Friday, October 05, 2007

My Vacation at the Reichenbach Falls

Which makes more sense if you know that one of Dom Crossan's early books on parables was Cliffs of Fall. But even then, it's not much of a pun.


Spirituality is practicality. That is where I want to begin. And I want you to understand that as a concrete statement, not as an abstract one, as a nice ideal of what spirituality should be but can only be for saints and monastics and maybe a few rare priests. Spirituality is practicality. In fact, it is the most practical thing of all. And spirituality is never more practical than when it is practiced as hospitality. That is actually my thesis, that hospitality is spirituality in practice. But before we can understand that, we have to get down the simple terms of hospitality:

Hospitality requires a stranger, a host, and a place. The stranger must be a stranger: not a guest, a relative, a friend, an acquaintance. And the host must be in charge of the place, must have authority to give access to the place to the stranger. The host must have responsibility for the place, and must give use that responsibility to give access to it to the stranger. The host and the stranger must be unknown to each other, because hospitality requires, above all, vulnerability.

Doesn’t sound very practical, does it? And yet this is the core of Christian spirituality. And a spirituality that is not practiced is not a spirituality; it is simply a nice idea, a pleasant notion, a comforting concept. “The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John; but he doesn’t say the spirit rests someplace. It may rest upon you for a moment, it may inspire you to speak by tongues of flame, as on the day of Pentecost, but it never rests with you, it never stays in you and finds a home and comfort there. The Holy Spirit is always active, always moving, always effecting us when it comes by. The Holy Spirit is activity, is practice, is known by its movement; it is not a comforting idea that gives us peace and tranquility. “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod,” the old hymn goes. That could be describing hospitality, since hospitality is all about vulnerability, about opening oneself to the stranger, whether the stranger is guest or the stranger is host. And the fact is, the scriptures are rife with stories of hospitality. Take this one, for instance:

There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master’s property. He called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Let’s have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.”
Then the manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I’m not strong enough to dig ditches and I’m ashamed to beg. I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do so doors will open for men when I’m removed from management.”
So he called in each of his master’s debtors. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?”

He said, “Five hundred gallons of olive oil.”

And he said to him, “Here is your invoice; sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.”

Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?”

He said, “A thousand bushels of wheat.”

He says to him, “Here is your invoice; make it eight hundred.”

The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light.

I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into eternal dwelling places.—Luke 16:1-9 (SV)
When I say the scriptures are full of stories of hospitality, I don’t mean the scripture stories are only lessons about hospitality. Well, not lessons in the sense of “Go, thou, and do likewise.” This is one of those stories preachers don’t like, because they prefer the “Go, thou, and do likewise” kind of stories; and clearly the lesson of that story is not to be an unjust steward, even though the steward seems to make the best of a bad situation. But it’s a story that, in its ending, is about hospitality; and we start with it because it sets a boundary, an edge, a terminus to our discussion, because it is an example of anti-hospitality. It is also, however, a very practical story. The steward’s reaction is such a clever one, such a practical response to what has happened to him, that even his master is impressed with his cheating. Selflessness, that primary Christian virtue, is too easily misunderstood by the children of this world; it is too often taken as foolishness and weakness. Selfishness is what the world teaches; that is a very practical virtue. Well, practical as the world understands that word.

This parable is also, though, an example of anti-hospitality. We have to consider that sometimes, Jesus tells us what not to do, perhaps because we are so determined to do it, to do what we want and call it “practical,” or call it “God’s will.” So here is the story of anti-hospitality: take care of yourself, make friends for yourself in this world, and you will buy your way into the eternal homes. But that is not hospitality; that is hostelry. You might secure yourself a room by making a payment like the steward makes, but when your credit runs out…well, hospitality you buy only lasts as long as your credit does. And while surely the homes Jesus speaks of are not truly “eternal” ones, the unjust steward’s credit is likely to run out even sooner. If you are going to rely on hospitality you have to rely on the kindness, not the self-interest, of strangers.

“Come for water, all who are thirsty;
Though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy wine and milk,
Not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
Your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
You will enjoy the fat of the land.
Come to me and listen to my words,
Hear me and you will have life:
I shall make an everlasting covenant with you
To love you faithfully as I have loved David.
I appointed him a witness to peoples,
And you in turn will summon nations you do not know,
And nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
Because the Lord your God, Israel’s Holy One, has made you glorious.—Isaiah 55:1-5 (REB)
Now those are words of hospitality. Those are words of God’s extravagant stewardship, of God’s open-handed generosity. This is the ultimate statement of what Walter Brueggeman calls the “covenantal economy” proclaimed by the law of Moses and the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus Christ himself. This is economy not for the greater good, or the enlightened self-interests of the individual, but for the neighborhood: for those you know and can know. Never forget that the “nation” of Israel meant tribes of related people. It’s a mistake to read “nation” in the Hebrew scriptures as a term congruent with the 19th century European political philosophy of nationalism. When the prophets say “the nations,” they mean the people, the groupings; the thousands and thousands of “neighborhoods” of the world. All strangers, and all welcome to Israel, all welcome in the generous hospitality of the Creator. It is that hospitality which will make Israel glorious.

Still doesn’t sound very practical, does it?

But God’s generosity is the most practical thing in the world. It is the practicality of food that cannot be bought still being offered for sale. It is the practicality of wine and milk and grain that you can buy and eat, even though you have no money, even though your money is no good. Do you appreciate the paradox? It is what you need offered to you in the way you understand, but it is not the way you understand at all. It is absolutely impractical and at the same time the essence of practicality. What is more practical than food and drink and summoning strangers you do not know, strangers who do not know you but who will come to you? What is more practical than the glory of God realized as hospitality for the whole world?

Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God:
Which made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: w hich keepeth truth forever:
Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungery. The Lord looseth the prisoners:
The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind: the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down: the Lord loveth the righteous:
The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.
The Lord shall reign forever, even thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye the Lord.
The Psalmist understands why we should praise God. The Psalmist understands that, in the end, we are all strangers to God and each other; we are all guests of this omnipotent host. The Psalmist understands where all good things come from and how God reverses the ways of the children of darkness. God raises those who are bowed down: so God reverses the world’s order. God loves the righteous; and in all the world, what does the world hate most except those who do right? But the penultimate stanza is my favorite of those: “The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.” God is the one who preserves the strangers; and God turns the ways of the wicked upside down.

If that isn’t hospitality, I don’t know what is.

Because the way of the wicked is to demand payment for everything that is given; to demand a system of exchange, an economy, a tit for tat, value given for value received. But who among us can repay even our parents for the gift of life? Who among us can begin to imagine repaying our Creator for the gift of our existence? The Psalmist got that part right, too:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou are mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
We are strangers before this Creator, and yet we are not treated as strangers at all. What wondrous love is this? We have done nothing, we have paid nothing, we have offered nothing, and yet we have all of this? Truly the way of the wicked God turns upside down, because this economy, this exchange, this cycle of give and get and give again, is undone by the extravagant generosity of God, by the unbelievable offer of food without price and wine and milk purchased without money. No wonder we stand perplexed when Jesus tells us: “make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into eternal dwelling places.” God turns the ways of the children of darkness upside down, because God’s way is not purchase and contract, but hospitality! Come, and listen, and nations will come to take what you offer!

It is wholly impractical; and it is completely practical. Listen:

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
That is a story of hospitality which is wholly impractical, and yet wholly practical. “Go and do as you have said,” Elijah tells the widow. “But first make me a small cake…and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself.” Hospitality is all about giving the stranger priority; it is about giving the stranger access to what is under your control. It is that hospitality, over and over again, which brings life ; because such hospitality is an act of faith. It is the extravagance of the gifts we have already been given which sometimes surprise us. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, God is profligate, but wastes nothing. God gives life to everyone. God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. We are all guests in God’s creation, we are all given stewardship over the creation, and responsibility for one another. Elijah doesn’t say: feed me first, you’ll get yours later. The widow doesn’t respond: I must think first of my child! They are both strangers; they are both guests. They are both responsible for one another. Had either failed to be impractical, the practical would have overwhelmed them. Having been impractical, having trusted to God’s extravagance, the practical saves them. What are we to say about such things, except to sweep every corner of the house until we find the lost coin, and then wake all the neighbors and tell them to join us in a celebration!

Or again, is there any woman with ten silver coins, who if she loses one, wouldn’t light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she invites her friends and neighbors over and says ‘Celebrate with me, because I have found the silver coin I had lost.’ Luke 15:8-9 (SV)
Is this hospitality? Of course it is! Is it practical? Of course it is! God is profligate, but wastes nothing! Hospitality shares everything, and expects everyone to share. It may be this woman is as profligate as the widow, and uses the coin she had lost to pay for a celebration for finding it. Is that too extreme an interpretation? Then consider the parable that Luke pairs with it:

Is there any one of you who owns a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, who wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that got lost until he finds it? And when he finds it, he lifts it upon his shoulders, happy. Once he gets home, he invites his friends and neighbors over, and says to them, ‘Celebrate with me, because I have found my lost sheep.’ Luke 15:4-6 (SV)
Luke is a bit vague, there. Does he mean the shepherd left the other 99 in the wilderness until he came back with the one sheep? Or does he mean he left them there and went home with the one sheep for the celebration? Either way, it is profligacy of a kind we can only label impractical. Where there are many and one, we always know the answer is to consider first the needs of the many; we always know the one must be sacrificed to keep the many whole. How much oil did that woman use, searching for that lost coin? What time did she call up her neighbors to celebrate something they knew nothing about? How many sheep did the shepherd endanger in searching for the one that was lost? Anyone first hearing Jesus’ words, hearing them without the centuries of interpretation we have layered down upon them, would hear that opening phrase: “Is there any one of you…?,” then hear the story, and think: if there is any one of us who would do that, he would be mad! But God turns the ways of the world upside down!
Listen. Listen to one more story, and you will see. It’s the one Luke gives us just after those two. But I’ve read you enough Scriptures tonight, and you know this story so well already. I’ll give you the shorter, non-canonical version:

A younger son requested and received his inheritance, went abroad, and wasted it all. Destitute in the midst of famine, he envied the swill of the swine he tended.

The younger son
I will return home where servants eat their fill
I will say to my father
I have sinned against you and God
I am not worthy to be your son
I will be your hired servant

The father saw him even before he reached the house, ran out, embraced, and kissed him.

The younger son
“I have sinned against you and God
I am not worthy to be your son”

The father

“Bring robes, and shoes, and a ring
Prepare a great feast
My lost son is found, my dead son is back.”

The elder son returned at evening form working in the fields, heard the sounds of music, and asked a servant what was happening.

The servant

“Your brother is back and your father feasts him”

He was angry, refused to enter the banquet hall, and complained when his father came out to speak with him

The elder son

“I, who have always obeyed you, have never received a feast
He, who has disgraced you, receives one now”

The father

“You are with me always and mine is yours forever
But now is the time for feasting
Your lost brother is found, your dead brother is back” (John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus)

Is this a story of hospitality? Absolutely! The ending makes that clear. But the beginning of the story brings us back to the unjust steward, when he was not so shrewd. The younger son thinks he knows how to buy his way into the eternal homes, and he will do it by walking over his father’s corpse. You cannot, after all, demand your inheritance of a living person; you can only obtain an inheritance of the dead, after they are through using all the property they might ever have owned. So the demand of the younger son is the most distressing one possible: he tells his father: “You are dead to me. Now give me my money, so I can go away.” It is an act of the most brutal anti-hospitality, more breathtaking in its cruelty and vice than even the actions of the unjust steward. Youth is sometimes harsher than age, simply because it cannot imagine the consequences of its selfishness. But the father is truly and fully hospitable, and gives the boy what he asks. He gives him full control of the property, and lets him take that property with him. Well, we know what he does with it; but how the father responds is even more unexpected.
Not because he welcomes his son back, but because he does it with the elder son’s property. The father may still be the patriarch, but he is no longer the owner of what was once his. He has divided it among his sons. He has made himself dead, in complete vulnerability and acquiescence to the demands of his child, who acts as if he is a stranger to his own father and his own brother. The elder son honors his father and gives him a home, but the elder son is in possession of all that is there. So when the father gives away to the prodigal what actually belongs to the steadfast son, the father is not acting as God in the story: he is acting as God would desire. All that we have, comes from God. We are all like guests in God’s creation. When we share that creation in hospitality even with those who are our enemies (what is an enemy, after all, except someone who wishes you dead?), we are acting as God wants us to act. We are acting as God has already acted. The elder son is confused by this. Who wouldn’t be? The extravagance of God’s hospitality is seemingly impractical, yet it is the most practical thing of all. The practicality the world teaches only seems practical to us if we think the world is all there is. The unjust steward is being practical to buy his friends so they will take care of him; but his purchase is only as good as the value he gives, and when the value runs out, so do his friendships. The prodigal son is being practical to beg forgiveness of his father, but his father is extravagant, is wild, is mad, and welcomes him back with love. And what is love, except hospitality? And what is love, except impractical?

And yet it is the most practical thing of all. Because it, too, comes from God. And where would we be without it?

Spirituality is practicality. Practicality is hospitality. Hospitality is what is offered to the stranger. Who could ever doubt it? Who could ever doubt it is the workings of God’s love in this good, good world?


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