Hospitality in the Face of Fear

May 03, 2020
Luke 24:13-35

It is three Sundays after Easter; we are meant to be reading about Jesus the Good Shepherd. (And you can do that: John 10 and Psalm 23 are always there for you.) But I am circling back to last week’s lectionary text which we skipped over. I can’t seem to leave the resurrection stories behind, which feels strange since resurrection in the bible is something I struggle with. But in our current situation, the idea of someone being present but not quite there, it all makes a new kind of sense to me. In the breaking of bread, in the zooming of worship, somehow Christ is among us. Zoom fatigue? or Zoom enlightenment?

I love that Jesus is out for a walk, (is he in disguise?) walking away from Jerusalem and the trauma, and he meets these two disciples, who we have never met before in any of the gospels. And they have names, well, one has a name. Cleopas – means “glory to the father,” the feminine is Cleopatra. The name points in the direction of glory, but the distress of these disciples points elsewhere. They are fearful and overwhelmed and have only one thing on their minds.

That is how it is when you are in shock and in grief, there is not much glory. You can’t make sense of things. Your capacity for more complex connections feels limited. The stress affects your memory and you get a kind of tunnel vision. You think only about your own situation. For a moment these two step out of themselves long enough to invite this stranger to walk with them; maybe it is only so they can process their grief with someone new. All they can talk about is the cruel and traumatic loss of their friend and leader, Jesus, and then the disappearance of his body.

The stranger listens and then begins to teach them – from their own scriptural tradition. Perhaps it is an attempt to point them back to themselves, to their calling as glorifiers. Then the stranger goes further by expanding their holy tradition – just like Jesus used to do. They are amazed and intrigued. For a few moments their memories clear. They remember – that when you are traveling with someone and it is evening, you show hospitality. If they know anything from their own scriptural traditions, it is this. So they invite the stranger to stay with them, to eat with them.

They are still grief-stricken and confused and terrorized by the idea of crucifixion. And – when they sit down to eat and the stranger blesses the bread and breaks it, something shifts. Suddenly what was strange becomes familiar. And the stranger is familiar. For an instant, the grief and confusion are gone and they see clearly; they see Jesus.

And then it is over, he is gone. Just like at the transfiguration, just like in the gospel of John’s resurrection accounts, the magnificent mystery doesn’t last more than a moment. They are left only with this strange experience – and excitement.

There is more to the rest of the chapter, some details that would be intriguing to explore, even quibble with. I will leave those for another time. If you are interested, I would be glad to quibble together. Just be in touch.

What I am drawn to today is the question of hospitality in a time of fear and grief and danger. How is it that these two are willing to risk inviting the stranger to have dinner with them, to stay with them? Admittedly the danger they fear is different from what we are experiencing. And – they take seriously the teachings of Moses and the call from the prophets to welcome the stranger. (Deut 10, 16, Ex 22, 23, Num 15, Is 14, 60, 61, Jer 7…)

The instruction to welcome the stranger is complicated, not just in the time of COVID-19. It is complicated in Moses’ time, in the time of the prophets, in the time of Jesus, in the time of the apostles. Welcoming the stranger is complicated in the time of the underground railroad, in the time of the holocaust, in the time of Sanctuary, in the time of AirBNB. There is never an easy time to welcome the stranger. We might balance the welcome with another image, putting on our own mask first, whether for oxygen or protection against COVID.

And – when we take the risk to welcome the stranger, we also open ourselves to the possibility that we will entertain angels (Heb 13) or even serve the wounded Christ.

We are a congregation that often uses hospitality as a lens through which we see our work and faith. For over 50 years we have helped run the International Guest House. For over 40 years we have sponsored Jubilee as it provides services for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Welcome to LGBTQ folks (who are not strange or strangers) got us in trouble in the early 2000s but it did not stop us. Our commitment to hospitality would not be deterred.

But this Coronavirus is a whole other kind of trouble.

It seems unlikely that we will host the Warm Nights shelter again anytime soon. Monthly fellowship meals are an idyllic dream. And the International Guest House is dealing with the reality that their “business model” of hostel-like facilities, where guests share bedrooms and restrooms, is no longer viable. Sadly, the board is making plans to close the Guest House in the coming months… I hear your collective gasp, even on mute.

What does hospitality mean when what we have always done seems impossible? How do we live out our faith commitment to welcome the stranger, to welcome the neighbor, to welcome each other, when we can only break bread at a distance. Who makes bread that large, that long?

We are living into a reality in which we may not be able to share bread or songs in person together for quite a while yet. I grieve that loss every day, every week; I imagine you do too. It is right to mourn this loss. And as we grieve I pray we will begin to see, through our tears, new ways to offer hospitality, new ways to serve, new ways to live out our faith.

We will have to get creative. We may need to find new partners, new ideas, new visions for what hospitality looks like in the time of COVID.

  • We can’t host the Warm Nights shelter but we are invited to bring food to the church house porch to be distributed to women coming out of incarceration.
  • We can’t host ESL baking classes in the building but we did offer the church parking lot as a gathering place for the TPS alliance to begin their advocacy car caravan on Friday.
  • We hope to welcome an asylum seeker out of detention soon. She will not be able to immediately move into the planned apartment, perhaps she will do her required two week quarantine in the church house while all the staff continue to work from home.
  • We can’t meet for meals but women have started to gather around Sophia’s Table via zoom. Small groups are meeting – via zoom. Twice weekly folks meet for contemplative prayer – via zoom.
  • I was delighted to hear that Janelle and Frank are thinking in new ways about how they will soon share the joy of their baby with others, in the back yard, through a window.

There are so many things we cannot do these days but I hope we can risk imagining new versions of hospitality. Perhaps we are already living our way into new forms of hospitality. Grief and hope all at once.

A stranger walks with the disciples in their loss and grief. They take the risk to invite him to dinner, and they meet the living, breathing Christ. I wonder who we will meet as we reimagine hospitality.