BIBLE READINGS: Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16 Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Jesus did a lot of teaching – and a lot of it happened at the dinner table. Just think of everything Jesus did at a meal table.
While eating, Jesus gave the promise of the Holy Spirit.
During a meal, he said goodbye to the disciples.
At the table, Jesus interpreted who he was (take and eat, this bread is my body ...)
He washed his disciple's feet, showing how they were to treat each other.
The table was where the two disciples recognise Jesus after the resurrection - in the breaking of the bread.
And on today's occasion, he taught about humility and hospitality, and the link between the two - moving from how we behave as guests (with humility), to how we behave as hosts (with gracious hospitality).
Now, we often mis-understand humility as putting ourselves down almost denigrating ourselves as nobodies of little value. The misconception is that the humble person is a doormat - that there's some kind of virtue in encouraging others to walk all over us and take advantage of us. I don't find that anywhere in scripture - certainly not in this story.
The picture I get of humility is more of having a realistic understanding of ourselves (as Romans 12 puts it) - not thinking too highly of ourselves, but neither thinking too lowly of ourselves. Again, being comfortable with who we are, who God has made us to be, not wanting to be something, or somebody we're not. Humility frees us from having to strive to be what we think society expects us to be.
So humility grows out of honest self-awareness and a healthy self-respect. Because only when we have this underlying confidence are we freed from the need to prove ourselves, to push ourselves forward.
And when we have that humility, we are free to be genuinely hospitable to others because we no longer need to use people for approval purposes. As Jesus says, we don't invite people as guests because they can do something for us. We act graciously towards all people, regardless of their ability to make our hospitality 'worth our while'.
A little girl once wrote a poem about her garbage man:
We have the nicest garbageman,
He empties out our garbage can;
He's just as nice as he can be,
He always stops and talks with me;
My mother doesn't like his smell,
But then, she doesn't know him well.
C.S. Lewis once put it this way: "Do not imagine that if you met a really humble man he will be what most people call 'humble' nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent person who took a real interest in what YOU said to HIM."
Hospitality was an important part of the early church's life, just as it had been in Jewish society. For instance, the meal Jesus attended in today's story would quite likely be held in a room open to the street so that uninvited townspeople could also hear the guest of honour speak. And if there was any food left over, it was simple courtesy to make it available for the poor who were looking on. Such hospitality was expected, though not enforced.
Hebrews reminds us that this hospitality is also a Christian virtue offered even to strangers. You can almost hear an echo of Jesus saying "don't just be hospitable to those who can repay you, be gracious also to those who cannot: to the stranger, the person just passing through, the homeless and the poor." True hospitality is gracious - it doesn't expect a return invitation!
There's a very special Greek word which appears here: xenos, the word that means "stranger". However, it also means "guest" and "host." There is a common English word that uses this same root: xeno-phobia, which means fear of the stranger. However, if we turn this word around and make a little change, you get the NT word for hospitality: philo - xenia, a love of the guest or stranger.
So we are called to treat even the stranger with the same humble respect we have found for ourselves. And in doing so, strangers can become friends.
Baptist Pastor John Simpson, suggested something very familiar to us all as an image for hospitality, and how it can become a central part of our life as a church. He suggested thinking of the church as a Campfire.
If you've ever been camping or bushwalking, or just sitting with friends at the beach at night, you'll know that a campfire creates memories of gathering for warmth, for rest and for mateship. Sitting around a campfire helps bond relationships. You tell stories, you sing songs, and as the evening wears on, and you spend more time just sitting around the fire, conversation becomes more honest and accepting.
Does this happen in our life as a church: providing a resting place for those who've become tired on life's journey; a place where fellow spiritual travellers can gather and tell their stories and find warmth and acceptance? Do we offer a place to sing songs and celebrate, and as we get to know each other, maybe cry together, and find protection.
And isn't this hospitality: not just inviting someone home for a meal, but hospitality as a way of life and ministry? And that means taking special care of the stranger - not just showing warmth to one another, but also to those who are new, or different, or simply don't feel part of the inner circle.
Have you ever been to church on holidays? …..
As professional as the service was, as much as people seemed to like each other, I felt like we were on the outside of the campfire. And that lack of hospitality spoke to me far more than anything positive the service may otherwise have offered.
But, to preserve our humility, we need to recognise that the same thing could happen here. Maybe not in exactly the same way. Probably there are other ways in which we are friendly to each other, without including others into our circle. I'd be disappointed if it did happen here, and surprised, but let's not think ourselves better than that other congregation. We too need to be careful to include others around the campfire.
Humility has been called an awareness of "same-worthiness". The person who is last on the list of popularity or success or intelligence or personality is as worthy as I am of recognition. And I am as worthy of recognition as the person at the head of the list. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves than we should - it is having a fair understanding of ourselves, and realising that we are of equal worth as everyone else. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. But for hospitality to happen, we do have to think of ourselves less, and invite others to sit around our campfire.