Monday, July 22, 2019

The 11th Commandment

I did something out of character when I turned 55.  I threw a birthday party for myself.  Some of you even attended and a few of you, sensing I was in way over my head, pitched in and helped.  John Rector grilled burgers and I remember Wanda Rector and Cindy Cowan at the kitchen sink cleaning dishes.  Much of the rest of the 3-hour gala was and remains a blur.  It went by so fast and it felt like all I did all evening was say hello to a guest and then move on to another and then another and then another and then it was over. 

After the dust settled and after I recovered from the trauma of it all – which took several days and not a little bit of therapy – I asked different people if they had similar experiences when they hosted a party.  Did they feel run ragged greeting people and making sure everything was going smoothly?  To a person the answer was yes.  And how about you?  How many of you find hosting a party to be a lot of work?  I find the author Richelle Goodrich’s insight to be spot on: “Announcing [you intend to throw a party] is kind of like issuing a hurricane warning!”  I turn 60 in just a few months, but don’t worry about saving the date!  I don’t sense another party is in the offing.

Today’s lessons invite us to ponder the Christian virtue of hospitality – in these readings, at least, ones arising more spontaneously than my planned effort at 55.  Paul writes to the church in Colossae, a small, close-knit group of family and friends who welcomed the Apostle into their homes during his missionary journeys.  The Gospel reading finds Jesus a guest in the Bethany home of Mary and Martha, which is an easy day’s walk from Jerusalem.  Along with their brother Lazarus, the sisters appear to be some of Jesus’ closest friends and most ardent supporters, although the biblical record tells us very little about how they met and bonded.  Still, several times when Jesus is at the Holy City he visits and/or stays with them.  In our first reading, set centuries before this, Abraham is establishing a new home in Mamre, thirty-some miles west of the Dead Sea, when three mysterious figures appear in front of his tent.  Abraham and his wife Sarah go to great lengths to welcome the trio and extend every kindness to them.

Hospitality is one of the most important virtues and values in the bible.  It is so vital that if there was an 11th Commandment it most likely would address treatment of a stranger.  Here is just a small survey of teachings from our sacred texts:
  • Among the initial commands given to Moses is this: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21).  It harkens back to what I said in last Sunday’s sermon about the ability to empathize being at the core of all morality and ethics.

  • The Old Testament book of Leviticus develops this theme with specific examples: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (19:34).  “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard.  You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God” (19:10).  This commandment takes me back to the sermon when I told you about the people who were arrested in Arizona for leaving food and water in the desert for migrants.  As their defense they cited the right to free expression of their religious beliefs.

  • The prophet Isaiah speaks for God: “Is not [the fast I desire] to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house?”  (58:7)

  • Among the things Job lists to defend his righteousness is this:  HospitaliThe alien has not lodged outside, for I have opened my doors to the traveler.”  (31:32)

  • Jesus teaches we are to invite the poor, the hungry, and the needy into our homes – those who do not have the ability to repay us – because in so doing we will find ourselves blessed and in addition will be recipients of the same in heaven (Luke 14:14).  For Jesus, the more down and the more out a person is, the more you are to extend every welcome.

  • The author of the Letter of Hebrews, building on a tradition established in today’s lesson from the Old Testament, writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (13:2)

  • The story of Abraham’s visitors does not end with today’s reading.  They leave his home and go to the village of Sodom where they meet Abraham’s nephew Lot.  Like his uncle, Lot extends the hospitality of his home to them.  But the men of the village gather at night outside the door and demand the visitors be given to them so that they can have “relations” with them.  This evil kindles God’s wrath and the town is destroyed.  The story has been cited as evidence the bible condemns all forms of same-gender relationships.  But Scripture itself interprets the violent, aggressive actions of the Sodomites differently.  The prophet Ezekiel writes this: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  (16:49).  In short, the sin of Sodom was the absence of hospitality
These few verses constitute the briefest of surveys of the bible’s teaching related to hospitality.  And while I do not recommend inviting complete strangers to stay in your home, each of us is called to ponder what it means to be open to the person who is “other”.  What does it mean for our church to be open and hospitable?  For our neighborhoods?  Our community?  Our nation?  What does it mean to have a heart open and hospitable toward the stranger and the alien?  It goes without saying, these are not just theoretical questions.  They are at the very heart and soul of the most current and pressing events in our national life. 

When the Episcopal Church is at its best, one of the hallmarks of our ethos is we do not tell our membership how to vote or which stance is the “Christian” one in political debates.  At our best, we lift up the biblical witness and encourage each person to come to an informed and faithful position.  It is up to you to determine how biblical mandates are to be interpreted in our day and it is up to you to determine how much weight you will give to them. 

I didn’t choose today’s readings any more than I chose the tweets making headlines this week.  Still, one speaks to the other.  I’ll let you decide how and determine what you will do with it.  I’ll close with a bit of good news: as you ponder the biblical witness of hospitality you will find nothing in it to suggest you are required to come to my house and wash the dishes!