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Jesus and Hospitality
a homily based on Luke 7:36 - 8:3
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Hospitality. That’s the centerpiece in Luke’s story about Jesus and Simon the Pharisee. Hospitality by definition is, "a generous and cordial welcome of strangers and guests; it is the offering of a pleasant and sustaining environment."

Did you know that hospitality, this "generous and cordial welcome of strangers" was considered to be one of the most important parts of a person’s faith among 1st century Jews and Christians? Nothing was more important than showing hospitality-offering strangers a generous and cordial welcome by providing a sustaining environment. They had a great incentive to treat all strangers well, for they believed that at the end of time God would serve them as Host by entertaining them with an endless feast. But here’s the catch: God would show them the same kind of hospitality, the same kind of generous and cordial welcome as they had shown to strangers during their time on earth.

Hospitality comes from the word hospes, which refers to a host-guest relationship. In the act of hospitality, we end up playing both roles, that of the guest and that of the host. Haven’t you ever experienced that? You’ve welcomed someone into your home or life only to discover that you have received more from the guest than you’ve given as a host?

My family recently experienced that host-guest relationship when we hosted Oxanna from Germany. For two weeks, she lived in our home, shared meals with us. And we learned to love this Russian/German gal. We struggled with our halting German, struggled with ideas, and even shared burdens and prayed together as a family. We felt much more the richer when she left. American students who hosted strangers stood by the bus the day they left, some with tears, because they discovered the hospitality turns us into both a host and a guest who receives a gift from the other.

Often, however, hospitality is more difficult than just hosting foreign exchange students.

In one scene from Sister Act, Delores DeCartier (Whoopie Goldberg), sits in a study at a convent nervous and uncomfortable. She has witnessed a mob murder and needs to testify, but with a contract on her, just surviving is her goal. So a police sergeant decides that a convent would be the last place the mob would look for a lounge singer. Just on the other side of the door from where Delores sits, the monsignor explains the situation to the Mother Superior. "You must let this woman find refuge in your convent for she is in great danger."

"Certainly, we will accept this poor, unfortunate woman," Mother Superior promises. But when she opens the door she is shocked by the stranger-her hair frizzles out all directions; her eyes peer out over these cool designer shades; she wears a purple-sequined body suit with a small jewelry store of gold on her body. Mother Superior quickly shuts the door to this stranger. But the monsignor reminds her in firm undertones and plastic smile, "You have taken a vow of hospitality to all in need." With a poker face, Mother Superior replies, "I lied."

Ever done that? A stranger comes our way and somewhere deep inside we withhold hospitality, we don’t go out of our way to welcome a stranger. In reality we have said just like that Mother Superior, "I lied." Our faith tells us to welcome everyone with open arms no matter what they look like or smell, or sound like. But we discover that we tend to be selective in whom we offer hospitality.

I was guilty of the "I lied" line just this week. I had just returned from visitation when I detected chaos coming from the church. Carol Ruffner comes out the side door. "Did you see him?" See whom? I thought. Sure enough. A homeless, hungry, penniless man had walked right up to our church wanting some money. He was a loner; he had his story of woe. They usually do. I knew that I should have made some effort to find the man; after all, he was just around the corner walking down the sidewalk. I had even passed by him in the van without remembering him. But I just didn’t. I might as well have said to God, "God, I lied. I didn’t really mean that I’d be hospitable to every stranger that tramps through Elverson."

But did you know that even churches can use the "I lied" line. The bishop recently told how one morning he was visiting churches in the Conference. He stopped at one small church, but because there weren’t clear signs to direct him, he ended up wandering into the church basement. Oh good. There is at least some activity here, the bishop thought to himself. But no sooner had he wandered into the basement than a lady walked right up to him, apparently not having a clue who he was.

She eyeballed him from head to foot, then said, "What are you doing here? Can’t you see that we’re getting ready for the bazaar? You don’t belong here." So, sheepishly, the bishop backed out and made his way up to the main sanctuary. There the pastor met him warmly. "What is one of your greatest assets in this church?" the bishop asked the pastor, still shell-shocked. "That’s easy," the pastor said grinning broadly, "we pride ourselves on being a friendly church."

The bishop probably wondered, "Oh really? And what are your liabilities."

The church lies when the Sunday School withholds candy to a child because "your parents don’t go here," as was one person’s experience in another church.

In our passages this morning we have a story about hospitality. Listen as several people dramatize the first story found in Luke 7.

In this story, Simon is the Host and Jesus is the guest. The guests would have been reclining on pillows, supported by their left arms and eating with their right hands, their feet away from the mat on which the food was spread. All seems to be going well don’t you think? Probably good conversation and delicious, carefully prepared kosher food.

Now Simon is an interesting guy. He’s a Pharisee. That tells us a lot about the person. We know, for instance, that he takes his faith seriously. We know, too, that he fasts, tithes, and attends worship regularly. He’s a model for people who take the spiritual life seriously. But he has a serious disconnection between faith and hospitality.

For slinking into the story is a scandal. A woman approaches Jesus’ feet with a flask ointment-she has planned to crash the banquet to express her love. At first, her intentions may not have been innocent. She may have been making an attempt to lure Jesus into her arms. But there was something about actually being in the presence of Jesus that was like being in the presence of God. Whatever the motive, she soon begins to weep and to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. She spontaneously lets her hair down to wipe his feet. And that violated social rules. To let one’s hair down carried sexual overtones; that’s why women always kept their up in public. And worse, touching a man’s feet was absolutely taboo. This whole thing scandalizes poor Simon.

Well, this strains the conversation; I imagine that the talking stopped abruptly. Simon thinks he knows something about Jesus. Jesus is no prophet, because a prophet would know who it is who was causing the scandal.

But the irony of the story is that Jesus did know who the woman was. Simon knew her as one of those Delores DeCartiers, one of those lounge singers. A sinner. But Jesus welcomed her as a guest who needed a sustaining relationship. Simon didn’t recognize her as a familiar face, so he withheld hospitality. But Jesus welcomed her as one who needed more than anything else in this life, to be welcomed by God, forgiven of sin and sustained by His faithful love. She just needed someone to welcome her to God’s banquet.

How can we practice hospitality today?

First, as an immediate response to the word, as soon as this service is finished, begin to make new inroads among people of this congregation that you don’t know very well. I actually have witnessed the fellowship hour after our worship services where guests and newcomers are standing off by themselves, while all around them people are talking and laughing and having a good time. We say we are a friendly church, but who are we being friendly to? Ourselves? Our friends? Only the ones we recognize? It’s not a guest’s job to welcome themselves and walk up to us to get introduced. That’s our job. If we say we are people of faith, then let that faith welcome strangers and guests among us.

Secondly, if you are a young person between the ages of twelve and nineteen, look for any other young adults that you don’t know. They feel really awkward, left out. For them, they feel like it’s the first day of school all over again worse, it’s like they’re in a new school. They need you to walk up and begin talking with them. They need you to introduce them to other young adults.

Finally, I would like to speak to our older worshipers. Our empty-nesters. Retired folks. Those who great price breaks at Denny’s. Have you ever considered how much young people need you? When was the last time you really tried to get to know our youth group kids? I’ve heard complaints occasionally about these people, but what they need is positive caring, not complaining. They need you. Some of them haven’t had grandparents; they need you to welcome them and love them. Don’t let your fear of young people keep you from offering them a generous and cordial welcome.

It won’t be easy. Hospitality is radical challenge to step out of our comfort zones, our castles, our routines. But remember, when you show hospitality, you’ll be true to your faith you’ll walk away from your encounter a blessed person, and doubly welcomed. Amen.