A wee rant on the unwelcoming church

‘The feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty’. – Mother Theresa 

Everything is a sign, literally. No-thing points to nothing. And over the past few weeks, I’ve been noticing some very literal  and very disturbing  signs around some churches that I’ve visited; signs which indicate, at the very least, some serious confusion about the nature and raison d’être of the community that gathers together in the name of Hospitable Love. Film isn’t able to capture the mustiness and temperature (or lack thereof) of some of the depressing solitary confinement cells (sometimes these are called ‘play area’, or ‘cry room, or ‘creche’) that I’ve seen recently, but here are just a few shots (including one that I pulled from somewhere else on the web) of some other signs that I’ve happened across:

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For those who may be interested, I’ve uploaded a copy of Peter Corney’s wee and somewhat dated booklet, The Welcoming Church. It has some good practical ideas in it. But seriously, folks; hospitality is not rocket science. If someone takes the trouble to visit your home, the least you can do is to let them in, say hello, brew them a coffee, feed them, let them change their kid’s nappy (and use your rubbish bin), find something to talk about, make sure they know where the loo is, remember their name, enjoy them, participate in the movement of ek-stasis which characterises the good cheer of the universe itself, and bless them with a bag of vegetables, a curry, or a bottle of homemade lemonade to take away when they leave. It takes a little bit of thought and effort but, like I said, it’s not rocket science.

So why is it that there are some faith communities, including those made up of some of the nicest individuals you will ever meet, that are just so unwelcoming, or whose public environment, at least, is such? To be sure, there’s a job here for some theology of architecture and of interior design. And at the risk of doing a René Girard, I guess that there’s something too to be said about the DNA of those attracted to serve as community gate keepers. But wherever there is a shortage of the former, that ball needs to be picked up. And where the latter prevails, where such inhospitable demons exist, such need to be exorcised, along with their footprints, if the Body of Christ is to look, feel and smell less decapitated than it often appears. Surely love demands  and seeks  no less.

Sometimes it’s the little things, eh …

Rant over.

By the way, I’m happy to receive by email any photos that I can add to this collection.

On hospitality

Been thinking lately about how a theology of divine hospitality might better inform – and be informed by – pastoral practice, and then I came across this statement in Wolfgang Vondey’s fascinating book, People of Bread: Rediscovering Ecclesiology (New York: Paulist Press, 2008):

‘The Old Testament presents a harsh condemnation of inhospitable behavior. God’s judgment of Sodom shows that hospitality is not simply a social obligation but also an expression of the personal, moral responsibility of God’s people to others as well as to God. Jerusalem’s unflattering comparison with Sodom reveals not only the consequences of neglecting to offer one’s bread to strangers; it also underlines the effort necessary to engage in deliberate interaction and fellowship with those who are not from among us. Abraham is commissioned to teach his descendents the way of God’s justice and righteousness exhibited in the offer of hospitality and the sharing of companionship with those in need. As descendants of Abraham, the Israelites are called to be a people of bread who extend their companionship to the world.

The repeated emphasis on the “alien” is a fundamental element of the sharing of bread in the Hebrew scriptures. The memory of God’s hospitality in Israel’s experience of the exodus, when the Israelites were aliens in the land of Egypt, proves to be the motivation for Israel’s own extension of hospitality. God showed hospitality to Israel when the people were strangers, aliens, and outcasts. Marginalized and reduced to slavery, the Israelites found that they were no strangers to God. Companionship with God did not remove Israel’s alien status in the land of Egypt. However, God’s display of hospitality provided an environment in which the Israelites could experience companionship with one another and with God in the fellowship of bread.

God’s extension of hospitality allowed Israel to understand the moral failures of their past in a new light. God’s provision of bread invited Israel to participate in the sharing of stories from their past, enjoying the unexpected solidarity and impartiality of the present, and anticipating an unprecedented opportunity for freedom in the future. God’s provision of bread accompanied an even more daring display of hospitality: the deliverance of Israel from a life of exploitation and oppression. The people of bread experienced their God as the ultimate host who delivered them from a life of alienation and elevated them to be God’s chosen nation.

The sharing of bread with the stranger introduces the fellowship (koinonia) of God’s people to the notion of hospitality, a community-building practice performed on the basis of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “virtues of acknowledged dependence.” This dependence comes in the form of both the freedom and the responsibilities of companionship. Those who are liberated from their alien existence through God’s companionship are set free to extend God’s hospitality to all those who have remained strangers in the world. The Old Testament makes the experience of marginality and alienation normative for an understanding of hospitality. The extension of hospitality forms a bridge between the host and the guest by removing from their relationship the boundaries that inhibit solidarity and equality. Companionship with the stranger becomes an instrument of liberation, solidarity, and transformation.

Hospitality as a liberating and transforming practice of companionship is always particular, never generic. The relationship between host and guest stands at the forefront of the particular challenge of hospitality. Abraham’s and Lot’s displays of humility to their guests illustrate the attitude and behavior characteristic of the host’s role. Standing at the threshold of his own community, the host rushes out to meet the strangers, extending the realm of his companionship to those he does not know and breaking the sphere of alienation. In honest humility, the host identifies himself as the servant of his guests, offering not a favor but a service to those who are now no longer strangers but masters. In turn, the guests accept the invitation and are liberated from their alien status to participate in the fellowship of bread with those who likewise do not remain strangers but have become companions. Both host and guest forsake their position in their own communities for the sake of companionship. Put differently, the primary motivation for hospitality is the vision to live in a world without strangers.

The ambiguity about the identity of host and guest is a particularly important element in an ethic of hospitality. As John Koenig states, hospitality refers “not to a love of strangers per se but to a delight in the whole host-guest relationship, in the mysterious reversals and gains for all parties that may take place.” The willingness to forsake one’s position in the community for the sake of strangers comes with an uncertain risk attached. This risk lies neither in the host nor the guests themselves but in the community in which the act of hospitality takes place. Defending one’s hospitality to strangers, in the midst of a community that does not participate in the companionship, can make the host a stranger as well. At that point, hospitality comes at a greater cost than companionship. The preservation of hospitality at all costs requires from the very beginning a willingness to forsake one’s social status, community, or class by identifying one’s whole life and being with the fate of the stranger. As Scott H. Moore remarks, “To invite the stranger into one’s home is to make that which is private public and to introduce what is public into the private.” The sharing of bread with the stranger remains the most tangible expression of the commitment to companionship and the execution of righteousness and justice beyond the realm of one’s own community.

The challenge of hospitality as a surrender of oneself is well illustrated in the example of God’s hospitality at the exodus. In the biblical texts, hospitality to strangers is portrayed from the very beginning as a theological relationship mirroring the human companionship with God: hospitality to others is hospitality to God. The bread shared with the stranger is a service directed ultimately to God. John Chrysostom placed particular emphasis on this aspect:

This is hospitality, this is truly to do it for God’s sake. But if you give orders with pride, though you bid him take the first place, it is not hospitality, it is not done for God’s sake. The stranger requires much attendance, much encouragement, and with all this it is difficult for him not to feel abashed; for so delicate is his position, that whilst he receives the favor, he is ashamed. That shame we ought to remove by the most attentive service, and to show by words and actions, that we do not think we are conferring a favor, but receiving one, that we are obliging less than we are obliged.

Chrysostom stressed the idea that the motivation for hospitality among God’s people is born not only out of an identification of oneself with the stranger but also out of an identification of the stranger with God. Hospitality is the challenge to see in the stranger also the presence of God. In other words, the Israelites are asked to share their bread with strangers not because they are a people of bread but because they are the people of God. The freedom of extending one’s companionship to the marginalized and outcasts of society is a gift from God that establishes a testing ground for hospitality in commemoration and imitation of God’s companionship with the world. Hospitality thus becomes a means of both service to the world and worship of God, as we are reminded in this third-century homily:

For if you really wish to worship the image of God, you would do good to humans, and so worship the true image of God in them … If therefore you wish truly to honor the image of God, we declare to you what is true; that you should do good to and pay honor and reverence to everyone, who is made in the image of God. You should minister food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, hospitality to the stranger, and necessary things to the prisoner. That is what will be regarded as truly bestowed upon God.

For the people of God, the primary challenge of hospitality is not only to abide by the rules of social and economic equality and solidarity but also to acknowledge God as the recipient of their moral actions. The bread shared with the stranger is companionship with God extended to the world as a reflection of God’s justice and righteousness.

From an ecclesiological perspective, hospitality is an extension of the covenant relationship with God into the world. In the covenant, the people of bread acknowledge God as the God of hospitality. The premise and goal of all hospitality is God’s companionship with humankind. The bread shared with the stranger is God’s bread. More precisely, however, the biblical texts portray the people of God as a catalyst for the extension of God’s invitation to the world. Israel is singled out as a chosen nation based not on their own achievement but on God’s love (see Deut 7:7–8). Hospitality to the stranger is a reflection of God’s hospitality in Israel’s past, particularly the commemoration of the Passover as a celebration of the final and eternal liberation of God’s people. In this sense, Israel’s call to companionship is also a prophetic sign of God’s extended hospitality to the world in the future.” The promise of God’s eschatological hospitality remains connected to the image of bread: Israel’s bread will not fail, the produce of the ground will be rich and plenteous (see Isa 30:25; 51:14; 55:10–11). The people of God are commissioned “to share their bread” not only with one another but with the stranger, the Gentiles, the foreign nations who one day will partake in God’s fellowship of bread (see Isa 58:7; 60:10–13; Ezek 47:21–23). The sharing of God’s companionship makes God’s hospitality available to those who are still outside of God’s covenant and invites them to share in the eternal fellowship at God’s table.

The sharing of God’s bread introduces to the world the story of God’s people, redirecting the world to an experience of God’s hospitality, and opening up possibilities for companionship with God. The fourth-century bishop Ambrose of Milan reminds us that the hospitality of God’s people is seen as a recommendation of God and approval of God’s people in the eyes of the world. The biblical texts portray hospitality as a call to keep the doors open for the stranger and for God in order to share in solidarity, equality, and unity in the fellowship of bread. This invitation is an indication that God’s covenant ultimately extends beyond the nation of Israel to all of humankind. The God of hospitality asks the people of bread to forsake a life of indifference, self-centeredness, and isolation for the sake of companionship with those who are not of the same nation, race, gender, culture, or faith.

Significantly, God’s call to show hospitality to the world takes place in an environment of sin, violence, isolation, and hostility. The free and selfless display of hospitality provides a key for the establishment of God’s justice and righteousness in the world. God’s challenge to invite the alien and outsider is accompanied by the equally challenging command to remain distant from the transgression and wickedness of the world.

Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deut 7:3–6)

The concrete display of hospitality shows clear elements of both invitation and separation. The message of the Old Testament is to invite the stranger but to separate from Sodom. Hospitality is an invitation directed to the unprivileged and outcasts of society. The host exercises “the option or love of preference for the poor” by inviting them to find refuge and shelter among the people of God. On the other hand, hospitality provides an environment in which God’s justice and righteousness are established in the world. Host and guest are liberated to enter into companionship with one another and with a holy God. In this way, they become companions to each other but strangers to the world. Ultimately, the display of hospitality serves an act of separation of both host and guest from unrighteousness and sin.

Finally, the notion of hospitality reveals that the execution of God’s justice and righteousness is not restricted to a sinful world but is equally directed at God’s people. Those who were once strangers are called to forsake but not to forget their alienation and oppression. God’s people are motivated to companionship with the oppressed, the poor, and the stranger because they have experienced oppression, poverty, alienation, and sin but no longer participate in them. For those who were once persecuted it is a moral imperative to display hospitality to those who continue to suffer persecution. Morality, then, is the function of life in which the self-centered person extends an invitation to include others in his or her life. Together, host and guest enter a realm of hospitality in which shared moral action can be established on the basis of companionship with God. The call of God’s people to show hospitality is not simply a call to still the hunger of the world but to invite a divided world into a holy and consecrated companionship with God. God’s provision of bread thus remains a testing ground for the solidarity of God’s people with the fate of the world.

The New Testament emphasizes the social and moral responsibility of God’s people with particular force and infuses the challenge of hospitality with further meaning. In the community of the first Christians, the significance of companionship with God and the world is emphasized and transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The image of bread in the Gospels hearkens back to the meaning of bread as a representation of the human relationship with God and with one another and finds its climax in the identification of the bread with the body of Christ. In the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the human and divine extension of hospitality merge into one gracious invitation to participate in the sharing of the bread of life’. (pp. 97–104)

A Challenge Towards Hospitality

‘Where welcoming gays and lesbians in congregations translates into a denial of their calling to ministry and a dismissal of same-sex partnerships; where welcoming the homeless means a remote corner of the church building may be reserved for “their” use; where extending hospitality to children means removing them from worship and whisking them away to a dingy and cluttered room, the hospitality of Jesus’ name is not extended … [T]o name Jesus in acts of hospitality and care is to be caught up in the entire trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. To speak his name is to be drawn into the way of Jesus Christ: away of vulnerable love made real in the flesh that opens us radically to others. This is not a way of privilege, superiority, and trumpeting exclusion, but covenant, vulnerability, and difference. To welcome in the name of Jesus means that others have a claim on us.’ – David H. Jensen, Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 132.

Dies Irae, John Donne and Luke 7:36–8:3

Over the past few weeks, I have posted some thoughts (here and here) on one of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. For those preparing sermons on Luke 7:36-8:3 for this Sunday, here’s a few thoughts.

Luke’s retelling involves three main characters: Simon the Pharisee (the inviter), Jesus (the invited), and a woman (the party-crasher). At the heart of the story is the issue of hospitality. Simon is a lousy host who has publicly humiliated his guest in failing to wash his feet, anoint his head, and to acknowledge his equal rank of rabbi by offering a kiss. The woman—the only one in the room who understands Jesus’ pain and his embarrassment by the Pharisee’s rudeness—realises that in Jesus the Shekinah has moved and now resides in a person. She alone shows the expected grace of a host. Jesus is an impolite guest who does the unthinkable, especially in a Middle Eastern culture—he attacks the quality of the hospitality. Even though he is probably embarrassed by the party-crasher’s gesture, he accepts it, and her, because he understands her motive. By the time Jesus finishes his parable, Simon and his mates are no longer angry with the woman. Their rage has turned towards Jesus. Upon him was the chastisement that brought her peace. In what is a foretaste of the cross, Jesus offers her a costly demonstration of unexpected love. In the words of William Williams, ‘What power has love but forgiveness?’And in that one action, he welcomes Simon and all who have ears to hear, into his own life.

There are a number of paintings that depict Luke’s homely scene. Julius Schnorr’s ‘Mary anoints Jesus’, and James Tissot’s ‘Mary anoints Jesus’ feet’ both serve as fine examples. There’s also Julius Schnoor’s moving woodcut, ‘Jesus Anointed by Sinful Woman’ originally printed in Das Buch der Bücher in Bilden. But it is some poetic reflections of this episode at Simon’s house that move me most. In her poem ‘In the Midst of the Company’, Janet Morley powerfully uses poetic license to recreate Luke’s painting from Jesus’ perspective.

In the midst of the company I sat alone,
and the hand of death took hold of me;
I was cold with secrecy,
and my God was far away.
For this fear did my mother conceive me,
and to seek this pain did I come forth?
Did her womb nourish me for the dust,
or her breasts, for me to drink bitterness?
O that my beloved would hold me
and gather me in her arms;
that the darkness of God might comfort me,
that this cup might pass me by.
I was desolate, and she came to me;
when there was neither hope nor help for pain
she was at my side;
in the shadow of the grave she has restored me.
My cup was spilling with betrayal,
but she has filled it with wine;
my face was wet with fear,
but she has anointed me with oil,
and my hair is damp with myrrh.
The scent of her love surrounds me;
it is more than I can bear.
She has touched me with authority;
in her hands I find strength.
For she acts on behalf of the broken,
and her silence is the voice of the unheard.
Though many murmur against her, I will praise her;
and in the name of the unremembered,
I will remember her.

The well-known thirteenth–century poem ‘Dies Irae’, thought to be written by Thomas of Celano, describes the day of judgement. Until about 35 years ago, the poem was used as a sequence (a chant sung or recited before the proclamation of the Gospel) in the Requiem Mass, and so, unsurprisingly, finds its way into the Requiem’s by Verdi and Mozart.

Stanzas 12-13 of the ‘Dies Irae’ express something of what might be going on here for Luke’s readers where Jesus’ welcome towards this woman encourages us to hope that as we move towards Jesus, we will discover one who has already moved towards us in and for grace.

I groan, as one guilty;
my face is red with shame;
spare, O God, a supplicant.
You who forgave Mary,
and heard the plea of the thief
have given hope to me also.

In Martin Luther’s words, we rediscover that ‘Thou art my righteousness and I am thy sin’. Our confidence rests, neither in our tears or in our zeal, but only in the gracious God. In Jesus Christ, we discover that grace is bloodied, despised and rejected, crushed for the iniquities of, and laden with punishment for, those who hide their faces from it. Never abstract or cheap, grace is a man groaning on a cross, dying, not only for those who would anoint him with precious perfume, but also for those who would stand by to hypocritically condemn; for those who know what they do and for those who don’t. Grace is God in his holy action, bearing the shame of desperate women and proud Pharisees on the killing tree.

Arms bare
bloodied sap,
stripped of all pretense,
simplicity giving way to strange beauty.
Alone, yet koinoniaed
Violence, yet concord
No form to desire this ugly tree
yet satisfied
the satisfaction of misplacement.
Its white crooked limbs stretch laboriously upward,
Longing …

A germ so long ago planted
out of season, yet for a time.
Once being about a business
Now being about a business … aching
forlorn and isolated,
rootedness in desiccated ground … and waiting …
Will it spring again?

Here I conclude with John Donne’s ‘A Hymn to God the Father’:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Published in the June edition of Lectionary Homiletics.