A hard lesson about hospitality
Although we’re just a couple of weeks into June, here in the south it already feels like we are deep in the thick of summer. It brings back tangible memories of the hot summers of my childhood.
Oh – summer days were sweet bliss as a kid growing up just a stones throw from downtown Atlanta. I spent my days with roaming packs of peers, tumbling from front yard to front yard, with worn out flip-flops and sticky hands looking for melting blacktop to dare someone to dip a toe into. Our house was always full of activity and my mother seemed to me the most gracious mamma in the world. She was always so welcoming and warm, friendly and funny.
All summer long there were folks over, jellying plums, canning tomatoes, pickling cucumbers or playing Rook well after the lightening bugs had winked out for the night. And mamma was generous with my friends. There was always an abundance of snacks and Kool-Aid for anyone I happened to be running around with those summer days. And mamma was patient. Man alive, we would run in and out, screen door snapping shut a 100 times a day and she rarely hollered for us to knock it off.
Seems like there was frequently an extra kid at the supper table – the twins next door loved mom’s fried chicken, and Karen, from down the street, loved mom’s spaghetti, mostly because the served with it toasted hot dog buns rich with butter and a touch of garlic powder.
Kids from all over the neighborhood seemed to end up on our front lawn, playing freeze tag or one of our made-up-on-the-spot-games like Tornado! or Volcano!. When we’d come in panting like a bunch of worn our hunting dogs, mom made sure that coins emptied from my dad’s pockets that sat in an amber bowl were close to the door so we could run in and scoop up enough quarters, dimes and nickels to chase down the ice cream truck whenever it would come crawling by like the most delicious music box in the world. Anyone with me could grab what they needed from the bowl – mom said everyone needs a good rocket pop on a summer day.
It was roaming around on a rare solo patrol (yeah, we could still roam around solo back then) one late summer day that I met Traci. I was looking for someone else getting shewed out of the house and into another itchy August day.
I knew her family had moved into the neighborhood at the beginning of the summer – I mean EVERYONE knew – you see, her family was the first black family to move into “OUR” neighborhood, at least the first I knew of because mom and dad had been talking about it a lot. When I turned down her street on my morning rounds, I saw her in the shade of her carport playing with barbies – she had the new Barbie Airplane – and I was drawn into her yard.
Our sophisticated introductions sounded something like this:
“I like your Barbie airplane – I have it too” said I.
“Yeah – I like the little cart for the drinks” she said
“Do you have a pilot – a Ken or GI Joe?” as I drew closer
‘Yeah – but he is missing an arm” she grabbed his war-torn body
“Well that’s ok, I have a barbie that is only a head but I like her anyway”
We laughed a good kid-size belly laugh.
“Do you wanna bring your barbies over to my house and play?”
“My name is Kim”
“My name is Traci, I’ll go ask my mom.”
And I ran home, breathless to gather up all my barbies strewn in every room of the house – even head-only-Heidi.
Soon there was a knock on the front door. Now no-one used the front door – we all came and went through the carport door – so mom and I went to the door together.
Traci and I stood looking expectantly through the screen door – black hair and red hair bound tightly into pigtails with large plastic baubles – fists full of scraggly barbies. And as my mom glared through the screen, her hand squeezed my little arm and she pulled me into the suddenly cold shadow of the teeny foyer – and through clenched teeth she said,“You will have to play with HER outside.”
And my chest tightens with shame today to remember those words – because in an instant I understood that this little girl, who loved Barbies like me – was not a welcome guest in my mother’s house. And my stunned eyes looking up at mom saw a different person than I had seen earlier that morning.
In our scripture for today, when we follow Jesus into his old neighborhood we see that he did not get the reception some folks might have thought. His ministry up to this point had been powerful. Healing withered hands, leprous and paralyzed bodies, ceasing an unending flow of blood – casting out demons and raising a nearly dead child. His childhood pals, the kids that had hung out in his mamma’s yard with him couldn’t see him as a great, wise and especially not holy. I mean, who did he think he was? He was certainly not a welcome rabbi in his home synagogue. As a result of the towns-folks restricted faith and outright rejection, his power here, in his home town – in his own backyard is constricted to a mere trickle.
So he moved on to the outer villages to bring a good word and healing presence. When he sent the disciples to homes to teach and heal, he was clear in his orders – take nothing with you, subsist off the hospitality of the villagers – and if not welcomed – then Jesus commanded “as you leave shake off the dust that is on your feet (and pay attention here) as a testimony against them.” Now we have likely heard others use this passage to point to the gentle way in which we offer the gospel to others and quietly retreat if it is not received. And true – if the message is not welcome don’t force your way into their homes because you can not force your way into their hearts. But there is more to this passage than a shrug and a shuffle to the next home. There is a testimony against the in-hospitality of others.
See, hospitality in the ancient near east was no light matter. It was in-hospitality of the most violent kind that was enough to wipe Sodom off the map. In a desert climate – and for a people who knew what it was to be lost, to be a stranger in a strange land, the hospitality of others was a matter of life and death. To receive a stranger into your home and graciously transform that stranger into a guest was a strict social responsibility and an act of obedience to God. A part of this responsibly was the ritual of foot washing, offering hot and weary travelers the chance to literally cool their heels. It was the custom in those days to provide in every home a bowl of water – a respite for dry, dusty tired desert heavy feet – this was a necessity and a gracious act that welcomed the tired stranger into the shade and comfort of your home and this act was part of turning the stranger into an honored guest. Hence the significance of Jesus command to shake off of dust from their sandals – it was a symbolic gesture pointing to feet never received, never honored – and God disobeyed.
That day so many summers ago in my own life, I was crushed by the stark realization that my mom’s hospitality had limits – and I’d found her first limit based on color. Much later I would personally and painfully run smack-dab into another limit.
So I went outside, embarrassed that Traci might have heard, or that mom’s words were visible, all pink and crusty like calamine lotion on bug bites. We played – we had a great time – but I was ashamed to invite her over again. After that day I would go to her house and play – her house and yard where I was welcome to come and go out of a snapping screen door as much as I wanted.
As time passed the realities of life in the south, life in public schools filled with children bussed from other neighborhoods, helped shaped the way I saw the world. I just grew up sharing erasers, stickers and green jello with folks from all all walks of life. I saw the world much differently than my parents to be sure. As I matured I became determined to NOT be like my mother – I would not dismiss (or hate) a stranger at first sight. Yeah but there is more to it than that (there always is).
As it turns out, it’s diversity of lived faith that seems challenge the limits of my own hospitality. I mean I am so open to many paths to God, I truly believe that the ways in which the world longs to be in relationship – the many religions by which we codify our longing – are all so beautiful and good. I’ve been blessed to walk many paths on my own journey – all of which combine to make me who I am today.
But here’s the rub. I have spent the last decade building a little planned community with white picket fences around my faith – living, eating, worshiping with people who think, believe and live their faith much like me – even though few of them look like me. I want to be surrounded by people who share my theology of God, of God’s love – embracing, forgiving, liberating. Jesus patiently hearing my prayers. Of myself as flawed but loved by God, as a child of God, made in the very image of God. All peace and accepting love.
Here at my blog – in rich and challenging diversity – standing at my screen door are the hearts and minds of strangers – bearing ideas not always so welcome in my home.
I have been here before. Back when I was still a little newbie in seminary, in class one afternoon were talking about God’s love and most folks in the room (myself included) seemed to know and use the word LOVE as if it could only be perceived in one way, patient, kind, all encompassing, constantly forgiving – tender. Then a voice from the other side of the screen door reminded us that concepts of God’s love are not universal – that different traditions understand God’s love quite differently. Some – many in fact, regard God’s love and stern – tough love that can judge a deed and punish the wrongdoer. My classmate used the phrase “God loves me too much to leave me just like I am”.
And a lifetime in the Baptist church came streaming in like so many mosquitoes through that screen door, nagging at me, irritating me, raising the old welts. And I remembered God’s love differently – well as more – than what I had watered down my own understanding to perceive. The stranger reminded me of a requiring God. A God to whom I was required to show MY love through obedience and worship.
It is important to understand that Jesus’ message was not a negation of previous understanding of our relationship with God, not a full reversal of the Law – but an embodied explanation of the Law. According to the Gospels, Jesus meant for the people of his day to understand that God is way MORE than you might have previously understood. That what God requires IS love. Jesus said that the greatest requirement is to love God with all your heart mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.
Like my own father, who loved his girls madly (and who loved him right back), to whom I am still expected to show my love by intentional respectful obedience, God can be and should be understood as a God of Law – but that Law – and friends this is important, that law is LOVE. Not some mamby-pamby loving God with flowers in her hair hugging the whole world – but a God whose law demands justice for the poor, the marginalized That in fact is the crux of the Law – commandments that require of us to be in deep relationship with God, and commandments that require of us to be in just relationship with one another. The stranger may be talking about micro-managing laws – but my understanding of the law is a Gospel understanding. Jesus – God incarnate – living out what exactly is meant by laws – breaking Sabbath laws, cleanliness laws and institutional hierarchy to extend a radical hand of hospitably – to everyone.
So I challenge you (I hear me – I challenge myself too) to be intentional about inviting the stranger – hearing and understanding differently. I pray that we Christians will repent from our ways divisive, us and them ways and really welcome one another to the table. That is really all that scary word “repent” means, metanoia is a change of mind and heart that lead to a change in actions.
You know my mother never really repented of her racism, but in the closing year of her life she most certainly had a deep and real change of mind, heart and actions as she related to me and my wife. We were reconciled but it took me a few more years to shift in such a way that I could understand her better (another post, another day).
I pray to God, that with Jesus’ help, my heart will always remain open to the stranger. That I am able to treat the other – other person, other ideas, other theology – as an honored guest– for if I restrict my understanding of God, of Jesus and the work of Grace in our lives then I am culpable of constricting God’s powerful love in my life.
As I understand it, Jesus offers transformation that promises to work two ways. If you invite the Stranger in – as you are transforming Him into an honored guest then He has the power to transform you.
Gracious and loving God, oil the hinges of my heart that it may swing wide and welcome You in the face of the stranger.
I feel a disclaimer is warranted. As much as I pray to remain open to the stranger I can not overstate that I am not praying to be open to mean-spirited trolls and aggressive bible drive-bys any more than I am willing to naively open the door of my house to a thief or known violent offender. Real conversations where we both assume a humble and graceful posture are always welcome.