The Nature of Hope found in Hospitality,

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Nature of Hope found in Hospitality,

Advent 4 18th December 2016

Last week I spoke about the weak God, the suffering God, the God who is radically different from the almighty interventionist fix anything God and I hailed J D Caputo’s argument that it is the weak God, the vulnerable child, born into homelessness with nothing but a animal food trough for a bed, and the God who is the Messiah come to save all, sort of God who is executed as a criminal, where we find the most profound hope. United in despair and struggle God and humankind know only one response, that of certain hope. Together as one is the only way out. Today I want to ask you to hold on to that idea of the weak God while we explore the nature of the vulnerability a little.

Hospitality, is perhaps the most iconic of Christian values and one of the easiest to go on attributing to the historical Jesus, in spite of how much else has been stripped away from his biography. We need to discuss this because of the scary things people have been saying about refugees, about those who are different ethnically, economically and socially. Let alone what is being said about sex equality and about the contribution of women to our society. We need to discuss this because of the people who are bleeding in the streets. We need to discuss this because sometimes the bias can make us afraid to be hospitable.

How many of you were hospitable and been hurt, or hospitable and someone else got hurt. How many of you were hospitable and then, as a result of your hospitality, you became responsible for something or someone so precious that you could no longer afford to let just anyone through your door. Maybe you were hospitable night after night, until you became too weary to get up and answer the door. Being there wore you out and you found suddenly that you were the one knocking.

And to add to this dilemma you found that the decision to open the door can’t be dictated in advance. To paraphrase Bishop Spong’s ninth thesis on ethics: Once we give up ancient codes and creeds like the Ten Commandments, we discover that our morality is no longer decided for us. It must be forged in the space between rules-of-thumb and real life. We have to work out our morality for ourselves in that space between nothing and rules. In The Folly of God, John D. Caputo describes this space as that which “calls” to us or that which we “are called” to do, without a clear subject:

If we could identify the caller, assess the credentials of the source, evaluate its authority, we would get on top of it, make it our own. If we could just say that God will look after it, that the call would come from an ontological caller ID. … If I could say this is God or biology or culture, there would be an end to it. My mind would be put at ease. … [But] that would deprive the call of its uncanniness, of its riskiness, of its madness and folly. (91) Like the interventionist God It would become strong and distant as opposed to weak and intimate. The call of hospitality is a call to risk it all.

Caputo warns us that the risk of hospitality is irreducible. He says the person on the other side of the door really could be the person we most fear and it really could also be the person most dreadfully in need of our help. Each time, we have to decide whether we’re going to take the risk. And it doesn’t get easier, because the risk is renewed with each new knock at the door.

Namsoon Kang of Brite Divinity School complicated this to yet another level at the Spring 2016 session of the Seminar on God and the Human Future (a recent successor of the Jesus Seminar). In recounting the story of Lot, who offered hospitality to angels, Kang observed that sometimes hospitality to the other requires the sacrifice of the familiar. In Lot’s case, he handed over his daughters to his neighbours to be raped in the angels’ stead. We must not forget this liability as well. The ultimate weakness, the vulnerable child becomes the one on the cross.

I think that Caputo and Kang have got it right and these risks are real, and yet at the same time I find myself wanting to find at least a modicum of relief. Habits and other rules-of-thumb exist for a reason. Habit is not always a sign of moral weakness; it can simply be common sense. It does not have to become creed or rule. What I think I am trying to say is: Don’t feel guilty for pre-programming 1-1-1 into your phone and handing it to your sister before you open the door. Don’t let fear condition your hospitality, open the door, as often as you can bear to because avoiding that weakness of encounter is to push God away and miss out on the impossible becoming possible. Hospitality can lead to love but it needs to be offered.

This leaves us with another question about the nature of vulnerability or that which creates the opportunity for hospitality. One’s ability to be hospitable relies on a discernment of the vulnerability.

Rex Hunt offers us the haunting poem “In the Sanatorium” (2014) by Anya Silver that opens in an Austrian sanatorium with one dying German confessing his sins to another:

Under orders, the German had taken enemies of the state, shoved them between two stopped trains, and burned them to death. Then swept away the remains. Could he ever be forgiven for such a sin?

Unbeknownst to the confessor, the man in the bed beside him (the narrator’s father) was the son of one of the men the German had killed.

But this is not a tale of hospitality, for when the father might have spoken, he turned his head away. Forget forgiveness; he doesn’t even breach the pain. The narrator, having inherited this unresolved moment, concludes:

Riven, six more decades, between two ghosts: one wasted from coughing, pale; one burning. Both beyond any word he might have spoken.

Now it is the narrator’s turn to decide her next move: How will this memory haunt her? Will it push her toward hospitality in her encounters with others, or will she also turn away (out of a natural fear, and who can blame her)?

The poet then leaves the reader with that question, but also with a lovely, non-apocalyptic image. Rather than imagining our world apocalyptically like a phoenix that dies in a burst of flames but comes back perfectly out of the ashes, like some sort of supernatural healing, we might imagine it instead like the salamander, who may lose his limbs and retain scars, yet regrows the limbs, lives with the scars, and keep on going.

Hospitality is like that. We end up with the scars, but we also receive gifts we could never have counted on in advance. Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (the book, not the musical) who, after robbing the bishop who had first showed him hospitality, was dragged back by the police only to be given back all that he stole and more.

“Don’t forget, don’t ever forget,” the bishop said, although Valjean remembered promising no such thing, “don’t forget that you promised me to use this silver to make an honest man of yourself.”

What is often forgotten about this story is that in the very next scene Jean Valjean steals a coin from a little boy by slamming his foot on top of it when the boy drops it. Only after the little boy leaves does his petty theft fold together with the bishop’s pardon, leading him, for the first time in nineteen years, to cry and shout, “I am a miserable bastard!” The rest of Les Misérables is the story of a very honest and good man who time and time again outdoes himself in showing hospitality, resulting in much discomfort and yet also much love. The one who did not understand how to offer hospitality, when confronted by his own inhospitable action hears the call and is transformed. Here we have in the nature of vulnerability, the nature of a certain hope that is revealed in the weakness unveiling the possible. Amen.

Cassandra Farrin is the Marketing Director of the Westar Institute and the Editor of Polebridge Press. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies

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