John 21: 13: Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
With a simple beachfront meal of bread and grilled fish, time begins running backwards and the curse of sin, shame and death starts coming undone. Remember how, at the beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve, feel their nakedness as something shameful, and so hide themselves from God. Their fellowship with God broken by sin and shame, they end up outside the gates to Paradise, where an angel with a flaming sword prohibits anyone’s return.
But at the end of John’s Gospel, Peter goes from trying to hide his nakedness and shame, to sharing food and fellowship with Jesus around a lakeside charcoal grill. That’s the great reversal that Christ accomplished. In fact, all of the disciples sharing bread and grilled fish with Jesus around that fire were candidates for shame and estrangement from God, for all of them had failed and fled Jesus in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane. And still Jesus invites them in for a beachfront breakfast, and serves them, who had failed to serve him.
That’s good news for all of us who are drawn to Jesus and what he has to offer, but who know that niggling, nagging fear that something about ourselves might make us unwelcome and unworthy to share food and fellowship with him. But in Jesus’ beachfront breakfast today we see a picture of God as host, even as a gracious host who gives his misbehaving, unreliable guests second chances. He is even a host who sees through our fig leaves and our other attempts to cover up our nakedness and appear more respectable and presentable, like Peter jumping into the water, and who still invites us in to dine with him.
Jesus does not affirm nor bless nor approve of all that his guests have done or failed to do; immediately following this beachside breakfast, Jesus would deal with Peter’s previous threefold denial of ever having known him. But he would do so graciously, redemptively, with an invitation to say, “Yes, Lord, I love you” for every one of the three times Peter had denied him. And so our heavenly host affirms, approves and blesses all people, if not all things. His is a table to which all can come as they are, but from which no one should expect to leave as they were.
Today’s Gospel passage is also an example of the fact that if we can read the Gospels without getting hungry, we’re not really paying attention. There’s a lot of food and hospitality being shared throughout his ministry. Hospitality is also a rich theme throughout all of the Bible. It begins with God as the ultimate host, who creates a universe in which to host his human guests. So whenever something in nature touches us to the depths of our hearts, in ways deeper than words, so that all Creation seems to be saying, “Don’t look to me, but look through me, to the One who made us,” that may be God’s way of saying, “Welcome, my child,” through his Creation. To say, “I made all this for you, to shelter you, nurture you, delight you and inspire you. You are always welcome here. Make yourself at home.” If ever any of us have felt or heard such a warm welcome deeper than words in nature, like at Drift Creek Camp, well then, it’s only appropriate that today we celebrate and support the hospitality of God through the camp and its servants.
In the Bible, God’s hospitality is further focused in the Garden of Eden, where God hosts Adam and Eve. Later, God hosts Israel in Canaan, the Promised Land. The arc of the Bible’s story leads to an invitation to the greatest feast of all. In Isaiah 25, God’s coming victory over death is compared to a feast set by a gracious host: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”
This coming victory feast is called, in John’s Revelation, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, to which people from all corners of the map are invited. “Come, you blessed of my Father,” Jesus says in a parable about this feast. The Bible ends with God bringing down from heaven a city, the New Jerusalem, where he will host a redeemed and ransomed humanity forever. The very last command given in the Bible takes the form of a host’s invitation, in Revelation 22:7: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” The Bible then is a book about hospitality, beginning and ending with God’s hospitality to us.
In between Creation and our Re-creation, God continues to host and feed us through His Word, the Gospel and the Scriptures. How appropriate then that on this day we should also celebrate and commission our Christian Education classes and workers. We who teach are serving up and sharing food that God has prepared for us, his guests. We must also tend to our own spiritual nourishment and nutrition, for we cannot share what we have not received.
How very different God’s extravagant, unmerited hospitality sounds from this year’s demolition derby of political campaigning, or the violence and corruption that have set 65 million people afoot as refugees on this planet, and which have made immigrants the targets of political scapegoating, suspicion and fear-mongering, when so many homeless people are sleeping in cars and tents and in the open from here to Portland, and when so many denominations and churches are at loggerheads over differences in politics and practice. Those are some of the reasons why the Pastoral Leadership Team and I believe that we need to talk about one of the values and practices in our vision statement by which we “plant the seeds of God’s reign, through “hospitality.” Because those very unhospitable forces in the world are also presenting us with the need and the opportunities to exercise God’s hospitality on behalf of the refugee, the immigrant, the homeless, and each other, whenever we disagree on matters of politics and faith.
In today’s bulletin you’ll see the schedule by which we hope to consider this strong biblical theme of hospitality. I begin today by talking about God’s hospitality to us. Next week we’ll consider our hospitality to God, and after that, our hospitality to each other, and to the world.
I begin with God’s hospitality to us because all human hospitality begins with God’s hospitality. We can only pass on what love and welcome we have let God show us. “We love because God first loved us.”
In the Bible, “hospitality” is more than knowing how to cook a gourmet meal, how to set a table nicely for guests, and how to keep a friendly, comfortable atmosphere going with pleasant and polite conversation, as great and important as such skills are. In the Bible, hospitality is a matter of life and death, because nomads and sojourners like Abraham and Sarah had no Motel 6 to stop into, no convenient McDonalds at every exit from the road to Egypt. You took your life into your hands whenever you presented yourself at a stranger’s home or their tent seeking food and shelter for the night. The only thing riskier was to sleep outside, where wild beasts and bandits might find you. You were also risking your life by hosting and feeding the strangers who appear at your door. Yet if word got around the trade and travel routes that you were stingy and unhospitable to strangers, your honor tanked in the eyes of those whose help you might need if ever you had to hit the road. But if you were known to be gracious, generous hosts, or that you had proven yourself to be grateful, respectful and restrained guests, that would also become known, and all the greater would be your honor, your security, and your resources in your times of need.
That also made of hospitality in the ancient biblical world a way of life, even a way of being. So Henri Nouwen, in his book, Reaching Out, defined hospitality as more than a skill set, but rather, “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being which can be expressed in a great variety of ways.” Sharing food and a table is not the only way of showing hospitality, nor always the best way. One of the most important ways Nouwen talks about showing hospitality is by listening. When our ears are directly connected to our hearts, and we make both our hearts and our ears available to someone with a sacrifice of time, concentration and a suspension of our agenda to advise, fix, change, heal or convert them, then there is hospitality even if no food or coffee are shared. Because as much as we all need advice, fixing, healing, changing and converting, continually, the only thing that truly enlightens, fixes, heals, changes and converts us is a love so great that we know it doesn’t need to enlighten, fix, heal, change or convert us to love us more. For us to accept the enlightenment, healing, fixing, changing and converting we all and always need, we have to feel secure enough, and know that we are known and loved already in our current, confused and conflicted stages of being enlightened, fixed, healed, converted and changed. That’s the way God hosts us, and that’s the way God feeds us, heals us and helps us. Not when we are worthy enough and lovable enough to deserve the divine hospitality, but precisely when we are most unworthy and most in need of love and hospitality. The word for such undeserved, transforming love is “grace.”
Hospitality then is a kind of presence, availability and receptivity toward others that is willing to love them, apart from any question of worthiness, apart from any consideration of whether we agree, approve, or even understand everything they do, say or want. That, again, is the way that God loves and hosts us.
Hospitality is also scary and risky, because we have all experienced people taking advantage of our time, our friendship, our care, and our stuff. Again, so it is with God and with God’s hospitality to us. The cross was the ultimate risk and cost to God of God’s hospitality to us.
Still, hospitality is a two-way street of respect, between guest and host. So God’s gracious hospitality comes with boundaries and obligations for his guests. Just as we would not sneak uninvited into our host’s bedroom or closet during a dinner party, or raid their refrigerator, so in Eden’s garden, Adam and Eve were never to eat from the tree of life. But they did. And now their children are trashing God’s whole beautiful planet. In Canaan, God’s Hebrew guests were to worship no other gods but him, and they were to treat each other justly. But when instead they filled his city with the blood of the innocent and his temple with the idols of their neighbors, God’s glory left the temple and took his protective power eastward to Babylon, there to await his guests in the land of exile.
Similar boundaries and conditions apply to us as guests in the Kingdom of God. We must not try to replace the master of the house with other gods or idols, and we must treat each other with honor, care and compassion. Should we forget that hospitality also implies respect, restraint, sacrifice, honor, boundaries and obligations for us guests, as well as for the host, God does not suspend the laws of consequences: we will thereby place ourselves outside the gates. But God never locks the door against a prodigal son’s repentant return, either. The lights remain on, the table is still set, the door unlocked, and the food warm on the stove for any who will return.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” It’s a poverty common to all of us, whatever our income. A New York Times article recently highlighted a growing crisis of loneliness and isolation, despite all the ways we are connected by mass media, social media, cell phones, email, internet and more. Or maybe because of them, we are losing the art and the practice of true physical face time. Professionals in the fields of mental and physical health are calling this rising tide of loneliness an epidemic. Today there are over seven billion lonely, vulnerable, at-risk people in this world, including ourselves, who need at the very least the shelter of a smile in the coldness of this world’s dark night. But if we are to offer such hospitality in the name of God, we must also accept it, believe it and receive it, as God says to us, through his World, through his Word, and through his church, “Welcome, my child, whoever you are; make yourself at home with me, forever.”