Hospitality and HumilityPentecost
I keep finding powerful examples of our scripture lessons in the mystery stories I’ve been reading. The main character Peter, came to the scene I will share, was able to put aside his agenda of self-interest and recognize deep levels of human need.
Peter had searched for Professor Norman, to confront him about his ill-treatment of his wife Clara’s artistic ability. Afterward, Peter’s friends wanted to know if he had confronted his enemy, Professor Norman. Their conversation follows. Peter begins, “When I arrived, it was clear Norman was very sick… He was dying and alone.”
“Did you confront him?”, asked the friends.
“No, the place was a mess, so I thought I’d clean it up first. After that, I’d let him have it. But then I realized he hadn’t eaten in a while, so I bought some food and I cooked it.”
“Did you tell him after that?”, the friend persisted.
“No, his clothes and bedding were filthy, so I took them to the laundromat in town and washed them.” The friend stopped asking and was now listening.
Peter took a deep breath, “His clothes and linens were clean then, but he hadn’t had a bath in days. He was too weak. So, I bathed him. I poured a bath and put him in rosewater and lavender and a little essence of lily.”
Peter smiled, “I might have overdone it. I picked him up and put him in the bath and washed him. It smelled like our garden [at home]. I stayed on to look after him.”
In essence, Peter was trying to restore his own reputation in the eyes of his wife Clara. Peter came ready to accuse and attack his former professor. He dropped all that agenda because what was in front of him was the sickly man, who indeed had done him wrong. Today’s scriptures teach us to do as Peter did, to show hospitality with humility.
The chapter we read, at the end of Hebrews, reminds me of letters I used to get from my mom. In the last paragraph, she would throw in things she wanted me to remember– your aunt Ennis is having surgery, don’t forget to renew your insurance. Paul uses this last chapter of what the Jewish Christians’ history has taught them.
Paul is telling Christians to let brotherly love continue. “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Paul reframes what they are to do. The word “remember” in the Jewish tradition meant to remember their history, remember their pain, remember the times they had failed, and remember the times God had been present with them. Remembrance is deeply set in their consciousness. These last verses illustrate how they were to let brotherly love continue. The examples are extreme situations that neither they nor we can fix. His instructions are two-fold, take thought of the person’s condition and put yourselves in their place. Move toward the person and their needs first.
How does Peter and Clara’s story illustrate the lesson from Hebrews? Peter wanted to confront Professor Norman, so his wife Clara would recognize his efforts on her behalf. Repeatedly Peter is asked, did you confront him, and he replies, I did this instead. Peter was angry and he saw Professor Norman as the enemy.
Instead, Peter is caught between this man’s incredible need and his own unacknowledged failures. As Peter is immersed in his human condition, Peter saw the professor as a man like him; a man who wasn’t taking care of himself, who was a victim of his circumstance. Peter loved Clara but that didn’t stop him from trying to destroy her art just as the professor had done and destroying their marriage. Peter wanted to be important again in Clara’s life.
That is what I see Jesus saying in Luke, about how we view our own importance. The second part of the story is where Jesus talks to the host. He says, when you give a banquet do not invite your friends, relatives, or rich neighbours so they will invite you in return. Instead invite the poor, the crippled, and the blind and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. We do not offer hospitality only when we are comfortable and for your own gain. Jesus is inviting us to welcome those we feel don’t “deserve” our effort; those who may not reciprocate our kindness.
How do we put ourselves in the place of others, those imprisoned and tortured in contemporary contexts? How do we treat persons with that kind of humanness? How do we treat people with whom we disagree, those we fear, and misunderstand?
Frederick Buechner whose death we marked this last week, speaks to our questions. He writes that we “play games whose object it is to keep us from seeing each other’s cards. Chit-chat games in which “How are you?” means “Don’t tell me who you are,” and “I’m alone and scared” becomes “Fine thanks.” Games where the players create the illusion of being in the same room but where the reality of it is that each is alone inside a skin in that room…
After all these years of playing games whose purpose it is to keep us at arm’s length from one another, to hide from each other our nakedness and our humanity, we turn at last to games no less pathetic and foolish in their ways but whose purpose is nonetheless to help us meet without disguise, to touch without embarrassment, to be human without fear.
Such is the challenge in today’s scriptures, to put aside our agendas of self-interest and recognize deep levels of human need.