March 24, 2019: Giving Up Superiority – Lent 3 by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 4: 4-30)

“Us and them.” That is our biological inheritance. Our survival as a species was made possible by our fine-tuned ability to recognize threat and avoid it at all cost. Which is why it’s not the least bit surprising that the woman at that well is identified simply as Samaritan, different, other. We are wired to see the world as us and them, black and white AND Christ calls us to love anyway, to dare to press through this ingrained biology and live more deeply into a consciousness that transcends. The unnamed Samaritan woman reveals something about this transcendence.

When she returns to her village after the most extraordinary experience she says to the others “come and see.” Come and see someone who knows me inside and out, can he be the Messiah, she asks? It’s a strange paradox, this human need to be seen and known while at the same time, doing everything in our power to ensure we protect ourselves from really being seen. We want to be known, valued, and seen as unique and at the same time we go to great lengths to mitigate the risk of people seeing who we truly are.

One of the riskiest things I’ve ever done is keeping a journal. All through my teens and well into my twenties, I recorded my inmost thoughts and fears, my every success and regret. Though the volumes don’t contain anything that could convict me of a crime they do contain details that could blanket me under so many layers of shame I might never uncover. What if people knew, not just my inmost thoughts but my every action, the missteps, the bad choices, the betrayals, all of it. What would people think?

I am so glad that my journal writing has been replaced by social media posts, where I obligingly play by the unspoken rule of offering a polished version of myself to the world, not troubling anyone with the messy stuff below the surface. Likewise, I’d preach a sermon from a well-rehearsed text any day over having an unscripted conversation. Nicely protected behind my well-chosen words, no risk of people seeing the full complexity of the perfectly imperfect me. Please tell me you can relate!

The more we try to push down, hide, silence the missteps, the regrets the shame we’ve accumulated, the bigger it all becomes. It’s as if we take our bad deeds and poor choices, which are in and of themselves a tangled web of genetics, social circumstances, free will and external expectations, we take all of that and push it down until we become our deed. Think about it, what is the noun you fear most being used to describe you? If people really knew you, they’d understand why you can’t let go of the shame, why you aren’t truly worthy of your birthright identity as a child of God. Is it infidel? Traitor? Liar? Coward? Gossiper? Thief? Cheater? Imposter? Who is the you, that you’re hiding?

That day the Samaritan woman approached the well in the heat of the noonday sun; there were no pages, no screens, no masks to hide behind. She tried at first to protect herself by naming her otherness. She admits to being a Samaritan and a woman, two very good reasons for Jesus to not engage. Samaritans were seen as half Jews, half rate followers of the faith, to be loathed and feared. And being a woman, enough said. There was absolutely no social obligation for Jesus to acknowledge a woman in public. But he knows there’s more. He knows these are just the surface wounds, and he wastes no time going to her deepest wound. He reaches out and exposes the thing she has worked so hard to hide. “Go get your husband,” he says. He may as well have said: “I see you Whore.” Because that’s what she’d been named by her community, by biblical interpreters throughout time and most certainly by herself. 

Whether she is daughter, mother, friend it’s all overshadowed by this all-encompassing identity – Whore. We know she feels it. Why else would she go to fetch water in the heat of the day? The honourable women would have been long gone by then. To avoid their judging stares, she went to the well at noon. Jesus knew she had internalized the self-judgment and loathing. He knew too that she lived in a time when the system was set up for her to fail. Maybe she was married off young, maybe as each husband died her choices narrowed. Maybe it was a case of: be destitute of be whore. Shame is never simple, never black and white.

This is about so much more than a shamed-filled, unnamed woman confessing her sins. It is about being seen, truly seen, perhaps for the first time in her entire life. Being seen in the full complexity of her existence, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, seen as a person tied up in a system that shamed women and left her little choice, seen as one who had judged herself. In her own words he saw her inside and out.

As much as I love a good biblical story, the fact is this is nothing more than interesting narrative unless we uncover in it something relevant to our lives. Is there a truth here that can inform how our identity in the Christian tradition will be shaped? There are two things that matter here. The first is: we are not defined by what people say. You are not defined by your bad choices, your guilt, regret or failures. One negative noun can never define you. And the second thing that matters is community – we cannot be followers of Christ without community.

Let me explain. Something happens in this scene. This unnamed woman at the well has her heart broken open to the truth that she’s not defined by the labels imposed on her, not defined by what people say she is, or by what she’s done. When she realizes this about herself she knows it’s universally true. She sees that she is a child of God and if it’s true for her it must be true for others. From this place, an “us and them” mentality slips away, it’s transcended, it’s impossible to hold on to.

Think about how difficult it is for us to really embrace this sort of truth. Go back to your deepest secret, your “if they only knew” this thing about me. Can you entertain the idea that you are more than that noun? What about others? Can you get your head around the idea that no one is defined by one label? Our biological inheritance really wants to box people in. We want to categorize and determine where everyone fits in the scheme of things. It happened to my sister in law countless times in hospital before she died. The first thing people saw in her last years of life was alcoholic, not wife, sister, certainly not beloved child of God. And that noun, it impacted the care she received. We do it all the time: mentally ill, drug addict, racial minority. I appreciate that it’s easy enough for us to begin to see that these labels are too limiting. But some labels are harder to shake. What about murderer, terrorist, evil person? The temptation to explain much that happens in our world today is to label those who do terrible deeds as just evil, an aberration. But do we limit the capacity of humanity to evolve in our consciousness when we do this? I ask that with all seriousness knowing that we can’t answer that one easily.

As long as we keep labeling one another by our otherness or our worst deed, as long as we say she is whore, or he is adulterer, whatever it is, we strip people of their humanity and indeed their spirituality. Christ calls us to get real about who we are and to love anyway.

I want to move on to the second take away from this story: community. The moment it all comes together for her she drops her pail and goes running back to her community, to the people who no doubt named her whore in the first place. She invites them to come and see. I am not talking about returning to communities of abuse or violence. I’m talking about community being the place we test and practice being people see one another differently. Community is where we practice reminding one another that we are not defined by our shame our guilt, instead we are all expressions of divine love.

She brings back to her community this thing called living waters, and you don’t carry it in a bucket. The living waters of Christ flow when we are seen, fully known, flaws, regrets and all. Living waters enable us to loosen our grip on our evolutionary inheritance of us and them. Our oneness, begins to come into focus.

Living waters could also be named Christ consciousness, it’s like that thing that made Jesus the Messiah, that thing that made him fully human and fully divine, that thing that made him one with God, flowed right into the very heart of the woman. That thing that makes Jesus the Christ, is not stationary, it flows though us. She saw this and brought it back to her people. Living waters, Christ consciousness doesn’t offer us escape from the world, but entry into it, the whole mess of it. 

We gather in this way week in and week out to practice being people who are ever more open to the living waters of Christ in our midst. You might come to that awareness of the oneness of it all in the woods or through meditation, contemplation but it will always draw you back into the trenches of community where you see that the spiritual is not escape from the world but entry into it.

This following Jesus is risky business, and it does not provide immunity to the stuff that happens, to the labels that get thrown at us, but it does and it will and it can keep us in the noon day sun long enough to see a glimpse of the dazzling sparkle of living waters.

Will you dare to drop the bucket you’ve been using to carry around those shame filled nouns, to carry around the quick judgments you place on others? Will you dare to drop what you’ve been using to fill up that fear inside and run and tell the others that there is more, that we are more, that every one of us is an inheritor of the Christ’s living waters? When that starts to flow we lose our thirst to press others down so that we can feel buoyed up.

When you find yourself the recipient of living waters, you become a channel through which these waters flow. The world will call you crazy, say there isn’t enough living water to go ground, that you’ll run the well dry if you invite everyone to it. Invite them anyway. People will say you’re crazy, that there isn’t enough hope to go round in times like these, hope anyway. They’ll say the future is so uncertain you better stock pile your water and let the chips fall where they pay. Drop your pail anyway and run back to community to be reminded that living waters

February 24, 2019: The Problem with Dinner Parties by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 14: 7-14)

The problem with dinner parties is that once the invitations have been sent you’ve really lost all control over how things will unfold. The problem with dinner parties is that someone will inevitably open a cupboard or lift a pillow and see that your life is a dusty shadow of the pristine image you try to convey on Instagram. And being the guest is no easier. Do you take flowers and risk sending the host into that awkward frenzy of looking for a vase and the rice boils over? Do you bring wine? Are these the wine connoisseur or the baby duck friends? And how do you determine if the host, insisting you bring nothing but yourself, is being sincere or testing you?

I hosted my first dinner party in grade ten. That was the one year in high school when I had friends. I used my Girl Guide acquired expertise to set the table properly. Mixed the prettiest syrupy mocktails in brandy snifters complete with paper umbrellas. I served fondue, the kind where you heat the oil to boiling and dip your meat into, creating a meal of greasy flavorless tough meat. I’m glad that fad died out. The chocolate dessert fondue was a hit.

I don’t know what possessed me to want to host my six closest girl friends for a dinner party. Goodness knows the favour was never returned and the friendships eventually petered out with high school drama and disloyalty. But I don’t regret it. Oh my, did we feel grown up that night as my parents disappeared into the background and we sat around the table for hours taking on the adult persona of dinner conversation with all seriousness.

I think I learned it young, certainly my parents would host dinners, usually in our case people from church and sometimes these were adult only affairs. But no matter we lived in a modest split-level, I could sit just inside my closed bedroom door and listen to every word of their adult conversations well into the night. From the other side of my bedroom door, seated crossed legged for hours I learned that the real gold of a dinner party has little to do with the food. That’s where I learned that dinner parties are most importantly about the conversations, the connection, the people, and the vulnerability.

Jesus was the guest at plenty a dinner party. He was the host sometimes too, once in an upper room the night before he was tracked down and brought to the cross, once on a beach eating fried fish and his disciples. And he was the guest more times than you can count. Sometimes he was the guest at the home of dear friends like Martha and Mary but mostly he was at the table because he invited himself like he did with Zaccheus or as a curiosity to the hosts as in the story before us today. No matter the circumstances one thing is sure, Jesus knew that dinner parties are central to our lives of faith, core to shaping our identity as Kin-dom people.

In the story before us he was invited to the home of a Pharisee. These were the guys who knew the rules and enforced them. They’d been watching Jesus since he healed on the Sabbath and they were waiting for him to break another rule. There must have been tension in the air that night. One would expect Jesus to have been on his best behaviour but he never seemed to be limited by what others thought. He gets to the party and hasn’t even found his seat when he sees that people are vying for the places of most honour at the table.

You’ve got to appreciate that honor and shame had tremendous sway in society at that time. There really was nothing more important than your honour and it was tied in to your family, you didn’t just bring shame on yourself for a misstep you’d bring it on your whole family too. Jesus sees this competition rumbling at the party and starts into a parable.

He tells them, if you’re invited to a party don’t take the seats of honour take the worst seat possible and then you only have one way to go, up. Which sounds like a rather half-baked parable. Really, take the worst seat so as to not risk being shamed by the host?

I wonder if he had lost a bit of his usual nerve or if he couldn’t, at first, get beyond the cultural norms so embedded in him. Because it’s not until the parable is over that he opens the trap door. I’ve talked before about the trap doors inherent in every parable. They open just when you think you have the thing figured out and they reveal some unexpected truth, some challenge to you, something that shifts the meaning of the whole thing. But in this instance the trap door lays between the parable and the real world in this line Jesus speaks to the host of the party. He says “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This key verse sews together the parable with the directive he gives to the host.

He says it is not just about taking the seat of least honour, it’s also about who you invite to the table and by goodness don’t invite anyone who’s playing that power game. Fill your table with people who can’t repay you. When you host a luncheon don’t invite your friends, don’t invite those you know and like, in other words invite those who will bring you no honour, those who can not repay you

The mainline church gets critiqued some times for various reasons but one of them is that we are a social club, more than a faith community, not enough concerned about Jesus and his kingdom as we are about the friendships we develop here or the justice activities we engage in.

With all seriousness I propose that there is a particular Christian spiritual practice that has been long overlooked: the spiritual practice of the dinner party. When we sit at table together as people who seek to follow in the way of Jesus, we are participating in something much greater than filling bellies. We are placing ourselves in the very vulnerable position of being changed, of being seen. It is hard to hate someone with whom you’ve shared a meal. And though it’s been done it is hard to leave a table when you’ve been offended, leaving you in the awkward position of sitting face to face with difference. Hospitality is certainly disarming and it can also be downright painful for both host and guest.

This community has been eating together a lot lately. A few weeks back when we announced that we would host our third annual Dine Out event the congregation erupted in applause. Who would have thought there would be such an appeal to sign up dinner, not even knowing who the other guests will be or who your host is for that matter. And you folks love it! But that’s not all. We hosted a community potluck earlier this month where sixty people gathered round table. And a gala dinner last Sunday where eight people purchased tickets so others could attend.

And it’s pancakes after church next week and later in March we’ll eat pies as we explore the Affirm United invitation to be Public intentional and explicit in our inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

On Mondays Mary Lou opens up the doors to the Great Hall, puts on a pot of coffee and hosts several dozen men living close to the economic and line, under the pretense of offering them tickets to get a free meal. But I’ve seen what she does and the meal is as peripheral as the coffee and delicious lemon squares she serves up. The heart of the kingdom revealed on Mondays is in the community that arises from the conversations. You may want to consider putting yourself in the blessed and vulnerable place of showing up. And on Thursdays as dozens of parents and their little ones gather for parent and tot group we feed them too.

And of course for the past twenty years this community has been serving up meals once a month at First United. That’s twelve meals a year times about 150 people per meal, that’s 36000 meals! But ask the hundreds of people who faithfully volunteer to lovingly set tables, serve never ending pots of coffee at a sit down meal, ask them if they think they are the host and they’ll tell you these people who can’t return the favour return it a hundred fold every single week in their words and presence. They’ll tell you the food is just an avenue to the heart, to meeting the other, the stranger and when the stranger becomes a person you can’t help but look at the world and your place in it a little bit differently.

And later today after we gather for a service of remembrance to lift up the life of Blake Schaeferle, who was baptized here in this church, who no doubt played a few games of hide and seek amidst these pews and later would sit down at this piano any chance he got. After that service we will gather for lunch, around table, because we know that the conversations that happen as we fill our bellies are an extension of what happens here as we fill our souls. Because tables are places where we learn that our tears are not so different, our politics don’t need to be so entrenched, our joys are remarkably similar and one’s heartbreak has a way of seeping into the heart of another, so that we can bear it just a little bit easier.

I don’t know exactly what Jesus was trying to say that day but I do know that every parable points to the Kingdom and with so very many stories about tables he must have wanted us to know that the kingdom, the place where Love wins, is very much present in the things that happen around table. Maybe parables are filled with trap doors. Maybe there’s a trap door, an opening to powerful truth, a call to faithful discipleship for us that may be different from the trap door of previous generations or contexts. I’m not sure we actually need to have this all figured out but maybe there is something to be learned by practicing and laying out the spread and inviting any and all to every table we can, maybe there is always something to learn about the kindom.

Dinner parties are risky business, people may see you for who you really are, and the conversation may veer into places that leave you feeling uncomfortable but these are opportunities to be fed as much as the lavish abundance of dinner parties. What if every dinner party, ever meal shared, every time there’s a table present we saw it as invitation to practice being a kingdom people.

The problem with dinner parties really is that they are rife with trap doors, trap doors that we can fall into and find what we once knew for sure to be shaken up, trap doors that reveal we’ve been putting too many restrictions on our table welcome, trap doors that show ironically that the person society has the least to give is actually not their poverty or their illness, but a beautiful child of God. Being Christian is not about removing ourselves from the world but relishing in it and opening to the places and people and food that just may open our hearts and lead us to a more faithful risky life. Where’s the party? [1]


[1] This is some of what I read as I found inspiration for this sermon:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/25/magazine/food-issue-art-of-dinner-party.html
https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3354
https://www.openhorizons.org/h-is-for-hospitality-patricia-adams-farmer.html

February 10, 2019: Something from Nothing by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 9: 10-17)

In my family we’ve decided that whenever we are driving into new terrain, on roads unknown, in foreign countries, I will be the driver. We didn’t come to this decision through a duly called family meeting or based on a thorough evaluation of who is the better driver or for that matter the better navigator. No we have come to this decision so that we might avoid the unnecessary strain put on our marriage when my husband drives and I relentlessly tell him which way to go and, how do I put this nicely… and I flip out with every wrong turn or even a perception of a wrong turn that he makes.

And so it was a humbling experience for me a couple of summers ago when we arrived in Edinburgh, after a full day of driving across the highlands of Scotland. I was ready to call it quits and head into our comfortable Air-bnb for a late afternoon happy hour cocktail. I would have liked for Steven to return the car but of course he’d had no practice to that point and so in that moment when I suddenly wanted to relinquish control, I still had it. I headed out with our youngest to return the car to the appointed car hire depot about one kilometer away. The drive took us 45 minutes. No matter how hard I tried, the entrance to the car hire parking lot, hidden as it was beneath the train station, eluded me.

The saving grace, if you will, was the GPS we had named Charlotte. She had been with us for the entire 10 days previous and she hadn’t let us down. I’m not used to driving with a computer generated navigating voice, we don’t have that in our 12 year old car and so I was acutely aware of her presence with us during those 45 minutes. What I noticed was that Charlotte never once lost her cool! She never once said ‘No stupid you just missed the right turn!’ With every wrong turn I made Charlotte recalibrated and told me what the best choice was now, not what the best choice would have been one second before.

I want to propose today that God is our GPS. God is the calm, recalibrating, persuasive voice always offering the best option for this moment, not the one that has passed.  God is not coercive. God is persuasive. God is not the quintessential back seat driver, but the recalibrating voice, inviting us with each wrong turn to make the best decision for this moment. In each and every moment of our living God offers fresh possibilities, divine promptings, always drawing us toward the greatest healing, beauty, and wholeness available in each situation. And I’m not making this up, I mean this is not simply my best guess at the nature of God. “The Bible is full of examples of God using not coercive, but persuasive power to enlist our participation in creating a worthy… future.”

Whether it’s the very first verses in Genesis where it says that when God started creating there was chaos, there was already chaos, it was already a wrong turn moment and from that God persuasively called forth creation that was good. Later it was the persuasive divinely inspired ideals of the Hebrew people that brought down Pharaoh and led them out of slavery. I could go on but jump ahead with me now to this little miracle story and see too that there is a moment here where the gentle persuasive voice of the divine is whispered and we hear it in Jesus’ voice. You could almost miss it. In fact the disciples do almost miss it. Just like we almost miss the persuasive voice of the divine because we are so expecting the best way forward to hit us like a ton of bricks, because we are just so conditioned to expect divine power to be as forceful as human power.

Picture the scene, the disciples have just returned from their time around the countryside when Jesus sent them two by two to heal and cure and teach. Now they are back in his midst, all of them looking for a bit of time away, a retreat to renew and recharge. But instead a huge crowd follows them. Word is spreading about their power. And we’re talking a huge crowd, some 5000 people, not counting women and children – let’s just say it was likely more like 10,000 people. Jesus sees the crowd and knows his retreat will have to wait so he spends the day and he welcomes them, and speaks to them about the kingdom of God, and heals those who need to be cured.

And you might think this is the moment of hospitality in this scripture, when Jesus says, sit down and let me tell you about a kingdom where the last are first and the hungry are fed. Sit down and I’ll heal what’s broken, all of this when all he wanted was to just take a break. But there’s more, the bigger extension of hospitality comes later. At the end of what by all accounts has been a very good day. At that moment, as the sun starts to sink in the sky and the toddlers teeter on the verge of tantrum, as belies start to grumble and bladders beg to be emptied. In that moment the disciples come up to Jesus and say, maybe we should call it a day, we’ve filled these folks up with hope and vision and healing, let’s send them on their way to find some food and places to sleep the night.

But remember God always offers the best possible option in each and every moment and so Jesus taps deep into his divine, into his God given persuasive power and he says “you feed them.” He didn’t do it to show off, he didn’t do it because the disciples option wasn’t good enough, but simply because he had a possibility that was more closely attuned to the longing of the divine heart.

I wonder if they thought he’d completely lost his mind? That the sun had finally got to him. I wonder if they thought perhaps all that healing had left him with a low blood sugar and a cloudy head. Maybe they knew Jesus well enough by now to know that he tended to lose track of practical things when we was healing and curing. It doesn’t tell us if they whisper amongst themselves or if one of them finally looks at the others and says I think he’s serious.

When they realize he’s serious one of them pipes up “but we have nothing.”  Except there is a but. We have nothing BUT two fish and a few loaves. We have nothing but. Why does our something so often look to us like nothing? He didn’t say feed the whole crowd, he didn’t say you can make miracles happen, he just said give them something to eat.

It’s just that that holy voice doesn’t come like the voice from a thunderous cloud, persuasiveness never arrives like that. Instead the voice of God bubbles up from the deeps, from within, from those close at hand. And we are inclined to listen to the loudest cries, we are conditioned to listen for big and bold, not the whispers of our hearts.

What if we did that? What if we heard that voice more often? What if we offered our something even when we’ve convinced ourselves that it is in fact nothing? He doesn’t say let me show you how to feed all these people, he doesn’t shame them by saying what a dumb idea, he just offers the best possible opening. It’s not that Jesus miraculously turns our nothing into something, our something is already something.

We don’t know what happens when the disciples reluctantly pull the nothing from their lunch boxes and start to pass the baskets of bread and fish through the crowds. I would like to know if the bread grew each time someone handed it to the next, or if the crowd looked at the meager offering and people looked toward one another and realized they too had nothing, which was actually something to share. Did people add their broken bits to the baskets? Did people start sharing what they had to the point that those at the back of the crowd may have missed all trace of the miracle in their midst?

Remember the times in your life when you have been the recipient of persuasive hospitality. It’s not the teacher who shames you in front of the class that enables you to bring out your something, it’s not the parent who says not good enough, no we are persuaded to become our best selves to make the best decisions in the whispers of love and encouragement, and sometimes it takes a while for us to hear. Because there are voices in our world and in our heads that compete with the voice of Jesus and those voices are loud and they say you’ve got nothing, don’t bother, look for the quickest and easiest path, don’t take the time to wonder or discern, don’t listen to the whispers of your heart we’ve got this!

Every time we gaze into a miracle story it’s helpful to remember that God is a GPS, God is persuasive, not coercive. Think about it, whereas my back seat driver technique tries to influence outcomes through sheer volume, God’s technique is persuasive, never judgmental, with each wrong turn God recalibrates and offers the next best solution given the circumstances in this moment. God is always filled with possibilities always opening more, always luring us forward. Miracles are an expression not an exception of the non-coercive, immensely influential love of God.

There is so very much that weighs heavy on our hearts these days. It can feel like the problems of the world are so much bigger than what you have to give. I wonder what might happen this week if each and every one of us committed to noticing, to listening for that persuasive holy voice that bubbles up from within, that echoes from the voices of prophets in our very midst? I wonder if you’d have any miracles stories to tell?

February 3, 2019: The Lost Art of Hospitality by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 9: 1-6)

At this key moment in the gospel story, after many healings and teachings and miracles, Jesus turns to the trusted disciples and says your turn – go out there and do likewise, take what you’ve witnessed and put it into action. And by the way, don’t bother packing a travel bag. He sends them out, entrusting them with a very important mission and says travel light and just reply on the hospitality of strangers.

The word hospitality is not even in this scripture passage but it’s implied. If you’re not packing bread, money or clothes then it’s surely the hospitality of strangers that you’ll be relying on. Though there were no hotels where they were going you’ve got to think that having a bit of cash would have enabled them to purchase some favours along the way.

I’m curious to know when you hear the word, hospitality, what comes to mind for you? This is not a trick question there are no wrong answers. Hospitality: what images, words, stories rise up for you? Give them a moment to think and then hand microphone around. Let’s make this a non rhetorical question, who’d like to share their answer? Then bring together response. Speak to what’s been said…

            So much of it focuses around food, friends, family, it’s always been that way and is obviously appropriate on this Super Bowl Sunday. In many ways our understanding of hospitality is very much in line with the biblical view all those years ago. There too it often involves food and welcoming.

In the biblical world certainly the household was the primary place where hospitality was expressed. There was an expectation that should a stranger show up at your door, or at your tent, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah, you would offer food and whatever else you could to the unannounced guest. It was much more than family and friends enjoying some ribs and beer in front of the TV. Throughout the New Testament we hear stories of Jesus offering hospitality to strangers who are very much “the other.” Samaritans and Romans and Caananites, these were not felt board characters but people who were often at odds or hostile with the Jewish community.

In the Hebrew tradition and as an expression of the covenant with God you had an obligation to welcome, to feed, to offer a place to sleep to travellers who came to your door. In the early church as Christian communities formed, they were rooted both in this Hebrew tradition and in the perspective Jesus brought to the practice.  Jesus’ example and the household broadened to include the church community. Hospitality was characterized by respect for those who were different in status, by meeting the physical needs of strangers and by caring for the local poor as well as other believers.”[1]

Hospitality was a significant part of the identity of the early church. It was shaped by Jesus’ ministry and modeled a practice of reciprocal benefit to the stranger and host alike.

Over the generations hospitality was essentially lost as a Christian practice. “By the eighteen century, the term ‘hospitality’ had been emptied of its central moral meaning and left only with its late-medieval trappings of luxury and indulgence.”[2] Today hospitality has all but lost its traditional meaning in the church, being most often reduced to the warm welcome we extend to those who are known and loved by us. Hospitality is seen as making sure our connect cards are well stocked, wearing name tags, or making sure new comers can find their way to coffee hour, no small thing to be sure! But this deeper meaning of both caring for and relying on one another is a bit elusive.

It is a bit of a stretch for us to really comprehend what it looks like, to rely completely on the hospitality of strangers. Imagine the times you’ve been the recipient of hospitality, imagine being dependent on hospitality, it’s a place our minds can’t easily go, certainly not in a biblical sense. Extending hospitality is one thing but receiving it is another.

            As we delve into this idea of hospitality over the coming month I really want to root our explorations in this idea of being recipient, not just being the host. And in fact to push the idea ever further than our lived experience and consider not just receiving hospitality but like the disciples, being dependent upon it. I wonder if in instructing the disciples to go out there with no safety net, if you will, was Jesus revealing something about what he had come to do? Was he expecting that this would in fact teach them even more about the upside down kin-dom that he was bringing into reality?

It’s intriguing that he says don’t take anything with you as if he knows that they like us will pull out the compass or the Google map, if they lose their way, will reach for the stash of cash in hopes of buying some good favour if they first knock on a door and get a cool welcome, will put on the extra tunic so as to not have to be seen as anything but self sufficient? Don’t take extra stuff, because you know you’ll pull it out and use it when the going gets tough. It’s like Jesus knows that all of sometimes and some of us most of the time will be in the vulnerable position of relying on the good favour of others. By sending them empty handed Jesus is equipping them to lean into the vulnerability of being reliant on others.

Without the usual supports, in experiencing relying on the good nature of the stranger does our ability to be empathetic open up a bit? Do we learn in a deep way what it means to be the stranger, to be the refugee, the poor, the lost, the oppressed? And is there something about tapping into that experience that informs how we might show up as host?

And besides that there are times in our lives when all of the extra things are absolutely useless to us and maybe leaving your reservations at home is practice for the times all of our baggage will prove useless to our circumstance anyway. Like the times your mind is wracked with grief and you are dependent not just on the casseroles that get dropped at your door but dependent too on those who dare to stop and look you in the eye and catch a glimpse of your agony, dependent on those who offer a hug and allow your tears to fall on their shoulder.

Maybe it’s practice for the times when illness comes as it always does unbidden and you don’t have all you need to get through this one and you become dependent on doctors and loved ones and more than anything dependent of hope and faith. Being the recipient of hospitality, in a practical way it shakes us just a little bit frees us from the desire to be in control that is so very core to the mindset of our industrial world view. It is so very contrary to all we’ve been taught to not be able to understand, predict and control. Perhaps when we pay attention to the times we are reliant on the hospitality of others we catch a glimpse of God in the casseroles and the tears and the doctors and the meals. 

Needing hospitality is a story that requires vulnerability and letting go. A story that gives up control and eases into risk. A story that anticipates rejection at every turn and yet gives witness to God’s love regardless.  You need to know how the stranger feels, you need to be the recipient of hospitality if you are to turn the tables of power.[3]

Hospitality is not just having someone over for a nice meal. Hospitality is not just letting someone in for a spell. And really, there’s no such thing as “radical” hospitality or “genuine” hospitality. We like to add all kinds of adjectives to our hospitality practices as if to suggest that ours is better than others. At its heart, hospitality is, simply, radical. There is no other kind of hospitality. You either are or you aren’t hospitable. If you welcome some and exclude others don’t pretend you are hospitable.[4]

This is the upside down world of the kin-dom of God. The way of Jesus is so often contrary to the way our minds work, to our assumptions to the stuff we’ve learned along the way. When we consider Jesus’ example we begin to see that being a guest changes us more than being a host ever does. “If I’m able to offer any kind of hospitality at all, then it is thanks to…”[5] the family how housed me for a month in Costa Rica when I was just 19, thinking I had gone to their country to help them. Yet it was that family who gave me a room, cared for me when I had a tummy ache, allowed me to sit at their table for every meal, and to play with their daughters and to pick eggs from the hens in their kitchen and to bear with me through my utterly broken Spanish.

If I’m able to offer any kind of hospitality it’s because of the grandmother of my high school boyfriend who didn’t like it much when the young black men in her close knit community dated white girls and yet she greeted me with a hug every time I entered her kitchen, put me to work, fed me countless meals, treated me like one of the grandkids and genuinely wanted to know how I was doing at a time in my life when I didn’t know where I belonged or fit in. If I’m able to offer any kind of hospitality it’s because of the Sikh cab driver who gave me that free ride last spring when my poor planning left me late for a wedding. This is the upside down world of the kindom of God and we glimpse it in the moments we’ve left our usual crutches behind by design or happenstance.

In such gracious hosts, I have both met the Christ and been welcomed in his stead, to the point that being a stranger seems to me no longer like something to be avoided but like something to be sought. Whichever side of the door I find myself on, faith is the risky decision to open wide, on the pretty good chance that I know who is standing on the other side.[6]

Hospitality is a core Christian spiritual practice. So, this afternoon, enjoy your Super Bowl parties, relish in the simple pleasures of good food, fine friends and a sport that some of us have absolutely no affinity for. Then tomorrow as you open the door, maybe pause for a moment and say a prayer or set an intention to dare the vulnerability to be the guest. How are you called to show up as host? Because Following in the way of Jesus is not complicated but it is hard. Whichever side of the door you find yourself on, – faith is the risky decision to open the door wide and there is a pretty good chance that you know the Christ is standing on the other side. Amen


[1] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 43.

[2] Ibid, 38.

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3648

[4]  ibid

[5] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-09/guest-appearance

[6] ibid.

January 20, 2019: What is God up to? by Rev. Beth Hayward (1 Corinthians 12: 1-11)

Introduction

Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? So asks Mary Oliver in The Summer Day. At the end of the day it’s a question that stirs and rises, even troubles us, not just on summer days when we have the gift of leisure and long nights to ponder such existential questions. It also rises up in our wintertime dark nights of the soul, it rises like spring flowers filled with promise and it comes to us too as we let go like deciduous trees in the fall. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Who will you be? How shall I live? How to carve out a path or a way of being that matters, that contributes, that is grounded in something, something worth living for?

This week I’ve found that question holding everything in some mysterious way. As we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day we’re reminded of someone who lived his one wild and precious life in ways that continue to inspire hope and goodness. As we learned of the death of Mary Oliver, American poet of the people, it’s easy to see how her contributions will live on for generations, inspiring people to see beauty in grasshoppers and fields and so many ordinary things. Some people’s contributions seem so obvious, so significant, so valuable. But most of us aren’t ever to be a Martin Luther King or a Mary Oliver. Most of us are far more ordinary, if we’re lucky. Some us feel like down right failures most of the time. 

It’s shocking really how this letter written to a house church of several dozen people two millennia ago can address something that is so very close to our own experience. That church, which may be better thought of as a loosely knit together community, with slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, an unlikely group to be thrown together, they were arguing over who had the better gifts, who was making a more significant contribution. It seems it’s an ego game as old as time. It would be nice to think we have evolved, that there’s no hierarchy of gifts in our minds but try telling the child who gets picked last for the team that there is no hierarchy of gifts, or the chorister who never gets chosen for the solo. Tell the kid who never makes it on the honour role that all gifts are equal. When did you last see an honour role for the student who stopped in the hall to help a younger child tie shoes?

2000 years on and the idea that every gift is equal is still an elusive ideal more often than an embodied reality. We still live in a world where we are trained young to size up the competition and determine where we stand in the order of things.

Jesus is Lord

It may be easy enough to relate to a community where our insecurities and egos get in the way but with Paul and his letters it sometimes gets more complicated to sort out the heart of his meaning. He tries to explain to the fine folks of Corinth the difference between a spiritual gift and, well, one that isn’t. So he writes: that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Clear right? If you turn it around a bit what he seems to be saying is that the Spirit is working through you when Jesus is Lord in your life. I’m guessing that there are some of us who hear that and think it’s clear as can be but I expect for many of us it causes a little bristling.

Jesus is Lord, in a pluralistic world it’s a bit hard to know what to do with that. It’s messy, because 2000 years on it still tends to elude us, and we think that if Jesus is Lord then we must mean Buddha is an idol and Mohammad a fraud and we can’t reconcile marginalizing, or worse dismissing, so much of the world and their religious beliefs. We’re shy, or we don’t want to offend, or we’re just not sure how it could possibly be helpful to profess that Jesus is Lord of our lives.

We need to remember that this is a statement for the church, it’s not intended to be a judgment on Buddhists or Muslims, and if Jesus is Lord is used as a means to say Jesus should be Lord over everyone’s life, well we are getting into dangerous territory. It’s to a particular community and faith tradition and for Christians Jesus is Lord and that is far more about what has authority in your life than it does about saving a place in some heaven in the sky. 

Jesus is Lord was the very first way that Christians self-identified, professed their faith and it’s hard for us to really wrap our heads around what a daring and powerful statement that was. It was intended as a counterpoint to Caesar as Lord. And to go around in First Century Roman Empire saying anyone but Caesar was Lord, well that could cost you your life. Caesar brought peace to the people but it was a strange sort of peace that was based on fear, and violence. When Jesus is Lord we commit to lives where fear and violence and hierarchies of gifts, these are not the things that inform our lives, our choices. When Jesus is Lord we are committing to a way of life where all life is sacred, where the last are first and where care of one another and earth is paramount. It’s rather counter to culture both then and now.

So if Jesus is Lord and not Caesar then what does that look like today? Where does power lay in our world? When Jesus is Lord it is not at all about what makes us different or unique or better yet what makes us Christian, what do we hold on to and profess? When the church says Jesus is Lord, that this is the way for this community, I think we may have lost sight of the tangible in that statement.

I am more and more convinced that church people, Jesus is Lord people, we are absolutely no better living the love of Christ than anyone else.

Living it

There is this odd paradox these days where we understand so much the value of inclusion of welcoming the stranger of being so open to the other. But we sometimes mistake that for permission or necessity to not stand too firmly for anything. I wonder if we could get our heads around the life changing commitment those first followers made by proclaiming Jesus is Lord, would it change anything for us? Yes, you may need to change the words a bit. It may not resonate to sit back and evaluate how you didn’t live up to your faith when in any given moment by calling yourself out as slipping back into a Caesar is Lord moment. It may not, in our context, be the most helpful thing to invite a friend to church by telling them how Jesus is Lord in your life.

At the same time those in follow in the way of Jesus, at least here in the West, we are in this beautiful moment where it’s okay, it’s expected for us to be thoughtful about who we are. As Christianity becomes ever more pushed aside we have an opportunity to think long and hard about why we’d want to be part of this community. At the end of the day we all long to live our best lives, to have something other than the latest fad or our own impulsive ideas or our own long held beliefs to guide our lives, religion is a container that helps to give a bit of form to the deep and timeless spiritual quest inborn in us all.

We start to practice what it means for Jesus to be Lord within a particular context. Because Jesus is Lord is about relationships, respect, healing wholeness holding more sway over our lives than money or power or people’s opinions of our worth or any of that. This is the model we have with the early church and it still holds some truth today. I think of Paul writing those letters to and just trying to help people stick with it, in a difficult situation and it seems to still resonate so clearly today. We too need the encouragement to stick with the vision that Jesus offered. We need to be continually brought back to trusting that love is more powerful than hate, that deep care for the other will ultimately get us further to peace than violence or fear. And the model given to us all those years ago of sorting all this out in community still makes sense. Church should be a place where we begin to practice living in every arena of our lives, living from this place or love and care and justice.

Go ahead and leave the church after one bad sermon or because they music seems to be in a rut lately or leave because someone at coffee hour said something callous, or because the bathrooms always seem to be out of toilet paper or because we said we were inclusive and then went and piled chairs by the wheelchair ramp or didn’t think to put a potty seat in the bathrooms for your toilet training toddler or we used the word God when you relate better to higher power.  Walk away if you will but you’ll miss the opportunity for the good stuff the stuff that arises from the ruins, the long slow harvest that can’t grow without the mulch and compost. You’ll miss the opportunity to practice, to struggle through to witness that when Jesus is Lord things are by no means easy but by all means worth it.

Jesus is Lord I think we make it more complicated than it needs to be as in a sense we don’t mean a historical figure is Lord but the Christ that which shone through Jesus of Nazareth, was so very much revealed in his life death and resurrection and it stands in stark contrast to all the other things we name as Lord as having power in our lives, In stark contrast to money and fame and prestige and honour roles and getting picked first for the team and what class you are defined by.

As Martin Luther King said: the quality not the longevity of one’s life is what is important. Each day we have opportunity to practice getting the quality just a bit closer to love and care and justice. If you think your gifts are better than your neighbours well you must be having a Caesar is Lord moment. Take that with you this week, not to shame yourself or anyone else but simply to bring to consciousness those times when we slip into comparing our gifts against another’s or determining the value and worth of someone based on stuff that is not core to our faith.  And trust that you too have spiritual gifts and dare to use them. Amen