Monday, August 18, 2014

Reverse Hospitality and the Dog Days of August

Life is messy.  But theology is clean.  In Matthew’s gospel this morning, Jesus attempts to clarify definitions of clean and unclean, the crucial dividing line between Jew and Gentile.  In so doing he offends the Pharisees whom he calls “the blind leading the blind.”  In this sweeping teaching, Jesus essentially rejects the Purity Codes—all of them--by arguing that defilement comes from inside a person, and not from an outside source: “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

This is an extremely significant change in theology for Jesus as a Jewish teacher.  Kosher laws are now obsolete, Jesus is saying.  It is a shocking interpretation, potentially eliminating any distinction between Jews and non-Jews as people of faith.  The new teaching is arguably the most important thing that Jesus has done in Matthew’s gospel up to this point. 
 Theology is clean.  Life is messy.  After this new theology, Jesus has to confront messy life.  He is tested.  A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help, and he treats her as if she were unclean.  He talks to her just like a Pharisee would.  The blind leading the blind.

“’I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’  But she came and knelt before him, saying, ’Lord, help me.’  He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”

Yes, Jesus calls the woman a dog.  She is sub-human in their initial interaction.  In doing so, he has failed in his new theology.  It is only the Purity Codes, which Jesus has eliminated, that would make this rejection explicable.  Yet Jesus still rejects her.  He makes a mistake.  But the woman, whose daughter is possessed, doesn’t give up: “’Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’”

The woman is then accepted, her daughter is healed, and Jesus’s own world gets larger by being able to see people of faith outside the boundary of Judaism: “’Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done as you wish.’”  This gospel is a wonderful moment where we get to see Jesus actually grow.  

The Canaanite woman, our ancestor mother, becomes a child of God.  But so too does Jesus, and that’s when things get really interesting. 
I recently discovered a new theological concept in my ministry: I call it reverse hospitality.  We know about hospitality, or at least we think we do.  Jesus’s theology is based on it, once he figures things out with the Canaanite woman.  When we welcome the stranger, we welcome God into our world.  Hospitality is at the heart of the gospel; we are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  So what is reverse hospitality? 

Just a few summers ago, I began a new ministry with the Seamen’s Church Institute.  I worked as a maritime chaplain and ship’s visitor at the Port of Newark, and this work introduced me to the aforementioned new concept: reverse hospitality.  As a school chaplain, I get to do many interesting things in the summer months, like being with you this morning, and next week too. 

So what did I do at the Port of Newark?  First of all, I boarded ships.  Lots of them: container ships, oil tankers, salt ships, scrap metal ships, car ships, and even an orange juice tanker from Brazil.  I boarded as many as five ships a day at the port.  I visited the crews, and I was always available for counseling.  I also did bank deposits, which got the sailors’ pay back to their families in their home countries.  Many of these sailors supported not just their wife and children, but entire extended families as well.  I sold phone cards, at no profit, which allowed the sailors to call their loved ones, often on phones they borrowed from us.  I took sailors to the mall.  I also prayed with them, and heard about their hopes and struggles.  I made friends with people from all over the world.  I met Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Croatians, Indians, Montenegrins (I found them particularly charming), Italians (they had the best food), Germans, Saudis, Koreans, Chinese, Swedes, Finns, Brits, Germans, and the list goes on.  Some of the Scandinavian ships were coed. I met two men from a tiny island in the Marshall Islands that is sinking, and will eventually be underwater.  Many of the crew members were under enormous stress.  Some of the sailors are at sea for nine months at a time.  Nine months on, three months off.  When I boarded ships, I was there to welcome them to the United States and to the Port of Newark.  I welcomed them in the name of my country, and in the name of the church.  

But when I welcomed them, something else happened to me at the same time. 

The crew welcomed me.  Not every time, but sometimes enough that it brought tears to my eyes.  In welcoming them, they instead embraced me even more deeply.  Reverse hospitality.  In many ways, it’s like being a guest preacher in a new place.  On the ships, the symbol of this new friendship often came in the form of an invitation to join them for lunch.  The meals were memorable, like Thanksgiving every day.  The food was as varied as the crews, and I didn’t always know what I was eating.  I ate some fish I had never heard of.  I ate roots as a main dish, along with more American fare.  Needless to say, I became fascinated by the galleys, and the cooks.  I was being treated as a special guest, like a member of their family.  The differences between us didn’t seem so big.  It was a kind of Holy Communion, a spiritual meal, which is what our Great Thanksgiving was in the first century for early Christians.  I felt cared for.  I was something more than an American.  I was a neighbor to the world.  I felt loved in a way both simple and direct; I was a child of God.  That’s what I was trying to make them feel, and yet it came through loud and clear to me.  Maybe they felt it too.  I haven’t been able to get the idea of reverse hospitality out of my mind.  It was mystical and totally ordinary at the same time.  A small taste of heaven in the busy world.  In New Jersey of all places.  
As I thought about the spiritual breakthrough of Jesus this morning, and my own recent experience of reverse hospitality, the writer and professor C.S. Lewis came to mind--in particular, his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Many of you know Lewis as the writer of the Chronicles of Narnia, but he was also a literature professor at Oxford University.  The book Surprised by Joy documents his spiritual journey and his reluctant conversion to Christianity. 

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” 

The conversion was not what he wanted.  Lewis realized that in every passing joy there is something more than the passing experience.  There is something more than joy.  Enjoyment has a residue, a signature, a lingering shadow of the giver.  Blessing has a source, and Lewis finally turned, however reluctantly, to face the giver; the joy of man’s desiring is God. 

“I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I, so to speak, lay my finger and say, ‘This is it,’ had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed….All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I.  I am a reminder.  Look!  Look!  What do I remind you of?’  I desired Joy itself.  Joy itself, considered simply as an event of my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all.  In a way, I had proved this by elimination.  I had tried everything in my own mind and body; as it were, asking myself, ‘Is it this you want?’ Is it this?’”

For Lewis, joy pointed to something more, and he learns to look for that ultimate source.  In Surprised by Joy, Lewis begins to see joy as the gateway to the Absolute, which is a real presence; he begins to look past the transitory experience to the ultimate reality of the eternal God.  Each of us comes to God a little differently.  But the title Surprised by Joy has a more personal meaning for C.S. Lewis.  Lewis had been a lifelong bachelor, but he makes the decision to marry an American woman named Joy Davidman.  He is not in love with her, and she knows it.  Lewis marries her because she has terminal cancer, and he promises to take care of her two boys after her death, which he does.  This relationship was the subject of the beautiful film called Shadowlands.  The marriage is an act of Christian hospitality.  As I mentioned, Lewis is not in love, not motivated by passion.  He is just trying to do the right thing, even though his decision scandalizes his friends and colleagues at Oxford because Joy is divorced (she’s also very leftwing…).  But then he gets to know Joy.  He has never met anyone like this feisty, opinionated, penetrating woman who is dying without complaining.  And she is able to see the famous Lewis in a way that no one else could; she was made to understand him.  He begins to feel that his act of hospitality is giving a gift to him instead, the greatest one he has ever received in his life.  Reverse hospitality.  Joy changes everything about his life.  Lewis begins to pray to God for the woman he now loves as husband.  He falls for her two boys too.  Lewis prays like he never has before.  Joy’s bone cancer goes into remission, and they truly become husband and wife, physically and spiritually.  It is a sacred gift for both of them.  Yet Lewis still looks for the giver, even when Joy’s cancer comes back—even when she dies, as we all must.  What kind of God would give him the gift of this extraordinary woman?  A God of love, a God surpassing anything we can imagine.  In Shadowlands, Lewis is asked by one of his friends if he thinks prayer can change God. 

Lewis replies.   
“It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”  

When Lewis offers hospitality to Joy, joy literally transforms his life.  Likewise the Canaanite woman liberates Jesus, and he never looks back.  The messy world becomes clean because the theology is now impeccable.  There is something behind every joy you experience, and it can be the center of your life.  When you welcome others into the love of God, God welcomes you too, as a child of God, as the beloved.  When you make room for God in your life, God makes room for you in this universe, forever—a love without end.  True joy can be yours.  And what’s behind it is even better.

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