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The practice of vulnerable hospitality…

April 18, 2010

Easter 3C
Acts 9:1-20; Rev 5:11-14

Bunny works at the Laundromat across the street.  The Laundromat that you go to when the water in your well is running low.  The Laundromat where she sometimes helps you with the sheets for a dollar a pound.  The Laundromat where you stand around talking as you watch the clothes go round and round in the dryers.  This is how you learned that Bunny put up the posters with the face of a beat-up woman on them, right above the telephone number of a shelter for women fleeing physical abuse.  She knows all about that, she says. 

Bunny lets other people put up posters too, but only if the signs are in Spanish as well as English.  She says one regular customer calls every week to ask “when the Mexicans will be there” because they “make her uncomfortable.” 

“I know it’s mean,” Bunny says, “but the man who comes with her has one leg and I thought about telling her that it makes people uncomfortable for him to be in here with one leg.  When she calls now I just tell her that the Mexicans are here all the time.”  Bunny knows a thing or two about vulnerable hospitality. 

A story of vulnerable hospitality…

Ananias did too.  The story begins when a man burst into his room in the middle of the night…  It was the guy for whom the stone had been rolled away…  It was Jesus and he had a vision every bit as radical as welcoming Mexicans into Laundromats.  The vision involved Ananias going to Saul of Tarsus.  The same Saul who as rumor had it was last seen collecting coats at the stoning of Stephen.  The same Saul who was ravaging the church…entering house after house…dragging off both men and women to prison.  That’s the last time Ananias would sign up to be host and hostess at church!

Ananias has a question or two.  “Lord, I’ve heard rumors about this man.  He’s done some bad stuff to your saints in Jerusalem.”  Lord, are you sure you want me to invite him to the table?

Practicing vulnerable hospitality is risky.  It means you are willing to set aside what you have heard about other people.  It means you are willing to receive persons—despite their outward appearance, despite their theology or political affiliation, despite the nasty way they treat people like you.    

Resurrection has changed the Story for Ananias.  He is living as a disciple, learning what it means to make room for all kinds of folks at the table with Jesus.  Jesus assures Ananias that he will work with Saul’s baggage.  There will be sifting, Saul will suffer for the sake of Jesus.  This work is Jesus’ work.  Ananias is free to practice vulnerable hospitality without fear.  Fear that wonders what others will think if we welcome “someone like that.”  Fear that people will think we have gone to “the other side.”  Fear of being judged for going down the slippery slope.

The Good News part of this Story…

What is the Good News in our text this morning?  The Good News is that Jesus even loves hate-filled fundamentalists.  Jesus even welcomes violent religious types to the table.  Jesus meets us when we are full of hateful rhetoric and violence against outsiders.  Jesus meets us even when we are convinced of our righteous cause, our insider faith heritage, our blamelessness.  Saul says: You think you are worthy, I’ll see your Mennonite game…your white-privilege middle class Christianity and raise you.  You can read Phil. 3:3-6 for his reasons. 

Why was Saul so upset?  Saul was upset because he despised this movement that is hijacking the tradition of Israel around the radical teachings of Jesus. He despises the practice of vulnerable hospitality with outsiders.  Saul is not willing to let go of the tribal story to make room for Jesus, who was extending the table to all kinds of folks.  The politics of the cross and resurrection don’t fit with Saul’s politics of temple aligned with the power of Caesar.

Saul is all about making sure the tradition of Israel stays pure.  So he is on his way to Damascus to get rid of more heretics—just like they got rid of Stephen.  He is heading down the road, listening to talk radio, when Jesus comes to him.  Jesus comes to him and says, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me

I don’t know for sure when it was that Saul got saved, but I have a hunch that his life began to change when he saw that ravaging the Church was an attack on Jesus himself.  Perhaps his life began to change when Jesus helped him see that hateful rhetoric and violence towards others does not represent the God of Israel who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Whatever happened for Saul in this vision of Jesus, we know this—it produced a radical change in his life. 

First of all it produced a physical change.  Perhaps his physical blindness was a necessary step in recovery.  Saul needed to let go of his own certainty that he saw things rightly.  Perhaps he just needed to be in a place of total vulnerability, so he could let go of his sense of self-righteous power, his sense of responsibility to judge others…to preserve the tradition of Israel.  Along with losing his sight, Saul gives up eating for several days.  When you are in detox, it’s good to fast.  Fasting helps purge our lives of all the junk that has been messing up our system and our vision in the first place. 

The second change we see in Saul’s life after he meets Jesus is that he is willing to enter relationship with the Other.  The Other for Saul begins with the very men and women he has been persecuting.  How will they receive him?  Yet, he trusts that the same Jesus who met him on the road will go with him. 

Resurrection Community…

Do you remember what Bunny said to the woman who didn’t want to come to the Laundromat when the Mexicans were there?  She said that the Mexicans are here all the time.  Was she being honest?  I think she was.  I think she was because Bunny did not see the world through an us/them lens.  She did not sort people into insider/outsider categories…folks like us and those Mexicans.  As far as Bunny was concerned when you were with her, you were with a Mexican. 

Ananias was a part of a resurrection community that no longer saw men and women through the lens of insider/outsider…acceptable/unacceptable.  So when Ananias got word that Saul was coming to the table, he ultimately trusted that Jesus knew what he was doing.  Ananias goes to the house where Saul is staying and offers the embrace of fellowship: “Welcome to the table Brother Saul!” 

What kind of community is able to transcend social, economic, and political differences?  What kind of community is able to embody a vulnerable hospitality that welcomes all whom Jesus invites to the table? 

It is a community that worships the crucified Lamb who sits on the throne.  The Lamb who knows that the way of Love triumphs over the way of Hate.  The Lamb who knows that the politics of the cross triumph over the politics of empire.  It is the community that let’s go of the responsibility to control the outcome of history through power and violence.  It is the community willing to live as if the way of the cross is not foolishness.  This is the picture we see in Revelation 5.  This is the community that Saul enters when he lays down his sword and picks up his cross. 

When Saul enters this community and receives the ministry of Jesus through Ananias, he recovers his sight again, but his vision will never be the same.  He gets up and is baptized, because that is what you do when you want to be a part of the resurrection community that is worshipping the slain Lamb who is worthy.  Joining this community requires dying to the old self that wants to be in control.  Baptism is the way we mark this death in the Church from Acts up to the present day.   

The worshipping community in Revelation 5 is the same community we enter through our baptism.  It is the same community that at Pentecost practices vulnerable hospitality with Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia…Cretans and Arabs…Jews and converts to Judaism…

Through our baptism we enter the worshipping community that practices vulnerable hospitality with men and women, repentant synagogue priests, Ethiopian eunuchs, businesswomen from Joppa, Roman military officers…and self-righteous bigots…

Whether we are a worshipping community that has whispered down the lane the apostolic tradition for 2,000 years…  Whether we are a worshipping community that claims a Spirit led recovery of radical faith and discipleship in the 16th century or whether we are just 21st century individuals picking and choosing from the religious marketplace…  Jesus calls us to practice vulnerable hospitality.

Whether we stand alone on the Word of God the B-I-B-L-E…  or whether we are Spirit-led Christians… Jesus calls us to practice vulnerable hospitality. 

While we may know where the Church is, we do not know where the Church is not…so we practice vulnerable hospitality with each other.  We practice vulnerable hospitality because we don’t know who Jesus has met on the road.  We don’t know who Jesus is sending our way.

How are we being called to practice vulnerable hospitality?

The other week we traveled to Souderton to celebrate the 90th birthday of my Grandma Ehst.  The day of the celebration was not her actual birthday, but it was the wedding anniversary of my grandparents–67 years.  When you are married for 67 years, you know a thing or two about vulnerable hospitality toward your spouse. 

Stories were shared about the special way Grandma Ehst has of welcoming others and making them feel important no matter who they are.  Even when hobos showed up on the farm, she welcomed them at the big farmhouse kitchen table where there was always plenty to eat.  Now, even as the strength of her body diminishes, she still practices vulnerable hospitality.  It is a hospitality of spirit expressed even on a routine trip to the pharmacy or to the grocery store.  Grandma finds someone to be friendly with.  Her open friendliness and willingness to reach out in conversation to others is an expression of God’s love. 

When we practice vulnerable hospitality, we (like Bunny and my Grandma Ehst) icon the vulnerable hospitality of Jesus who on the cross opens his arms to every single human being.  We, like Ananias, make it possible for Jesus to bring surprising guests to the table.    

May the same Jesus who empowered Ananias to receive Saul, grace us with the courage to practice vulnerable hospitality.  AMEN.

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