Of Hospitality and Humility

I was speaking to a group last week about humilty in the Christian tradtion and pulled out the following address from nearly four years ago.......

Of Hospitality and Humility: Adrian Pyle - January 15, 2006

A reflection on 1 Corinthians 6; 12-20 and John 1:43-51

It's hot. It is very, very hot! It's late afternoon but still it's thirty-seven degrees in the shade - and the last shade was back at Culgoa when you stopped for a drink. There's no shade now but the tyre on the Mercedes is shredded and it needs to be changed. You sweat and strain on the dusty roadside, battling flies and traffic that passes by too-close-for-comfort until you get the temporary spare fitted. And flies and speeding semis haven't been the only menace here. The tyre didn't want to cooperate at first and though you did ingenious things with a shifting spanner, it's getting late now.

You finally pull the car back on to the road and check the map as you accelerate. "Sea Lake is only thirteen kilometres up the road. I'll stop there for the night," you think to yourself, "Can't drive too far on this spare. I'll re-evaluate my options in the morning." The dusk lights of Sea Lake are more welcoming than you'd ever expected them to be. But initial jubilation at reaching a town soon turns to panic. A sign on the only motel clearly proclaims "no vacancy." Stifling a yell of frustration you turn for the town pub. "Perhaps they'll have some rooms."

The publican's greeting is laconic but there is a cheerfulness in it that lifts your spirits some. You tell him your story of woe. Then comes the news you don't want to hear.

"We've got a few rooms but all of the main ones are taken. There's a wedding in town." But before absolute despair can set in he goes on. "But we've got a small room in the main residence. The furniture is old and it's small but it's clean and comfortable. If you're prepared to wait a while we can make up the bed and get it ready."

"Yes." you say in jubilation.

"Well look," says the publican, "have a beer - on the house, you need it - and I'll see what I can arrange. Oh, by the way. If you get that wheel out of your boot and put it on the back of my ute, I'll run it up to the servo in the morning. The garage is shut tomorrow but I know the owner and under the circumstances he'll see what he can do. It won't be as cheap as in the city, but it will get you mobile."

Under other circumstances you would never have stayed in a place like this. But that night you eat hearty meal, share some of your life story and hear a few others' life stories too and you make some new friends. And anywhere you go in the future you tell the story about that great little pub in Sea Lake.

We don't need a story from 2000 years ago to sense the scriptural significance of hospitality. The jewel that is hospitality can exist today anywhere we go. Sometimes it turns up in the most surprising places. It does not seem bound by time or place but I call it a jewel because real hospitality seems to be rare. And it seems it was rare too, 2000 years ago in Corinth.

In the Epistle reading this morning, Paul's conversation with the Corinthians turns to sex - a subject guaranteed to generate interest. But is Paul just delivering a moralizing message to the masses? He might be. But it might be more subtle than that. It might be about hospitality. Perhaps Paul has used sex as a hook to address a bigger issue. In fact, Paul seems to be addressing the question of divided loyalties, putting the service of ourselves ahead of the generation of love by uplifting others. Perhaps the most telling statement in this regard is the last one we read this morning; "For you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body." So Paul is not necessarily offering a rote prohibition of sex - of any kind - so much as he is willing the Corinthians to use their bodies to glorify God, to be a vessel of love, to be a means of spiritual growth for others.

The divided loyalties come when we take self-serving action - whether it be in sex or learning or play or business - and consequently put ourselves ahead of love, ahead of God. Hospitality is the antithesis of this. Perhaps a test of true hospitality then is in the actions we take to serve others without fully understanding what we will get back. We take these actions without any certainty of a payoff. And so every act of true hospitality is radical, counter-cultural, even irrational. In a world of beans counted and quid-pro-quo, true hospitality is a place where we risk receiving nothing in return. Yet, mysteriously, something always does seem to come back to us - if we're prepared to see it.

It's interesting that we've adopted the term hospitality as a blanket term for the tourism and food services industries and parts of the entertainment industry. This tends to limit the term to a set of ‘fee for service' transactions. But despite this narrowing of the definition, people, it seems, still look for more - like there is yearning for the broader, deeper meaning of true hospitality. Kerry Packer's recent death has led to the recounting of the numerous stories about the man. Some focus on his gruffness in the use of power. Some no doubt are apocryphal. But some shine a light on acts of selfless service towards Packer, typically with a surprising payoff. Again, we'll never know for sure if they are true but they make great parables - stories to exemplify the mystery of this thing called hospitality. Stories such as the time when a polo game ended in the English countryside and Packer asked the team to follow him for some refreshments. It was closing time at the first pub they came to and the innkeeper told them the kitchen was closed and there was nothing he could do. Similarly the second pub was closing but the innkeeper offered his own services to whip us some sandwiches and a few rounds of drinks, if the party could wait a while. At the end of the evening the innkeeper totalled the bill at 150 pounds and gave it to the media magnate. The media magnate though wrote out a cheque for the 100,150 pounds. It was all for the innkeeper to keep, said Packer, as long he went back to the first pub and showed the first innkeeper what he had missed out on. Interestingly on our recent trip to New Zealand Heather and I noticed the phenomenon of real hospitality making a positive contrast to regular service. Many establishments just operated ‘by the rule of quid pro-quo' swapping service for money. A very few participated in the mystery of hospitality, going a few extra steps in serving us without the guarantee of extra return. Each is on our list to suggest to others as ‘must visit' places.

But true hospitality is of course not just about meals and drinks and beds. It should occupy a place in all of our endeavours. Certainly at St David's it must occupy an important place in our church life. After all, our congregation's purpose holds as a starting point to Offer a Supportive Community, an affirming presence and what we have in mind, when we say that, is true hospitality. For in order to go on and help people to learn, to grow spiritually and to participate in outreach themselves (as the other parts of our purpose suggest) those who come here must feel a strong sense of welcome, a strong sense of acceptance, a strong sense that whoever they are, we want to extend something to them for which we are not seeking any return.

In many ways we do this well. But there are many ways we can do it better. And doing it really well, I suggest, will take a new sense of humility. Humility in this sense is not an act of blind submission. It is a willingness to empty ourselves of definitive pre-conceptions and dogmatic mindsets. It is the opening love stanza in the dance of hospitality. It says "I respect that my way may not be the only way. I will listen to your way too and we will learn from each other." Consequently it is the first step of welcome and of the chance to be of service to another.

Our Gospel reading for today demonstrates the difficulty of letting go of an entrenched mindset. Jesus is gathering his disciples into community. The new disciple Nathanael - a man in whom there is a sense of rectitude, of rule book stiffness - assesses Jesus importance on the basis of a purported minor miracle that Jesus does. Seeing the miracle he calls Jesus "the Son of God, ...the King of Israel!" Yet is Jesus ministry really about miracles and grand titles and prophecy fulfilled in this sense? Is it about "who Jesus is?" OR is it about "what Jesus did," and what through his example he keeps doing? This is only one of numerous scriptural occasions where pre-conceived notions prevent a broader awareness, amongst disciples and others. Yet as New Zealand theologian John Bluck puts it,

God's truth has a habit of being packaged in dislocating and disconcerting ways. Someone we think is blind sees things we can't; someone we thought was dumb hears things we ought to hear, something we treated as ugly turns out to be beautiful.[1]

What Jesus did, in his humility, was risk seeing and risk hearing and risk sensing the beauty. In humility, in letting go of the things that bind us into a dogmatic mindset, we can do the same.

Our path to real hospitality, radical hospitality, counter-cultural hospitality in this place requires us to risk humility. For when a new person peers into our midst and says "I've got a new idea." "I've got a creative thought." or "I'd like to try this." we can then say "With love as our guide, you're welcome to explore that with us here." As Canadian Jesus researcher David Galston puts it,

...We simply have to learn to admit and understand that we are all human. No one knows the answer. There is no correct way to follow the teaching of ... Jesus and no correct way to do church with ... Jesus. ....The philosopher James Carse once said that there are no rules to make us obey the rules. What he was trying to do in that statement was get us behind the surface of our habits and norms to see that there really is no foundation to life at all. Once we see the empty space, if we can, we also see radical freedom. With freedom, and I mean not....freedom as ideology but human freedom as emptiness, comes awakening..... Jesus, taken seriously is the permission to break the habit of Christianity. So go forward and be habit breaking.[2]

Each week, in this place, are activities that encourage us to seek the empty space, find the freedom, break the habit. Then, rather than being anxious about losing our old dogmas, we can be at peace in our diversity of thought and know that we are closer than we have ever been, to living like Jesus....to living with real hospitality.


[1] Bluck, J. The Giveaway God (2001) WCC Publications, Geneva, p32

[2] Galston, D. Postmodernism, the Historical Jesus, and the Church in The Fourth R, September/October 2005.

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