Acts 11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
When I ask you to think of a major historical world-changing watershed event, what comes to mind for you? The Allied invasion of Normandy? The American Declaration of Independence? The discovery of germs or the first vaccine? All these big ticket events are important. And of course there is the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb of Jesus. But the benefits of that cross and empty tomb would have remained the possession of a minority of Jews within the world’s Jewish minority had it not been for an act of hospitality, a simple invitation, and a positive response, when Peter and Cornelius met and embraced under Cornelius’ roof. The author of Luke-Acts so wants us to know how important this act of hospitality is that he relates it twice: once when we read of the event itself, and again when he records Peter’s telling of the event, which is what we just heard today.
Now, Peter could have said to God, “No way; I’m not going to the house of any Roman Centurion; he’s unclean! He’s a member of the brutal and corrupt imperial occupation force that is making our lives so miserable.” And Cornelius could have said, “If I host a Jew in my house, I can kiss my next promotion goodbye, maybe even my career.” In which case, we might still be worshiping this week: probably some ancient Nordic war god who demands human sacrifice. But once Peter and Cornelius embraced in the home of Cornelius, the gospel had a foothold in the Gentile world, and there was no going back. And here we are: just a few of the hundreds of millions of followers of Christ in nearly every tribe, tongue and nation, beginning with Cornelius. We’re here, because Peter went there. That is how a simple act of hospitality around the year A.D. 35 changed the world.
I assert this morning that it is still through hospitality that God is changing—no, make that recreating—the world, one honored guest at a time. Hospitality is how God changes us. Our church’s vision statement captures the power of God at work through hospitality when it says, “As followers of Christ, Emmanuel Mennonite church commits to…..extending hospitality.”
When we agreed to hospitality as a key value in our vision statement, I thought, Sure, eating in each other’s homes? Great! We have some great cooks in this church. I hope you-know-who invites us over for their wonderful desserts! But this morning I’m talking about something deeper than rules for laying out the silverware on the table, or what gets served for dessert, or how to make visitors to church feel more welcome, though all are valuable skills. (project the quote now) In his book, Reaching Out, the esteemed spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen writes, “The term hospitality, therefore, should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in our house—although it is important never to forget or neglect that!–but as a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways.”
That attitude Nouwen describes as, “creating space for the other,” which finally, truly, is space in the heart. Its a sacred space within the soul, spacious enough to let others in, move about and be themselves. That’s why we might call it “hospitality of the heart.” And this is important, because its easy and tempting to extend hospitality with an agenda of some sort, a fear-driven agenda, like “I’m going to host you so that you like me better, and that will help me feel better about myself.” Or, “I’m going to receive you so as to change you, so that you’re more like me.” Real hospitality is about knowing and loving each other better, not about making each other better.
And yet such hospitality does indeed change us, and for the better, which is what makes it scary at times, let’s admit. It changed not only Peter and Cornelius, it changed the world. But only because people invited, welcomed and received each other with a love so great that they didn’t need to change each other to love them any more than they already did. And that, as you’ve heard me say before, is when, how and why we really change most, most freely, fully and for the better: whenever we know we are loved by a love so great that it doesn’t need us to change to love us any more. Being loved like that can’t help but invite us to change. Its only in the security of unconditional love that we can open up and risk growing, changing.
Such hospitality of the heart flows from the hospitality of God, who created a beautiful and fruitful planet on which to host us. Our hospitable God makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. And even though we humans have been bad guests to our host and to each other, God further extends to us his gracious, restorative hospitality through Jesus.
So ours is not the hospitality of an expert doctor who knows just what’s wrong with all her patients and knows just what they need to get better. Nor is ours the hospitality of a wealthy and powerful host who can give food, comfort and space, beyond what anyone else can return. That’s God, not us. And yet, in Christ Jesus, God made himself small enough, and human enough, to need help and hosting from us. Hospitality of the heart is like that of one beggar sharing the bread he just received with other beggars. He really wants and needs the whole piece. But the only thing scarier than sharing it is not sharing it, because that would encourage a culture of hoarding, hiding and hating.
I can’t help but wonder this morning how much the two Tsarnaev brothers who terrorized Boston this week had ever received such hospitality, and what difference it might have made if they had. On one hand we can say, truthfully, that our country out-did most other countries in the world in welcoming their families from Chechnya and settling them, providing schooling and other social services, even giving one of them citizenship. Many asylum seekers end up here in the US because they can get an entry visa here more quickly than to other countries. And they often find very gracious, giving people, ready and well-organized, to help them. A Somali Muslim imam in this very neighborhood told me that when Church World Services settled him first in Iowa, his host family, devout Lutherans, went out of their way quite some distance to buy food that he was permitted to eat as a Muslim. “That got me to wondering what it is that makes Christians so tender-hearted,” he told me. I hope the recent events in Boston don’t change that kind of welcome.
The younger brother, Djokhar, is said to have many deep and loyal friendships from all sorts of people, American-born and more. But his older brother, Tamerlan, posted on Facebook that he had no American friends, and that he doesn’t understand them. He must have been hurting over that. Again, we shouldn’t be too quick to blame only Americans and America for this. He came here at an age old enough to have been deeply formed by his home culture, and by the trauma of his people, engaged in a war of independence from Russia. He would have witnessed terrible things in Chechnya when he was just turning twelve or thirteen. As an older brother myself, I can understand how much responsibility the older brother can feel for the family heritage, the family honor, hurts and history, even the family’s grief and grudges. So your eyes can get stuck looking inward at the pain, and backward at the past. The trauma can isolate one inside an echo chamber of reverberating cries, cries of pain, cries for justice and revenge against someone, finally, if no one helps, if everyone seems indifferent, if no one can break through the pain, than revenge against anyone and everyone. As they teach us over and over again in the STAR training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) “hurt people hurt people.”
Maybe some people did reach out to Tamerlan. I just found out this morning that he was married and had a child. Hospitality is, after all, a two-way street. It requires a willingness to receive, as well as to give. Hospitality is about all-inclusive love for people, like that of God. But that’s not to be confused with what this world usually calls tolerance, which is a crazy-making claim to affirm all beliefs and values, even contradictory ones. Hospitality requires No as well as yes, boundaries as well as open doors. At the very least, the host has to say No to fear and Yes to love. And the guest has to say Yes to respect, restraint and reciprocity, and No to abusing the host. That way, host and guest show hospitality of the heart to each other, as persons.
But we’re all carrying burdens, bruises and broken-ness, most of which we can’t see until times of fear or stress bring them to the surface. Then, we may lash out at those we love, or withdraw in judgment. But lashing out or pulling back are often as much about our past as about the present. Or even, about generations past, long, historic patterns and traditions of hatred, hurt and hostility, like those that stood between Peter and Cornelius, long before either one was born.
I can’t help but wonder, How many more Tamerlans are there around us? Or how much of Tamerlan is there among us or within us, given the burdens we all bear, or the histories we have inherited? In the absence of hospitality offered, and hospitality accepted, all sorts of horrible things can take root and flourish in the human heart. The FBI and the police have to respond one way. But the church of Jesus Christ has an entirely different calling, and an entirely different way of responding to the hurt, the estrangement and the hostility that led to Monday’s bombings in Boston. That calling, and that way, is hospitality, the loving open-ness of the heart that Cornelius extended to Peter, and that brought Peter under his roof.
Hospitality means that the true measure of a church’s life is not how many people are sitting in the pews, but how many are sitting around each other’s tables, on each other’s sofas, or riding in each other’s cars. And who. Last Saturday, some of us had neighborhood friends through Urban Ventures in cars and around tables together at Growing Hope Farm. Many of them were immigrants, like the Tsarnaev brothers. Today we will have friends from some regional Mennonite churches sharing food in our fellowship hall and music in this sanctuary. Some among us have hosted people in transition, or people in crisis, for significant lengths of time, and at great personal cost. So, in many ways I am already preaching to the choir. Let’s just keep remembering to reach across our usual lines of comfort and familiarity to host and be hosted by people we might not know as well, people very different from ourselves, like Cornelius did with Peter.
As for our mission and evangelism, they’re not just about inviting people into this building on a Sunday morning, but into our hearts and lives forever. For that, again, is how our hospitable God is recreating the world, one honored guest at a time. That is how God is recreating us, one honored guest at a time.
So: May we all know ourselves to be honored guests around the table of God. May we all know ourselves to be honored guests around each other’s tables. May we all know ever more fully, the hospitality of God, both through receiving it, and again through sharing it. May we all dwell securely in the broad, sacred spaces of each other’s hearts, where there’s always room for more, that space of freedom from fear, and freedom for people, freedom for love.