A Sermon on Romans 15:1-13 and Revelation 7:9-17
Tricia Dykers Koenig
Catonsville Regional Conference
March 9, 2013
Dusting. I hate dusting. And I resent it too – you dust, and it doesn’t stay dusted, you don’t even do anything to cause dust but before long you have to dust again. If you care, that is. I live alone most of the time, and I actually don’t care how much dust there is when it’s just me, but imagining anyone else entering my house calls immediate embarrassing attention to the spider webs and the unmistakable collection of fine-grained debris in the corners and the gray sheen over everything. It’s sad to admit it, but when I contemplate offering hospitality, dusting is the first thing that comes to mind. Eventually there’s a menu or three to plan, and the shopping and cooking, and there’s the couch with the broken springs that it doesn’t occur to me I could replace until past the last minute, and I might remember before it’s too late that the guests probably drink coffee, of which I have only ancient instant in a jar on the refrigerator door – but the big psychological stumbling block to the free exercise of hospitality, for my introverted though not anti-social self, is the dusting.
Hospitality takes effort. It disturbs the routine. I want to think that I am a hospitable person, I know it’s the right way to be – but making room for others is not normal mode for me. I like the idea of hospitality, but too often I lack the follow-through.
Hospitality disturbs the routine. Unless, of course, it is your routine. Oddly, when I finally do the dusting, it’s not that painful. It actually feels good to have it done. And if I would just dust on a regular basis, I would be ready to welcome people to my home anytime.
Why does this proposal seem so unlikely?
Now, I suppose I could have people over despite the dust – truth to tell, most probably don’t care all that much. Is my self-imposed insistence on visitor-induced cleaning in order to show respect to the guest – or is it to bolster my own ego, to protect against a reputation as a slob? Some of each, I suspect. And then you layer on laziness, reluctance to go out of my way, a bit of insecurity – Why haven’t I had the carpet cleaned? Geez, the carpet needs to be replaced! – and self-judgment, mental comparisons to the friends with classier art, or the lovely garden… I don’t have people over too often.
It’s not them I’m depriving, mostly. It’s myself.
Too much focus on myself. What if I invite people in, and they see how messy I am, how imperfect? I might have to drop my illusion that they don’t already know that. Or I might have to go out of my way to tidy up and create an environment that is comfortable for someone besides myself. But in my anxiety or complacency or inaction or all of the above, what I’m missing mostly is the joy – of the fellowship, of the deepened relationships, of the energizing conversations and the new ideas, of the memories we could create together. Of being known. Of being changed. Of the ways we might change the world together.
How much we miss when we wait to be clean enough, good enough, to let others in. Failure to extend hospitality often manifests as the presumption that we are somehow superior, unwilling to let outsiders track up our clean floors with their dirty footprints, or rearrange the furniture, because of course the furniture is perfectly arranged already – that we’re too good for them…. or possibly, threatened by them. But I wonder if the real root of our reluctance isn’t the opposite – that we’re afraid of being known, too self-absorbed and too insecure to open up, not comfortable enough with ourselves to provide comfort for others. Maybe it looks like self-protection or self-righteousness, or simple obliviousness to anything outside the environment we have engineered with ourselves in mind, but I sense that, instead, it’s shame about the state of our own house – our own soul – that keeps us from inviting others in.
In any presentation about the mission of the Covenant Network, you will hear about our two founding, and continuing goals – inclusiveness of LGBTQ persons, and church unity. Hospitality is the key to both. The church is especially called to extend hospitality to LGBTQ persons, intentionally and humbly, because of the church’s long-standing and well-known failures, of arrogant exclusion and sinful judgmentalism and cruelty that is thoughtless at best. The church of the dominant culture has a shameful legacy to overcome, and the very real progress has not gone anywhere near far enough. But from our perspective as progressives, we may have a comparable hospitality challenge when it comes to church unity. How do we welcome those who won’t welcome LGBTQ people? How do we include people who insist that our standing up for our values slaps them down? How do we extend hospitality to those whose understanding of hospitality doesn’t include us? How do we find middle ground with folks for whom compromise equals unfaithfulness?
Sadly, there are Presbyterians for whom our progress causes anguish. Sometimes I think that they find joy in finding fault and go out of their way to assume the most sinister intentions on our part, all the while oblivious to the harm their positions do to LGBTQ persons and others; I don’t know how to explain the vehemence with which they criticize, nor their apparent refusal to acknowledge the cruelty resulting from their position. But as much as I disagree with them, their pain is real. In what ways are we responsible to minister to them? How might we be accountable, even if our intentions are misunderstood and our motives impugned? One of the most stinging criticisms is the accusation that we have violated our own most deeply-held principles: “You have judged and excluded us!” they claim. We can never back down from our commitment to embrace those whom church and society have marginalized, nor do I equate the struggles of those whose ideas and assumptions are challenged with the struggles of those whose very being is under attack – but as we continue our work breaking down the barriers blocking LGBTQ persons from being included, we must take care that we don’t, however inadvertently, lead others to feel outcast instead. My friend Mieke Vandersall puts it this way:
Over the last several months I have, in some Spirit-driven way, found myself in conversations with those who I have worked directly against over the past decades, those who might call themselves “traditionalists,” or “conservatives.” In my conversations and growing relationships with them I have found my heart being opened to theirs. I have begun to acknowledge their own story which needs telling.
Paul in Romans has an exhortation for factions in the church, wrangling over who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out, judging one another too strict or too lax. Listen up, writes the Apostle: I have my convictions, but none of us is included here because we’re more wise, faithful, or discerning than anyone else. All of us are called to go out of our way to make a place for those we consider the other. Even if they are wrong. Stop focusing on your differences, real though they may be, and start focusing on God.
Beginning at 15:2:
Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor… May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And then the verse that I think might be the topic sentence for the whole Epistle, perhaps the key to Christian life, Romans 15:7:
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
We have, all of us, been welcomed by Christ, utterly and unconditionally, not because we deserve it but because God is Love and, in God’s will, nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Despite the accumulated grime in our lives. Even if we haven’t done the requisite dusting. Even if we are sloppy, lazy, misguided, or stubbornly wrong. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you – totally and unconditionally – for the glory of God.
Welcome, Christian hospitality, is not for one group to do for another – it’s profoundly mutual. We are not possessors of a home that we can choose to share or not to share – we are only home when we are together in Christ. We belong, not at the invitation of an in-group, but by God’s grace. We have been included so thoroughly that our “we” and “us” implies no “they” and “them.” I belong. You belong. Whoever you are. To Christ. Through Christ.
The Revelation to John proclaims a vision of the community of Christian hospitality, diversities united, a festival for all the senses:
Look, a countless multitude, from everywhere you can imagine, all clothed in bright robes washed clean in Christ.
Listen, they sing in harmony, praises to God – many languages, one song, the doxology incomplete unless every voice is contributing.
Taste, springs of living water, no more hunger or thirst, all needs met not through our righteous striving but in the salvation that belongs to God.
Feel God’s tender touch, wiping away every tear.
They have come through the worst, and they are with God – nothing can shake them. The multitudes aren’t checking each other’s credentials to make sure all participants are legitimate. When they look at one another, it’s to share their delight: Christ has welcomed me! How astonishing! I am incomplete without you! What a joy! But mostly they are focused on God. They aren’t arguing about the words to the song, or building a fence around the springs, or blaming each other for their tears. They are enjoying the pure gift of the presence of God – and the knowledge that the presence of God, if grace is real, means the presence of all who are gathered by grace.
The Revelation vision is aspirational, of course – the church does not embody the Reign of God, yet if ever. But knowing that our home is assured in God is the source of the power to live into the vision. Yes, I am unworthy, and I am accepted, no – more than accepted – treasured. Christ has welcomed me, faults and all; how can I presume the same is less true for you? I will look for the best in you, opponent or ally; I will implore you to bring out the best in me. Together we will listen for Christ’s word through one another, urging us toward what is best for God’s world, justice and righteousness and peace. If I have anything to teach you, it is how passionately you are cherished by God. If we have anything to remember, it’s how non-existent our standing to judge, how easy for us to go astray in self-deception, how necessary humility.
Kitty Ufford-Chase, who with her partner Rick is Co-Director of Stony Point Center, reflects on the ministry of hospitality:
Hosting our Stony Point neighbors whose homes were damaged by Super-Storm Sandy has caused me to think more deeply about our commitment to hospitality at Stony Point Center.
… over these past weeks I have come to understand that hospitality is really the foundational practice that undergirds peace and justice work. Hospitality in its deepest sense means “welcoming the other, or welcoming the stranger,” whether that comes in the form of another human being, a group, an idea, or a critique. This fundamental openness to learning about, understanding, and potentially being changed by the other is the foundational practice that leads to collaborative, effective efforts to strengthen peace, nonviolence and social justice.
It’s not our common viewpoints that allow unity, but the hope we have in Christ. I can’t change those with whom I disagree, and they can’t change me – can we both be open to God’s power to change us? Can we trust God enough that we can give up our anxiety about getting our house in order, our doctrines right, our propriety protected, our views predominant, and shift our energies toward convincing each other of our belovedness? When we’re embarrassed by each other, when we embarrass ourselves, when our own dust or someone else’s gets to be too much for us, it’s God’s faithfulness that we rely on. Clean up if you need to, it will probably make you feel better, and it’s better for the world too. But don’t wait till you’re all clean to welcome someone new in. Yes, you might have to go out of your way, you might have to move your stuff to make room for another child of God. It’s ok – what they bring in will delight your soul.
Genuine hospitality flows from the recognition that we essentially are not the inviters – we are the invitees. Let’s move over and make room so the party will be complete. The party we are invited to is a praise-fest, focused not on the guest list, but on the Host. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.