The Hospitality of Life

This post is one of seven reflections on the whole narrative of the Bible as a story of God’s hospitality. To read these posts in order, click here.

For three days the world lies completely empty of welcome, devoid of the hospitable life by whom it had been made. The earth trembles, the sun fades, and God’s house begins to tear itself apart. The welcome of God had gone head to head against the inhospitality of death, and latter seems to have won.

Until Sunday, when, as suddenly as the universe was first spoken into existence, Jesus bursts back into life. One by one, he had taken on each of the different ways hostility smothers hospitality, finally fighting and defeating the deepest inhospitality—death—once and for all.

And what does this newly resurrected Jesus do now? He goes back to what he had been doing: welcoming people.

He comforts a grieving friend.

He eats with a couple strangers.

He invites a doubter to touch him.

He makes breakfast for the man who denied him.

And with each of these acts of hospitality, Jesus’s true identity is revealed. Only after they’ve been welcomed does each of these people realize exactly who is welcoming them.

But the welcome of the resurrected Jesus extends so far beyond a warm meal and a comforting touch. He welcomes people into life, into God’s eternal hospitality. With the hostile emptiness of death now overcome, the invitation into everlasting life becomes tangible. Suddenly, there’s an alternative to the inhospitality which had for so long enslaved the world. Just as with the Hebrews in Egypt, God welcomes humanity out of captivity and into a new land, a kingdom in which all people from every nation are welcome.

But even that isn’t the full extent of Jesus’ hospitality. Much like the first moment the man and woman met God, Jesus invites his friends into new creation and divine hospitality, not as mere recipients but as full participants. He gives them his mission as their own, commissioning them to go out and extend his welcome to the world.

So they go, armed not with their own hospitality, but with the welcoming breath of Jesus, the Spirit of life.

With their sermons they pass along the welcome they had received to anyone who would accept it, families from every nation.

They invite each other into their homes, share meals together daily, and give everything they own to those who were in need.

They welcome the sick, and they become well.

They welcome Gentiles, and they become part of God’s family.

They welcome slaves, and they become their brothers.

They welcome women, and they became their sisters.

They even welcomed shame and death, knowing that hostility and estrangement no longer rule the day. Through the resurrection of Jesus, the pain of rejection has become the conduit of new creation. The inhospitality of death has been swallowed up by the hospitality of Life.

For further, better reading, I suggest the book of Acts.

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An Unwelcome God

This post is one of seven reflections on the whole narrative of the Bible as a story of God’s hospitality. To read these posts in order, click here.

The only one who doesn’t seem surprised by the tragic inhospitality with which earth greets heaven is Jesus. You can tell he knew it was coming. 

Which raises the question: Why set out on this mission in the first place? Why take all the risks necessary to give humanity a chance to welcome God, when you know it will end with hostility? Why bring hospitality back to earth if you know it will all be undone by the deepest inhospitality—death.

After all, nothing is less welcoming than death.

In death, the divine welcome that invited humanity from non-existence into existence is completely reversed. Death is the one inhospitality from which God should be immune; even if all of humanity rejects God, life can’t, right?

And yet by becoming a person, God embraces that ultimate risk; Jesus comes intending to be unwelcomed. For some cosmically mysterious reason, Jesus’ mission of hospitality depends on his willingness to experience the fullness of inhospitality.  To welcome people back, Jesus has to die.

He doesn’t just die–he’s murdered.

He’s tortured.

He’s publicly shamed.

He’s mocked by his enemies.

He’s betrayed by one of his apprentices.

He’s rejected by his closest friends.

He’s stripped naked and left to die of thirst.

In fact, the only person who extends any form of hospitality to Jesus in his darkest moment is, of all people, a criminal. Only a man whose life of inhospitality had resulted in the inhospitality of death has the courage to notice that Jesus doesn’t deserve that same inhospitality. And Jesus reciprocates this act of welcome with an invitation into life.

But even in his final moments, Jesus’ hospitality isn’t reserved only for those who welcome him, but also for those who reject him. Looking out at his murderers, Jesus pleads for their forgiveness, proclaiming to the mob shoving him out of life, “You’re still welcome.”

And then he dies, taking on himself the entire unwelcome of the universe. Every moment of estrangement, every broken friendship, every violent word, every abusive betrayal intertwine and wrap themselves around God’s broken, abandoned body and carry him off into the hostile emptiness of the grave.

But even the inhospitality of death is no match for the hospitality of Life.

For further, better reading, I suggest the second half of John’s gospel.

The Music of Hospitality

6:07pm, Wednesday.

I’ve just finished a long day commuting around from meeting to meeting, and I’m standing underground in the Jackson station, waiting for my last train of the day. My mind is still on the busyness of my day—and how much is left to do before bed—so, at first, don’t even notice the music resonating from the other end of the long narrow platform. And yet, slowly but persistently, the rhythmic melody drowns out the noise of my scrambled thoughts.

This sounds really good, I think, surprised that I even notice music in the L stations anymore.

Only able to hear the musicians from where I’m standing, I try to piece the band together by sound. There’s definitely a drummer, shuffling out complex rhythms on what sounds like a really nice kit. There’s a bassist too, who, despite only playing a total of four notes, is squeezing every ounce of soul out of that simple line. I can’t tell if that’s one guitar or two; the rhythm and solos overlap and intertwine, making it impossible to tell. Behind it all is this phantom female voice, chanting drawn-out non-words that sound at once miles away and tangibly near. The music slows, mutes, then bursts open with cymbals crashing, voice and guitar wailing with/against one another.

Apparently I’ve stepped closer to the music, because now I can see a small crowd that has gathered in front of the band, which is still obscured from my sight by a pillar. Suddenly, I feel like I’m missing out on something, so I purposefully make my way across the platform, the music swelling with my approach. I squeeze into the crowd, and for the first time I can see the band.

And they’re not really a band at all. It’s just two guys sitting by a pillar, two guys who seem irreconcilably different from each other. The first, a younger white guy—a Columbia student, if his skinny jeans and newsie cap are any indication—is sitting on a small amp, a Taylor on his lap and a thousand dollars in loop and effect pedals at his feet. The second man, a significantly older black man, sits on a crate, dressed in torn up sweats which, combined with his disheveled beard and wild hair, persuade me that he must be homeless. He’s seated behind a makeshift pile of drums: a cracked cymbal stuck to the end of broken drumstick sticking out of an upside-down bucket, a larger plastic barrel that sounds surprisingly like a bass drum, and a rusty snare titled on its side.

I glance around the growing crowd, trying to figure out if I’m the only one surprised by unusual duet. It’s only then that I realize that the beautiful vocals I had heard echoing down the tracks aren’t coming from a performer, but from a hunching elderly lady in the crowd; her eyes dart back and forth wildly as she reads the sheet music printed on the concrete, visible only to her.

I look back to the musicians, who seem only aware of each other’s presence. Their eyes locked, they nod once in unison, just before exploding once more into a prism of emotion. Transfixed, it takes me a few moments to notice the rest of the crowd around me. A middle-aged man has his iPhone out, recording the performance on video. An older man in a cardigan—a retired professor I decide—taps his toe and bobs his head just over the shoulder of the drummer. A young woman, smiles as she drums her fingers atop her pencil skirt and Coach purse. A foul-smelling man with a bag of cans grunts and moans softly, complimenting the thump of bass with the sound weary joy. Hurried passengers push through the crowd with the desperation of the hurried city life, but the couple dozen of us in the audience are in a completely different place, a city where people gather underground for the sole purpose of listening to good music.

The headlights from my train are already illuminating the backstage, signaling that I have only a few seconds more to appreciate this impossible moment. On cue, the music quickly fades, ending triumphantly with a one last surprise crash of the cymbal. We clap sincerely, a couple people toss coins in a jar, and I get on my train, a carton of lives who were just seconds too late. Still, as the train pulls out I notice that a few of the passengers in my car were also in the audience at the station. They look different, somehow, smiling for no reason and still tapping their toes; I suppose I look like that too. I catch the eyes of the mother across from me, who just a minute before stood next to me in front of the guitarist. We silently agree that yes, that was something. She and I—strangers who had never spoken to each other—are, at least for a moment, friends.

In fact, it seems as if all of us standing around those two musicians had somehow become friends, or rather, remembered that we weren’t actually strangers, but had been friends all along. The music created a space which pulled each of us—along with our worries and weariness—into each other’s lives, a space in which a poor old man and an affluent student are welcome to co-create, a space in which each of us is free to drum and dance and grunt and sing and clap and smile, a space in which we can be more than just our job title, skin color, or social status.

In other words, music can be incredibly hospitable.

Hospitable music doesn’t tell us who to be, but invites us just as we are. It’s empty, but not lonely. It doesn’t force itself on us, but it’s not afraid to be what it is. It’s vulnerable, risky.

And it changes everything. It transforms public space into a home, strangers into family. It reminds us who we are, that we exist for each other. And this moment sticks with us long after it’s passed, because deep down we long for welcome. We want to share the space of our lives. It’s like we’ve been imprinted with the mark of hospitality, a mark that years of busyness and social pressure effectively cover but never erode.

It’s like music is a memory of the creative hospitality for/by which we were made.

Hospitality Incarnate

With God no longer nearby, Israel finds themselves vulnerable to neighboring, inhospitable empires. Once again, they become oppressed strangers in strange lands, constantly at risk of being exiled or exterminated by their captors. Even when they’re able to return home and rebuild their city and God’s house, they find that their home really isn’t theirs anymore; now, it belongs to the empire who owns, taxes, and mistreats them. The few Israelites who retain any social power—the religious leaders—respond to this hostility by drawing thicker and stricter lines between those who are welcome and those who aren’t.  Growing up in Israel now means living in an inhospitable society within an unwelcoming empire.

And that’s when God, filled with compassion, steps down to welcome them back once more; only this time, God welcomes them in person.

God, in person.

Hospitality incarnate. God’s full self, welcoming people just as they are. Like it used to be, way back when.

In order to welcome people back, God takes the ultimate risk—because hospitality demands risk!—and becomes a person, a person who requires hospitality. A baby who needs a mother to clothe and feed him. A boy who needs a community to raise and support him. A man who is vulnerable to inhospitality and even death. In other words, Jesus comes both to welcome people and to give people a chance to welcome him.

And in case there was any question as to his purpose in stepping down to earth, Jesus makes it explicitly clear that he had come to welcome the unwelcomed.

Look at some of the stuff he says:

Like his first sermon, which is all about welcoming the marginalized and freeing the oppressed.

Or the story he tells about the father who welcomes his rebellious son back home with open arms and a lavish party.

Or the one about the shepherd who looks goes to extravagant lengths to bring a single lost sheep home.

Or the one about the Samaritan—an ethnic outsider—who extends hospitality to a battered Jew.

Or the one about the king who hosts a banquet for the poor, crippled, and outcasts.

Or when he says things like “Invite the poor to dinner,” “When you welcome little children, you welcome me,” and “Only those who offer food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and hospitality to strangers will be welcomed into the kingdom of God.”

Now look at the stuff he does:

He eats with prostitutes.

He eats with tax collectors.

He even eats with preachers.

He invites children to sit with him.

He invites women to study under him.

He feeds the hungry.

He drinks with Samaritans.

He does miracles for Romans.

He touches lepers.

He welcomes treasonists, traitors, terrorists, and other unwelcomed men to be his closest friends.

And with every act of divine hospitality, Jesus transforms people. From sick to well. From sinners to missionaries. From dead to alive. From outcasts and enemies to friends of God.

Even Jesus’ opponents understand his mission: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

While this sounds like something God’s people would celebrate, the religious leaders are appalled by Jesus’ hospitality. After all, for the inhospitable and powerful—those for whom people are objects to be used, not friends to be welcomed—hospitality presents a very serious danger. If all are welcome, all are equal, free, and vulnerable. The hospitality of Jesus threatens the security their inhospitality had created.

So, they decide, Jesus must no longer be welcomed.

For further, better reading, I suggest the book of Luke, or any of the other three Gospels.

An Unlikely Mission

This post is one of seven reflections on the whole narrative of the Bible as a story of God’s hospitality. To read these posts in order, click here.

As soon as humanity and God become strangers, God embarks on an unlikely mission to welcome people back, back to God and back to each other. This mission of hospitality pops up all over Genesis, but really begins to become clear in the Exodus story.

God sees the Hebrew people—strangers in a strange land, greeted by their hosts with chains and infanticide—and reaches down to welcome them out of oppression and into a new home, a promised land prepared specifically for them. God feeds them when they’re hungry, gives them water when they’re thirsty, and gives them rest when they’re weary.  God’s people reciprocate God’s hospitality by welcoming God in the center of their camp, but only for a moment. Soon, they construct a new, more visible god, forcing out the God who welcomed them and rejecting the hospitable space they had been offered.

But God doesn’t stop trying. God starts back up with their children, clearing the way for them to move into the land they had rejected, transforming a hostile, crowded space into a friendly, empty one. And as the Israelites inhabit their new home, they invite God to take up residency as well, building a house for God in the center of their city. And, as scandalous as it sounds, God moves in, accepting their hospitality and sharing a space on earth with the people who ha d for so long been so unwelcoming.

Still, it becomes immediately clear that cohabitation does not always indicate hospitality. As quickly as God’s house is built, Israel begins to build new homes, homes for their kings and homes for their homemade gods. It grows increasingly obvious that God is only welcome in Israel on Israel’s terms—as one of their many sources of authority and fortune. In other words, God’s not given space to actually be God; Israel’s hospitality is revealed to be exploitation.

So God moves out.

And perhaps the most telling part of this whole period is the stuff God says on the way out; the indictment of Israel is pretty harsh. For example: “You exploit your workers, withhold food from the hungry, leave the poor wanderers without shelter, keep clothes from the naked, and even abandon your own flesh and blood. And you wonder why I’m no longer sticking with you?” Despite the hospitality God had shown them, God’s people fail to welcome those who most needed welcoming, a sign that not even God is welcome among them any longer.

But God doesn’t stop trying. As always, God responds to their inhospitality with hospitality, this time in the most risky way–God heads back to welcome them in person.

For further, better reading, I suggest the rest of the first half of the Bible, just up to the point that some of the font turns red. 

The Risk

This post is one of seven reflections on the whole narrative of the Bible as a story of God’s hospitality. To read these posts in order, click here.

By welcoming people into creation, God runs the risk that they might mess the place up.

Of course, God could have eliminated that risk by hardwiring the man and woman to always act hospitably, but eliminating risk requires the elimination of freedom, authenticity, and true hospitality. Rather than creating co-hosts and co-creators, God would have made merely anthropomorphic accessories, cogs in the universal machine.

Instead, God makes partners and friends, people free to join in creation, but also to introduce destruction. As the old story goes, they opt for the latter. Given the space to be fully themselves, the man and woman decide instead to try to be God. After all, the story of the snake and the fruit isn’t really about the allure of fresh produce; it’s about the urge to co-opt the identity of another. By eating the fruit, the people pass on the roles they were invited into in an effort to become “like God.” They inhabit God’s space, and then try to crowd God out.

In short, they reciprocate God’s hospitality with hostility, trading friendship for rivalry. In a world where people are gods, there’s no longer room for God, nor are people fully people anymore.  The worst possible scenario in God’s risky act of welcome has become a reality:

Humanity has rejected our role as guests as well as our role as hosts.

It becomes immediately clear that the man and woman in this story no longer feel welcome nor welcoming. Watch how they hide from God behind bushes, ashamed to be themselves in God’s space. Look how quick the man is to throw his wife under the bus, the same woman whose presence he had eulogized moments before. And notice how the relationship between man and woman turns from mutual welcome to domination and subservience, or how the even the land shifts from a hospitable home to a hostile task. The hospitality that welcomed them into the world seems to be completely undone!

(Of course, to see how inhospitable our space has become, we could always look up from our Bibles and out at the world around us.)

And yet, God’s welcome does not falter. Even as the man and woman leave the garden, God makes animal-skin clothes for them. Despite the enmity that had emerged between them, God responds with hospitality, turning something lifeless into something as warm and comforting as a fur coat.

And this story becomes the theme on which all the stories which follow are variations. People trade in the welcome of God in an attempt to make gods for/of themselves. And God responds to this estrangement not with retaliation, but with increasingly risky acts of hospitality.

For further, better reading, I suggest the next page of the Bible, or this morning’s newspaper.