Sermon: Sunday 18 October 2015
Luke the Evangelist
The Reverend Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Today it is revealed that 86 Bishops wrote to the Prime Minister offering the Church’s help in providing hospitality for Syrian asylum seekers, suggesting that the numbers could be increased from 20K to 50K and that the offer had been spurned and no dialogue offered for weeks on end.
This week the Cathedral exec has been staying at Mount St Bernards Abbey where there is literally a brother waiting at the door to receive the guests who arrive. Where the real gift in the hospitality was being allowed into their worship, whose simplicity and austere unclutteredness and the simple peace of plainchant made space for us to enter in most wonderfully.
Today we celebrate St Luke and I’m confusing everyone by focussing on hospitality rather than healing or evangelism. We are asked to focus on a passage from his gospel which reminds us that we are all called to go out as well as welcome, and we will need to learn how to become good guests as well as good hosts if we are to follow the way of Jesus. Hopefully the connections with both healing and evangelism will become clear as we go on.
Hospitality in the Gospel of Luke
In the time of Jesus, hospitality was a core value, and that is true for the people of Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures too. The sin of Sodom was primarily a sin against hospitality rather than sexual sin. Abraham entertained angels unaware at the Oaks of Mamre and in following the generous hospitality of his culture he, Sarah his wife and household, received them royally and were able to hear their message. Again and again in the stories of the patriarchs key events are embedded in moments of hospitality.
Hospitality came from a different place than it often does with us, because it was primarily as much as protection as anything else. Protection from the stranger travelling through hostile landscape where there were bandits and wild animals. So hospitality would include not only a meal and a bed for the night, but enough provisions to last you a day’s journey, and sometimes a safe escort. It came with the understanding that to give hospitality also provided insurance that the same thing would be offered when you went into other people’s territory.
At the same time there were clear boundaries to hospitality. Hospitality to the stranger who wasn’t an Israelite involved leaving crops to glean at the edge of the field for example, but it certainly didn’t cross the purity laws about who whose hand could be shaken if they were a leper or a menstruating woman.
What we see in the gospel of Luke is Jesus becoming a guest for most of the time, and turning the paradigm around. He goes and eats with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ from Zacchaeus to the woman who comes to wash his feet with her hair in the most astounding act of hospitality and rather than being made unclean himself by these acts, instead he brings healing and wholeness – to the leper, to the haemhorraging woman – and he is not afraid of their touch. But we have to note that he has put himself in the vulnerable place of being a guest first, and throwing himself on the hospitality of others. The great banquet, the story of the prodigal Son, finally turning host at the Last Supper. If we read Luke’s gospel through this lens of hospitality we will find it an education. And I believe that as a Cathedral community we should – and we will through our times of Dwelling together midweek – we will focus on these passages and seek to listen to what God is saying to us through them.
But let’s focus in on the passage before us. It’s a passage which doesn’t give Jesus’ disciples the comfort of offering hospitality themselves, of being in charge of their own environment and what food they eat, but which sends the 70 out to see what welcome they will find. 70 was the Jewish figure for the number of nations in the world – so this was about going to the nations. Arguably, if you sent people in all directions then it was a lot tougher to focus in on one individual like John the Baptist and make an example of him.
And perhaps more radically, it was also saying to the disciples that in Jesus’s view of hospitality, all these people who didn’t maybe keep the food laws as they would have wanted or who wouldn’t have been within the Jewish frame of houses they could visit now became the people of respect whose houses they would honour by visiting and from whom they were commanded to receive hospitality to find holiness. Just think what might have happened. What if they went to some isolated village and the person in the house had cooked up a squirrel or some horsemeat because it was all they had access to, or what they were used to eating. And you had to eat it. This is what happened to the son of a missionary in the poor Midwest of America as he went with his father in this way.
So to become the guest rather than the host isn’t all about being served rather than serving. It’s also about making oneself dependent on another, leaving one’s own security. Jesus asks his followers to do this in a very radical way, taking no luggage. My limited experiences of being on pilgrimage with only the contents of a rucksack I could carry for up to 20 miles a day showed me how grateful you become for the basics being offered at each night’s stay. There is a real counter cultural discipline in being asked to respect the person one is visiting when it’s a house you wouldn’t normally visit and recognising that the most precious gift one is bringing is the good news of the Kingdom of God and its peace not the quality of the bottle of wine you offer.
The first thing you do upon entering a house is to say ‘Peace be to this house’ You bring with you the peace of God which passes all understanding, and which as revealed in the cross of Christ has made us fundamentally equal and in the same boat as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. If the person hosting you has any openness to that understanding of shared humanity they will respond in peace – the dialogue can continue.
Perhaps the other moment which chimes most resonantly with the passage we’ve been given today in Luke’s gospel is the story of the road to Emmaus. For there the risen Lord goes to share the good news as one unknown and relies on the invitation of those he meets to invite him back for a meal and a bed for the night before they are in a position through their hosting to recognise who he is. He is the model for all our going out and being willing to become a guest.
When are we guests and when are we hosts?
Of course as part of the Cathedral community, the idea that we should be guests rather than hosts at times is very challenging. Lots of people come to us, and our primary ministry is one of hospitality – for worship, for sanctuary, for food. We’ve just experienced a great disruption to that during the six months we had building works going on in the Cathedral. And subsequently we have found that although we are called on in hospitality by numbers which are by any standards challenging, we are also finding it harder to work out how we show hospitality in the way churches traditionally love to do, by table fellowship ie food, as the demands as to how we do that in the Cathedral become harder for us to match.
And then as regular members of the Cathedral Community will know, we are also contemplating a next round of building works to improve the hospitality we can offer which will probably mean that the Cathedral is largely closed for most of 2018. So we will need to learn how to be guests during that time, like it or not.
Luke’s gospel makes it very clear that the gospel is both centripetal and centrifugal – people come to us and we go out to people. At the Cathedral, we are largely used to the centripetal way and perhaps we find it harder than most to understand how we are called to go out.
By serendipity today we have been offered the passage which is the keystone passage for the Partnership for Missional Church process which we, along with lots of other churches, and another Cathedral, our neighbours in Southwell, are about to embark upon. In this process we will be asked to dwell upon this very passage for a whole year – which amongst other things will be a huge challenge to us to understand what sort of going out and being a guest we are called to in our calling as a Cathedral community.
When are we guests and when are we hosts. We have, for example, some welcomers to the Cathedral who aren’t Christians, but they are still being hosts on our behalf. Sometimes we all in our vulnerability need to be treated as guests and to hear the peace of God and God’s kingdom proclaimed to us; sometimes to feel our belonging we need to be hosts and struggle to be a guest. But whatever the struggle to integrate the two we need to know that Jesus is calling us to holiness through hospitality given and received.
© The Rev’d Canon Rosy Fairhurst