A sermon from 2 Kings 4:1-17
This last summer, our church spent a great deal of time talking and praying and defining who we are, what we do, and what we value. From that experience we acquired a new mission statement. The mission statement of First UMC says that "we unite the diversity of our community to the grace of Jesus Christ by discipleship, worship, and service." Like how confident that statement is. Our mission doesn't say "we try really hard to unite people to Jesus, and it doesn't say "sometimes we unite people to the grace of Jesus." No. None of those weasel words. Its just a flat declaration. "We unite the diversity of our community to the grace of Jesus Christ." There is no try. This is just what we do.
At the same time that we were defining what we do, our church also took time to define how we do it. As Ephesians 2:14 reminds us, any church should exist to unite different groups of people to Jesus, any church should do that. But what gives that special FUMC zest to what we do? What is the DNA of this church that shapes how we do what we do? To that end, our church took the time to define not only its mission, but also its values. We identified five adjectives that govern how we do what we do, and we said that we are:
This is the fifth week, now, that we have spent talking about these core values and why they are so important to us. And, since this is the fifth week, it also means that this is the last week. And I hope you will forgive me if I confess that I'm kind of glad. Because five weeks seems like plenty. Don't get me wrong, I love that we are scriptural, compassionate, loving, joyful, and hospitable. I think those are good and holy and Christ-centered things to be. I love every one of our values. I just don't love spending so much time talking about us. If our church has a mission, and if that mission is to unite to Christ those who are far off, then at some point we've got to say "Ok, we're done focusing on ourselves right now. It's time to focus on a world that needs some good news in their lives."
Fortunately, today's value is all about taking the focus off of us and putting it on someone else. Today we are here to celebrate that we are hospitable. Now of all our values, I think that hospitality that might be most confusing for us, it's the one that we define most differently from the rest of the world. I think most of the world understands generally what we mean when we say that we are scriptural, or compassionante, or loving, or joyful, but "hospitality" is a word that has been twisted and misused in our cultural vernacular. We talk about "the hospitality industry" and it calls to mind hotels and travel and leisure and a kind of professionalism that most of us can't quite manage in our daily home experience. And whenever a magazine puts the word "hospitality" on the cover we know that magazine is going to be full of pictures of furniture where all the dents and scratches are tasteful, pictures in which both the people and the landscaping have been trimmed and groomed and exfoliated so that the only "flaws" left are the charming ones. Hospitality in the world around us is about putting your best foot forward; it's about family and friends and celebrations; its about making memories with those you love best, and it's about making sure those memories are picture perfect.
Which is decidedly not the picture of hospitality we receive in the scriptures (and we are, after all, a scriptural people). The Greek word for hospitality, the one we find in the books of Romans and Hebrews, is the word "Philoxenia." There are two Greek roots in that word: Philo - meaning "to love" - and xenia - meaning "strangers, or foreigners." To this day, a fear of foreginers is called "xenophobia"; Christians, on the other hand, are called to be a people of "philoxenia." We are called to welcome and love the presence of strangers. But even more than a word for it, the Bible gives us examples.
The scripture that we read today reminds us that hospitality is an old, old practice of God's people. The scriptures are full of stories of strangers who were welcomed into a home or a city. In Genesis, Abraham and Lot welcomed strangers who turned out to be messengers of God. In Joshua, the people of Israel conquered Jericho after Rahab showed hospitality to two spies. In today's story, Elisha was welcomed by the Shunemite woman, and Elisha's own mentor Elijah was saved by the hospitality of a widow from the foreign borderland of Zarephath. And of course, Jesus himself both received and was refused hospitality throughout his life. It began when he was born in a stable because there was no one who would take in his parents in Bethlehem. Then, Jesus fled as a refugee to Egypt, living as a foreigner there for years. And once Jesus returned, and grew up and began his minisry, he and his disciples depended entirely upon hospitality - "foxes have holes and birds have nests," he once said, "but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." In the world of the scriptures, hospitality wasn't about showing out or putting one's best foot forward - it was a fundamental way of tending to the needs of others.
When our church came to define the value of hospitality, we said that being hospitable means:
"We go out of our way to let people know they belong."
(wouldn't that be a nice claim to fame, to be known as "the church that goes out of its way.") Like compassion and love, the focus of the value of hospitality is on other people. But hospitality goes beyond compassion or even love in what it is willing to do. Hospitality means that we go out of our way.
When we look today at the hospitality of the Shunemite woman, we find someone who has gone out of her way to welcome a stranger God had put in her life. Here was a woman who was ready to be interrupted, and if we as the church are going to be ready to be hospitable, we have to be ready for interruption too. The Shunemite woman shows us that going out of our way means preparing everything in our lives for the life of a stranger. She prepared her space, her time, her path, and her heart..
First off, the Shunemite woman prepared her space. You'll notice that she didn't say in this passage - "Oh hey, we've got this extra room that nobody's using, let's put Elisha there." No, the Shunemite woman and her husband actually built a new room on their house, just for Elisha. That, my friends, is going out of your way. A hospitable people don't ask "how many people can we comfortably welcome," they ask "what can we do to welcome still another person." In our church, that means making our spaces as accessible as possible, and it means making ourselves as accessible as possible in that space. Hosptitality might mean that everyone who can sits a little further from the aisle, as if to say, there's more room here. It means we give the best parking spots to visitors, and we park as far away as we can walk. It means inviting people to share a table with us at a meal after worship. Hospitality requires a people who have prepared their space.
The book of Leviticus commanded the people of Israel to prepare their own space for strangers and visitors in very particular ways. Anyone who owned a farm was commanded not to harvest from the edges of the field; instead they were expected to leave a margin of crop all the way around so that the land would always have something to share with "the poor and the foreigners living among you" (Leviticus 23:22). Here in the American South, we used to prepare our spaces for hospitality by putting front porches on our homes. It was expected that the outdoor life of the home would be forward facing, so that we might see our neighbors and strangers who passed by. Somewhere along the way, we gave in to the trend of backyard living, preferring to treat our yards as a refuge from the world rather than a place of welcome to it. We've gotten rid of so many of our edge spaces, those margins that make us a people of welcome.
Hospitality also means building a margin into our our time. The Shunemite woman took the time, long before Elisha was her houseguest, to offer him lunch and time to rest. A hospitable people plan to be interrupted. Jesus once told his disciples "if a soldier forces you to carry their gear for one mile, carry it two" (Matthew 5:41). That's the sort of command you can't live out if you're already 5 minutes late to wherever you're headed. In a culture the prizes efficiency and maximizing every moment of our time, we lose the capacity to be interrupted. Being hospitable means planning for time when we are doing nothing, or at least nothing that can't be interrupted. It means planning not only our days, but our weekends and our months in such a way that we leave time to breathe. If no one interrupts us in that time, then we offer to God as a Sabbath. And if we do find ourselves offering unexpected hospitality in that time, it is an even greater offering.
Third, being a hospitable people means preparing our path. The Shunemite woman didn't plan to become a friend to Elisha, it happened because her path and his overlapped, and she saw him as he went his way, and she began to offer welcome. Now that our paths are mostly traveled in cars with windows up, it's easier than ever to make sure our paths rarely bring us in close personal contact with strangers, but we can prepare some of our ways. When you come to worship, what path do you travel? Is it a beeline from your car to your favorite seat, so that no one else gets it? Or is it a short path to the friend you've been dying to see all week? It's a good thing to have a favorite place, and a better thing to have a good friend, but could you take a more circuitous route to each of them? Could you make your way slowly, and attentively, looking for any strangers who might be sharing your way with you?
Finally, being hospitable means preparing our hearts. The Shunemite woman and her husband talked to one another about how best to welcome Elisha; it wasn't a project they took up in blind obedience or obligation. They anticipated and wanted to welcome Elisha, and they were prepared, even to have their lives turned upside down. This passage ends with everything being turned upside down by the arrival of a new child - the family would never be the same. And there's no getting around the fact that hospitality often turns us upside down - often in ways that don't look like a Southern living photo spread.
Early in our marriage, Jennifer and I talked and prayed and realized that we feel called by God to exercise hospitality as one of our gifts. We didn't know exactly what that would mean, but it meant we were on the lookout for opportunities to welcome others, especially strangers, into our home. At the time we were living in North Carolina, far from either of our homes, so one of the ways we practiced hospitality was by deciding that rather than heading home for our Thanksgiving and Easter holidays, we would open our apartment for a "Feast of the Exiles" - holiday dinners for anyone who couldn't make it home on the short holidays. By our third year, the dinner had grown considerably, so that in our third Easter together we had 17 people invited over to our little apartment. We had chairs everywhere, in our hallway, in our little sitting area, and around our breakfast table. And we thought that we had thought of everything. As it turned out, many of our friends has serious food restrictions, but every dish was prepared with the utmost concern for our lactose intolerant friend, and our gluten intolerant friends, and our friends who tried to eat only organic. The centerpiece of the meal was the Easter ham. We had searched all over town for a ham that was totally free of preservatives, seasonings, or any other alterations. Jennifer scoured the internet and all her cookbooks to find a totally natural, gluten-free, recipe for preparing the ham, and finaly found one that used a made-from-scratch mango glaze. All was ready and set out, and we gathered our friends and we were so glad as we named each dish and explained how nothing was off the table for anyone. But when we got to the ham with its mango glaze, one of our friend's faces fell. Sheepishly she mentioned, "I had to go to the emergency room last week. Turns out, I'm allergic to mango. My lips go numb, my tongues swells up. I'm so sorry; it looks wonderful!"
That was only the beginning. Later, as we were eating, someone left the porch door to our ground floor apartment open and our neighbor's whippet decided to come for a visit. We discovered the whippet when it came flying through the door and lept over the couch I was sitting on, jumping over my head and landing in the middle of the coffee table where about 6 of us were eating.
Hospitality means preparing your heart to have things turned upside down every once in a while.
But of course, we Christians should be ok with that. Because what story do we have to tell if not that Jesus turns our lives upside down every once in a while? We worship a savior who has the power to change everything in our lives, but who refuses to exercise that power except in response to our own hospitality:
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone should hear My voice and open the door, then I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me."
He stands and knocks. He knocks insistently and sometimes loudly, but he always knocks. He often comes as an interruption, when we had other plans, but he always knocks. He won't bust down the door; he gives us free will and offers us the choice. If we cannot prepare time and space to welcome our neighbors or strangers, there's a good chance we aren't offering much space for God to interrupt us either. If we continue to ignore his knocking, who knows what we might miss? We are a hospitable people, because we have decided to let Jesus in - however, and in whomever, he chooses to knock.