Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
The three texts we read this morning all speak of hospitality. In the first one, we how not to be a guest. Naaman was arrogant and presumptuous with his money, silver, fine clothes and letter from the king. The impact was suspicion in the ing of Israel, his first host, and a lesson in humility from Elisha, his second host. In Galatians, the circumcision party placed conditions on their hospitality that Paul rejected as not from God. In the Gospel Jesus sets up a situation for his disciples in which they can learn about being guests and hosts.
Independence Day celebrations present us with an interesting moment to be church. As followers of Jesus, and part of the prophetic tradition, we have to live into the tension of both loving our country patriotically and challenging it prophetically. As happens with most tensions, people usually end up falling on either side of them rather than do the difficult balancing act of holding on to both truths. Some congregations find the patriotic hymns at the end of most hymnals to be welcome parts of the 4th of July liturgy; the dual roles of citizen and Christian fit together comfortably in these churches. But for others Sunday and Independence Day lie together less easily, because their prophetic voice is stronger. The cross and the flag are both demanding symbols; they compete for our loyalty, and the values they promote are sometimes at odds.
This morning’s opening hymn was a version of America the Beautiful that attempts to balance the patriotic with the prophetic. Of course it’s only coincidental that I’m playing the organ behind this panel today; it never occurred to me that anyone might throw tomatoes. It’s interesting to remember this year, when one candidate for president unabashedly claimed to be a socialist, that the Pledge of Allegiance was authored in 1892 by a leading Christian socialist named Francis Bellamy, who was fired from his Boston ministry for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist. He wrote the Pledge on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing on American soil in order to promote a moral vision to counter the climate of the Gilded Age, with its robber barons and exploitation of workers. One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all was written to express a more collective and egalitarian vision of America.
On this 4th of July we’re living at a time when we are once again deciding whether we will be a country that welcomes immigrants. We used to be a nation that prided itself on welcoming those who sought freedom from oppression. The line on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor/your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – was written by Emma Lazarus who also wanted to project an inclusive and egalitarian definition of the American Dream.
Today’s Gospel story addresses this tension directly. Jesus sent out 72 disciples. We are invited to read this story both as prophets who are sent out and as citizens of the cities who receive them; to hear it both as the ones who initiate the offer of peace and the ones who respond with peace. We’re both the stranger who seeks a welcome and the host who offers hospitality.
By seeing ourselves in both roles we can embrace a vision of hospitality that welcomes those huddled masses yearning to breathe free and that fosters mutual transformation. When I’m in relationship with another, I have a gift to offer and a gift to receive; both parties are changed in the relationship. We have to ask ourselves if we are willing to be hospitable to a stranger who might bring us a word from God. The church is told to preach the Gospel; but we also have to learn from those who hear the Gospel with different ears. We have to welcome those voices too.
Henri Nouwen says hospitality is “our vocation to convert the enemy into a guest and the stranger into a friend; to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced to create a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances, leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his or her own.” (Reaching Out, p. 46, 51)
This is important for us at St. Athanasius. We believe that people don’t have to become like us when they come here. Their cultural gifts will change us and ours will change them. But we get nervous when things are not more defined than that. Emptiness and silence tend to create fear. Sometimes we end up filling our time with meetings and using words to squeeze each other into molds that bring life to neither guest nor host.
Today’s Gospel commends the receptivity of those who are truly hospitable and confronts the resistance of those who are not. Both the community of faith and the community of nations will be judged by the quality of radical hospitality – how receptive we are to the stranger who might be a messenger from God. Jesus is the ultimate host and the ultimate stranger. He confronts lack of receptivity with great force: “It will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.” Chorazin and Bethsaida were towns in Galilee, probably home to some of his disciples. Jesus does not point to the sin of others. He asks his followers to examine their own resistance. The sin of Sodom, Chorazin and Bethsaida was not immorality, but lack of hospitality. But get this: Jesus was practicing hospitality even as he confronted them. We need to be both patriots and prophets. “Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody. Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.” (Reaching Out p70)
Jesus said, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He calls his followers to fear nothing and to head right into the midst of those who once we would have thought of as enemies, and to speak a word of peace. I believe the spiritual resource that allows us to exercise that kind of faith and courage is the practice of both the giving and receiving sides of hospitality. When the seventy returned with joy, saying “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Jesus responded with two statements that put their work in perspective. First, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Then, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
These are the two sides of hospitality. When we participate, however sheepishly, in a struggle that we believe achieves some minor improvements in our lives or church or nation, Jesus sees the beginning of a whole new age. Jesus speaks metaphorically of Satan falling from heaven. What he sees is that the forces in the world that make us feel too little to do anything of significance have been defeated. That is our deepest fear. The famous quote from Marianne Williamson says the same. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
When we gather around this table in a few moments, we will practice one of the greatest symbols of hospitality in our repertoire as Christians. As we celebrate our nation’s independence tomorrow, we are invited to reflect on hospitality that is both patriotic and prophetic. Let us do so with our eyes newly opened today.