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I’m going to suggest something crazy: what if God’s call for his people – for us – is to create lives and communities of hospitality? From the time of creation, through the covenant with Abraham, to the sending of the Spirit: all of these pivotal moments in the story of God’s People has had to do with responding to God’s invitation to be part of God’s own self and to join God in his work. What does this look like? Well, Rev. Marjorie Thompson says,
“The essence of hospitality is receiving the other, from the heart, into my own dwelling place. It entails providing for the need, [the] comfort, and [the] delight of the other with all the openness, respect, freedom, tenderness, and joy that love itself embodies.”
Based on today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis 18, I see hospitality as three things: as paying attention, as responding to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, and as giving of yourself – your space, your time, your home, and most importantly your love. This is the story of Abraham and the Three Visitors at the Oaks of Mamre. This passage is called the “Hospitality of Abraham” and it’s an incredible story of God himself – God as three strangers – showing up. Verse 1 says,
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”
By this chapter in Genesis, Abraham has a history of responding to God’s prompting, having made a covenant with God and willingly taken his son Isaac to be sacrificed. God knew Abraham would be paying attention, and so God himself showed up. Abraham notices the strangers and felt the prompting to invite them to his home. He responds by giving of himself, asking to serve them. This hospitality wasn’t a hand-out, it was a loving invitation to spend the day getting to know these strangers and serving them. Abraham’s invitation included choosing a choice calf, having it slaughtered and prepared for a meal, asking Sarah to bake bread (which takes hours alone), and conversing with his guests. The beauty of the invitation is that Abraham is served by his visitors: the Lord said to Abraham in verse 14: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Because Abraham was paying attention, responds, and gives of himself, he receives this precious message directly from God. God initiated the process, Abraham responds, and God continues his work. Because of Abraham’s hospitality, we are a part of God’s chosen people – a people chosen to show God’s hospitality.
The Hospitality of Abraham is depicted in this icon of the Trinity. Now, if you’re like me and you’re unsure about icons or just plain unfamiliar with them, fear not! One of my favorite resources, the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook describes them this way:
Icons are not a work of art that people worship – they are a sort of visual shorthand for what matters most. This visual language is not drawn or painted, it is “written” for it communicates unchanging truth about spiritual realities.
The spiritual reality being depicted here is the hospitality of the Trinity and the invitation of God to join him at the table.
In the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham we see the three “strangers” depicted as the three members of the Trinity. While every member’s clothing contains similarities in the blue coloring signifying their deity, there is also a unique element to each person’s garb. The Son (in the center) has a dark brown garment which correlates with his earthly existence along with a gold sash symbolic of his royal priesthood. The Spirit (on the right) is clothed in grassy green, the color of new life and growth. The Father’s garb is largely gold referencing his place in heaven. In the tilt of the shoulders, the position of the feet, and the angle of their heads, we see the mutual dynamic of love and respect shared between these three sitting down to a meal. In the foreground, we notice a not-so-subtle opening at the table. It is to this seat which God invites each of us. There is not a hierarchy nor a prerequisite to joining into this sacred setting. As the Trinity shows hospitality within himself, so God invites us to be a part of his hospitality and to invite others with the same hospitality we have received.
One of my favorite spiritual authors, Henri Nouwen, says this about this icon of the Trinity:
The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.
As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…
We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love.
When I say the word “hospitality” your minds are probably turning with your own definitions of what that looks like. Maybe you think of hospitality as creating elaborate meals and making sure your houses are spotless. Perhaps you get excited at the thought of inviting people into your home or maybe you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Our culture’s definition of hospitality has become exquisite event-planning or perfect Pinterest parties. I’d like to invite you to redefine hospitality. I believe our call to hospitality involves an inner attitude and a way of life. Hospitality is about paying attention to the others around me, responding to the Spirit’s prompting, and giving of myself to make space for those “others.” When we practice hospitality, we are saying to someone, “I see you. I want to make time for you. I want to meet your needs and show you sincere love.”
This type of hospitality can take many forms. Certainly it is having friends or family over for dinner or taking care to set out the food you know someone will love. Hospitality might look like inviting someone to take up residence in that spare bedroom or giving a stranger a ride to work. Hospitality can also be found in a conversation with someone, giving them your full attention. You can create space for the “other” in your home, in your time, and in yourself.
In my January grad school residency, one of our assignments was to lay out attainable goals for our churches for creating lives and communities of hospitality. First, Church, I have to tell you how incredibly moved I am by the type of hospitable community you all have created over the past couple of years. Most every person who comes to worship with us comments on how safe and welcomed they feel, and how they can experience the love of God and a complete lack of judgment. This is an outstanding testament to the work God has been doing in us as a people.
Today, I want to challenge you to take this a step further. I believe God is wanting us to expand our church’s hospitality by creating homes of hospitality. Dr. Christine Pohl of Asbury Seminary writes,
Recovering hospitality will involve reclaiming the household as a key site for ministry and then reconnecting the household and the church, so that the two institutions can work in partnership for the sake of the world.
We want to become a church that continually and casually welcomes both friends and strangers into our homes, breaking down our barriers of insecurity and pride. This means inviting people into our space no matter how much or little we have to offer, despite our messy living rooms and our dirty bathrooms. It doesn’t matter if we live in a an old farmhouse, a modest ranch, a tiny apartment, or a cozy trailer. Our homes are a gift God has graciously given us and God himself dwells with us; therefore our homes are a sacred space for hospitality. This means letting strangers become friends as they see the pictures on our walls and eat our cooking and watch us bicker with our spouses over how to load the dishwasher. It means holding each other’s babies, helping the elderly up the steps, it means sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows or playing a rousing game of euchre. Hospitality is anytime you welcome another.
I hope the Lord has already been prompting your heart this morning, giving you ideas and bringing people to mind. I challenge you to join me this week in creating homes of hospitality.
Let’s hold one another accountable to creating homes of hospitality. Let’s ask each other each week, “Who have you welcomed and how? Where did you respond to God’s prompting?”
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 Cor. 13:14
In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline. In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline.
According to the author of this Psalm, we must raise glad exultations to God for He has done marvelous things. “But what are these great deeds?” one could ask. “Why should I give praise to this God?” In the first portion of the Psalm, we read depictions of how the entire world is already lifting a chorus of praise to God for they observe the works of their Creator. “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). The people of Israel know the deeds of God in the way He parted the Red Sea and led them across dry land as they escaped brutal slavery in Egypt. Time and again this God of theirs executed justice in the ways He protected his people from rebellious nations. Surely for these acts alone He deserves praise.
The call to praise God becomes a bit convoluted as we move to the central verses in this Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 beckon us to bless God because “he has kept us among the living” (NRSV) and “he has preserved us” (NIV). This language of preservation make me think of the to meticulous storage techniques involved in canning fruits or vegetables. It’s essential to follow the recipe precisely and to time the heating process perfectly in order to keep the lids sealed and the foods stored safely (and deliciously) for later use. Here in the Psalm the use of the word “preservation” in conjunction with the reference to human life points towards the fullness of life to which God is inviting us. As his people we have intrinsic value and we find our purpose in the work of his kingdom. Thus we are worth protecting and preserving with the utmost care.
This detailed work of preservation is extended in the way in which God does not “let our feet slip” (verse 9). The Lord keeps a careful eye on his loved ones, being sure our feet are firmly planted on the path before us. In my role as a mother, I share a similar watchfulness over my young daughter on the playground (Stoneco, Vienna, St Mary’s). I sit back and allow her freedom to explore and exert her independence. Up and down she climbs, my attentive gaze always following her. My stomach churns as she creeps close to an edge, but I cheer when she wisely decides to take another route. The moment her foot begins to slip, however, I spring into action and catch her, keeping her from injury. The Lord does the same for us, his sons and daughters.
That sounds well and good, yet we find ourselves reading the words of verses 10 through 12 with shock and frustration, jolted out of our loving image of God.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
Here we find the psalmist reflecting on the afflictions the Lord has brought his people through. In the Message paraphrase, verse 12 says “He has road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back.” Not only does it seem we have been deliberately put through the flames of refinement, but we were led into a trap and intentionally burdened. In these verses we find ourselves moved from a place of praising God for the way He led His people out of slavery, to lamenting the way God’s own hand directed us back to prison. “Why would God allow these painful trials and tribulations to face the children He supposedly loves?” we could ask.
The process of spiritual transformation happens in the fire or the rough waters, the darkest times of our journey. Our tendency is to run from pain and ask God to keep us from ever experiencing difficulty. The great surprise of the spiritual life is not that it is free from burden or challenge, but rather that we find ourselves nearest to God’s heart in those moments. When we read the psalmist’s metaphorical description of trials as the refining process of silver, we must examine the greater purpose of this pain. In the refinement process the goal is not to alter the silver, but to bring it to a more pure version of itself. Spiritually speaking, our own journeys toward God are not to lead us further away from who we are today, but toward a more holistic – more sanctified – a more Christ-in-me – version of ourselves.
In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr say, “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.” (Rohr, 100). This summary of the Christian spiritual formation process is an invitation to embrace the pain of life as a way of communing with God. Psalm 66:12b alters our perspective of the turbulent times when we see the welcomed conjunction “yet” changing the scenery. “yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” Suddenly we realize our Good Shepherd has not kept us in the pain for no purpose, but has led us toward a “spacious place” of freedom and abundance. Our hearts can be at rest in this place of “green pastures and quiet waters” as its put in Psalm 23, and we begin to recount the ways God has been faithful through the trials.
If our spiritual journey will take us deeper into the heart of God in the midst of hardship and affliction, we must have a plan in place to endure these times and deliberately call our attention to the presence of God with us. Psalm 66 is a hymn of discipline. Kevin and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I can’t help but think of how perfectly our wedding vows suit this Psalm. We are called to praise God in times of plenty and in times of want, in joy and in sorrow. In order to praise God in the midst of darkness we must live disciplined lives, using the tools of spiritual discipline to place ourselves before God and ask that our eyes be opened to his grace.
The ways in which we cultivate a life whose soul-soil is ready to receive the difficult work of the Holy Spirit is through faithful love and obedience to God. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We express our love for God by intentionally being present to Him and noticing his presence with us. In this Psalm alone, multiple spiritual disciplines are laid out as examples to us. First we practice the discipline of celebration, being deliberate in our praise of God for all of the goodness we have already experienced. By practicing the discipline of contemplation, where we stop and pause (as seen in the “selahs” of this Psalm), meditating on the character of God or on his good works. This discipline of the mind helps us to notice more readily the ways God is being gracious to us in the midst of our present circumstances. In verse 13-15 the psalmist writes:
13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
We can commit to bringing elaborate sacrificial offerings into God’s house even when we find ourselves facing hardship. This turns our hearts to generosity and allows us to better receive the generosity of God. We read the guttural cries of the psalmist in verse 17 when he says 17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue;” we too can commune with God in honest prayer through the suffering. God listens to our prayers and responds, and verse 18 indicates our prayers are most effective when we have practiced the discipline of confession. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Being blameless and righteous when we come before God is an important starting point to all of our prayers and humbly ushers us into the transforming work of the Spirit.
The final steps in our rhythm of spiritual formation is to declare the great things God has done to all who will hear. Verse 5 says, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals” while verse 16 echoes this by declaring, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” As we experience the saving work of God and his gentle presence with us as we endure difficulties, we must tell everyone who will listen the story of God. God’s invitation is for all people to be with him, communing with him and joining in his creative work in the world. Our role is to notice his presence with us in the fiery times or in the times of spacious safety and to glorify his good name always, beckoning others to experience this great grace.
The road of spiritual formation is winding, not linear, being led by the Spirit of God as we place ourselves in a posture of receptivity to his work. By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, contemplation, celebration, confession, and generosity, we are better able to respond to the work God is doing in our lives. Through his work we become more like Him as our impurities are washed away refining our character, drawing out the image of God already stamped on our souls.