5th Sunday of Lent Philippians 2: 19-30; John 12:1-8
Hospitality is one of those words that has been given many meanings outside of Christianity. I almost wish there was another word that we could use for the word hospitality. Most likely there are two images that might come to you when you hear that word— one being the industry of hospitality that includes hotels, restaurants, and customer service; the other being a Martha Steward kind of concept— having the right drinks to go with dinner.
But joyful, Christian, hospitality, is something entirely different. It goes way beyond thinking about someone’s perceived need, and instead is an opening of one’s self to those around us. As it states in the book Radical Hospitality, “Hospitality, rather than being something you achieve, is something you enter. It is an adventure that takes you where you never dreamed of going. It is not something you do, as much as it is something you become.”
Audrey had two sets of twins, ages 2 and 5, in 1977. And she remembers one particularly awful day when her washing machine had broken, and of course she was already behind on laundry. She was using cloth diapers, and by noon they were all filthy, so she had resorted to putting dishtowels around her kids’ waists. Her sheets were all soiled from nap time, in which the kids had only slept long enough to pee in the beds, and she thought she was going to go insane. That’s when her husband called to tell her that he wanted to bring home a guest from work. Audrey told him that there were piles of laundry everywhere, food all over the floor from breakfast and lunch, dishes piling up, and that her plan was to make Mac n’ cheese for dinner and serve it on paper plates. She told him no. Her husband begged. He said that this woman was from South Africa, that she didn’t know anyone in their town, and that she wanted to see a true American family. Audrey said she didn’t think seeing a crazy person with two sets of twins eating hot dogs for dinner was all that American. But he just kept telling her how much this woman needed to spend time with a family, and she eventually gave in. Too tired even to panic, Audrey put a pot on the stove to boil water, and her husband soon turned up with their guest. Over their dinner of mac n’ cheese and hot dogs on paper plates, the woman from South Africa shared stories of apartheid. They found out that their guest was a mother of sons as well, but her sons had died young. After dinner, in which their guest was now more like a good friend, she helped clean up the dishes, put the kids to bed, and then as her hosts invited her to sit out on the porch with them, she began to weep. She told them that she didn’t know if she was ever going to be able to go home again. And they listened and sat with her and let her share her story. This woman, whom they’d only known for a couple of hours, felt safe for the first time in a long time, even though she was far away from everything she knew. And the couple, so caught up in their own lives of having small children, felt that they too were encountering great hospitality in the way that she so graciously accepted them, shared their home, and played with their kids. The encounter changed their lives.
Until this week I thought the order of our Joyful weeks— starting with prayer, then witness, then humility— could be in any order. But when I got to this week on hospitality, I realized that we need prayer, humility, and the ability to witness if we are going to truly be hospitable. Hospitality involves all three of those and more. Just look at our Gospel this morning.
Jesus has been invited over to his friends’ home— a rather ordinary type of invitation since it comes from his good friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But while he is there, he experiences no ordinary kind of reception. In an act of thankfulness and hospitality, Mary pours oil on Jesus’ sore, tired, dirty, feet, and washes his feet with her hair and that oil. And the whole scene more often than not, makes us deeply uncomfortable. Expensive oil, dirty feet, sweat, skin on skin contact, hair that is being used as a towel— this is an extraordinary act, but more than that, it is a sensual and intimate, and vulnerable act. You can almost feel the people around them getting embarrassed for her; the talk of people who are sitting nearby; the looks and stares and things people aren’t saying. Can you hear people whispering how shameful her behavior is, how much she is humiliating herself? Judas, of course, is the one who speaks up. Judas pretends that his discomfort is really about how much money is wasted that could’ve gone to the poor. But what is it that’s really making him uncomfortable? Is it the generosity and outpouring of Mary’s life onto Jesus’ body? Or is it the way that Jesus receives her gift, not by protesting that it is too much, or becoming embarrassed himself, but rather by appreciating her and the healing she is offering him in that moment?
What this story so beautifully illustrates is that joyful hospitality is not one-sided. There may be a giver and a receiver, but both are offering joyful hospitality to each other. If Jesus was embarrassed, or told her to get up and act appropriately, or protested that she was doing too much, he would be negating her gift. If Mary doubted herself for a moment and just handed Jesus the oil, or made sure that a servant washed his feet, it still would’ve been a gift, but not a gift of herself. What happens in this moment is that in her act of service and his graciousness to receive it, the two find joy as giver and receiver.
True radical hospitality takes risks— its generous— it is a vulnerable act because we are far more used to protecting ourselves, keeping our guard up, being dismissive or even embarrassed when someone else is open and vulnerable. But joyful hospitality invites us to be vulnerable; to give of ourselves vulnerably, and to receive vulnerably. How many times, after a huge meal in which all of my needs were thought of, have I heard the words, “This was no trouble at all.” How different would it be to say instead, “I am so glad you enjoyed it. I wanted to do this for you.” How many times have I given a gift and said to the person, “Oh this is just a little something” and downplayed what I was giving them as though I didn’t care that much? How different is it when I catch myself and say the truth instead: “I picked this out just for you and I’m super excited to give it to you.” Our habits speak of our fear of rejection rather than of God’s love for us. Our habits speak of a culture that tells us not to give too much in case we don’t have enough for ourselves. And yet when we intentionally refrain from using sterile language and instead take those risks, opening ourselves up to listen and be listened to; God has immense joy in store for us.
Paul does this with the Philippians church. Remember now, Paul is in prison. And Roman prisons in the 1st Century were just four walls. If you wanted food, medicine, something to read, someone to care for you at all— it came from people you knew outside of prison. And yet Paul’s concern is for the Philippians. At some point, presumably with their letter for Paul and perhaps some money to help provide for him, they also sent Epaphroditus, a man to help care for Paul and run errands for him. And yet, after Epaphroditus has been sick and Paul recognizes the need for the Philippians to have a leader, he sends Epaphroditus back to them— as a comforter, an aid, a guide for them in the faith. The language he uses to talk about Epaphroditus and of Timothy, who will stay with him, is the language of a respected colleague— this is no mere substitute for Paul— this is his friend and equal. Paul wants him to go back and help care for this community, even when Paul is uncertain about what is going to happen to him. You can’t tell who is receiving more and who is giving more, because the joyful and radical hospitality is going both ways.
Think of a time when you have received joyful hospitality. It could be big, it could be small. I remember being in the hospital several years ago and being extremely uncomfortable all night long. The night nurse heard my complaints, went through her checklist, but came up with nothing so I stopped asking questions. When the day nurse came on and asked me how I was, however, she didn’t stop asking me questions until we had figured it all out. When has someone listened to you, helped you, offered themselves in a way that made all the difference in the world? Another time, I was trying to figure out a childcare situation and a good friend happened to be with me. She immediately dropped everything in her life to follow me home and care for my children. Whether it is sending a note, bringing a meal, listening to someone who needs to be listened to, or, on the flip side, receiving a gift graciously and joyfully— acts of hospitality are a way of being in the world that opens us up to experience God’s grace in ways we would’ve never expected.
I wonder when Jesus began planning to wash his disciples’ feet. Could it be, that Jesus, after being so deeply moved by Mary’s act of servant hood and hospitality and healing for him, realized that washing the disciples feet would be a deeply moving act for them as well? Mary washes Jesus’ feet; Jesus washes his disciples’ feet; and then Jesus says to his disciples that they are now commanded to wash one anothers’ feet.
A simple, vulnerable, beautiful act of servant hood continues on and on and on. Radical and joyful hospitality starts local and extends out to change the world. I hope that as you come to the communion table this morning, as you receive the bread and the juice, the body and blood of Christ, as you come to this open table— available for all of us— for anyone who wants to receive God’s grace— that you will experience God’s amazingly abundant hospitality of love that is for you. And that God’s amazing grace won’t stop with you, but that you will continue on into this week taking time to extend that amazing grace, that joyful hospitality to one other person today; and one other person tomorrow; and that God’s joyful hospitality will live on in you as you practice being open to the Christ that is in one another.
Because of This I Rejoice by Max Vincent Radical Hospitality by Lonnie Collins Pratt “Philippians & Philemon Commentary” Sacra Pagina, ed. By Daniel Harrington “Philippians Commentary” Interpretation by Fred Craddock workingpreacher.com