Sunday, June 05, 2005

Hospitable Hospital (Sermon for Proper 5A)

A sermon preached on June 5, 2005 (Proper 5A)
at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI
by the Rev. Jason A. Fout

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

My grandmother passed away when my mother was in her teens. Some time later my grandfather remarried. His new wife also had children by a previous marriage. Not too long after, my grandfather then also died, leaving us with few close blood relatives on my mother’s side of the family. I’m telling you this not so that you can reconstruct my genealogy, but to let you know that, at least on one side, growing up, we had almost no biological family, no “people” to call our own.

Yet my step-grandmother kept us in the loop. She did this particularly by inviting us to Christmas dinner, where her whole extended family gathered. Looking back on it, they were joyous, riotous occasions, with an almost dizzying array of family members from all walks of life. A Vice-President of Standard Oil might be seen alongside the owner of a bicycle shop. Conversation groups might include a physician, a police dispatcher, a chef, an electrician, a banker, and a car mechanic. And they embraced us as family despite differences of blood and background, for none of that mattered at the feast. So for at least one day during the year, we had a huge extended family: we had people.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was wonderful. And in ways it helped to heal the wounds caused by untimely death. For inviting us in, embracing us, sharing a meal, served not merely as hospitality, but as a hospital.

There is something healing about eating together. Sociologists and other people who know are often quick to point out that eating is almost always about much more than bodily nourishment. Who we dine with, where we eat, what we consume, who is not invited: all of this says something about us. We run smack into this in today’s gospel reading.

Continue reading Hospitable Hospital

If anything, people were more aware of this in the ancient world. And so there would have been fairly stringent expectations about whom you could and could not eat with. It might be easy to write this off as either legalism or superstition. But I think we ought to be careful not to be done with it so soon.

Increasingly, historical scholarship is coming to see many of the Jewish movements of the first century as concerned with the return of God’s presence to the Temple. This return would signal a final end to Israel’s exile which began with Babylon and now seemed to continue as the Roman Empire oppressed God’s people.* In order to bring about this return, some groups opted for violent revolt against the Empire. Some withdrew to the desert to wait for God to act. And others – such as the popular group called the Pharisees – thought that scrupulous keeping of the law and remaining faithful to God would enable Israel’s deliverance from oppression.

So this is not just about personal scruples, or misguided anxiety about hygiene. The Pharisees’ concern with the uncleanness of Matthew the tax collector and the other sinners Jesus hung out with wasn’t personal, it was political. It came out of a deep-seated desire for liberation from oppression. They wanted the presence of God to return, and for Israel itself to finally feel as if it had come home from exile. Really, these weren’t such bad guys.

But they were wrong.

Jesus’ is a different way of doing business, a different kingdom. This kingdom arises not by violence, or retreat or turning inward. Like the Pharisees, there is a purity to Jesus’ practice, but it is not a purity which must be guarded. It’s a purity which must be given away. It’s a cleanness which makes other things clean rather than itself becoming dirty. And so Jesus comes to Matthew, a tax collector for the Empire. To his contemporaries, Matthew would have been an unclean person if ever there were one. But Jesus includes him in this new kingdom, thus making him clean. As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus’ invitation to Matthew is not only hospitality; it also serves as a hospital.

Like those other movements, Jesus’ kingdom is about resisting the Empire, it is about deliverance from oppression. It comes not by turning inward but by turning outward. It comes by demonstrating to others the love and grace of God, by including them in this Kingdom, too. In short, it is an elaboration on the phrase “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

I think we should be clear, though, that this is not merely the human practice of sharing and inclusion, as if being included in, say, the Rosicrucians, were the same. It is specifically being included in this kingdom, the Kingdom of God brought by Jesus. Inclusion is not an end but a beginning. It is the beginning of participation in a new life, a new creation, a new world, which Jesus himself makes possible. At least one Biblical scholar sees the phrase “And [Matthew] got up” or better, “Matthew arose” as being resurrection language.** Being brought into this kingdom is the beginning of new life.

And it’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t just eat with Matthew, but tells him to “follow me”. The included and renewed Matthew is allowed a spot among Jesus’ disciples and will one day be entrusted with his mission to the world. We see here a prime example of how Jesus’ Kingdom is both hospitality and hospital.

Through the Holy Spirit and the Church, God’s Kingdom continues growing today. Just as in the past, it is not about violence, or retreat, or turning inward. It is about resisting the Empire and deliverance from oppression. Of course, the Empire is not as obvious as a Roman Centurion glowering at us from a street corner. And oftentimes – at least in our land – oppression is not so obvious, either. Determining what these are and how to address them takes the work of careful, prayerful, collective discernment.

One suggestion of a place to start might be those parts of the systems we inhabit which command sacrifice and prohibit mercy.*** Perhaps it is a brutal work schedule or the inability to find suitable employment. It might be the increasing insecurity surrounding retirement. Maybe it is the anxiety of paying ever-rising medical insurance rates, or the fearsome prospect of illness without insurance. Maybe it’s the constant drive to keep up with others’ expectations – or our own, and the persistent elusiveness of contentment. Perhaps it is the ongoing tendency to scapegoat others in the world for situations where we share guilt. Maybe it is even something which seems distant from us personally, such as the crushing debt of African nations, in the news this week, relief of which would make a world of difference – in that case, we are commanding sacrifice of others and refusing mercy. These and many other phenomena of modern everyday life are, at bottom, inhuman. They work against the sort of new, redeemed humanity which is God’s will for the world through Jesus Christ.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have an answer to these issues, much less one which is clear and easy. But if we agree that I have begun to describe some of the gravely dehumanizing effects of our world, then we might make a start at puzzling out what a different life, a kingdom life would look like.

We as the church need to be the sort of place that can resist the Empires of our own world, and that can manifest God’s kingdom in a renewed humanity. We begin that work in our own feast, here, where we look back to the work of Jesus and look forward to his kingdom coming in its fullness. This feast here is about inclusion of all sorts of people, from different classes, colors, ages, genders – you name it. But it doesn’t stop there, for we are healed. And we are empowered to be a community which practices that Kingdom’s politics, caring for each other, crossing boundaries that world wouldn’t dream of approaching. And we are sent out to show the world God’s love, and, bit by bit, bring it into the kingdom, too.

In short, we as the church need to be a place which is hospitable – and which may be, through God, a hospital.

* I have gleaned this from N.T. Wright’s work, as mediated through a series of lectures given at Regent College entitled Jesus and the Victory of God.
** N.T. Wright, again, in Matthew for Everyone, part I.
*** Of course, this isn’t what the original phrase would have meant, but I am suggesting it here as a heuristic device. Naturally, by suggesting we look to those areas of life which command sacrifice and prohibit mercy, I am not saying that we might not need to sacrifice, at times quite dearly. But such sacrifice is not something taken out of our hides, but something made willingly on behalf of another, out of love.


Blogger nope said...


I'm sorry for being intrusive in to your blog. But I am Melissa and I am a mother of two that is just trying to get out of an incredible financial debt. See my hubby is away in Iraq trying to protect this great country that we live in, and I am at home with our two kids telling bill collectors please be patiant. When my husband returns from war we will beable to catch up on our payments. We have already had are 2001 Ford repossessed from the bank, and are now down to a 83 buick that is rusted from front to back and the heater don't work, and tire tax is due in November.

I'm not asking for your pitty because we got our ownselfs into this mess but we would love you and thank you in our prayers if you would just keep this link on your blog for others to view.

God Bless You.

Melissa K. W.
To see my family view this page. My Family

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005 9:47:00 AM  

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