Becoming Hospitality

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
Christmas Eve - December 25, 2011
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

A few days ago I was listening to some Christmas music and folding some clothes after the kids went to bed. Something vaguely Celtic was playing, and I happened to pick up a long sleeved shirt. For some reason that combination of culture and worn fabric made something in my soul lurch toward another climate - not just another climate, but also toward places with people that I have shared some particular experiences with.

There is something about this time of year that makes even the least sentimental of us consider our basic need for connection, and it makes us long for the familiar, for the proven, and for the people and places we love or long to be loved by. The littlest things can set us off. An ornament, a song, a smell, maybe even a cookie - these are a few of my favorite things.

These are the things we are told to remember when the dog bites and the bee stings. We simply remember our favor-ite things, and then we don’t bad! That feels good to sing, but it is not exactly good theology. It’s not terrible. It’s just a little lacking in substance, and maybe even a little self centered.

Still, familiar people and things and rituals seem to make the world make sense, even if only while you are with them. That is a good thing, and we need the hope this season and its rituals offer us. Sometimes they are even enough to get us through to the next one. Perhaps that is because there is always a sense of loss mingled with the joy and hope of this season. I don’t necessarily mean tragic loss - just the realization that what has been is no more.

And so we wrap ourselves in the quilt of memory and sit by the fire of hope, and we wait for the coming of Christ. Into this we receive the promise of the prophet Isaiah, the instruction of Paul, and the story the birth of Christ - the nativity. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is the most familiar, and sometimes it can be like wallpaper - just part of the scenery of Christmas.

Yet there is something so profound going on here that the axis of history pivots on this story. There is something so profound going on here that we really don’t want to see it for fear that it might even alter the course of our own lives.

For in this story, the power of God has been revealed in the weakness of a child. In this story the power of humanity has been revealed as having the ability to become a place of hospitality into which the Lord of Heaven and Earth might dwell.

The stumbling block in such an idea is that God only did this once through Jesus, and we only did it once through Mary. While there is truth in the claim that Jesus was God’s self revelation, I don’t believe God did this in order to hide behind the persona of Jesus. I believe that God came to be known to us through Jesus so that we might make God known to others.

There is also truth in the claim that Mary bore the son of God in such a way as no one else has or can, but again - I don’t believe that God did this in order to set a standard we cannot meet. I believe that Mary is, instead, someone who knew the difference between acting hospitably and becoming a place of hospitality for the one who welcomes us in when we are weak. Mary shows us what it means to be consumed by hope and led by God’s spirit - and by doing so she brought forth life in the midst of disease and rejection.

Then we have those shepherds - those marvelous shepherds! For some reason, God takes the ones who are on the bottom of the rung and has them become the witnesses to the birth of the Messiah - God’s Anointed One, the one who will restore Israel. Why on earth would God chose witnesses that no one would believe?

I think it is because we have already heard - and we always hear from - the expected voices. I believe it is because we are all a little broken in some way or another. I believe God speaks through shepherds because it is precisely the ones we think are worthless that have the power to teach us and even to heal us.

There is a young man named Jeffery who you do not know. He works for LARC, an employment and service agency for those with disabilities, whom we contract cleaning services from. He vacuums my office every Thursday. I’ve rarely heard him speak, though his smile goes from ear to ear. Often his co-workers shout his name when the routine gets disrupted. Routine is important to them. It is life affirming. I’ve never seen him frustrated though.

Jeffery has Down’s syndrome and is one of the few adults in my world who is shorter than me. One day we crossed in my office doorway, and he simply patted me on the shoulder and smiled. It was a simple gesture of approval and the only real moment of communication I’ve had with him in almost two years. Funny thing is - I really needed it that day. I didn’t know how much, but I needed it that day. For that moment - for that brief intentional encounter - I stood before the shepherd and heard about the Christ. For that moment, I was the one who had been walking in darkness and on whom light had shined.

The thing is, becoming a place of hospitality for God is really as simple as a pat on the shoulder. It is really as simple as realizing that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” and then understanding that the grace of God causes us to look beyond ourselves, to be controlled by our desire to see and experience God in one another, and to expect God to reveal God’s self through the space we create within ourselves and between ourselves and others. You don’t have to become some kind of fanatic to do this, but it might mean letting go of some things in order to become open to others.

We see a lot of that here in our gift basket ministry, and - as our elves rub their tired fingers and toes and wonder if there is any way they could have done more -than 1010 baskets - it is important to remember the work of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. He is an author and speaker and a member of an intentional community of Christians who formed the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina in 2003. Part of their function is to take in those in need. In a recent reflection he wrote the following, “However important our work may be, our ability to do it isn’t what makes us a community. We’re not a house of hospitality when we figure out how to take care of everyone who’s homeless. We’re a house of hospitality when we learn to wait, when we learn to open ourselves to grace, when we let love transform us, one relationship at a time....The good news is that a hospitality house isn’t something we muster up the courage to “do,” but something we’re invited to “be.” In waiting and opening ourselves to God, we become the sort of people who can see that Jesus has already slipped into our midst. Folks who get used to being with Jesus know better how to greet him when he comes knocking at the door.”

As we wait for the coming of the One who is with us, may we be transformed into bearers of God, into places of hospitality, and into a people moving from darkness into the light of Christ. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!
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