Sunday, September 06, 2015

Trading Places--From Host To Guest: Radical Hospitality Is About More Than Welcome, or How Jesus Was Reminded What God's Love Looks Like

In a time, again, of broken communities and lives creating widespread refugees and those without houses or places of their own, when great gaps of inequality are growing wider, when mercy is seen as weakness, we need reminded, as Jesus did once, that offering radical hospitality is more than having a big fancy welcome mat and sign out front of your church, your home, your country. It is about more than providing for strangers. More than what the photo above, as nice as it is, says. It is, at heart, about what God is about---trading places, moving from places of privilege to oppression, becoming a guest in your own world, the way in the biblical story God becomes a refugee from Heaven and becomes a poor helpless infant without a home whose family is forced to leave their country to go to another one. 

When our small church decided in 2007 to move across the street into a vacant space three times as big, and when in 2011 to move again a half mile away into another space three times bigger again, and also at the same time to transform a block of rundown properties into a community garden, we did it so we could become more hospitable to the community around us and so we could help our community become more hospitable itself. We didn’t do it so we could become bigger; in fact we became smaller. But we did it so the heart of the community could grow bigger, and to save lives. (speaking of which, It is wonderful to celebrate this week the news that in the 8 years since we made that missional move that the life expectancy gap in our zip code has been reduced from almost 14 years to 10.7 years, between us and the highest life expectancy zipcode on the other side of Tulsa; still outrageous, but shows that radical hospitality and partnerships can indeed save lives.)

We did it in a radical hospitable way, by becoming a guest in our own place. We took down the signs that we used to have up that labeled our space as a church. This leads many of those who then come into the community center or gardens we created---to use the health clinic or get food, clothes, to use the computers they don’t have at home, to get free books, to watch television, to get cool in the summer or warm in the winter, to make art, to attend a community meeting, to party---to often not know that a church worships at times in that space too, or that a church started it all. That is fine with us.

We connect with people first, and as our relationship grows, so does our knowledge about one another; then, if one is needed, an invitation grows from that to serve with us, to party with us, to learn with us, and to worship with us, right around the same tables or on the same sofas, or at the same garden deck and tables, as we use for all our other gatherings.

Becoming a guest in our own place. This mantra grew for us from two related sources.

One is the powerful spiritual connection to place, to the scandal of the particular, to an ecological truth that we are all guests of this place we call our home. Others prepared our place for us; others will tend it after us. We do not so much own what the law says we own as we are owned by this place that calls us into being and puts us into mission to make it a more loving just hospitable place in our time.

We first understood this in our own yards and homes. When we have a healthy place, the soil, the insects, the birds, the animals that come and go through our places, all remind us that fences and buildings and lot lines do not define our place. What we set down amidst the place is what is transient. We are the guests. Nature’s corridor for all that is seen, and most often unseen, is the permanent. Our church’s mission is to create and protect and make visible such corridors for the healing of the land, the people, and the community---all of which here in the 74126 has been damaged by the intersections themselves of racism, environmental neglect, classism, greed and fear.

It is no wonder, in an acknowledgment of this source of our radical hospitality, that our very first act of transformation when we bought an abandoned church  building for the latest incarnation of the community center was to have a community art day and to paint over boarded up windows with a part of a Wendell Berry poem used as a reading in the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal: “the abundance of this place” is painted on one board; “the songs of its people and its birds, will be health and wisdom and indwelling light” is painted on another.

The other source is connected to the two main names we are known by: A Third Place, and The Welcome Table. Booth are grounded in our mission of radical hospitality.

Our community center was first known as A Third Place, and the foundation we created is now called that. It comes from the global movement to reclaim free common spaces where people who are different can meet to make a difference. The first place is your home; the second place is your work or church or friends or affinity group where you are with people who share common values or experiences with you. But we need the “third places/spaces” where, as the bumper sticker on our front door says, “the most radical thing we can do is to introduce people to one another.” Our mission is to create such third places, especially in the places and with the people where others do not wish to go, or to hang out with, and where there has been a decimation of gathering places.

We now call our community center, our gardenpark and orchard, and our church The Welcome Table. We commission people to go create welcome tables in their lives and neighborhoods. The other boarded up windows in front of our building are now painted with signs that also come from our hymnal, that say “We’re gonna sit at the welcome table” and “All kinds of people”. Our source for this is the radical hospitable way of Jesus, who time and time again creates in a variety of ways welcome where welcome has been denied. From birth to death, from manger to cross, with the despised, the sick, the powerful, the oppressed, making a welcome space and offering all the bread of life and the spirit of the Beloved. Whether in a home, on the road, by the sea, in synagogue, making visible what the Empire sought to hide: God’s radical love for all.

Jesus himself will fail at hospitality. He forgets he is a guest too. The power of the Empire’s way of hospitality based on influence and honor is ever-present and corruptive. In the biblical reading for today in the revised common lectionary used by many churches like ours, we encounter this story, which is itself like Jesus encountering the woman; we often try to turn away from the story and what it means. 

While travelling as a guest himself in her land, with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), he acts more like a racist, sexist bouncer outside a nightclub than the one who turned toward all those whom others would not touch. But though we fail at hospitality, we are still welcomed back by the hospitality of others, even especially those we have turned away. So it was with that desperate mother seeking healing for her daughter. She did not take her emotional slap in the face and turn away, but became the true teacher and the healer, the true host,  and reminded Jesus in word and deed of the kind of God of radical abundance he himself made room for within himself and sought to share with others.

The purpose of hospitality is for the mutual transformation of ourselves, for the transformation of the world into one Welcome Table. We can only do so by turning toward and responding to the inhospitable within ourselves and within our communities. Wherever we do not wish to go we need to go. Whomever we do not wish to hang out with we need to hang out with. Only by becoming guests, do we discover our true place, and from it our true mission. 

1 comment:

James Gibbons Walker said...

Dear Ron, Here is the link to my sermon on the same text.