Sermon St Luke the Evangelist 18th October 2015 Clare Heard

Luke 10:1-9 – Receiving hospitality

How good are you at receiving?

If someone gives you a compliment – how do you react?

If someone were to offer to do your shopping for you, cook your dinner for you, help you with some odd-job that needs doing about the house, look after your children so you can have some personal time...What would you say?

Do you ever feel able to accept, or do you always politely decline, because you don’t need help?

Receiving is a lost art in Western culture. We are so focused on being self sufficient, capable, independent that we forget that it’s ok to receive from others – that might be receiving help, or simply friendship, it might be receiving a gift. Why? Why are we not good at this?

Sometimes it’s to do with pride – there are many people out there struggling to feed their family who refuse to go to food banks. There are many who refuse to apply for bursaries or subsidies to which they would be entitled? – why?

Maybe because the culture we live in considers it weak to need help. It is a sign that you can’t do it all yourself – and surely in our independent and autonomous world I should be able to do it all by myself!

Today is the festival of St Luke – physician and evangelist. Luke was someone who clearly devoted his life to helping others. Firstly through being a doctor, and secondly, through sharing the good news about Jesus – bringing both physical and spiritual healing. And so the fact we have an act of healing after the eucharist today is very appropriate.

And we could focus entirely on healing today, thinking about what we should be doing to help others. How we can bring healing and hope to those in need but I’m not going there by the direct route.

Because when I read the gospel passage for today, the thing that really jumped out at me was Jesus’ command to stay in the one house and receive the food and drink provided.

Can you imagine going somewhere for a number of days and staying with someone you’d never met before for the entire period, without offering any payment?

Personally I’d feel the need to change from house to house, I wouldn’t want to be a burden on any one family. But Jesus says to stay in the one house and to receive whatever you are given. This passage is in large part, about receiving hospitality.

Hospitality is a prominent theme through Luke and Acts. A commentator once observed that, as Luke tells it, Jesus is either on his way to eat, eating, or just leaving the table. (See 5:29ff; 7:36ff; 10:36ff; 11:37ff; 14:1ff) This is an overstatement, of course, but it does capture the prominent place of table fellowship in Luke. According to this gospel narrative, sharing a meal defines hospitality. 

In his book, A Sacrificial Life, Eugene Peterson writes “the focal practice for participating in Jesus work of salvation in not a detached verbal act but a meal, an event that employs all the senses and can occur only in specific places with named people, requiring a language that is personal and conversational. A meal engages personal participation at the most basic level of our lives. It is virtually impossible to be detached and uninvolved when we are sharing a meal with someone.”

So it’s great when hospitality can involve food, however simple, because the basic act or eating together draws us closer as a family and a community – indeed the weekly act of communion is part of this tradition of breaking bread together, as Jesus commanded us.

Now, as Luke tells the good news, which involves much hospitality, the emphasis is on being a gracious recipient.

Jesus dines frequently, but he never gives a dinner party. He is always a guest. Even at the Passover meal at which Jesus presides, someone else prepares it (22:7-8). There is no notion of reciprocity?  Jesus does not expect he or his disciples to return the invitations.
I think what Jesus asks of his disciples in today’s gospel is difficult and probably would have been even harder in Jesus time when the culture of hospitality was such that the hosts would often offer more than they could afford and go without themselves in order to provide hospitality to guests.

This radical hospitality is illustrated by an account in Wilfred Thesiger’s book Arab Sands, about his journey across the Empty Quarter desert with two Arab companions.

Thesiger recalls how one day, after not having eaten meat for days they killed a desert hare and were eagerly looking forward to it for their dinner. That night, as the hungry men sat down to their meagre feast, a small caravan grew from the shadows of the dunes. His Bedouin companions welcomed their visitors. Thesiger writes:

“[My companions] dished up the hare and the bread and set it before them saying with every appearance of sincerity that they were our guests, that God had brought them, that today was a blessed day and a number of similar remarks. They asked us to join then but we refused, repeating that they were our guests. I hope I did not look as murderous as I felt when I joined the others in assuring them that God had brought them on this auspicious occasion.”

Thesiger and his companions didn’t just share what they had, they gave the whole lot to their guests, and these were uninvited guests. This was a culture where guests were honoured and it would have been impolite of them to refuse what was offered.

To us in the West this sounds strange. Why not everyone share, why should the hosts go without? Surely it shouldn’t be right to give more than you can afford? I think these are all reasonable questions and don’t necessarily advocate bankrupting yourselves for the sake of visitors. This model of hospitality transgresses today’s common customs as many of us know and understand them.

Likewise, the customs of hospitality evident in Luke are not those commonly observed by most Christians in the West today. What about a return invitation? What about overstaying one's welcome? We don’t tend to think well of people who stick around for too long.
But perhaps our generally accepted rules inhibit a practice of hospitality that is more mutual. Maybe we need to focus more on being gracious recipients of hospitality. We should not always assume that those who have more extend hospitality to those who have less. Hospitality is one area where wealth and possessions have little relevance. This is about welcome and time.

This is illustrated beautifully by an American student studying this passage who, when asked the question – what is the most challenging thing about Jesus commands for this journey? said, "Eat what is set before you."

When invited to elaborate, he said his father had been a pastor in a rural, very poor area in South Dakota. The family was often invited for dinner by parishioners, most of them farmers. He recalled that he and his siblings were admonished to eat whatever was served. He was not simply referring to a child's finicky tastes or disdain for green vegetables. But went on to say that people on remote farms often relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food, even for company. He added, "We just never knew what we would have to eat."

As a child, and possibly even an adult, this may be a difficult thing to do,  (especially if you are a fussy eater!) but the very act of eating with someone, giving them time, receiving what they offer, is in itself a blessing.

The disciples were expected to enter into these people’s homes as they were. They might have found mess, noise, and possibly very poor sustenance, but they were to accept it.

Now if we sidetrack again back to offering hospitality. I have friends who do not want to let people through the door unless their house is perfectly tidy and there are cakes baking in the oven! I myself struggle to have people round without offering them some sort of home cooked meal.

But I think we need to remember that offering hospitality is not about offering the perfect meal in the perfect home. It is about sharing what we have and who we are. Caring for people, welcoming people, but also being real with people. This can be difficult to do.
If anyone ever watched Friends, you might remember an episode where Monica, who was incredibly house proud and tidy, has a cupboard that she refuses to open. Eventually Chandler takes the hinges off and forces it open, and it turns out to be stuffed full of rubbish and mess that she didn’t want anyone else to see. It was the part of her that she wanted to hide!

And that’s what we can be like – only wanting to let people in when our house is in perfect order.

In one sense, to offer real hospitality, we need to be brave enough to show people that we aren’t perfect. Because actually true hospitality is about giving time and welcome to someone, far more than about the perfect meal.

But back to receiving. A friend of mine has a sister who is a vicar’s wife and she is deeply loved by the village in which they live, and yet all she ever does is receive help from people. She has a young family and things are busy and she relies on people to support her – look after a child, pick something up from the shops, take another child to a club or playdate – she receives and receives – and the community love her.

She offers people the chance to be helpful, useful, the chance to share in parts of her family life – I think we can forget how bonding it can be for a community to help and support each other. How, when we are willing to receive what someone else offers us – be that time, practical help, a cup of tea, we bless them as well as receiving blessings ourselves.

When we are willing to receive, we bless the people who are offering something. A little like Jesus receiving the perfume that Mary pours all over his feet. The disciples are shocked, but Jesus receives the gift and in doing so, honours the giver.

Perhaps Jesus is calling us to move beyond our socially acceptable norms here. Can we be brave enough to offer something of ourselves to our friends, neighbours and community? And can we be even braver, and accept when people offer their help or hospitality to us?

And if we can be brave enough, what might the result be? Might we draw closer as a community, might we get better at loving each other? Might we bring healing to those who are lonely or in pain?

The very fact that Jesus did this AND asks his disciples to as well, is surely enough to encourage us to give it a try, and so I pray that God would bless each of us as we open ourselves up to receiving from each other, and thereby, receiving from God.


Ref Marilyn Salmon
Holland Park Benefice