A reflection on the readings for Proper 17C: Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14, St. James the Less, Northfield, IL
Some 27 years ago, when I was working in dance and theater, I had my first experience with sushi. During that time I worked for a small non-profit dance theater company in Chicago. I had colleagues from New York City who came to the theater several times a year for performances. Of course it was also common for us to go out after the show for a meal. On one of those trips we went to a local Sushi restaurant on Clark Street called, Happi Sushi. Now, I had never had sushi before, it was after all the early 1980’s and sushi was relatively new for this area, but I was willing to try it. I let my colleagues order the fish and then, with great enthusiasm, dove in.
As you know the required side dishes for proper sushi eating include: soy sauce for dipping the sushi, marinated ginger root for cleansing the palate between pieces of sushi, and this green garnish that looked to me like mashed avocado. Assuming it was avocado I enthusiastically dipped my piece of sushi into the soy sauce and then into the ground avocado, and popped it into my mouth. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the green stuff was not avocado but horseradish. Japanese horseradish, and very strong. There I sat with a mouth full of fish and horseradish strong enough to make my eyes water, a heat slowly seeping up my face, thoroughly clearing my sinuses and probably cooking the fish in the process.
Among other ideas, there are two virtues our scripture readings point us to consider this morning. One is hospitality, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” offers the Letter to the Hebrews. And the other is humility, Jesus reminds us, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.". Of these, humility is perhaps the most challenging because we think that humility is about being uncomfortable and passive. Like me stifling my reaction to the wasabi because I didn’t want my NY friends to know that I had mistaken it for avocado.
At the root of humility is the Greek word humus. Earth. This earth, which God made and called good is our humus, the origin of our humility. Jan Richardson who writes on the “Painted Prayerbook blog” says, “ Humility is our fundamental recognition that we each draw our life and breath from the same source,” from the God who made us and all creation, and loves us.
Roberta Bondi points out in her book To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church that “humility did not mean for them [the early church folk] a continuous cringing, cultivating a low self-image, and taking a perverse pleasure in being always forgotten, unnoticed, or taken for granted. Instead, humility meant to them a way of seeing other people as being as valuable in God’s eyes as ourselves. It was for them a relational term having to do precisely with learning to value others, whoever they were. It had to do with developing the kind of empathy with the weaknesses of others that made it impossible to judge others out of our own self-righteousness.” (also from Jan Richardson’s blog).
So hospitality is about caring for the stranger, caring for those who challenge us and humility is about seeing others a God sees them, as part of God’s beloved creation. Hospitality and humility are intertwined.
Which reminds me of the underlying pretext for a recent conference that I helped plan and staff. It took place in Chicago in early August and was sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The NCC has several working groups tackling issues that are prominent in the lives of worshiping communities across the spectrum of Christianity in this day and time. The group I work with is intentionally considering language, the words, images and symbols we use to talk about ourselves, other human beings, and God. The conversation we had included people from many different Christian denominations, and different ethnicity's and cultures. We began our time together with each of us sharing a short three minute story about a time when language, words, images, symbols, impacted us, our understanding of others, our understanding of God and how that shaped our faith lives and or the faith lives of our worship community.
My reflection was on bread. In part because as a member of the planning team I helped organize our worship for this event, which was no easy feat given that we all came from different ways of worship. Being an Episcopalian I am naturally drawn to the Eucharist as a way to bring us all together into one Body sharing the bread and the wine. But we were unable to share a Eucharistic meal, given our differences, so instead of communion we planned a love feast. This is a very silly sounding name for what became a wonderful expression of hospitality and humility as we gave thanks for our time together, for the deep listening that took place, and for the bread that brought us to a common table.
The bread I made is intended to represent diversity too. I made a gluten free loaf that is white and crumbly, a white/whole wheat blend that is caramel colored and slightly sweet, a whole wheat that is a warm brown, and a rye/bulgur blend that is dark and earthy. Our final worship will have breads of different flavors, colors, and textures. The bread will not be consecrated with the words that, in some traditions, my own included, make it holy, make it the Body of Christ. But the bread holds the prayers I prayed while making it, prayers for a grace filled conversation....”
A friend of mine recently wrote about an experience at the altar at a monastery where she had gone for a few days of reflection. She was told that at the time of communion, not being of that denomination, she was welcome to come forward for a blessing but she could not receive the bread and the wine. She said that she while she did that, she has no memory of the blessing because of the pain she felt from being excluded.
Humility and hospitality are bedrock to our Christian understanding of who we are and what we are to be about as we live and practice our faith. Learning about, becoming sensitive to, and having conversations about the ways in which our “normal” practices may in fact be a source of exclusion and pain for another is part of our calling to entertain strangers as if they were angels.
I have been with you for three weeks and have found you to be a warm, generous, people with a genuine sense of hospitality. Now you are about to embark on a year or so of transition ministry, a time when you will be invited to have conversations about who you are, how you express your hospitality and humility, how you entertain angels and care for one another, friend and stranger alike. I suspect you will continue to deepen your awareness of who you are and who God is calling you to be. Listen to one another with open hearts, listening for God speaking in and through each other. And in so doing, as our Psalm today reminds us, God will “feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock (God) would satisfy you.” May your journey this next year be blessed, fruitful, and filled with a hospitality that will humble you in all the best of ways.