July 2, 2017

4th Sunday after Pentecost
‘TRUE AND GENUINE HOSPITALITY’

BIBLE READINGS
Genesis 22:1-14
Matthew 10:40-42

REFLECTION

The story in our reading today from the book of Genesis is a difficult story to listen to on so many levels. How could God ever order someone to sacrifice a human being, let alone one’s own son? How did Abraham and Sarah, his wife, feel when they heard about it?

I can only put myself into Abraham’s shoes. Having a son of my own now, I can imagine how it would feel to let my son be taken away from me. It would be heartbreaking to say the least. It would be something that I wouldn’t be able to get over with for the rest of my life.

There was even more at stakes in Isaac’s case. The book of Genesis tells us that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). That means he waited for ten decades of his life, almost all of one’s life in our time, to have Isaac. And a son, in those times, was not only someone to be cherished; but also someone who would inherit one’s wealth, one’s name, and one’s legacy on earth.

When he was born, both Abraham and Sara were so jubilant that they named him Isaac, which means laughter (see Genesis 21:5-7). But now they had to give away the one that had brought so much laughter into their life.

Now, this story about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son may sound rather barbaric for modern ears. But we need to understand that this is an ancient story told in ancient time when such practice of human sacrifice did exist in other nations around Israel. As such, it is no wonder that Abraham didn’t sound to be as morally troubled by the command as modern people like us would.

But, in the end, the story is not about sacrifice; it is about providence. God provides: that’s the name that Abraham gave to the place where he was supposed to sacrifice his own son; that’s the name that generations after him also called the place. God provides even at the most difficult circumstance; even in that dire moment when the only reason for one’s existence was at stake. This is the message that we can take with us today.

This is also the message that we can take as we move to our second reading today from the New Testament. In Jesus’ time, hospitality was not only about being nice to one another; it was a matter of survival. The people in Jesus’ time lived in arid land where finding and sharing water was key to their survival. As such, they developed strict social convention regarding offering hospitality to travelers in the region. Households were ‘obliged’ to offer food, water, shelter, even protection to travelers in the region, strangers or known. Failing to do this would be considered a dishonorable act.[1]

In the Western World, like Australia, we however often confuse hospitality with entertainment. We call for profit businesses like hotels and restaurants and cafeterias as hospitality businesses. People can get a degree in ‘hospitality’ in universities as if hospitality is something that we can teach in classes. But these things would be more suitably called entertainment than hospitality, at least in its strictest sense. Of course, there are many overlaps between the two, but hospitality means more than entertainment.

Hospitality means the opening up of our life to others. When we invite other people, stranger or known, into our private space, we share our life with them. As such, we become vulnerable just like them. When we are genuinely hospitable, we don’t only let our guests to come to our space and be bounded by our rules; often we, the hosts, also have to follow their rules. Hospitality is a two-way process.

For many people, being hospitable means taking a risk for their own safety. Those families who hid in their homes the Jews in WWII or the Tutsis during the genocide in Rwanda knew that they could lose their own lives by being hospitable. But we don’t need to go to war zones to find this kind of heroism. There are many households in Australia today who open their houses to refugees and homeless people. Others open their houses to care for foster children. These people too take risks to welcome strangers into their homes.

Indeed, hospitality is never a marginal topic in the Gospels; it is at the heart of the gospel that Jesus proclaimed. We are called to show hospitality especially to the poor, the weak, the voiceless, the least amongst us. Most of all, we are called to show hospitality to God. But the two cannot be separated: our hospitality to God is reflected in our hospitality to other human beings and creatures.

So, friends, our reading from the Old Testament attests that God provides. In our reading from the New Testament, Jesus helps us to understand that God provides when we show hospitality to one another in Jesus’ name. This must become one of the foundations of our lives as Jesus’ followers. As those who profess Jesus as Lord, we are to welcome other people as guests with open hands.

But a true welcome only happens when the people who welcome and the welcomed become vulnerable because they are sharing their lives genuinely and honestly. A true hospitality occurs when not only we change the people we welcome, but when we also are changed by those people we welcome. A true hospitality occurs when the guest is changed by the host, and the host is changed by the guest.

St. Paul’s Lutheran congregation in Shepparton, located around 200 km north of Melbourne, in Victoria, knows about what it means to be hospitable. Shepparton is a small town with around 30.000 people. St. Paul’s Lutheran congregation itself was a small congregation, averaging around 25 people on a good Sunday.

Their situation changed when families of refugees from Congo, Burundi, and Sudan in Africa were resettled in the town. For many of these people, church was the center of their lives. So, it isn’t a surprise that one of the families came to St. Paul’s congregation one Sunday. Gradually, they invited into the congregation more and more of the other families of refugees, many of whom had met one another in the refugee camps. As more families of refugees arrived in the small town, more families came to the congregation.

And the people in the congregation were up to the challenge. One person drove the church bus and a truck and he helped these new arrivals with transport, including with moving houses. Another person in the congregation helped the new families with their paper works. Another was a handyman and he helped fixing things in houses. The Pastor himself once went with his family to the Lutheran missionary work in Tanzania to learn more about the culture of the new families they are serving.

The congregation has now grown from 25 to 150 people on average on Sunday. They secured money to build a new church building and an African community hall next to it. Their service is a mixture of African songs and dances and traditional Lutheran service. Translation is available in Swahili for those with limited English. “There is no, you know, African and Australians here. There’s just one family,” said the Pastor.[2]

This Lutheran congregation in Shepperton has shown to us how to welcome God as our guest. When we welcome Jesus into our hearts and life, we are allowing him to touch and change our hearts and life. Indeed, we can only welcome him as a guest when we are ready to let our life be changed by his presence.

God indeed provides. God provides for these people from various nations in Africa who escaped war and persecution through the hospitality of their new Australian families. And in the process, both the hosts and the guests were changed as they journey together towards the future that God is creating.

That is the true meaning of hospitality and today we too are challenged to take similar bold step to offer our own hospitality as individuals and as community of God.

Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFusion - Pentecost 1 2017 p.64 (July 2, 2017)
[2] From a documentary titled, The Little Church that Grew, on http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/compass/RN1511H022S00 (transcript on http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s4490479.htm)