Year C; Proper 21; 29 September 2019
In a few months St Paul’s will embark on a number of activities that will deepen our practice of Christian Hospitality. That is the theme of the grant proposal we wrote to the Lilly Foundation for their Clergy Renewal Program. We have already recognized that God has called us to a ministry of hospitality through the years and recently as we have learned to connect with people and listen deeply through our participation in Living Local: Joining God in the Neighborhood.
I want to share with you some of the exciting programs we will be planning next spring and summer from the Lilly Foundation grant. Many of these programs will be happening with you while I’m away on sabbatical learning about ancient practices of Christian hospitality in Armenia, Greece and Turkey.
I expect the parish activities to be deeply rewarding for you and will prepare you to extend the kind of hospitality that Jesus taught and that the ancient monasteries offered to weary travelers. For example, one of the programs is scheduled for next June over a three day weekend. Our parish leaders will attend a retreat at the monastery of Society of St. John the Evangelist. One of the brothers will lead our group of 13 in the monastic history, tradition and spirituality of hospitality.
Another exciting plan is that my New Testament professor, Deirdre Good will present a workshop to study Scripture and the ancient practices of hospitality in the Gospels. Dr. Good will also conduct Sunday Bible study and preach on two Sundays in June. There is a new workshop from The Episcopal Church called, “Evangelism 101” which is a course that helps parishes extend their welcome and cultivate a culture of hospitality in parish life. We will be scheduling that workshop next year as well.
And finally, we have included an important project for the youth of St. Paul’s as a part of developing a sustainable parish welcome in our neighborhood. Our youth will help us build a corner picnic table where we will offer “coffee on the corner” of Pleasant and Union Streets just outside our doors. The goal is to connect with those who walk along Pleasant and Union Streets.
We have already started to organize ourselves into a Hospitality Ministry Team. Next Sunday, nearly 15 parish volunteers will be commissioned to lead the various ministries that have to do with hospitality at St. Paul’s. Not only will we be welcoming our pets next week for a blessing, we will also be blessing our hospitality volunteers for the work God is calling us all to do.
The character of Christian hospitality is expansive. Not only does hospitality mean “welcome” of stranger, it means sharing what we have with guests. It means creating a safe and nurturing space. It means friendship, healing and connection. It means renovating our space so that those who have mobility challenges, those who need walkers to steady themselves can continue to join the community in worship. It means purchasing headphones to amplify the voices of the liturgy for those who have lost some hearing.
It means encouraging young parents to “not feel self-conscious” when their children just discovered their “shouting voice” and then test it in the great echoing acoustics of the Nave during worship. (You may have heard two-year-old Mason making an “AH” sound!)
It means joyful acceptance of children who have decided that the church is their home and they are feeling free to run down the aisle and land on their belly in front of the chancel step. It means that we love it when “God puts the ‘wiggle’ in our children!”
It means that we really SEE one another. It means that we really SEE our guests. And it means we really SEE those in the world who are not generally seen and who are hurting.
This morning we heard a parable Jesus told for the Pharisees and some of his rich followers. It is a parable that some scholars believe came from an Egyptian legend. It is a parable that teaches the lesson for us all, that hospitality can only happen when we really see the other.
The rich man had never seen Lazarus begging at his gate. If he had seen him, he would have been horrified by his suffering, by his broken physical condition – so broken that he had open sores that the dogs licked. The rich man had the capability to offer hospitality, but it didn’t occur to him because he didn’t see the object of any hospitality he might have offered. He just didn’t see the poor Lazarus suffering beneath his gate and his table. He did not see Lazarus scrambling to gobble up the crumbs.
Now, the heartbreaking element of the story for me is that not until after both Lazarus and the rich man died did the rich man even acknowledge Lazarus. They arrived at their respective places of God’s justice. Lazarus was being cared for and consoled by Abraham and the rich man was burning in Hades. The rich man – notice he doesn’t have a name – called out to Abraham in his suffering from the heat, “Abraham! Send Lazarus!” Yes, he DID know Lazarus’ name, after all.
“Hey! Abraham! I’m dying over here across the chasm! It’s too hot to bear! I see Lazarus standing next to you. Tell him to come over here with some water and touch my tongue with the water so I can cool off!”
‘Oh! So now, you not only SEE Lazarus, you are willing to have him touch you on your tongue with his finger. Don’t you know he had those awful sores? No, actually, you didn’t look at him to even see his sores. You didn’t even see his suffering and his wounds, yet you see him now and wish to have him relieve your suffering.”
The story doesn’t end well for the rich man. He gets no relief in Hades. And his brothers don’t get the warning from Abraham to change their ways.
Now, I have to share with you that during our discussion of this story at our Vestry meeting on Thursday, many of us held out hope that God loved the rich man, too, and surely kept giving him chances for redemption, even in Hades, because isn’t there a “wideness in God’s mercy?”
At St. Paul’s, God is calling us to go deeper in our practice of Christian Hospitality and that means we are to go deeper in our capacity to see each other, our guests and those who are suffering, for each one of us – even the rich man – experience the condition of suffering. Suffering is a component our common humanity. We follow a Savior who suffered deeply.
We have been seeing and responding with uncommon hospitality for our 175 years. And now God is calling us to expand and deepen what is already our strength. Last week, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan spiritual leader many of us follow, wrote about the common human condition of suffering. Thank you, Andree Appel for pointing out this reading.
Here is an excerpt from Richard Rohr, “Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. This realization softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one – in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.”
As we go deeper in our practices of Christian Hospitality, could it be that God is softening the space around our hearts in order to go deeper in our connections with others?