John 13:1-17, Hebrews 13:2
Dr. Anne M. Cameron
4th Lent April 3, 2011
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
Third in a series on, "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations"
Two years ago George and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by getting away to a quaint berry farm in East Texas. We rented a cabin for a couple of nights. It was an absolutely gorgeous place. Lush green lawns; a riot of color in overflowing flowerbeds. A tranquil lake and towering trees. A scattering of well kept farm animals completed the idyllic scene.
Our brand new cabin smelled of fresh cut cedar and rosemary. We were delighted! Once we got settled, we started noticing lots of little signs.
"Do not use towels at the lake. You will be charged $10 if a towel is soiled."
"Canoe rentals: $10 per hour. Honor System."
"Do not stain the dish towels. You will be charged $3 per towel. We don't want to have to charge you, but we will."
You can imagine our consternation when our morning coffee pot overflowed all over the counter and onto the floor! What do we clean it up with? Toilet paper?
Though we enjoyed the scenery, I don't think we'll be going back. We've stayed at many B&Bs over the years because we enjoy the variety and the extra TLC. TLC doesn't cost much, and it reaps huge benefits: happy customers who will return again and again and recommend the place to their friends. Not to mention spreading peace and goodwill to strangers who sometimes become friends. It's called hospitality.
I am pretty sure the owners of this B&B felt they extended extraordinary hospitality to their guests. It was a first class sort of place. Everything was perfect. The only problem was, they had trouble seeing things from the guests' point of view. They were so oriented to keeping things perfect, they sort of forgot there might be other, more important things.
In our scripture today we come upon Jesus almost at the end of his time on earth. The gospel of John tells this story, not found in the other three gospels. In John's telling of Jesus' final evening with his disciples, we find ourselves drawn into, not the Last Supper, but what we might call the Final Foot Bath.
The story of the Final foot Bath is framed in the love of Jesus. This passage begins with love, and it ends with a commandment to love. "Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love." Jesus was about to love the disciples---and us-- fully, completely. In the context of that love, we witness Christ's service in a humble act.
It is hard for we who bathe nearly every day to imagine how dirty people in the ancient world could be. It is hard for us who walk on paved sidewalks and roads, to picture the dry and dusty footpaths in ancient Galilee, where lots of people were barefoot! Guests came in with incredibly dirty feet. The proper thing to do was to wash those filthy feet.
Footwashing was practiced in both Jewish and Roman homes. It was a common sign of hospitality to offer water so guests could wash their feet, but the host never actually did the dirty work. People took care of their own feet. Occasionally a very low ranking servant or slave might be relegated to this menial task. But never the host. Never. Ever.
When Jesus rolls up his sleeves and ties his cloak like an apron around his waist, his disciples look at one another, confused. What on earth is he doing? Peter can't keep his mouth shut. Peter objects to Jesus' unusual show of hospitality. He protests. He argues. He says, "No way, Lord, are you gonna wash my feet!"
The word 'hospitality' does not appear in John's gospel, but almost everybody who's anybody says this story is, among other things, about Jesus' hospitality. The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that hospitality is practiced on "guests, visitors, or strangers."
We often forget the idea of hospitality to strangers. The New Testament Greek word for stranger has the same root as the Greek word for "guest" or "host" (xeno). Stranger/Guest/Host. Isn't that fascinating? This one word signals the essential mutuality that is at the heart of true hospitality. Hospitality needs both a receiver and a giver, and strangers are especially important.
In his book, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase describes the kind of hospitality evidenced in living, vibrant communities of faith. We will not be surprised to find these practices reflect the kind of extraordinary hospitality both lived and modeled by our Savior Jesus Christ. Schnase calls it radical hospitality---practices of hospitality rooted in the life and actions of Christ.
One of our members who is deeply committed to welcoming others routinely communicates this by welcoming people with the phrase, "we see you as Christ's guest." As Christians, when we meet and greet the stranger, this is where we want to go---to realize each person we meet is Christ's guest and WE are Christ's representative! This is what is at stake when we encounter a stranger, whether it be here at church, or outside of church.
Radical means "drastically different from ordinary practice, outside the norm, practices that exceed expectations, go the second mile, and welcome the stranger to the max." It is not enough, Schnase says, to be friendly. Radical hospitality is rooted in the concept of service, in the conviction that there are so many people in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ that we MUST communicate Christ's welcome to as many as we can!
Members in churches who practice radical hospitality have a passion for inviting others to Christ, a dedication to nurture any and all who seek to begin or to deepen their walk with Christ. Churches who embrace Christ's extraordinary hospitality are oriented to those who are not yet here and to those outside our walls. This attitude requires continual commitment and re-commitment. It's easy to forget there are so many who need what faith in Christ can give, so many just outside our walls who need what we have found in Christ.
Churches that practice radical hospitality do it to the max! They train and prepare ushers and greeters for the vital ministry of welcoming. They work hard to understand the perspective of the newcomer and anticipate the needs of guests before they arrive. They make sure every part of the church house is as presentable and as accessible as possible! Hardest of all, they create new spaces and places for new people who seek to join in. And they continually look at how well they are inviting and welcoming strangers and guests.
None of this is easy. Our natural tendency is to be comfortable just where we are. When we become hospitable in the way of Christ, things get messy. And noisy. And unpredictable!
When we fling open our doors with Christ's hospitality, we may find ourselves on our knees, up to our elbows in dirt and grime. When we live into Christ's hospitality, we realize we have to give up some of our treasured ideas or practices. We are pressed to extend some extraordinary hospitality of our own. We make room at the table for new people, even as we feel ourselves crowded or uncomfortable.
When we follow Christ, we are continually asked to rethink our values, our place. We are asked to become servants. We are asked to think first about the other, and to turn our thoughts to the needs of the other.
On the night Jesus washed his disciples' feet, he would be betrayed by the hands of one whose feet he washed. On that night the host stooped to the role of a slave. On that night, Jesus was sold for the price of a slave---thirty shekels of silver. On that night, the Lord of the universe shed his cloak in an act of servitude, just as he would soon shed his blood in an act of sacrifice.
When I think about what was missing at our B&B, it wasn't comfort, or quality, or beautiful things. What was missing was personal. What was absent was the give and take that is the heart of true hospitality. What was missing was the knowledge that hospitality is not about things, but about people. About people getting dirty in the service of others. About people bending their knees to make others comfortable. About people sacrificing their own needs so that others might be drawn to Christ.
Go the extra mile. Our Lord did it for us. Let's do it for others.