May 4, 2014: The Risk of Hospitality by Rev. Beth Hayward – Luke 24:13-35

It won’t be news to those of you who listen to top forty radio to hear that a little song called “Happy” is sweeping the airwaves.  If you haven’t heard it you may have heard the buzz around it.  There’s even a 24 hour YouTube video where you can sing and dance along to the four minute happy song no less than360 times.  One listen and you will be hard pressed to keep your foot from tapping: I promise.

It’s an escape song and you can’t help but feel just a little bit of the infectious happiness that it exudes.  Oprah insists that the power of the song is a result of singer Pharrell Williams channeling something greater than himself into his music.  That might be pushing it.  I wonder if the appeal of the happy song is the escape it offers from the other songs that so aptly describe our lives:  Tears in heaven, All by myself, How do you mend a broken heart.

In a world where news accounts are relentless in reminding us of the realities of environmental disaster, bacteria resistant super bugs, civil wars, child poverty and abuse,  who doesn’t need a dose of carefree happiness now and then?  The reality is that some heartbreak can’t be touched by a catchy tune. Some sadness is not that easily pushed aside.

 *****

 Later on that first Easter day some weary travelers are heading away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus:  a town that, for all intents and purposes, is nowhere.  They have heard about the empty tomb, whispers of a story of life from death but nothing can break though their grief and heartbreak.  They believed in this guy Jesus, trusted his message of a new kind of kingdom, and hoped that finally the last would be first, things would be different.  On Easter day they are leaving the place where their hopes died and are heading anywhere but here.

As they walk along the road a stranger comes along side and they begin to tell him all that went down in Jerusalem that week.  The travelers do two things on that road to nowhere that make all the difference.  They tell the stranger about their broken hopes AND they invite him to dinner.

After bringing the stranger up to speed on the events of Holy Week they exclaim:  “But we had hoped…”  But we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.  “So much is said in those four words, as they speak of a future that is not to be, a dream that created energy and enthusiasm but did not materialize, a promise that created faith that proved to be false. It speaks of a future that is closed off, now irrelevant, dead. And there are few things more tragic than a dead future. [1]

But we had hoped:  we know that plea.  But we had hoped she would improve, but we had hoped this opportunity would make all the difference, but we had hoped for the job, the second chance, the miracle… These words resonate in our personal lives and linger with our larger hopes and dreams for our society and world.  They are words that even a church community will say by times in its common life.

Given that it’s bring your friends to church Sunday it feels appropriate to share a bit of our “but we had hoped” stories, so that you have no illusions about what you’ve just walked into.  It has been one year since the resignation of this congregation’s long tenured and much valued minister.  His departure came just when we had a newly articulated vision and a plan of how to move towards that vision.  We were going to grow our church by deep care for one another and through sharing our vision of evolutionary Christianity far and wide. I was called here to be part of living out the vision.  And then everything changed.

But we had hoped the vision for our church would unfold just as we had planned, hoped things would carry on in the spirit led trajectory that we had put into place.  Instead we have spent a year in conversations around tables, in circles, working through the losses and picking up the pieces.  Certainly, in many ways, we have found our way back to hope but it is a hope that has been changed and shaped by what we have been through.

When someone tells us about their dashed hopes we can find ourselves in that awkward position of not knowing what to say.  We respond with niceties like:  time heals all, you’ll get over it or even buck up.  It is curious that the stranger on the road to Emmaus doesn’t respond with words of comfort or awkward encouragement.   Instead he tells them stories: the stories of their faith tradition that go way back to Moses and the prophets.  He tells them of people in other times who had articulated the same hope.  He reminds them that their hope is so much bigger than this one week in Jerusalem.  He tells them the stories of their people, grounding them in a story that is larger than their current devastation.

We have those stores to tell here in this community:  those stories that remind us that we are shaped in a story that is greater than our current reality and greater than our individual memories.  Stories like that of Rev Fallis: a military chaplain in World War II, who returned home with a blazing heart and a vision to build a church rooted in peace.  He promised the families of the soldiers he buried that he would build a church dedicated to peace.  He was so committed to his hope that he approached every province and territory in Canada and invited them each to donate a window to this church.  Each province and territory responded to his hope and his vision and sent a window: endorsing Fallis’ conviction that peace will always trump war.

We have stories to tell that don’t minimize our “but we had hoped” moments but rather lift up that there is more to the story.

 *****

The travellers named their broken hopes and then they did one more thing that changed everything. They extended hospitality, invited the stranger in for a meal.  The two who are void of hope choose to welcome the stranger. It is at the table as the stranger blesses and breaks the bread that suddenly the companions recognize him as Jesus.  In the breaking of the bread their muscle memory kicks in:  they remember something and go at once back to Jerusalem, back to the place where their hopes were dashed and broken, and they find the disciples and begin the difficult work of planting new hope.

The scriptures make it sound so easy and much theology has been born out of this story:  be sure to welcome the stranger for you never know when you may be welcoming the Christ.  But hospitality is often not that easy:  strangers can challenge our assumptions and get under our skin and bring things into the picture that leave us feeling uneasy.  Strangers can be the best thing that has happened to you or they can ruin an otherwise perfectly good evening. Extending hospitality is hard work.

Theologian Miroslav Volf tells a story from his teen years in Yugoslavia.  On the first Sunday of the month communion would be celebrated at the small Pentecostal church where his father was pastor.  A man from far in the country, the only Pentecostal in his village, would make the trek to the city for communion and invariably be invited by the pastor back to the manse for a meal.

As Volf recalls the meals he remembers resenting the visits:  mostly because the stranger slurped his soup through his bushy moustache.  Volf was sure his parents were no more impressed with the man’s table manners than he yet they repeatedly invited him.

Years later reflecting on the bad mannered stranger Volf reflects that his parents: “were extending the invitation to this stranger because they did not think one should hold the table of the Lord at which [his] father presided in the morning apart from the table at home whose head he was sitting at noon.”[2]  Welcoming the stranger is hard work.

*****

Back in Emmaus something touches the companions’ memory of hope: maybe it was hearing the stories of their faith, or allowing the stranger into their home or re-enacting their last supper ritual: something in the hospitality shared touched their memory of hope.  It empowered those travelers to make a choice to return to the place where their hopes had been dashed.

Hospitality is born from the intimate dance of our hope and our heartache.  We can choose whether and when to extend hospitality: Christ never barges in the door. But always hospitality has the potential to begin the work of mending broken hearts into burning hearts. Hospitality never involves preachy answers or trite reassurances.  Genuine Christian hospitality creates space big enough to hold our hurts and big enough to promise us life.  Sometimes we simply need to take the risk of hospitality and see where it leads us.

Make no mistake about it: the spiritual practice of hospitality is hard work: our communal hopes and heartaches become mingled with our personal ones.   Some of us are brimming with hope and some of us can’t or won’t hope and that’s okay.  The places that Jesus led never took away the complexity of the human condition, never promised to leave us in a happy song state of mind.  Instead he leads us back into the difficult places so that we might be surprised by the new ways hope can take root.

People wonder why our pews here aren’t overflowing each and every Sunday, I dare say it lies in part with the fact that the stories we tell here are challenging.  We intentionally resist the easy answers because we know that the easy answers are not sustaining answers.  In this place we won’t sing you happy songs to cover over the hurts or to deny the truth of your brokenness.  In this place we will walk along side telling stories of hopes and loves and we will offer our tentative trust that God is big enough to hold all of this.

However you’ve come today: broken heart, burning heart or places in between you are welcome at the table to receive our imperfect hospitality.  Sometimes yesterday’s dishes will be on the counter, some days there will only be stale bread and cheap wine on offer but we are rooted in a tradition that is big enough to be vulnerable, a tradition that promises that the extension of messy hospitality is enough to break us open…all of us.

 


[2] Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass eds, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2002, p.248.