A semon preached by the Rector, Rev Chris Williams on Sunday 8 July
Old Testament reading: Genesis 18:1-8
New Testament reading: Romans 12: 13-20
GOSPEL: Matthew 25:34-40
Earlier this year I read a book by John Pavlovitz entitled ‘A Bigger Table’.
The book begins by describing the shock he, and many Americans, felt when Donald Trump was elected president and charts the way the moral landscape has changed for the worse since then – a change that has been experienced around the world – including here.
The book seeks to show that there is another way.
Pavlovitz holds to what he calls four core values: Radical Hospitality, Total authenticity, true diversity and agenda-free community.
Few of us (I hope) would question the importance of hospitality, authenticity, diversity or community. But Radical hospitality? Total diversity, true authenticity and Agenda-free community? It sounds a bit, well, radical – and we’re Anglicans and we don’t really do radical – do we?
Actually, we do, and if you weren’t aware of that then remind yourself of the John Mark Comer Lent course – He challenged us: ‘Who are you becoming? More like Jesus or something else?’ And he also said that the goal of our apprenticeship – our whole Christian life – is to: ‘Be with Jesus, Become like Jesus, Do what Jesus did. So, I suggest you might want to measure these values against the life of Jesus. If he didn’t live like this – then neither do you need to. But if he did… well, as an apprentice, it should be your greatest desire.
Over next four weeks I intend to look at each of Pavlovitz’s core values, but before we dive into Radical hospitality, let’s just back up a bit.
First ‘The table’. Pavlovitz’ s book is entitled ‘A Bigger Table’. What is the significance of a table? Well, the table in a family home represents the hub of life – it’s a place for talking, laughing, arguing, listening, crying, telling stories and – eating and drinking. The table is a universal image of human fellowship and connection – and Pavlovitz argues, and I would argue, that as Christians we should always be seeking to make the table bigger.
While the table is a metaphor, it is also literal. Even with the fragmentation of modern western life, a table can still literally represent all these things. Here in Liss we may meet at the turtle bean, the Triangle, the Whistle Stop. We meet around tables in our homes, we meet as a church on Third Sunday – we have small tables at the back of the church around which people can meet. Tables are places where people connect.
But Jesus chose also to make the table the place where he, too, would meet with us: he tells his friends at their last meal together to remember him whenever they gather around a table together. Our sharing of bread and wine this morning is simply the sharing of a meal; yes, with each other, but Christ also is present in the most earthy and natural way possible: through the eating and drinking itself. Of all the things God could have chosen to mediate his presence with us – he chose a table – around which he welcomes the world to experience communion both with him and each other. As I’ve been exploring this subject I think the table is almost as strong a metaphor as the cross. In fact, Jesus asks us to think of the cross at the table. If you don’t agree, that’s fine, just put that to one side!
If we look at the gospels, again and again we see Jesus around a table – eating and surrounded by the most diverse range of people: priests and prostitutes, the religious elite and the common person, with his friends and disciples – and also with those who despised him. There at the table they were all treated with equal dignity and they all left his presence with that dignity intact – even if he had sometimes had hard words for them.
You see, in the time of Jesus, more so than today, eating with someone was a sign of respect and a sign of fellowship. It meant a lot. So it isn’t surprising that Jesus’ diverse choice of table companions made the religious folk really angry. A number of times we hear them saying Look at him! This man eats with sinners!” Then, as now, we are known by the sort of people with whom we spend time. Jesus had serious, quality fellowship with those on the margins.
Let me quote Pavlovitz:
‘For Jesus, the table is a tool for connection. It transcends difference. It bridges disagreement. It declares the other welcomed and worthy of hearing. It recognises the other and declares commonality with him or her.’
And that’s just part of the story because all that also applies to our relationship with Jesus who is also present around the table. One of our invitations to Communion says:
‘It is his will that those who want him should meet him here’. Where? At a table.
With so much blessing to be had at the table, it seems logical that we should prefer a bigger table.
So, what of Pavlovitz’s first core value : Radical hospitality?
Well, we’ve already touched on it, but he takes it further. First, he points out that hospitality is not tolerance. If someone is tolerant, they may accept your physical presence but emotionally may keep you at a distance. Tolerant coexistence isn’t a worthy aspiration for those of us who claim to follow Jesus – and it will do very little to expand the table of the church’s hospitality. Someone said hospitality is love in action – and Jesus calls us to love one another – never to tolerate one another.
In the passage we heard just now from Romans, Paul says: ‘practice hospitality’ (in fact the passage is virtually a manifesto of hospitality). The title of the John Mark Comer talks we heard at Lent was ‘The Practices of Jesus’. He said: ‘There is no formation without repetition and practice – apprenticeship is a long, slow process.’ I like that. it chimes with what St Paul said about practicing. It means that, yes, there is this ideal- this Christlike way of living. But it also acknowledges we may not be perfect yet, but we are learning – through repetition and practice we become more Christlike. This is certainly a Monday to Saturday activity as well as a Sunday activity.
Hospitality is not about the quality of your house or cutlery, or the state of your bank balance – but the warmth in your heart and your passion to be an apprentice of Jesus. Just after we were married, Bernie and I went to Romania. This was in the Ceausescu, communist era. We met with Christians in Timisoara. The people had very little and were very poor by western standards – but they fed us like kings. I was so full, but they kept offering more – and how do you say no to someone for whom radical hospitality was clearly such a privilege? In my experience poorer people are often more extravagantly generous.
But Hospitality is first about who you are – not what you do. I’ve been to people’s houses for amazing food but felt something lacking in the warmth or genuiness of my host. A person who is truly hospitable is hospitable from here (the heart) and recognises that there are many ways to express hospitality to someone. Food and drink is helpful – but not essential.
But the title of this sermon and Pavlovitz’s first core value is Radical hospitality. What I have described is what most people would call hospitality. It may be tough, it will need practice, but radical?
Jesus expressed radical hospitality in the context of a very special meal – one that has become known as the last supper. Here we see him washing his disciples feet – a dramatic enough action in itself – but he also washed Judas’ feet – one who had effectively become his enemy. For Pavlovitz, hospitality becomes radical when there is no restriction on those to whom hospitality is lavished. And the hospitality of Jesus seemed to show no bounds: it was extravagant and inclusive. No one, it seemed, was beyond the reach of his hospitality.
Hospitality means washing feet – getting involved in the smelly mess of other people’s lives. What Jesus did, both in that upper room and in the whole of his ministry, was demonstrate that there can be no conditions on those to whom we show hospitality. Radical hospitality is directed to those we are offended by, angered by, disagree with – those we are least inclined to welcome. it means that whatever caveat we would add as a condition to welcoming or serving another (race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, political affiliation – or, just as likely ‘they’re not my type’, or ‘I don’t get on very well with them’), will need to be removed – because that’s what it means to build a bigger table and BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT JESUS DID!
If you’re not sure about this – look again at the gospels. The ‘radical’ in Jesus’ hospitality was in the shocking wideness of his welcome and invitation. Look at the people Jesus welcomed, loved, healed, forgave. Again and again it’s those outside, those excluded by the community, often those outside the religious community.
And Radical Hospitality is costly – all love is costly – the cross proves that. But radical hospitality: the simple act of sharing space with people is a sacred offering – a sacrifice. In a world where people are increasingly content to shout out their opinions from the relative safety of a mobile phone or computer screen, radical hospitality pulls people closer and demands that we see and hear them. And once we view people in the light of an actual relationship, then, if we are really looking, we won’t help but see God in them and, as we welcome them, we welcome Jesus. (notice in our gospel passage the list of people who represent Jesus: the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the unclothed, the sick, the prisoner, the poor, the prisoner)
What if the primary focus of a church – this church – was to be generous, loving hosts – willing to spend time with people?
It’s not easy – almost by definition every one of us will find this hard.
Pavlovitz says: ‘whenever marginalised groups feel welcome, those with the power and position will always feel they are losing something and they will cling tightly to a privilege that feels like it’s evaporating.’ These are the people who will fight for a smaller table – around which fewer people are invited: others are seen as a threat to the preferred way of doing things. That’s a narrative we are seeing played out on a national scale. It’s also an all-too-common an experience within churches. I know people here struggle when, in an attempt to be as hospitable to as many as possible we change elements of services – and the way we do things. We may not always get it right but our aim is always to create a bigger table.
I experienced this most dramatically in my church in Bromley.
Our church was involved in the Luis Palau crusades in London in 1984. And over the course of about two years we had almost 100 new people come through our doors – many of them young – many of them from backgrounds of abuse, unemployment and drugs – but many of them transformed by the love of Jesus and some are still going on as disciples today. But the challenge this provided to this relatively middle-class church was enormous because, of course, these young people were not well-versed in the finer points of church life which many of us just absorb from long years of exposure. (one young man always came in wearing his hat (a no-no in Pentecostal circles) / talking at the wrong time in services / many of them smoked right outside the main church door. Simply, the presence of these people challenged the culture of the church. Some struggled with this, but on the whole, the church responded with what I would now call radical hospitality. It was a challenging time, but also one of the most exciting in my Christian experience – because it was about people wanting to know Jesus and there are few things more energising than someone who has just learned for the first time that someone loves them unconditionally: that their life has meaning and purpose and value.
To be as radically hospitable as Jesus will create turbulence – just look at the responses Jesus got. To make room for others – all others – will force those of us who are comfortable with what we have, to overcome some of our fears and biases and securities. Pavlovitz suggests: ‘ We grow in Christlikeness to the degree that we are willing to be inconvenienced by the needs of others. This selflessness is a sign of our personal proximity to Jesus. Until all are welcomed with the same energy, the church is less than Christlike’
Clearly, this is not just about Sundays. This is a 24/7 Sunday to Saturday choice to be radically hospitable.
Let me leave you with some questions:
As you listen to this:
What buttons are pressed?
What fears are provoked?
What challenges does radical hospitality pose to you?
Do you put conditions on your hospitality?
What opportunities does radical hospitality present?
What might a bigger table look like for you personally?
What might Radical hospitality look like for St Mary’s?
In a world turning in on itself in nationalism and self-protection this kind of lavish acceptance is something people are craving for. It’s something Jesus offers to us and this, surely, is what the church is for: Radical hospitality.