Moving Over to Make Room
As a newly sprung college graduate I moved to Cleveland--I’d like to say that it was some greater calling that drew me there, but at the time I was broke and I had good friends who were happy to have me live with them (in their two bedroom apartment that already had three people in it) until I found a job and a place of my own.
Thankfully, the job came...and I found myself serving as the youth outreach worker for four struggling inner city parishes in Cleveland.
And, it was in one of those parishes that I found myself transformed.
St. Luke’s..., the door was open, no security, we knew and were known. At the hot meal program we started, everyone got a name tag, everyone was invited to make an offering, everyone was asked if they had a prayer request. Meals were tasty, and volunteers, along with the cooking and the serving, were tasked the job of sitting and eating. So they did, the same food, the same plates, the same chairs. Relationships were built and lives were transformed. The congregation gave over their front yard for an urban garden, and the sweat equity came from everyone--lawyer, college kids, the homeless, the children--all of them equally committed to the life and ministry of the church. Not only has St. Luke’s survived it has thrived...
And, five years or so after I had last served St. Luke’s as their youth outreach worker, I had the privilege to join them as a priest. As was the custom at St. Luke’s, the entire congregation gathered around the altar for the Eucharistic prayer and the distribution of communion. As I moved from person to person, I placed a single, thin, wafer in each palm. Eventually, I noticed a small boy--perhaps three years old--following me about, “more chips, please.” “More chips please”...I knelt down in front of him and kindly said, “no one gets seconds until everyone gets firsts”. This was one of the cardinal rules of our hot meal, and the boy smiled as he understood--everyone would get the same, and if there was more, everyone would get the same again according to their need.
My experience at St. Luke’s is what I have come to think of as “Radical Hospitality”...the kind of hospitality in which the folks offering it are willing to be transformed by it. St. Luke’s today looks very little like it did 13 years ago...it has quadrupled in size. It hasn’t been easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and there were times when it was painful (and I am sure folks continue to be challenged to make room for others at the table) but it has happened and continues to happen as room is made and outcast, sinners, saints and prophets gather together, sharing the same prayers, eating the same bread and drinking the same wine. Where else in the world can this happen, but the church?
Another way of talking about this kind of hospitality is the concept of holistic ministry--ministry in which our love for God fuels our service to others which in turn fuels our love for God.
In the great commandment we are first told to love God and then to love our neighbors. In the new commandment we are told to love each other just as Jesus has loved us. Jesus loves, so we love, we love God, so we love our neighbors, in serving our neighbors we encounter Christ and in loving Christ we serve our neighbors.
And so it is and in loving God, truly and heartily we move beyond a passive welcome into a new place of radical hospitality. Radical in the tearing down of walls, radical in the risk taking of building relationship with those who seem so utterly unlike us, radical in giving everyone the same, radical in that there are no favorites, and radical in the willingness to change and grow because when we encounter Christ we cannot help but be transformed by the experience.
Now, there is a silly joke I’ve heard several times, one which probably has its origin in a Reader’s Digest somewhere...
Peter and Paul are arguing at the gates of heaven.
Peter insists Paul is letting too many people through, and Paul insists he is only letting in the folks Peter had on the list.
Eventually, Paul approaches Peter with a wry smile and says, "I figured it out. Jesus was in the back, boosting people in over the wall."
Just in case you are wondering, jokes are not necessarily the best conduit for scriptural or theological knowledge...Peter’s role in the joke is quite divergent from what we hear in scripture. However, the core sentiment is key--Jesus lets everyone in.
Now, back to actual scripture...in the account from Acts we hear today, Peter explains that in this new way of being, this following of Christ, all are welcome regardless of where they come from or who they are. That within the love of God there are no unclean people--all are invited to gather at the table and it becomes our job to move over and make room. We are called to metaphorically boost people over the walls until the point when there are no walls because everyone is inside and the only wall that remains is the entirety of creation.
Jesus tears down walls, Jesus goes amongst the outcast, Jesus draws near even those who would betray him.
The portion of the Gospel we read today is the close of the last supper and foot washing narrative and immediately follows the moment in which Jesus washes the feet of all of the disciples--even Judas. Judas leaves, but following his leave taking, comes the enjoinder to love one another.
Yes, even him.
By washing Judas' feet, Jesus includes him in the circle of love. And, in his commandment asks his disciples to learn to love in this way--this way that includes even the most broken...
The folk who repulse us, the folk who have betrayed us, the folks we have lost...the table is set and they are all invited and in that invitation God sees no us and them. In the invitation to the table, all are welcome and all are equal. The cry of “more chips please” serves as a reminder that we all get the same. That the portion for one is the same as for another. The same portion of love, the same portion of grace, the same portion of forgiveness...all the same, each to each.