What kind of hospitality will we offer?

Yesterday, half way up a mountain and in desperate need of a sugar boost, I discovered the sweets in my rucksack pocket were ‘haram’ – the word used by Muslims to describe that which is forbidden by God. I decided not to eat them as 12 out of 13 of my companions could not have shared them with me and, to the delight of my children, they have come home with me.

I could have eaten them and no-one would have minded. But somehow it felt inhospitable. I would rather go without than having something others can’t share and enjoy.

Over the last few years, as we have seen the Places of Welcome network grow and as I have experienced amazing welcome from people of all faiths and none, the idea of hospitality has become more and more central to my thinking about faith.

Hospitality is pretty topical at the moment, although the tragedy of the people drowning in the Mediterranean is fast becoming yesterday’s news. But the extreme reluctance of rich nations to offer any kind of home to the poorest people on the planet shows us how easily the practice of welcome can become squeezed out by fear that there is not enough to go around. Or perhaps by the fear that our welcome may cause us to change.

And maybe that fear is well-founded. The welcome Birmingham has given to thousands of people over many decades has caused the city to change – for the better. But I am sure there are many things that could be better if we, as a city, were prepared to change a little more. I find it quite shocking to hear that Muslim women in town during prayer time often have to pray in the fitting rooms of a department store. Or I am suprised at the limited choices people have if they want to eat in a restaurant that serves halal meat and does not serve alcohol in our city centre.

After we had climbed Snowdon yesterday we piled down to a cafe I have known for many years that serves steaming mugs of coffee and warming food for hikers. But when I arrived with my Muslim friends I looked at it with new eyes. I knew pork would be on the menu but I did not realise it has recently started serving alcohol. Nor had I thought how awkawrd it was for people to buy food in a place that did not recognise their needs. The staff and customers could not have been more welcoming to our group in their manner but the menu made it clear that Muslims were not expected to eat there.

A few members of the group played it safe with jacket potatoes and cheese, others settled for chips while a couple made a few enquiries about the oil and discovered they could go for the fish, chips and peas meal. I imagine that hundreds if not thousands of Muslim people visit this corner of Wales every year – I know of two trips that went from Brum this weekend. It wouldn’t take much to add a symbol to the menu to show Muslims what they can eat without having to ask – it is already done for vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies. And suddenly the welcome would be simple and without awkardness.

That would be welcoming without any change – just tweaking. But for those of us who come from a faith tradition that has food, hsopitality and freedom at its heart I am not sure it’s enough. It’s the approach taken at some interfaith events where the pork pies and sausage rolls are opposite the halal chicken sandwiches and samosas. At others, like a training event I was at last week, one meal is served which was described as vegan, kosher, halal and delicious – a Middle-Eastern meze of falafel, tabouleh and hummous.

Its interesting to learn the specifics of someone else’s faith but it brings deep joy when we find those ideas or beliefs that resonate with our own or deepen our undestanding. Knowing about festivals and rituals helps us to be informed about each other but discovering a shared insight or motivation builds deep friendship and trust. Our conversations about faith turn from being a buffet into a common meal.

Sometimes its giving up sweets that seals a relationship. Sometimes its just letting someone know they are expected. Sometimes its digging deeper for resonances and wisdom. Sometimes its simply tweaking your menu. All these kinds of hospitality will change us- but only for the better.

It might be more blessed to give than receive – but both are better than acquiring and consuming.

It’s a tedious cliché to say we live in a consumer society but in the next room to me, Nigel Farage is telling the nation that the only thing that matters is control – control in this case of over the number of immigrants allowed through our borders. We want to keep some people away so we have more things for ourselves – we become like children who don’t want to share their lego.

We want to be in control of how much we earn, who visits us when, how we spend our time and who lives near us – perhaps to be sure that our things aren’t threatened and our cycle of acquiring and consuming is never interrupted or questioned.

Controlling, acquiring and consuming are quite possibly the trinity of our materialistic and individualistic society. Giving, receiving and risking are the equivalent interactions that happen in community and acknowledge our inter-dependence. I know which is more fulfilling – just think how much nicer it is to eat a meal together that someone has cooked for you than one that you have cooked for yourself and will eat alone.

I have been reading a fantastic book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath As Resistance – saying No to the culture of now. In the preface he says:

“In our contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods…..But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devour all our “rest time.” The alternative on offer is the awareness that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God. To be so situated is a staggering option because we are accustomed to being on the initiating end of all things.”

Initiating things, controlling their execution and having our way is part of the reward bought by material wealth, good physical health and social advantage. But perhaps we fear being on the receiving end so much that we fill our life with activity and have little time or space to be “situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

When I am not knee deep in acquiring and consuming (the Boden sale was irresistible) I am immersed in a dissertation about deacons and one of the ideas that has leapt out at me is that the priest may be the person ordained to offer the bread and wine and the deacon is ordained to help people receive the bread and wine – the gifts of God.

This symbolic role at the altar is then mirrored in the day-to-day role of the deacon as the facilitator of the people of God in the world, encouraging lived discipleship in numerous and diverse settings.

It seems daft that we need to learn to receive but I know the compliments and gifts can make me embarrassed and criticism can be equally hard to take.

Prayer too can be dominated by our wanting to initiate, be productive and possibly consume. My prayers can quite often be far more ‘my will be done’, than ‘your kingdom come.’ I am trying to develop a practice of silent prayer too and turn off the constant giving of my concerns, my fears, my desires and even my gratitude to take time simply to receive – to be “situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

The debate around immigration is deeply depressing. I find it incredible that people on my street are displaying UKIP posters and I wonder how that feels to friends with roots in different continents. The life of my church has been deeply enriched when it has been able to receive the gifts of God brought to it by people described as ‘immigrants.’ What would tonight’s debate look like if receiving, giving and taking a few risks replaced the self-serving and fear-inducing trinity of acquisition, consumption and control?

Word, Sacrament…and welcoming the stranger

Here is one I cooked earlier and put in the freezer during my sad attempt at a Lenten social media fast… and as its about my favourite resurrection story it is hopefully more apt now that it was then…

I was recently at a meal when a former diocesan Bishop said he used to ask people, who were on the point of getting ordained, what they would say to someone who wanted to become a Christian. In effect, what was their summary of the Gospel and how would they point someone towards a journey of discipleship.

Although the question was not directed at me it left me feeling a bit rabbit in the headlights and unsure how I would answer a similar question without resorting to three page tracts, theologically thin cliches or totally unhelpful but nice sounding platitudes.

But the question wounldn’t go away and as I thought about it I was  struck that the story of the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35)  that I have been reading slowly with friends since October through the lens of Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book With Burning Hearts is a fantastic metaphor for the the Christian journey and cycle of discipleship.

These verses in Luke’s Gospel tell the story of people converted, healed and restored by an encounter with Jesus. Like so many of us, they walked despairing, bogged down in grief, overwhelmed by the powers of the world and unable to find hope. Jesus appears and walks with them, asking to join their conversation, but they don’t know who he is. Once they have shared their grief and despair his response is to the point – and seemingly a little rude. “You foolish people,” he says, “So slow to believe all the prophets have said…” This rebuke is perhaps a point of baptism for the travellers – as they have to die to their own stories and preconceptions and be reborn with eyes and ears and hearts that can receive the Good News. It may not be polite but it may be the necessary interruption of ingrained thought patterns and narratives that makes the space for transformation, faith and trust.

Jesus then goes on to explain the scripture to them in such as way that their hearts burned within them but it is in the breaking of bread that they finally recognise him. Yet this sacramental moment of grace would never have happened if they had not  invited Jesus to their home. Word and sacrament are perhaps the expected hallmarks of Christian life and worship, the ways in which we expect to encounter Christ, but what about inviting the stranger home?

Nouwen says this about our encounters: “Interesting, stimulating and inspiring as  all these strangers may be, when I do not invite them into my home, nothing truly happens. I might have a few new ideas, but my life remains basically the same. Without an invitation, which is an expression of a desire for a lasting relationship, the good news that we have heard cannot bear lasting fruit.”

Sitting in a small communion service today I suddenly realised that the Common Worship prayer after the Eucharist resonates deeply with the Emmaus story: “Father of all, we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home. Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory. ”

Jesus met the travellers on the road when they were far off and he brought them home – spiritually and literally. He declared his love, gave them grace and opened the gate of glory for them by retelling the story of his life through scripture (living) and by remembering his death in the breaking of bread (dying).

When we invite Jesus into our home the gate of glory is opened and we receive grace, love and peace. When we invite a stranger into our home we are opening ourselves us to be changed, challenged, evangelised and continually converted. The long term relationships we invest in do more than change our minds and opinions – they change our hearts and our souls if we are open to God’s grace.

Reading the Gospels carefully we hear that Jesus went into many homes – friends, tax-collectors, pharisees, the Upper Room to name a few. He crossed boundaries and thresholds to open the gate of glory, declare love and give grace. And so our summary of discipleship does not end with us breaking bread with Jesus in the house in Emmaus but leads us back to the road where we now accompany those walking in despair, where we open the scriptures and invite people into the fellowship of the Church.

When my son was very little he would sometimes ask to go home – even if he was in our house. It meant he needed the security of being loved, being secure, being both safe and free, being accepted and known and in a place that he understood. He needed to be in the loving gaze of his parents just as we need to be brought home sometimes and sit quietly in the loving gaze of God.

I love the activity of being on the road and I enjoy meeting the stranger but as I approach ordination I realise too that I need to be brought home. The journey of discipleship takes us from the road back home and out again – a dance of refreshment and activity, giving and receiving, loving and being loved, praying and doing.

Or as Henri Nouwen says: “The mystery of God’s love is that our burning hearts and our receptive ears and eyes will be able to discover the One we met in the intimacy of our homes, continues to reveal himself to us among the poor, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners, the refugees and all people who live in fear.

“Here we come to realise that mission is not only to go and tell others about the risen Lord, but also to receive that witness from those to whom we are sent.”

Pick up your towel

I am breaking my Lent fast from blogging to post the sermon I have just preached. Footwashing has become emblematic of the role of the deacon – the servant/minster but interestingly for a deacon-geek in the story in John, Jesus never uses the greek word diakon. Instead he uses the doulos which is more accurately translated as slave. I believe that rather than being emblematic of the ministry of a deacon, footwashing is the symbol of discipleship. and so tonight I preached this sermon….

I once heard it said that it was much easier to remember Jesus in the days of Christendom when civic buildings like schools, libraries, town halls and even hospitals were built to look a little bit like churches. Majestic buildings, daily acts of worship in places of education, the regular reminders of bell-ringing, the prominence of the clergy – these structures were supposed to remind us we were living in a Christian nation.

And to some extent I am sure these external props may have jogged the memory of someone who needed to remember God. I once saw a woman hurrying down the High Street here, head bowed and weighed down with shopping. But when she got to the pavement across the road from the bus-stops, opposite the Church, she paused, looked over and crossed herself. As she did so, her face visibly lightened and she continued on her way.

Our reading from Corinthians today tells us that when we take communion we both remember Jesus and proclaim his death.

Remember is a rich word for us. It literally means to put the body back together again and of course that is what we do as we gather to share in the Lord’s supper – together as the Body of Christ.
Put it also means to bring to mind, to put in focus, to shape our thoughts and imagination and to be mindful of someone’s presence.

During a recent visit to the synagogue by the Mailbox in town, the Rabbi happened to mention that when the Jewish people remember the Passover with the seder meal they leave a few drops of wine from the ritual drink. These drops are to remember the Egyptians who suffered. Their joy at the liberation is moderated by their compassion for those who suffered. Their remembering is inclusive and avoids easy triumphalism, bringing what was lost to mind at the same time as celebrating what was given.

Our post-Christendom world wants us to remember a lot of things. We are constantly reminded about the things we don’t have, the holidays we have not yet taken, the beauty we do not quite possess and the youth we need to maintain at all costs. Our consumer society wants us to be a servant – or slave – to our desires for these things – to live lives that revolve around earning and acquiring.

But the Gospel reading, which we will hear after communion, about Jesus washing the disciples feet shows us that we should be slaves to the wellbeing of the other. There is so much detail in the telling of this story that we know it is extremely significant. I love some of the contrasts in the passage.

Here is a forestaste of a couple of verses: “3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table,[a] took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself”. – my childhood Bible makes the contrast even more clear. It says: Jesus knowing that the Father had put all things into his power….he took off his outer robe.
Jesus is so sure of his power that he divests himself off it – literally. Unlike the robing of a monarch or a church dignitary, Jesus strips himself of the things that protect him and takes on the appearance of a slave. And so begins the dramatic story of self-emptying that ends on the cross as Jesus, poured out literally, utters the words: “it is finished.”

And that’s what we remember in communion. Jesus enacts his love in a way that costs him his whole life. Alongside the practice of footwashing today, John tells us Jesus commands us to take on this costly practice of love. Another foretaste from John 13 v34-35.

“34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This commandment to the disciples to Love one another does not replace the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself or put the church above the love of neighbour. It is an intensification of the command. Love as I have loved you – choose someone else’s wellbeing over your own. Love even when it costs you your life.
I was chatting to someone recently, someone who I admire greatly as a disciple. She told me that she had chosen to fold her business rather than exclude one of the partners who had become somewhat of a dead weight. This disciple chose love over livelihood.

When we live like that we begin to remember and proclaim.

I hope you remember me beginning this sermon by saying sometimes buildings will remind us of God. But here Jesus is saying that is not necessary to build buildings with stained glass and spires. When we love each each other fully we will constantly remind each other of the loving presence of God, shown to us in Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet. We will not only remember – we will proclaim.

Listen to the end of the verse: “Then all will know you are my disciples.” Then we become the living sign of Christ’s love beyond the church. Foot-washing, we take the dynamic of the Eucharist outside into the world, reminding each other and proclaiming to those around us.

Our society needs reminders of what is eternal and what is important. Those who have chosen the way of selfless love become remembered figures – think of the martyrs and saints of both the early church and more recently – the Stephens, Francis’s, Claire’s, Martin Luther Kings, Ghandis and Mandelas.

Our culture wants us to think love can be bought and desires are met by spending money. But in reality our desires are met when we seek the fulfilment, happiness and wellbeing of others.

Jesus is clear – “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”. The stripped altar and bare church helps us remember Jesus’s stripping of his power and position, his self-emptying and then his death – all driven by his love for us.

This Lent I have found my small and pathetic attempts to deny myself have peeled off layers of complacency and self-deceit, revealing addictions and dependencies. But without that peeling off – I don’t think I can get ready to pick up my towel and begin to wash feet.

Our proclamation of Christ, crucified and risen, grows out of the remembering at the Eucharist but needs us to wash feet in our communities, if the world is going to be able to hear it. Jesus called us all to pick up our cross of discipleship but today I think he is reminding us that we not only need to pick up our cross, we also need to take off our outer garments and pick up our towels – today and every day.