22-5-11 St Stephen’s in Bryndwr Luke 10:25-37
‘Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.’
Reflection by Mart the Rev
The 5th century desert fathers described loving your neighbours as the hardest commandment to keep and the hardest spiritual work in the world.
The preacher and author, Barbara Brown Taylor says, to love your neighbour as yourself is to “encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enrol, convince, or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you allow it. All you have to do is recognise another you ‘out there’ – your other self in the world – for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself. To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to yourself. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.” [An Altar in the World p93]
Brown Taylor highlights ways one can begin the practice and picks up on one of my favourite pastimes – the person at the checkout. I decided 30 or so years ago that I would nice to checkout people – whose days must be a real grind – the same old job over and over again and, with the advances in technology, less and less use of your brain. You don’t even have to be able to count anymore because the till will tell you how much change to give. So they put your stuff through, ask if it is eftpos or cash, ask you to swipe your card, ask whether you want the receipt, and, whether it is early in the morning or last thing at night, their parting word is, ‘have a nice day!’ – whatever that means!
I decided that the checkout is an opportunity for interaction – sometimes playful, sometimes just taking an interest. So I always look them in the eye and greet them or thank them by name. Sometimes I ask after them or joke with them. One of the part-time girls around the road here is a school girl named Cecilia. Not a name you get a lot these days – probably because of the Simon & Garfunkel song! One day I looked at her with a serious look on my face and said: “Cecilia – you may not know this, but you are breaking my heart, and you’re shaking my confidence daily… Cecilia, I’m down on my knees, I’m begging you please to come home – come on home!”
She looked at me with the look that says – yes, I’ve heard that one before but are you really doing this to me in front of these people? But we ended up having a good old chat, and now, when I go through the checkout, she remembers me, and I haven’t had to sing the song that is always in my head whenever I see her – much as I have wanted to!
This might seem like a trivial thing, but I have done a lot of watching in the checkouts over the years and they are among the most dehumanising places – the checkout people are bored, the people in the lines are tired and drawn, there is little interaction and not a lot of joy. I could have joined the crowd – but I am committed to love my neighbours – for me that involves the discipline of relating with them despite my feelings and my tiredness. The rewards, I have to say, are many and deep. It has become a highlight in my life – who would have thought that being at the checkout could be such fun!
We, of course, get to practice loving our neighbours on a regular basis in our church community. The church community is a kind of microcosm for experimentation and fine tuning. People who we might normally not associate with have to be tolerated, worked around, and even endured, despite their quirks and inconsistencies. All are welcome – that’s how God operates and that’s what we all agree to and find a way to put into practice. The key concept here is hospitality – making a space for someone else – the stranger and sojourner, the lost and the broken, the least and the last. The theology is simple, as God has made a space for us, so we are to make space for others.
I count the hospitality shown to me by the church when I was vulnerable as one of the most wonderful gifts in my life. I had a few fairly tormented years as a teenager – for some reason I was the target for the aggression of a bunch of testosterone-filled idiots who were unsure how to handle themselves and others. I daresay they had their own demons to face, and like most people with demons, they project their stuff onto someone else – in this case, weedy uncertain me. It was quite tiresome, sometimes frightening, and very isolating – other more reasonable characters avoided me lest they became targets by association. My life-line was my church family. In that community I was liked and valued and interesting. In that community I had space to grow and room to be forgiven. Whatever the failings of that community, I count their care of me as a triumph. God bless the people of St Paul’s in Timaru!
I daresay there has been such a community for you in your past. Can you bring to mind the names and faces of those who nurtured you? Given your behaviour on Friday night, I see that you continue to provide such a space today.
A key dynamic of what I feel called to offer in my ministry among you is exploring how we take the goodness of what we have in our community life here at St Stephen’s and offer it in service of the community around us in a new and interesting ways. The hospitality that we experience together is not for us alone – what we have here is not a club for our pleasure, but a springboard for service – a training ground for the godly business of loving our neighbours. We are placed here to serve the people around us. Not so that we can recruit, use, change, fix, help, save, enrol, convince, or control people – but simply because those around us, like us, are loved. The hospitality of God has been given to us and it is also given to them. It might well be that without our care of those around us, they might not see God’s hospitality for what it is – what we do for those around us – with music and play, caring for feet, serving afternoon tea, providing cheap clothes and goods, and an after-school club – all modest things in themselves – without these things and us in them – people might miss God’s making a space for them. That’s what makes our efforts so important – that’s what makes these efforts holy.
In the Bible, the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. Philo – one of the four Greeks words for love, and xenia – for the stranger. Love of stranger. Not xenophobia but philoxenia – loving our neighbours. “Love your neighbour!” says Jesus, says Moses, says God. “Who is my neighbour?” asks the teacher of the Law – and we know the story. The neighbour is the least expected, the last choice, the person written off as lost… it was the hated Samaritan who offered hospitality to the robbed and beaten left-for-dead stranger. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.
A story and a challenge: In Dunedin when Anne and I were residing there, there was a heightening of grumpiness in the city because of raucous student behaviour. More and more people were calling for a crackdown on the students, with some even saying we would be better off if they weren’t there. One of the issues was that most of the students lived in close proximity to the university and gradually over the years all the permanent residents in that area moved out thus removing any moderating influences away. It was easy to fire pot-shots at the students because increasingly the permanent city-folk didn’t relate to them. The permanent citizens benefitted greatly from the student’s presence – the university is the life-line of Dunedin – without it the city would lose its largest business – but because the city-folk didn’t relate to the students it became easier to fasten in on some behaviour and elevate the grumpiness. I decided to challenge my parish to handle this with hospitality rather than hostility. I suggested that in the week before examinations we could go out in pairs and take bags of homemade biscuits around the student housing area. It was clear to me that the only way to break down the ‘them and us’ mentality that was growing in the city was for the permanent residents to attempt to relate. We offered no strings attached hospitality. The experience for the church people was profound. In some cases they were invited in – they had conversations they never imagined would have been possible – they enjoyed themselves. And, most of all, they realised that the vast majority of these young people were ordinary human beings – the kind of loveable human beings their grandchildren were. After that experience the people of the parish were slower to judge and faster to speak up for the students in the city.
It was interesting to read Dr Rod Carr’s comment in the newspaper this week that over 85% of the university students in Christchurch live within 2-3km radius of the University of Canterbury. This is fast becoming a situation like that in Dunedin. How are we in the city going to manage how we relate to them? How can we offer hospitality rather than hostility to our neighbours?
A month ago Anne and I popped over to Avonside to deliver a cheque for a $1000 to a young couple living in a very badly affected part of the city. Friends had told us of their plight and we had been given some money from the Highgate Parish to distribute to people in need. Driving into the Avon loop zone was a profound experience – the place was desolate – it was a real shock to us. I cannot say that it has been the hardest hit part of the city or that the people there are the people in greatest need, but their lives are seriously affected – and they still don’t have the sewerage system restored. I wrote that experience up on my blog and received a lot of feedback. Some people in Wellington wrote to me and offered $15,000 for that kind of ministry. Others also offered money. Here’s what I want to do… I want to offer you the opportunity to go out in pairs one Sunday afternoon and door knock in the Avonside/Dallington area, with bags of homemade biscuits and $200 supermarket vouchers for any people you find at home. If we west-side, less earthquake affected people go with my $15,000 that would mean we could visit 75 homes and offer some hospitality in order to make life just a tiny bit easier for them. In the meantime, because of my writing that visit up, two other people have said they would like to give $1000 for that kind of thing – that would make it $17,000. It has got me thinking. What if I was to approach the supermarkets over this side of the city and invite them to match us in some way – maybe even dollar for dollar? We could turn that $17,000 into something as high as $34,000 and connect with 170 homes. And then what if we involved St Giles and maybe St Mark’s and invited people to donate money for vouchers as well as baking and walking the streets, maybe we could top $50,000 and get to 250 homes! I know that this would create a logistical nightmare, but there are people who are good with systems. But what a gesture of hospitality this would be – some west-side Presbyterians doing something for their east-side neighbours with a Kingdom of God-like gesture. Biscuits and vouchers not because you have proved need or done something to deserve our generosity, but just because we know that this is the way of Jesus and that we believe, as it says in the book of Proverbs, that ‘the world of the generous gets larger and larger and the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.’ [Proverbs 11:24 The Message]
What do you reckon? Is this the kind of ‘moving a mountain’ offering the hospitality of God challenge that we could take up?