Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Radical Hospitality

This past Sunday I preached at the Yakima congregation - a small but lively bunch who loves to answer when I ask rhetorical questions, keeping me on my toes and oftentimes off my script. The scripture under examination this week was Luke 14:1, 7-14, when Jesus attends a dinner and points out people scrambling for the seats of most prestige. Jesus says that people should sit lower, rather than higher, so that the host can then ask them to move up - an honor indeed - rather than having to ask them to move down to make room for a more honorable or prestigious person - truly embarrassing.

But is Jesus merely being "Miss Manners" here, recommending a strategy for being publicly recognized as both prestigious and humble (if falsely)? Or, rather, is it our own egos that want to take Jesus' words about not being proud and twist them into a strategy for feeding our pride even more?

I told a story about Apostle Susan Skoor's recent trip to the church in Tahiti. While there, she was showered with gifts and honor and adoration. One of the first dinners she attended was a church potluck after a service. In typical Community of Christ style, the room was laid out with connected seating tables and one long serving table heavily laden with food and goodies. Being polite, the Tahitian congregants invited Susan, as their guest, to go first. Susan, being polite, tried to take a little bit from every dish, so as not to offend or disappoint anyone, and took her plate to the table.

Now, in the States, potluck ceremony ends about at the end of the food line, and you just sit wherever you can find a place - usually next to someone who's already sitting, so you can converse with them over the meal. So that's what she did. Susan saw some people sitting at the end of the table, went over and sat next to them. At which point there rose a tense murmuring in the crowd. Whispers of concern and confusion, nervous glances and desperate looks bounced back and forth. Blissfully ignorant, Susan continued her attempts to banter politely in her struggling French.

The financial officer for French Polynesia, Steve - an American who grew up partially in Tahiti, who knows both cultures well enough to navigate between them - came over to Susan. "Now, Susan, this seat is fine because you chose it. But just so you know, they meant for you to sit over there." It was obvious, once Steve pointed it out. The tables were arranged in a large horseshoe, with the largest chair at the top of the bend, ornate and padded, and the table in front of it festooned with flowers and crowded with food.

"Should I move?" she asked.

"No. You've chosen this seat, and that's ok."

But obviously, it wasn't. You see, Tahitian society is still very classified - that is, there are "classes" still largely present, a social hierarchy of prestige and respectability. Membership in the community of Christ hasn't completely done away with this cultural characteristic, and it manifests itself even in church. Where you sit is in clear relation to how important you are in the society, how respectable and honorable you or your place is. And these people hadn't even gotten their food yet, so they were probably at the very end of the line and had just sat down to rest while everyone more important than they went by the food-table. These people weren't even prestigious enough to be in the food line yet. And here comes Susan, unknowing, making no distinction, seeing no difference, more self-conscious about her own linguistic performance in front of these people than their social status. It was a question she didn't even think to ask, a factor she didn't even know to consider.

There she sat, at the lowest end of the table, with persons who might have considered themselves the lowest people in the room. And wouldn't you know it - a miracle happened. Slowly, people began picking up and moving the flowers and overflowing dishes, the decorations and abundance reserved for the most important person in the room, toward her end of the table. When Susan sat in the "wrong" place, they began to reevaluate where their abundance was located, re-prioritize their table-setting, re-orient their best efforts and highest honors. And the glory and honor of that congregation moved from the center of the table to the edges, from the middle to the marginal, from the pinnacle to the periphery.

Isn't that incredible?! Don't you just wish it was always that easy? Just sit in the wrong place, unintentionally, and see for one moment a holy shift in a congregation's consciousness? Wouldn't you just die for such a chance?

Last Sunday was, of course, Communion Sunday - the monthly meal where we are invited to sit at the table of Christ. The theme was "Practice Radical Hospitality." And so I asked the congregation who in their neighborhoods and city are people that could be invited if we only extended Christ's hospitality without thought of gain for ourselves. The poor. The homeless. Migrant workers. Illegal immigrants. The mentally ill. Children. Those with emotional problems. Those of political parties with whom we ardently disagree. And so on. Most of those categories were responses of the congregation, when I asked them the rhetorical question. But the Spirit moves them to answer, and I told them the Spirit will hold them accountable for their knowledge.

Radical hospitality has been extended to all of us - poor sinners and unworthy disciples of Christ. How difficult is it for us to extend that same hospitality to those sitting at the edges of our tables or neighborhoods? How much are we called to sit with those who might benefit from a reorientation of society's priorities? How lucky are we that there are so many opportunities waiting for us already?

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  • Thanks for sharing the story, questions... and also thanks for your post a while back about quaderlaterals. Your posts often cause me to reflect, sometimes long after you post them such as today as was sitting in Preaching the Specialized sermon, and when the prof. who is a methodist minister mentioned the Wesleyan Quad for methodist, my mind was drown back to that post and reflecting on the possibility you explored...

    By Anonymous Lyle II, at 4:01 PM  

  • I thought this theme, and the fact that it coincided with communion Sunday, was so amazing. I just loved it. There is SO much to explore around it. What does it really mean to be radically hospitable? Especially if you think about the word 'radical' in terms of its etymological origins: radix, which means root. What is rooted hospitality? What kind of hospitality ought we offer in order to get to the root of inhospitality in our world?
    Thanks so much for your reflection, it burst the idea open even more for me!

    By Blogger Shannon, at 1:36 PM  

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