Kathy and I have just returned from some vacation time in California, and even though we have done a lot of air travel in recent years, I have never quite gotten used to the way some airlines have two carpets—a red one for “priority access”, a blue one for the rest of us—to be used by those boarding planes at their gates. It’s a sign, I guess, of my ongoing problem with authority that even though I always travel coach I persist in at least stepping on the priority access red carpet as I board the plane. I mean, if I don’t think of myself as a first class person, who will?
The question of who is in and who is out is a big one in our New Testament readings this morning. In the Gospel [Luke 14. 7-14] Jesus tells us a parable about the embarrassment caused when those assuming a place of importance are asked to move down the social ladder when the honored guests arrive. He also advises us, when throwing a dinner party, to eschew the rich and famous and in their place to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”. And then there is the letter to the Hebrews, whose writer advises: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [Hebrews 13] I suppose if I listened to these readings more carefully, I would not insist on using the airlines’ red carpet—or any of the other perquisites my privileged position offers me. And I know I’d be found more regularly at a dinner table that looks a good deal more diverse than my own.
Hospitality is a big deal in the Bible. Both Jews and Christians were, originally, itinerant people, and travelling from place to place in the ancient Near East or the Roman world was a dangerous business. The climate was often inhospitable. And there were marauders and wild animals to be wary of. So it is easy to see why both the Old Testament and the New make such a point of enjoining God’s people to welcome others . In a dangerous world, hospitality is not just a social grace. It is a life-saving practice.
For about a decade I have been an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal monastic community with houses in New York, California, Canada, and South Africa. When you become an associate of a monastic order you don’t take their vows but you do commit yourself to observing, as far as you can, what they call their “rule of life”. The Order of the Holy Cross (OHC) is, like many monastic communities, organized around the Rule of St. Benedict, who lived in the sixth century and founded the Abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. Benedict reformed western Christian monasticism by simplifying it and making its requirements more livable. And because he lived in a time—early Medieval Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire—which was just as dangerous for travelers as was the Palestine of Jesus’s day, Benedict made hospitality a cardinal virtue for monastic establishments. In dangerous times, monasteries were both places of prayer and places of refuge.
In Chapter 53 of the Rule [“The Reception of Guests”], Benedict says, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received me" (Matt. 25:35). He also says, “In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
When Benedict says that we must receive all guests “like Christ” and that it is “in them that Christ is received”, he is building on a theology as old as the oldest parts of the Bible itself. In Genesis 18, Abraham welcomes three guests with food and water and shelter without knowing who they are, and we later discover that the guests he has entertained are angels or manifestations of the Lord. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that when we have visited the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, “as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Seen theologically, hospitality is neither just a social grace nor even a good, life saving practice. From a theological perspective, hospitality is a religious obligation, rooted in the center of our understanding of God’s relation to us human beings. God made us in God’s image. God has become one of us in Jesus. Every human child of God bears that image and so is worthy of the respect that we would extend to God. We welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ because, for us, the stranger IS Christ. Just as we are Christ to the stranger. And to one another.
I suppose this is why I have found many of the news stories this summer so troubling. This summer has been a time of vocal and aggressive inhospitality. Just think of what we have witnessed in the last several months: the passage of a controversial immigration law in Arizona; the protests raised over the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan; the active efforts by Baptist churches in California and Ohio to stop the construction of mosques in their own communities; and yesterday’s “Restoring Honor” Washington mall rally organized by a cable TV personality whose slogan, “Christian Faith-Based Patriotism” seem to imagine America as a country with only one religion. Though I’m sure all of us in this room could bring our multiple perspectives to understanding these and other events, and that many of you will differ from my response to them, the sheer avalanche of cultural inhospitality this summer makes me nervous. It is customary in tough times to identify “others” or “outsiders” as the cause of our troubles. This is a natural and understandable human reaction. But it is not a Christian reaction. Welcoming, openness, acceptance—these things are not merely optional Christian values. They are the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. As the author of the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” [Ephesians 2.13] Translation: before there was Jesus, all of us were alienated, cut off, lost because of human sin. But in the Jesus event, those of us who were far off have been brought near. Further translation: by our nature, we are not fit even to walk on the blue carpet. But by grace all of us have been asked to walk on the red one. We have made the transition from sinner to saint. But we did not make that passage ourselves. God has made it for us.
The problem, of course, comes when we fool ourselves into thinking that we belong and others don’t. In the musical Finian’s Rainbow, Senator Billboard Rawkins gets so frustrated with foreigners that he finally shouts, “My family’s been having nothing but trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country!” To be a Christian is always to be aware of the fragility of our own status. We who were far off have been brought near. We who were dead are now alive. We are all strangers in a strange land, sojourners seeking what the letter to the Hebrews calls “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.“ [Hebrews 11.16] It is only when we realize that we, too, are guests (or strangers or aliens or whatever you want to call us) that we understand the depth and power of the gracious gathering of all people that God is up to in God’s world.
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” He continues, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." This is a story, really, about God and us. You and I are the strangers, the alienated, the lost—the ones who have been invited to God’s banquet. We are the ones who, in the language of the other story, who have been asked by the host, “Friend, move up higher.” We are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. We were far off and now we are near. We were dead and now we are alive. We were lost and now we are found. Only as we know this about ourselves will we be open to the radical blessedness of God’s love for us. And the great test of our openness will be our ability to see the other not as a stranger but as us.
It is not coincidental that Jesus uses the image of a dinner party when talking about the embracing, welcoming love of God. We empathize with those we know; we distrust those we don’t. As you gather at your household’s dinner table tonight, look around and see who is there. Then see who is not there. It’s no wonder that we have trouble building a multicultural, embracing society when our own dinner tables are so selective. And I include myself and my own household in that judgment.The challenge from Jesus in today’s Gospel is for us to start to build connections to others at the relational level. The solution to these problems will not ultimately be found in lower Manhattan or Arizona. It will be found at our dinner tables. If we develop relations with others faithfully, the larger social questions will begin to take care of themselves.
We now come to the Eucharist, to God’s banquet, to Jesus’s dinner party. This meal is the model for all our household and social celebrations. Note the uncritical, inclusive way that Jesus presides at this meal. God asks nothing of you—not where you came from, not how you lived your past life, not how you have treated yourself or others. God only asks that you come. In accepting that invitation, you acknowledge God’s hospitality to you. And if God has so totally accepted you, can you be an agent of exclusion for someone else? So come, now, to God’s table where you are welcomed as Christ himself. And knowing yourself loved as Christ is loved, you can love and accept others as he did, too. Amen.