The Call to Extravagant Hospitality for All
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 24, 2017 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 105; Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
Some say that our primal instinct is to violence, so when our earliest human ancestors met strangers in the wild their first impulse was to kill them. Others say that nonviolence and forming loving community are our primal instincts. Mahatma Gandhi said that if violence and hatred of strangers were the dominant human traits, cities could not exist, they would self-destruct.
The Bible gives evidence in both directions. It contains horrific violence done in the name of God or even by God, and yet it contains far more passages that portray God as infinitely loving and unconditionally compassionate and forgiving, culminating in the teachings and life of Christ.
My personal theory is that we can take our deepest, truest feelings as evolutionary evidence for the sacred way to live. We feel deep peace, we feel a rush of joy, we feel the highest Christ-like love when we form a beloved community. We see our longing for community most clearly when we find it in unexpected places, like manna from heaven.
German and British soldiers fought in trenches during World War I on either side of a long, narrow, blood-soaked killing-field. Christmas Eve of 1914 came and the Germans began singing Silent Night. The English joined in from their side, and they caroled back and forth until the soldiers were so deeply moved that they began crawling out of the trenches to cross over and greet one another. Enemies shared pictures of sweethearts and told stories of Christmas back home. They played soccer games on the field where they had been trying to kill one another. We still make movies and sing songs about that spontaneous loving community between enemies because it was so beautiful an outbreak of our true nature and so stark a contrast to the hideous insanity of war.
It happens in smaller ways every day. An expensively dressed executive got lost walking to a meeting in an unfamiliar city and strayed into a dangerous looking neighborhood. He was white and when he saw a young African-American man coming toward him the executive felt a racial profiling fear surge in him. Suddenly he stepped on a patch of black ice on the sidewalk and his legs went flying out from under him and his arms and briefcase whirled around like a windmill and then just as quickly he caught his balance and staggered off the ice without falling. He looked up anxiously, feeling even more vulnerable. The black man was almost upon him, his face radiant with a huge smile, and in the most melodious Jamaican accent he sang out, “Congratulations! You are still young!”
It was one of the most joyous moments, and most loving connections, the executive had ever felt, there with that total stranger he had feared might be an enemy who would attack him. It changed the way he walked through the world. He wanted to pass the high of that blessing on to others.
This extravagant hospitality happens in Strafford, too. I moved here thirty-five years ago and rented the Sayre place next to Barrett Hall. My brother George came up from Boston to visit me just after I had arrived. He lost the directions to my house so he stopped at Coburns and went to the post office to ask for help, even though I had a post office box, not home delivery, and almost no one in town knew who I was.
George did not have much hope, but he asked Earl Varney, the postmaster, if he knew where Tom Kinder lived. To George’s surprise, Earl knew exactly and gave clear and easy directions. George felt that joyous sense of unexpected community as he turned away, and then Earl said,
“But he’s not at home.”
“Oh,” George said. It felt a little strange that the postmaster would know that, but George accepted it and said, “OK. Well, thanks anyway.”
George turned away again and Earl said, “But I can tell you how to get in…”
Now that is extravagant hospitality! It is also as shocking as the parable that Jesus told. But once we get over the outrageousness, we sense that this is the way life is supposed to be, and we feel the peace and joy of living in a beloved community where we are cared for far above and beyond the limits that human fear of strangers would impose.
The plot line of Jesus’ story is simple. A landowner is looking for laborers to work in his vineyard. He hires people right up to an hour before quitting time, but he pays them all as if they had worked an entire day. The people who arrived early feel cheated, they feel they deserve more, and according to human, worldy terms they are absolutely right.
But Jesus begins the parable by saying that this is what the realm of God is like. God does not consider our worth something we have to earn. We are children of God, meaning we are all creatures that the force of love and life and light in the universe has brought into being. We did nothing to earn that gift and we do not need to earn that force’s unconditional outpouring into us and through us—we need only to open to it and humbly accept it.
Every creature in the universe is an expression of that same force of love and life and light. We are created to serve it, to cultivate a habitat where it can flourish in our homes and communities and world. To say the same thing in different words, we are called to create the realm of God on earth around us.
You can see this quality in people who really get it. There are many photographs of Mahatma Gandhi meeting with his enemies where Gandhi had obviously just said something extremely funny, and the British representatives are roaring with laughter. Gandhi extended a spirit of extravagant hospitality to people who had imprisoned him for decades of his life.
Other clergy observed that one of the qualities that made William Sloane Coffin unusual was his ability to make a room full of strangers feel like a gathering of beloved friends and family. Bill didn’t wait to find out whether you were worthy. He invited you to gather around the piano and enter the realm where all have a place.
God did not give manna to the especially good, God gave it to that whole mixed bag of refugees who were in search of a new homeland, some of whom were more virtuous and some less so. This is what defines hospitality as extravagant. It does not give of itself because of the worthiness of the recipient, it gives because it is the way we want to be and the way we want the world to be.
Extravagant hospitality rises out of a perspective that gives us compassion for all. Thucydides said, “Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It affects everyone when anyone in our family or church or community feels left out of our hospitality. And it affects everyone when there are refugees in search of a homeland who are being shut out. It affects us all when systemic forces like poverty or climate change or war are making the earth inhospitable for anyone. We are tied in a single garment of destiny because all creatures together represent a single manifestation of the life of God, God being the love and life and light that flows through the universe and through us each. What affects one truly affects us all.
Not everyone can see this unity. It takes the highest level of spiritual maturity, what theologians call the Universalizing stage of faith. Jesus was always trying to move us toward that stage, but the church has too often been concerned instead with individualistic salvation, the pie in the sky in the great by and by when we die. Jesus and Paul and the saints and mystics have focused on personal transformation here and now so that we become instruments of transformation, making the world more hospitable to all.
We promise one another every time we read our congregation’s covenant “to embody the love of Christ, to nurture contemplation and action, and to offer our gifts, talents and energies as we are able.” That is a formula for transforming ourselves and our church and then moving out to transform the world.
If we embody the love of Christ we will move beyond human limits, as today’s parable showed, and live by the laws of unconditional love and extravagant hospitality. If we nurture contemplation, we will take a spiritual path of practices that lead to the Universalizing vision that we are all one. If we pursue action, we will reach out to the alien in our midst, we will reach out to the stranger or outcast or enemy in our community, offering our gifts, talents and energies as we are able.
God still is feeding the refugees in their wilderness, only now we are the manna. The Hebrew word manna does not mean bread, it means literally “What is it?” That was what the children of Israel asked Moses when they first saw this gift of God. We are the manna God is giving to this world, so the question is, what is it? What is it that we are being called to do? What is you are being called to do?
Let us pray in silence, opening to God’s transforming action within us so we may be instruments of transformation around us…