and throw it in the trash can.

And now you start a new list, which looks nothing like the first.  This one has the name of the neighbor a little further down the street whose dog always wanders into your yard for particular purposes.  This one has the name of the guy two cubicles over at work who hasn’t said a word to you since the day you started there.  This list includes the man who walks down the street every day at exactly the same time, the guy all the kids make fun of because he wears the same red wool blazer even when its 95 degrees.  This list includes people you’ve never met before but whose names you found in the obit section after the words “survived by.”

Can you imagine, can you fathom what this dinner would look like?  All these people you know and don’t know; some you don’t get along with, some you barely know anything about.  That’s the invite list you use. 

It’s bizarre, for all kinds of reasons beyond the obvious ones.  Back in the day, dinner invitations not only affirmed one’s social standing in the community, they also reinforced a kind of balanced reciprocity.  In other words, when someone invited you to a meal, it was understood that the host would expect a similar invitation from you at a later date.  This was how one improved their social standing: if you had a party and invited the elite, they in turn would invite you to theirs.  It was, to put it quite bluntly, a meal with strings attached.

Now such a scenario might make sense with the first invite list.  But not with the second. Those folks would never think of inviting you to their own party.  Those folks would not have the means to throw a party of their own to begin with. 

And yet, this is the party Jesus is telling us about.  A party for and with people who don’t like us; a party for people we don’t even know, a party for people who could never or would never return the favor. 

To us, it’s the makings of a disastrous party.  But to God, it is the perfect banquet.

Perfect because it is grounded not in cultural etiquette or societal norms or balanced reciprocity.  Perfect because it is grounded in radical hospitality.

Now you and I have talked about hospitality before, but it bears repeating, because what you and I tend to think of as hospitality is far removed from what Jesus is thinking.  We hear the word “hospitality” and think of the food and drink table at the business convention.  We think of southern charm serving up a cold glass of lemonade on the front porch on a hot summer day. We think of pleasant dispositions and warm smiles.

But biblical hospitality speaks to something entirely different; a hospitality we find throughout our Old and New Testaments, echoed in dozens of laws and commandments.  A biblical hospitality with four key understandings:

  • All human beings bear the image of God;
  • All humans are relational creatures, meaning none of us live in true isolation;
  • All humans are dependent on each other,
  • And all humans are, in essence, invitees to a party hosted by God.[1]

We find this biblical model of hospitality at the very heart of our Old Testament passage today:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Three kinds of people are the recipients of biblical hospitality here.  The first two, orphans and widows, we find mentioned over and over in the Old Testament, precisely because in the ancient world orphans and widows were the most vulnerable.  No parents, no husband, no support structure.  Hospitality for orphans and widows was commanded because if the people of God didn’t care for them, who would?

And then there’s the stranger.  The Hebrew word here speaks of a foreigner, an alien, but not someone just passing through.  Someone that, for whatever reason, will be here for awhile.  In our day and time we might call them an immigrant.  The stranger, too, was in a vulnerable position because they didn’t have family or other connections nearby to lean on during their extended stay.  They, too, were recipients of God’s hospitality.

What’s fascinating about this Deuteronomy passage – and I wonder if you noticed this – is that God is not just commanding us, God’s people, to show hospitality to orphans, widows and strangers, but showing it to them God’s very self.  God is literally setting the standard for us to follow.

Don’t you see?  With Jesus’ perfect banquet and God’s lived-out commandment, you and I are faced with two very important questions:

The first one is, who are the most vulnerable in our day and time?   Who are the ones least likely to make the first invite list?  Who are today’s orphans, widows, strangers?  That the first question.

And the second: in what ways can we extend those folks the same radical, biblical hospitality that God has already extended them?

So – who are the most vulnerable of our day and time, and what does hospitality to them look like?

It’s not as simple as we might think, folks.  Because radical, biblical hospitality is more than simply being nice, more than simply serving the least, more than feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  And that’s a shame, because those are things we’re already in the habit of doing here at Trinity; and they are good and noble things, and we do a pretty good job with them.

But if we as a church are going to be rooted in faith and growing in hospitality, we have to do more than good and noble things.  We have to broaden how we think and how we act.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

We make sandwiches for the hungry in our community – like we did the other week in advance of Hurricane Florence.  They are delicious sandwiches that feed people who would otherwise go hungry.  Making sandwiches for hungry people is a good and noble thing.

But what if we did more than just make sandwiches?  What if instead of just slapping meat and cheese and bread together, we took those sandwiches and other food and drink to a table, a table where the vulnerable God had invited were already sitting?  And what if we sat down at the table and had a conversation with our invited guests, so we could get to know them and they us?

That is taking a good and noble thing and growing in hospitality.

Or how about this – we partner with NationsFord Elementary to collect books and other supplies so kids and teachers have what they need to learn and teach.  And that is a good and noble thing.

But what if we actually took those supplies to the school ourselves, and walked in those classrooms, and read one of those books to the kids, and laughed with them?  And what if we had a conversation with the teachers where we listened to their joys and frustrations, and offered our ongoing prayers and continued support?

That is taking a good and noble thing and growing in hospitality.

My friends, I have seen it up close, time and time again.  The way you love and care for each other, the way you reach out to the community around you with open arms and caring hearts.  I have seen you do good and noble things, and what a gift that is.

But friends, radical hospitality calls us to do and be more than that.  It’s throwing away the first invite list and making a second.  It’s kicking societal norms and balanced reciprocity to the curb, and putting in its place the kind of radical hospitality that God’s very self exudes.  It is not just feeding or clothing or educating the most vulnerable, but inviting them to ongoing participation in God’s perfect banquet.   

For the record, I did get the invite to Ashley’s party.  And it was true that there were a lot of Domino’s pizzas along with a three-decker cake.  The rock band thing was a total rumor, though.  Still, it was indeed the party of my 5th grade year.  But here’s the thing: 6th grade eventually came, and I forgot all about what happened before.

We don’t forget it when God throws a party.  “This is what God’s kingdom looks like” says author Rachel Held Evans: “A bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”[2]

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2074-77052014000100004, visited on 9.16.2018.

[2] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.