Sunday, October 02, 2016
Hospitality as mission: Why does the church see itself as host not guest?
I was asked to speak at a local Presbyterian church, to finish a month long series on hospitality. Being the last in the series, I offered to speak on hospitality as eschatology – looking at the book of Revelation, in particular Revelation 19:6-9. I also drew on Rublevs icon in what became an exploration of hospitality as mission.
I runga i te ingoa, O te Matua, O te Tama, Me te Wairua Tapu, Amine. May I speak in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, the Maker of all things new.
A story to start. St Paul’s Chapel is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan, New York. Built in 1766, it’s also the closest church to World Trade Centre twin towers. In the days following the destruction of 9/11, the church leaders met in emergency session. In the midst of such tragedy, they turned to Scripture.
Where would you turn? Ask the person beside you. If you were the church next door to 9/11, where in the Bible would you turn in the days following?
The church leaders turned to the stories of Jesus in the New Testament around food.
Stories like Levis banquet in Luke 5
the disciples eating corn in Luke 6
the son of man eating and drinking like a glutton in Luke 7
the feeding of the 5,000 in Luke 9
the Parable of the Rich fool in Luke 12
the parable of the Great banquet in Luke 14
the feasting when the lost son returns in Luke 15
Jesus eating at Zaccheus house in Luke 19
the Last Supper in Luke 22
the Emmaus Road in Luke 24 (developed from The Out of Bounds Church?)
In light of these stories – of Jesus around food – the church decided the best thing they could offer, as a church, post 9/11, was a gospel of hospitality. They resolved to be God’s presence by providing food for firefighters, for Police and rescue workers. Their 1766 church building had still not been checked for structural safety, so they set up bbq’s outside, serving burgers and offering lemonade.
Once the church building was deemed safe, they opened up their sanctuary. “There were rescue workers sleeping and eating … there were chiropractors and massage therapists working on aching muscles in the side aisles .. there were people sitting on the floor and on the steps leading up to the choir loft .. (Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation, 3) The church leaders continued to meet and pray. They turned again to the stories of Jesus around food and they made a second decision. That the food and drink, their gospel of hospitality, needed to be of the highest possible quality. To quote the minister “We wanted people to see and savour the extravagance of Christ’s love.” (Soul Banquets, 2)
They appointed a Food captain. The Food captain, himself a local restaurant owner, sourced food from restuarants including the Waldorf Astoria, who arrived with a large delivery of chicken dinners. The church leaders continued to meet and pray. Ten days after 9/11, they made a third decision. To begin serving Eucharist, every day, at noon. Amid the food stations, the chicken from the Waldorf Astoria and the bbqs cooking burgers, an invitation was made to any present, not compulsory, to share around the table of Christ.
A visitor wrote
“It was the most incredible hodgepodge of humanity I’ve ever seen gathered in a church … some of the rescue workers who’d not shown much interest in the eucharist when it began found themselves drawn into the ancient prayers that promise life forever with God and ended up taking communion with tears in their eyes. This was Christ’s church in all its messiness, diversity, ambiguity, brokenness, and holiness. And it was truly beautiful.” (Soul Banquets, 3)
The story is from Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation. It’s written by a lecturer in New Testament, who suddenly began to wonder if all the stories of Jesus in the New Testament around food might actually be saying something not just about then, but about now, not just about gospel then, but about church life today. The book did research on how churches are using food and the argument is made: that the church has underestimated the power of our church meals, both ritual and informal, as opportunities for mission.
I like to place what happened at St Pauls Chapel – “rescue workers .. drawn into the ancient prayers .. with tears in their eyes. Christ’s church – beautiful – in all its messiness, diversity, ambiguity, brokenness .. .” alongside the Bible reading:
“Blessed are you who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb! These are the true words of God.” Revelation 19:9.
Revelation is often the domain of crazies and cults. That’s not the intention of the original writer John. Writing, in exile in Patmos, as it says in Revelation 1:4. He’s not writing endtime prophecy for those obsessed with the Middle East. He’s writing to seven churches in Asia, to people living in mess, ambiguity and brokenness; to people persecuted by an Emperor, to a church under extreme stress.
He responds by blessing these people; blessing them as invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb. It’s quite an unusual image for heaven. Quite different from streets paved with gold and fluffly clouds. “Blessed are you who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb! These are the true words of God.” Endtime prophecy? Domain of crazies and cults? Or an insight into how to live in times of mess, ambiguity and brokenness.
Eugene Peterson in his commentary on Revelation argues that when John uses the wedding feast, “he is maintaining the social shape of salvation.” (Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 158)
That eating, what you do at a wedding, is social activity. It’s what we do with friends and family.
That eating, what you do at a wedding, is a relational activity. It’s where we share stories, remember our past, trace our whakapapa, and share our joy, name our sorrow.
That eating, what you do at a wedding, is a messy activity. It has food scraps for the compost and red wine spilt on table clothes and dishes to wash.
That eating, what you do at a wedding, is an invitational activity. It’s the place where we build relationships. On the marae, the powhiri moves to the cupatea and the final meal moves into the poroporoaki.
The writer of John, in using the wedding feast, is inviting those who live in mess, ambiguity and brokenness, to maintain the social shape of salvation. Interestingly, for all those who consider Revelation is about endtimes, is how much the writer, John, is looking back not forward.
He’s looking back to the Bible’s first mention, ever, of eating, in Genesis 3; and offering new story, not to broken relationships in the Garden of Eden, but of relationships celebrated in wedding feast.
He’s looking back to Abraham offering hospitality, killing a calf for three strangers.
He’s looking back to the Mosaic Law in Leviticus. Where the mark of being the OT people of God was feasting. Five feasts – Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Trumpets, Tabernacles. And after the book of Esther, a sixth feast – Purim. Six cycles of celebration in which the alien and migrant is welcome.
He’s looking back to the vision of Isaiah 25: A feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats, the finest of wines .. The Lord will wipe away the tears, He will remove the disgrace (6-8)
He’s looking back to the stories of Jesus in the New Testament around food – the Last Supper in Luke 22.
In which Jesus said remember me. Remember what? Remember me with you at Levis banquet, remember me eating and drinking like a glutton, remember me feeding the 5,000; remember me telling you the Parable of the Rich fool and the Great banquet.
And so “Blessed are you who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb,” is not an endtimes prophecy. It’s a looking back, a looking back which gives a social shape to those who live in mess, ambiguity and brokenness.
However, the church often makes a tragic mistake when it things about hospitality and mission. As I posted on social media yesterday: Why so often does the church see itself as host rather than guest, as inviting rather than invited? Some 25 comments later, my friends and followers are still thinking:
- Is it human nature, it’s easier to give than receive?
- Is it that dominant cultures are used to be at the centre, not the edge?
- Is it that we own buildings and somehow that turn us into hosts not guests?
Why so often does the church see itself as host rather than guest, as inviting rather than invited? I’m intrigued by what happens in one interpretation of looking back, in Rublevs Icon, the story of Abraham and the oaks of Mamre.
Painted in the 15th century by Russian monk called Andrei Rublev. Written to a people, living in mess, ambiguity and brokenness. In the background is the trees of Mamre, linking with Genesis 18:1. Three persons: linking to the three strangers in Genesis 18:2. Three persons – similarities – same halo, same blue colour, the colour for divinity; same holding a staff in the same right hand; same head slightly bowed looking at the person beside them.
Three persons – different.
One is green is the colour of spring, the colour of things that grow.
One person has brown, the colour of dirt.
One person is gold, the beauty of God who created a beautiful earth.
So in Rublevs icon, the host is not Abraham. The host is God, three persons of the Trinity – te Matua, te Tama, te Wairua Tapu; The Father in gold who created this beautiful earth; Jesus in brown walked in dirt; Spirit in green to help us grow.
In the middle is the table. All tables have 4 sides. So there is plenty of room for the guest. So anyone can sit. Anyone who wants a relationship – conversation, participate in love, share in table fellowship with Jesus.
So this is hospitality as mission. It’s when God, not church, is the host at the wedding banquet of the lamb. It’s when the Gospel has a social shape – participating in relationship with God. It’s when meals are at the centre; the cup, remember me – looking back – the stories of Jesus in the New Testament around food.
I began with a story – St Paul’s Chapel in New York, in the 10 days after 9/11 – rescue workers .. drawn into the ancient prayers .. Christ’s church – beautiful – in all its messiness, diversity, ambiguity, brokenness .. .” I’ve placed that alongside the Bible reading: “Blessed are you who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” I’ve suggested that this is not endtimes prophecy, but a looking back – to Genesis and relationships broken and the hopes of the Old Testament that find their culmination in Jesus. And the challenge for us to see ourselves not as hosts, but as guests, in the God’s hospitality.
So a story to end. It comes from Rebecca Huntley, who in her book, Eating between the lines, did research on the eating habits of contemporary Australians. She visits food courts and supermarkets and family dinner tables. She also visits the Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre in Melbourne, to attnd a lunch for migrant women.
The aim was to link recent migrants with historic migrants. Each meal features food from the country of origin of one of the migrants. So you turn up to eat the food of another culture. The aim is a social salvation. On each table is a set of questions (Why did you come to this country? Did you have a choice? What was the journey like? What is it like to raise children in a new country?) Rebecca writes:
“the lunch I attended was messy, complicated, disjointed and at times frustrating. It was hard work, much harder than ordering Vietnamese take-away … It was a tiring experience, but much more satisfying .. Food was a conduit, a means of establishing real and potentially transformative relationships.” (Eating between the lines, 132).
Hospitality as mission. The power of finding ourselves as guests at the table of another. Five practical suggestions:
- Appoint a food captain
- Set every church table in ways that reflect God’s abundance and creativity.
- When eating, find ways to encourage genuine conversation – questions on tables to encourage the sharing of lives.
- Work always to make guests hosts and hosts guests
- Never forget the church’s special meal – the stories of Jesus in the New Testament around food.
Because: “Blessed are you who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.”
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