Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hachnassat Orchim (Hospitality): Hebrews 13:2

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

Although our churches talk about hospitality and modern Christians often make sincere efforts to practice it, our vision of that idea is different from the vision that Biblical writers most likely would have had.

When we talk about offering hospitality to folks, we usually focus on people who've come through our doors. We want to make sure they can find what they need and that they're greeted when they walk in. We want to be able to direct them to the coffee pot if it's been a chilly morning, make sure it's easy to find the nursery if they've got younguns -- and make sure they know where the bathrooms are, younguns or no -- and so on. But that's a focus on guests we already have. The culture of the ancient Near East looked at hospitality a little differently, and many places in that region still carry some of those hospitality traditions today.

The Hebrews passage refers to a time when Abraham saw three strangers passing by his tent and invited them in for a meal and to stay the night. The strangers were a manifestation of God -- or maybe messengers from God -- and they gave Abraham (then Abram) and his wife Sarai a prediction that they would have a son, even though they were very old. When they entertained the three travelers, they turned out to be entertaining angels, or maybe even God. Today, we look at this passage and maybe take from it that we should be kind and welcoming to the visitors in our midst. That's in no way a bad thing.

But it overlooks a difference between our culture and the culture that shaped Abram and the writer of Hebrews. We might think that Abram was pretty nice to offer a meal and a place to stay to people he just happened to see wander by. In his culture, though, someone who didn't offer at least that much to a passing stranger would have been thought of as strictly no-class, the kind of person decent people didn't associate with. If Abram had let the travelers go on by and someone would have heard about it, people would have avoided his company and some might even have refused to do business with him, neither buying anything he might want to sell or selling him anything he might want to buy. Decent people wouldn't even think such a thing!

Some of that may stem from the realities of life as tribal wanderers in a desert or near-desert region. If you were camped out for a longer stay at an oasis, you were at one of the few places where there was water. Individuals or small groups that couldn't carry as much water with them might have been counting on watering up at the oasis where you were and if you turned them away, they might not even make it to the next water source. If you were camped out for the night between water sources and you turned someone away, they might be set on by bandits or wild animals. Either way, you would be responsible for harm they suffered, all because you turned them away from your doorstep. Actually, your tentflap, but you get the idea. Thus, hospitality became not just an issue of good hosting, but of morality -- morally good people didn't turn strangers away.

My Old Testament professor talked about being invited to a house once when he was a student on an archaeological dig in Israel. One of the young boys who hung around the dig, running errands every now and again for the strange Americans who dug holes very very slowly, decided to invite my professor back to his family's home for dinner.

Now, you might imagine the average mom and dad being a little flustered to learn that Junior has invited some stranger back to the house to eat. And you might figure that, were you the person invited, you would have no problem telling mom and dad, "Look, it's no problem if you weren't expecting guests; I'll just be on my way." Not in the Middle East. Mt professor said he was invited in, given the best seat at the table, and told if he liked he could spend the night there and the mom would pack him a lunch the next day. In fact, if he liked he could stay with the family during his whole time on the dig.

When he returned to that village just about 20 years later, he made a point of stopping by the family's house -- not because he was looking for a meal or just wanted to say hi or see if they were still there. But because if he had not, it would have been rude. In fact, if the family learned he had been nearby but had not stopped to see them, so they could invite him to stay for a meal and again, to stay with them as long as he wanted, they would have been insulted, no less than if a family member had done so.

All because their small son had once invited an odd Canadian grad student home for dinner.

That's the kind of thinking behind the hospitality that Jesus offers you and me. We might figure that, since hospitality to a stranger places such immense obligations on the host that hosts would be very very careful about who they invited in. And yet we find that the high cost of hospitality doesn't ease the obligation to welcome the stranger at all! The host can't fall back on, "Well, he looked a little seedy, so I let him keep walking." We don't have to think too hard to see ourselves as wanderers in a deadly land, offered a place to stay and food to eat by Christ as our host. Especially when we realize that Christ doesn't pay any more attention to our "guestworthiness" than a host would have to a stranger's guestworthiness.

We live in a different culture and we probably can't fully adopt the ancient view of hospitality. But we probably could make ours more robust. Saying "Hello" to a visitors and learning their names is good. Saying, "Got someone to sit with during service" is better. Saying, "We're going out for lunch after church. Do you have plans? Our treat!" is even better.

Of course we should be properly careful; this is something only groups or families should do and not solo folks, for example. But I know many if not most of us might balk at doing something like this, although when I run down my list of reasons I'm none too proud of them. The new people might be boring or weird and make lunch awkward? Yeah, that's a reason I want to stand up to defend at the last judgement.

The bottom line with hospitality for me, as a Christian, is that it's a response to Jesus's hospitality to me. When I think of it that way, I can be inspired to make my hospitality try to measure up to his -- of course it never could and never will, but the trying itself can make for growth.

And if that's so, then those I welcomed have indeed become angels to me, ministering to my spirit and heart to stir me to be more like Christ. Which as I understand it is one of those things we Christians are supposed to shoot for.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly Holy (Exodus 20:8)

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

A good number of people today can remember when businesses didn't open on Sunday, and even more might remember when youth sports leagues and other organizations didn't schedule games on Sundays or at least not on Sunday mornings. Even though fewer and fewer people actually attended church or confessed their Christian faith to someone other than a telephone opinion surveyor, the cultural idea of a "day off" lingered for quite some time.

Today, we will recognize what the ancient Hebrews called Shabbat or the Sabbath in some ways, but not in many others. A lot of us will go to church. A lot of us will have time off from work. But few of us will rest in any meaningful way -- we'll use this time to get things done we couldn't do during the week. Or we'll be busier than we ever could at work in order to prepare for having fun of some kind.

It's a little ironic when we consider that the practice of the Sabbath began in a culture where a day off work might mean a day off eating as well. Nomads like the ancient Hebrews often lived pretty close to the edge compared to us. Observing the Sabbath may have been harder on them, but it seems to be harder for us.

Of course, the resurrection of Christ puts a slightly different spin on things for those of us who follow him. For one, we've moved the day from the last day of the week to the first. And for another, our Lord pointed out that the Sabbath and its observance was something made for us, rather than us being made to fit into some involved list of rules. But when we read some of the stories Lauren Winner includes in her chapter on the Sabbath, we can see that making an effort to observe a real Sabbath can provide a lot of food for reflection, as well as the time to do it in.

The rules about not doing work mean we minimize our impact on God's creation -- as the Lord rested from creating on the Sabbath day we too will rest from creating or altering creation, as much as we can. By doing that, we're reminded that we have been charged with stewardship of God's creation. Nobody gave us the deed to the place; just the keys, and we're expected to keep things up in case the owner drops by. And we're reminded that we bear the image of God. We too can create, in a way no other living creature can. A spider spins a web not for beauty's sake or to contemplate its lines and connections, but to live in and snare flies. We, on the other hand, can use sound and sight and touch and taste to do more than fuel our bodies and shelter our heads. We're pale imitators of our Lord, to be sure, but we create in his image.

And when we rest and stop giving thought to everything we think we have to do in order to live our lives, we can also be reminded we do nothing except what God has given us the gifts to do. At its root, my life depends not on my own efforts but on God's gracious decision to give it to me. To be a Christian means saying you can go back as far as you like, back to the moment of creation itself, whether you believe it happened six thousand years ago with a single sentence or seventeen billion years ago from the cosmic singularity, and you will not find one tick of the clock from that day to this that does not rest in the hands of the Creator.

Taking the time to focus on realities like these and to reflect on them is as valuable for Christians as for Jews. We claim salvation through Christ, and if we spend time increasing our awareness of our utter dependence on God we are either awakened to or reminded that this very salvation is as wholly apart from us as was creation itself. We did and do absolutely nothing to bring it about and can only acknowledge it or refuse it.

And then we realize, that just as we echo God with our own small powers of creation, we can echo the gospel message of salvation by proclaiming it. We save no one, not even ourselves, but we can state to the world that salvation is reality and damnation the illusion cast by the enemy and our own shadowed senses. We are not the Light, but we can, with God's grace, be a light that shows the path to it.

When we keep a Sabbath -- a strict Shabbat or our own more relaxed understanding -- we say something to the world beyond, "Take a load off." We remind the world that the day set apart to God is not just separated from the rest of the days but in fact represents a day and a life that is closer to the reality of God than whatever might go on the other six. Just as we pray that the gospel message spreads throughout the world so that all may see and know that the Lord is God, we can pray that our Sabbaths, whenever and however we take them, spread through our whole week and we wind up with not just one day dedicated to the Lord, but seven.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Up Front, There Ought to Be... (Matthew 25:31-43)

A meditation for our Ash Wednesday service

Like most Protestants, I didn't grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent either, for that matter. Although I knew what Lent was and when it happened, I didn't pay it much attention until I started attending seminary. There, I met many folks just as Methodist as me who took part in these rituals I had previously considered primarily for my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.

I had just lumped Ash Wednesday and Lent in the category of Things the RCs Do Differently, like being a lot more willing to display crosses that featured the crucified Christ on them. Most of the crosses we see in our Protestant churches are empty, but the Roman Catholic Church prominently displays crosses that feature a representation of Jesus nailed to them. These kinds of crosses are usually called "crucifixes."

Later I learned there are theological justifications for the different choices. Many of my fellow Protestants say that, since Jesus was raised on Easter Sunday, the actual cross on which he died would be empty. And so should the ones we display on walls and such: They should reflect that we serve a risen Savior, not a murdered teacher.

But, suggest those who favor the crucifix, the only reason we pay attention to the empty cross is that before it was empty, someone died on it. Specifically, God's son Jesus died on it. We shouldn't be so ready to skip over his sacrifice and ignore the reality of it. This makes sense also: For Jesus to be raised, he also had to have died. In order for Easter Sunday to matter, it has to follow a Good Friday. Or an Ash Wednesday.

I see value in both ideas, and as Christians we can't really leave out either understanding. We do serve a risen Savior, but we must never forget that he rose precisely because he had earlier sacrificed his life for our sakes.

Ash Wednesday is another way we remember that sacrifice. Although we are Easter people, we live in a Good Friday world and we can't ever let the glory of Easter's dawn blind us to the darkness of Good Friday afternoon. If for no other reason than we are called to serve those who live in a Good Friday of one kind or another, we need to remember it's the reality of too much of our world. And if we get ourselves too caught up in living in our reality of the Easter of resurrection, we might forget the need to share that reality with those who do not yet know it.

Lent is our reminder that we came from that Good Friday world and that there remain many deep within it. We remind ourselves Christ sacrificed himself for us -- and for them -- and that the work of the gospel is not complete until they too know of the sacrifice, the redemption and restoration available to them in it. We can renew our commitment to follow Christ and live as Easter people, as well as renew and strengthen our commitment to bring that call to the attention of others.

In his iconic song "Man in Black," Johnny Cash lists how well off folks are in "streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes." But "just as a reminder of the ones who are held back/Up front, there oughtta be a man in black."

On Ash Wednesday, Christians, let us take on the sign of the cross to remind ourselves to be men and women in black, reminders of the ones who, through oppression or injustice or even their own sin, are those who are still held back.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Transfiguration Vamp (2 Peter 1:16-21)

Yes, the title references the late 80s/early 90s pop-punkers Transvision Vamp. And no, to my knowledge they released no especially spiritual music or had a particularly religious viewpoint. I'm just stuck in my 1980s groove, I guess.

From our 2,000-years-later vantage point, we tend to think of the entire New Testament being written at about the same time. Mostly because even a 20-year gap is only about one percent of that span, so it might as well be at the same time as far as we're concerned now.

But that 20-year gap can make a lot of difference when you're living in it. We were all different 20 years ago, even though whoever's around in 4011 won't think much more about that gap than we do about the NT authors. If, for example, the apostle Peter wrote the letters attributed to him, he wrote this passage about the Transfiguration at least 20 years after he experienced it. Since those 20 years included his denial of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, Pentecost and the spread of Christianity through much of the area surrounding Judea, I'm betting he had some new lenses to interpret what he and the others saw on that mountaintop that day.

In fact, he says so in those last couple of verses. No scripture, he says, is simply a matter of human interpretation because no scripture is a strictly human creation. The Holy Spirit is involved at both ends. His experience of seeing Moses and Elijah flank his teacher Jesus is more or less inexplicable without the interpretive aid of the Holy Spirit. After all, what did he say when he saw the three? "Lord, it is good we are here. Let us build three tents to mark this." Peter's culture featured the building of small tents or booths at the sites of important events as ways to mark their significance. More permanent markers might follow.

Of course, this event is significant for Peter and the other disciples. Moses and Elijah were not simply historical figures. They personified essential elements of Hebrew religion and culture. Moses was not only the leader who brought Israel out of slavery through God's might, but he also represented the covenant God made with the people. God spoke through Moses to give the Torah, or teaching, that more or less created the Israelites as a nation and chosen people. Elijah, as a prophet or spokesman of God, represented how God continued to honor that covenant by trying to lead the people back to following God's path. The prophets didn't just predict doom, they pointed out where the people had strayed and how they needed to return. A Jewish man like Peter would have seen them as signs of God's creation of his people and of God's continued faithfulness to his people.

Seeing these two men flank his teacher would indicate that Jesus spoke in the tradition of the Torah and the prophets -- definitely very important. But then something more happens! Even while something obscures their sight, they hear a voice saying of Jesus that he is God's Son and God is well-pleased with him.

This! Is! Important!

Peter's response: Let's mark this spot! That's normal and human, and often the right thing to do. We mark spots where we want to be sure to remember what happened, like 5th and Robinson in Oklahoma City or downtown Manhattan or Normandy or the Argonnes Forest. We must remember what happened at these places and we will erect memorials to ensure that happens.

But that same tendency can also tend to anchor the event we want to remember to the place it happened, and sometimes we want the exact opposite. Some events transcend -- or transfigure, if you like -- their location in space and time. Universally significant, they can't just stay in their one spot or their one moment.

Peter, reflecting on the Transfiguration many years later, sees its significance as confirming Jesus' message in terms of God's covenant. He didn't see the full impact of that significance until later, maybe Pentecost, but he knows now it was much more important than just a vision of his leader and two great icons of his people's history. Unpacking that full meaning is a matter for another sermon. What we would focus on here is how Christians want to try to understand every event -- ordinary or extraordinary -- with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We do so because the Holy Spirit gives us an understanding we probably wouldn't reach on our own. On Communion Sundays, for example, the people at my church take a plain old loaf of bread, bought maybe at a Wal-Mart, with a cup of plain old grape juice from the same place, and hear me say the same plain old English words I've said before. Perfectly ordinary in every respect.

But we seek the presence of the Holy Spirit among us when we do this, so that our bread and juice and words become something more -- a real "union with" our Savior and with Christians across the world who do the same thing we do.

If I'm honest about my own spiritual journey, I don't pray for that Holy Sprit's presence with me in every event or at every moment of my life.

My loss.