Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Hospitality of God: A Sermon for Last Epiphany

 Scripture can be found here...

Most of us grew up with some notion of what hospitality looked like. Some of us had parents who welcomed everyone with an ice-cold Coca Cola (in the green glass bottles). For others the instinct was to break out a six-pack and some ashtrays. For still others, it was a plate of cookies and milk or tea for visitors.

We in church strive to show hospitality in lots of ways—of course, hospitality means “welcome.” We try to be friendly to the folks we meet here, we take turns preparing lovely coffee hours, we organize other opportunities to eat together.

In other words, hospitality is a somewhat intangible thing that doesn’t necessarily look the same in different contexts—it can be as different as soda and beer and tea, as diverse as conversation and lunch and movie night—but, as a Supreme Court Justice once said about something else altogether, we know it when we see it. Or, perhaps, receive it.

In different ages, different time periods, hospitality takes on different characteristics. In the era of the Hebrew scriptures, when the people of God were transitioning from a nomadic way of living to one more agriculturally based, the law of hospitality was strictly observed, and the law was simple: any traveler who came to the opening of your tent was welcomed in, and offered food, drink and a bed. If that seems extravagant, think of the context: for desert-dwelling people in a tribal culture, the ability to depend on hospitality was the difference between life and death. There was a strong social compact among all people: even if your enemy came to your door, you offered them hospitality. It was just too important a matter to be threatened by politics, or personality, or even pure selfishness.

No matter what era you inhabit, food and drink always seem to be an essential part of hospitality. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is found to be eating a lot. I mean, a lot. Far more than in any other gospel—nine meals in twenty-four chapters. So much so that, if we had started our passage just a couple of verses earlier, we would have read that Jesus is gaining a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard. Naturally, two verses later, we find him at a table.

Jesus is in the house of Simon the Pharisee… and, the gospel of Luke is the only one in which Jesus eats with Pharisees. Pharisees were a sect of Judaism which emphasized the importance of table-fellowship—eating again!—and all the rules and regulations associated with that. Pharisees were concerned with eating in a way that honored God.

As the curtain rises, a sumptuous feast is laid before us. Think of all your favorite Middle Eastern foods: olives and figs and pita bread hot from the oven. Perhaps a lamb roasted with herbs. Dates and nuts and honey… sweet cakes. And, of course, wine—a far safer beverage than water in that day and age. Our translation tells us that “Jesus took his place” at the table. But the Greek reveals that Jesus “reclined” at the table. The tradition for eating with guests was to recline. Such a meal was to be a leisurely affair. Such a meal was a privilege.

And one more thing: at such a meal, a central feature of hospitality was the act of offering your guests water so that they could wash their dusty sandal-wearing feet.

Immediately a woman… whose name we never learn, which is most often the case for women in the bible… a woman from the city, a “sinner,” who has heard that Jesus is there, comes into the room, uninvited. And, herewith, broken rules numbers 1, 2, and 3… 1. An unaccompanied woman simply does not venture out into public alone. 2. No one, especially an unaccompanied woman, dares to “crash” a party of Pharisees, who are known for their strict religious interpretation of meal-time. And 3. For that same unaccompanied woman to be a “sinner,” which, in the case of our story, is probably meant to indicate that she is a prostitute… well, if there are any swooning types in the crowd, let the swooning commence over all the broken rules.

But what she does. What she does. Without a word, she comes to Jesus. Remember, he is reclining, which means he is leaning at the table, like the other guests, with his feet protruding out into the room, his feet dusty with the earth of his walking ministry, because his host has neglected this basic tenet of hospitality. The unnamed woman stands above Jesus’ feet, and she bathes them with her tears.

Have you ever cried enough tears to wash someone’s feet with them? I try to imagine this woman’s tears, the sheer volume of them… and the kind of anguish that might have brought her to this moment. Tears of sheer desperation. Or tears of pure agony. Or tears of relief at not having to pretend for this one moment. Or tears of fury. Tears of sorrow, tears of fear, tears of loneliness, tears of grief and loss.

Whatever her tears were, they were enough to wash the dust from Jesus’ feet. And then, this woman who has now broken rule number 4 (that would be the tear-bath), proceeds on to 5 and 6: 5. The woman’s hair is unbound, long, long enough to dry Jesus’ feet. In scripture, two kinds of women wear their hair down: women who are of questionable character, and women who are prophets. And rule #6… intimate contact with a man not your husband or father or brother.

Then the woman kisses Jesus’ feet, and that’s how we know what this is all about. From ancient times this gesture has been about three things: showing honor to someone whose greatness you recognize; showing devotion; and showing gratitude because a debt has been forgiven.

Next, the woman takes an alabaster jar filled with precious oil and then she pours it on the clean and salty tear-bathed feet. The fragrance fills the room. Shocked, the Pharisee murmurs to himself—except, evidently, it’s one of those stage whispers we can all hear.

If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Now, call me a cynic, but I have to wonder what Simon the Pharisee is most upset about at this exact moment. Is he most upset about this woman touching Jesus, creating this commotion, making this unseemly display at his dinner party?  Or is the Pharisee more concerned about something else… “If this man were a prophet…” he says. It seems he invited Jesus over thinking that he was a prophet. Is he upset that he might be wrong?

If we could read Simon’s mind at this moment, it might sound something like: Jesus can’t possibly be a prophet. Jesus can’t possibly think this is ok. And later, Jesus can’t take it upon himself to forgive sins.

Call it, if you will, a new rule of hospitality: the hospitality of God. This is a kind of hospitality that doesn’t differentiate between who is or isn’t invited. This is a way of welcome that doesn’t distinguish between Pharisee and prophet and prostitute. This is a way of living in which an astonishing release from debt leads to a still more astonishing display of love and gratitude. Jesus most certainly can. And Jesus does.

On the last Sunday before Lent, we usually read a story about Jesus and two of his disciples climbing a mountain, where Jesus is changed, transfigured before their eyes. They suddenly see Jesus for who he is.

“Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Who is this Jesus? Who is this who came into this world depending first upon the hospitality of a very young girl to welcome him into her body and life, and then, depending at his birth upon the hospitality of animals because the upstairs rooms were full, and shepherds to make him feel welcome?

Who is this? Who is this who went to be baptized by John only to hear the voice of God telling him “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well-pleased?” Who is this?

Who is this who was driven by the Spirit to the most inhospitable rocks and sand of a desert landscape? Who is this who then returned to preach the radical hospitality of God, only to experience the hospitality of his hometown as a place where they tried to throw him off a cliff?

Who is this? Who is this who heals the sick? Cures the lame? Raises the dead? Forgives the debts of a woman he has only just met? Allows her intimate touch to raise the hackles of the religious elites?

Who is this, this Jesus? And, depending upon our answer to that question, what do we do, now that we have that information? How do we show the hospitality of God?

I’ll tell you one thing: if we’re not made at least a little uncomfortable by the hospitality we are showing… we’re probably not there yet. Is it really hospitality if we don’t have to stretch ourselves? If we don’t have to give anything up? If we don’t have to share?

This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will read that “Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.” The cross lies ahead, that stunning act of God’s hospitality towards us all, that moment when the shared life of God and humanity hangs in the balance. In Jesus the radical hospitality of God is made known: God’s welcome of the whole person, forgiveness. That action calls us to deeper levels of sharing and stretching ourselves than we have known before. And isn’t that why we’re here? To keep asking that question… “Who is this Jesus?”… and to strive, heart and soul, body and strength, to live into the answers? And while we’re at it, to share a drink or a meal or a conversation as well? Thanks be to God. Amen.

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