The Radical Hospitality of Christ – The Rev. Michelle Meech
August 28, 2022
Yesterday, as we were in the St. John’s Kitchen making things for our fall fundraiser, St. John’s Harvest, I was peeling some onions. These weren’t regular round onions that you buy in the grocery store, they were much smaller. And they were really hard to peel.
Now, I’ve done a lot of onion peeling in my life. It’s not something that I love to do. I don’t volunteer to peel the onions or anything. But I have to say, that it really helps to have onions where the peels are papery. They are mostly distinct from the rest of the layers of onion and so, once you get it started, the peel usually slides of pretty easily in large chunks.
But these weren’t like that. First of all they were small, about the size of a quarter or half dollar. And peeling them was a nightmare. The peel wasn’t papery but it was still clearly a peel. It was really hard to get started because the peel seemed to stick to the rest of the onion so it came off only in small bits, almost like peeling one of those annoying stickers that just won’t come off.
I kept getting frustrated and I started complaining. Then we started to have a conversation about expectations. It seems that my expectations for the onions were that they would be easier to peel. Yet, I’m sure God created them just the way they are for a reason. Still, I didn’t like it. I wanted to use them and who they were was getting in my way.
It’s a silly illustration. But I’m sure we’ve all had moments like this. Something we want to do is getting frustrated because things don’t always work the way we need them to. It made me feel a bit hopeless, if I’m honest. Which is a strange thing to say about an onion in the large scheme of things.
This piece of scripture we have been given today from the letter to the Hebrews, is one of the more oft quoted lines of scripture: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2) In Western culture, we have shorted the phrase and use simply the words “angels unawares” if we want to make a point about hospitality.
Sculptor Timothy Schmalz has created a piece of work in bronze called Angels Unawares. It was installed in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican in 2019, the first sculpture to be installed in St. Peter’s Square in about 400 years.
The sculpture is a slender, shallow boat – a raft, really – twenty feel long and filled with people. All smashed together, no space in between them at all. Just one clump of people huddled together, shoulder to shoulder. As you look more closely at the details, you can see that these people are wearing garments and carrying items that show they originate from diverse cultures and historical moments – Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, a Syrian departing the Syrian Civil War, a black man escaping slavery in the American South, and so on and so on.
In the middle, rising above all of them, is a pair of wings – angel wings. These are angels unawares.
What the author of this letter to the Hebrews is talking about, of course, is hospitality. And the acknowledgement of just how difficult hospitality can be sometimes. But also, just how important it is.
Hospitality is the message of today’s Gospel passage from Luke too, of course. Jesus offers a parable about being a guest at a wedding banquet. He says, as a guest, you don’t go to sit at the place of honor because you don’t want to have to be disgraced by being asked by the host to move to another spot in case “someone more distinguished than you” comes. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted. The message is clear: Be the humble person.
Jesus is using this parable about pride to set the stage for this lesson about hospitality. So let’s stop there. And let’s talk about the nature of pride.
Because I look around the room and I know you all pretty well and I don’t think this example of pride in the scripture is something that you all can relate to because I can’t imagine that any of you would do something like that. Rather, that is behavior that is usually evidence of the clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. Not the same thing as pride, really.
Instead, pride is what leads to expectations. Pride is that part of ourselves who believes that the world needs to show up exactly how we need it to and, therefore, we have expectations for people, and businesses, and organizations, and… well, God. And this is contextual, of course. Because it’s not the same as an historically oppressed, exploited, or demoralized person or people claiming their rights and asking for what they need. That is not pride. That is self-advocacy and self-determination.
Rather, pride for most of us, is like the story I told earlier about the onions. The expectation that they would behave how I needed them to when they were just being onions. Sometimes people are just being people, carrying with them their own needs and, therefore, their own blinders and assumptions. And in the midst of that, pride is the insistence, that my definition of the way things should be is the same as God’s definition of the way things should be. It is the opposite of humility and even opposes compassion.
Still, the intension of the parable is to offer a story about the sin of pride. Now, the question is… why would Jesus offer a parable about pride when he’s trying to make a point about hospitality? Right? I mean, they are two different concepts.
But… they are connected. Stay with me here.
So, now, let’s talk about hospitality. What exactly IS hospitality?
Most of you have been a host of some kind before, I would assume. It’s not always an easy job. You have to make plans, anticipate needs, perhaps even create activities or decorate. You might have to clean or cook or order food. Sometimes there is a lot to do when you’re the host. On the other hand, being a host is also just inviting a friend over for tea. Or sometimes it might just be that you invite a friend over and you decide together what you want to do. When I was in high school and college, we called it hanging out.
Being a host also comes with cultural expectations. For example, in some cultures, the host always takes the first bite of food at a dinner table to demonstrate that it is ok to eat. In others, the guests are encouraged to eat first so that they may have the first choice of what to take from the offerings. And some people just love being a host. Some people struggle with it. And most times, a host has a particular type of event they want to plan – a surprise birthday party, a themed dinner party, a cookout, a slumber party, etc. In those cases, it helps the guests to have some kind of instruction – dress is casual, arrive through the backdoor and don’t tell the birthday person, or, my personal favorite… bring chocolate.
In other words, the host often has expectations for the guest, right? And that’s good and appropriate. Because when the host has expectations, and they are communicated well, the guests know what is expected of them.
And there’s the point: The guests know what’s expected of them.
What if the guests can’t meet expectations? What if the expectations are unfair?
You see, Jesus isn’t talking about a theme party or a cookout or even a wedding banquet. He’s talking about a an entirely different kind of banquet. One to which all are invited. It is the banquet of life. It is the banquet of love. It is God’s banquet. One in which Jesus is telling us, his disciples, that we must practice the most radical hospitality. Because all are welcome.
And there it is: the place where pride and hospitality collide.
Because out of pride comes expectations. And you simply cannot practice radical hospitality if you have expectations.
Jesus says: You are my disciples. And when you throw a party, don’t invite the people who will meet your expectations, the people who will make you feel better about your expectations. Don’t invite the people from whom you can curry favors, or the people in your inner circle.
Instead, invite those who have nothing to give but themselves. And, in inviting these people, don’t offer expectations about how you can make a difference in their lives and fix them. Don’t give them advice or hurdles to jump.
Instead, offer yourself. Offer what you have. Offer who you are. This is radical hospitality.
You see, this is all that matters, this offering. Not because one of these people may pay you back someday or even that one of these people may benefit from your generosity or even that these people will keep coming every time you invite them. For those are still expectations, you see, coming from your own pride that you alone know what God is up to and your own need to have someone help you.
No pride. No expectations. Only, offer yourself to the people who come. Because you will be changed. This is your so-called repayment. This is why the people you meet are angels unawares. They are your angels because they will change you.
They will broaden your understanding of the world and of human nature and of God in ways you could not have anticipated. They will renew your spirit and help you to learn more about hope and peace. They will open your heart so wide you might not recognize yourself any longer. They will save you from your pride and your expectations.
The radical hospitality Jesus desires for us to embody is not about making sure that everything is right. It’s about the simple act of offering ourselves completely and without expectation so that others can offer themselves completely.
This is community. This is hope. This is Christ.