becoming a guest

I have followed Arthur Sutherland’s description of the identity of Lydia (from I was a stranger: a Christian theology of hospitality) in this sermon.

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This morning we are talking about hospitality – and as we get going I’m going to say something that might seem odd at first. It is this: It’s easier to be a host than to be a guest. It is easier to be a host than to be a guest. We tend to think that it’s the other way around. We tend to think it’s easier to be a guest. After all, the host has to do all the work. The host has to prepare the meal. The host has to make the guests feel at home. The host has to make sure that house is clean, the coffee hot, the bed comfortable. All the guest has to do is show up – eat, drink, sleep, have a conversation. After a visit, guests go on their way, leaving the cleanup to the host.

Of course there is some work involved in being a host. It’s not necessarily easy to create a welcoming space and experience. It takes work to attend to the needs of a guest.

But it’s still easier to be the host than to be the guest. Why? Let’s try a one-word answer. Power. The one who welcomes another into his or her home has almost all the power.  “Come in, come in, make yourself at home, within my space, my territory.” The host is completely at home in the space to which the other is invited. The host gets to decide who is invited as guest, in the first place. The host can determine what is on the menu. The host determines what provisions will be made for the guest.

And of course being a host brings certain advantages. Very often, in fact, being a host is about crafting a particular image of oneself and one’s home – an image of magnanimity and generosity. Historically, in fact, a good citizen, even a model church member, was one who welcomed others into their home. In traditional gender categories, the host set his guests at ease and regaled them with stories. The hostess knows how to time everything perfectly – to lay out a beautiful table. Very often, extending hospitality has been about crafting a positive image of oneself and one’s family within the community. Welcome to my comfortable home, look at the lovely table setting, see the interesting paintings.

The apostle Paul has received an invitation to stay at the home of Lydia, along with his companions Silas and Timothy. The problem is that this would put Paul in the role of guest, and Paul would rather not be a guest in Lydia’s home. Why? Because it’s difficult to be a guest. Paul resists the invitation of Lydia. If Paul has any choice in the matter, he will serve as host, not as guest.

Perhaps we need to back up and find out how we got here. We should know that Paul is in the middle of one of his missionary journeys. He is on the road, traveling and staying in different cities. Along the way of his journey he is offering encouragement to small Christian communities, teaching them what it means to live as Jesus’ followers. Along the way, Paul is also sharing news of the risen Jesus with people who haven’t heard it.

You’ll recall that whenever Paul arrives in a new city, the first place he usually goes is to the local synagogue. The message of Jesus is first of all rooted in and tied to the covenant people of God, the Jewish people. That’s where the growth of Christian community and identity begins. But when Paul comes to the city of Philippi, it’s a different scenario, since there is no synagogue in that city. Presumably the Jewish community in that ancient city is too small or too poor to have constructed a synagogue. Nevertheless, Paul finds out that on the Sabbath, members of the local Jewish community gather for worship and prayer in an open-air location outside the city, by the river. So, on the Sabbath, Paul goes out with his companions to the river.

And as often happens when Paul arrives within these Jewish communities, he is invited to speak – to share his message concerning the messiah. So Paul shares about Jesus’ remarkable life – about his death and resurrection. Paul shares his conviction that through this Jesus God has reconciled the whole world to himself.

Which brings us to Lydia. She was one of those gathered to listen. Now Lydia is not Jewish – she is probably what’s known as a God-fearer. A God-fearer in that time was a non-Jewish person who nevertheless believed in and worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – he or she was a person who gathered for worship and prayer within the Jewish community.

What more can we say about Lydia from the text? Well, she is not from this city of Philippi but is a migrant from another city. She is a woman who deals in purple cloth – that’s how she makes her living – her arms are probably stained purple from her work. It seems that Lydia has also gathered a group of women around herself, likely women who also trade in fabrics. Together these women probably don’t achieve much more than a subsistence existence. The Greek historian Plutarch, who lived at roughly the same time as Lydia, makes the following reference to purple cloth and those who created it: “Often we take pleasure in a thing, but we despise the one who made it. Thus we value aromatic salves and purple clothing, but the dyers and salve-makers remain for us common and low craftspersons.”

So, here we have Lydia – a God-fearer, a woman, a migrant, a person stained by her work. Lydia, a common craftsperson, probably making just enough to get by.

This Lydia listens to Paul, and the text tells us that her heart was opened to his message. Lydia listens to the message. She believes. “Yes,” she says to herself, “this Jesus is the one through whom God is reconciling the world to himself. This Jesus is the one through whom forgiveness comes to women and men. This Jesus is risen to new life – and I am raised with him.”

Lydia is baptized. The other women who work with her in purple fabric – they are baptized with her. They enter into the resurrection life of the ascended Jesus.

Now upon being baptized, Lydia realizes something. She realizes the need of Paul and Timothy and Silas. She realized that they do not have a proper place to stay in Philippi. They may well be very tired, hungry – not sure where they are going next. And in the light of this Lydia invites them to stay with her. She says to Paul: “Let me provide hospitality for you.”

But here we come back to Paul’s resistance. In the text we read: “She urged us, saying ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” In the original Greek, that word ‘prevailed’ has a real sense of force to it. “Please come and stay with me. Let me be a host to you. Let me provide a space for you to rest and be at home. Really, I want to do this. As your sister in Christ, it is my right to serve you in this way.” She prevailed upon us. It is the strength of her appeal that suggests Paul resists the offer.

Paul doesn’t want to stay with Lydia. Paul doesn’t want to be her guest. Why? Because it is not easy to be a guest. What would it mean for Paul to become a guest to Lydia?

In general, to be a guest means that to be in the more vulnerable, uncomfortable position. You have to fit into a place that is not your own: “What can I touch, or not touch? I don’t know. Where can I go, or not go? I don’t know. This isn’t my space; I’m not completely at ease here, not completely free.”

In general, there may also be things about your host’s life or home that make you uncomfortable. In your own home, at least, you are comfortable with everything – there won’t be any surprises. In someone else’s home, you have less control over what happens, where the discussion goes, what appears on the table. You may be ill at ease.

Further, when you are provided for as a guest, you feel obligated to the other person – like you owe them something for their hospitality. In our culture, there is nothing worse than ‘owing’ someone, which is why we so quickly reciprocate. You do something for me, I quickly do something for you.

Now on top of all these generalities are the specifics of this situation: Lydia is a woman – and no doubt many in that conservative moral culture would have frowned on Paul staying within her household. Not only that, but Lydia is also a marginalized woman (a stained woman on the margin of society). To accept her offer of hospitality is to be associated with her marginalization.

Here’s the big picture. If Paul goes to stay in Lydia’s house, he cannot control what people will say or think. He cannot control who she is or where the conversations might go. On top of that he is dependent on her, and will feel obligated to her. In a profound sense, as a guest, he is not in control. He is vulnerable.

As I thought of this over the past week, I remembered the film a number of us watched at Thrive a number of weeks ago. It’s entitled Babette’s Feast. Babette’s Feast is a Danish film set in the 19th century and tells the story of a young French woman who escaped to Denmark as a refugee. She finds herself welcomed in the home of two sisters living together, who graciously accept her, even though she can pay them nothing. She is made at home with them, and becomes their cook. She is a guest in their home for many, many years.

After much time has passed, after years have passed, Babette suddenly comes into some. And in a dramatic display of hospitality, Babette becomes the host to the now elderly women and their friends for one evening. She decides to spend all of her small fortune on one meal for them. It turns out that Babette, in her earlier life, was chef in a famous restaurant in Paris. She prepares a wonderful, delicious meal for her hosts, now guests.

What is most interesting to watch, as this reversal takes place, is the level of discomfort on the part of the sisters. For so many years they were hosts – now they are guests in their own home. They see the ingredients for the meal arriving – things they’ve never considered eating in their life – a large sea turtle, quail, wine. These pious Christian women are suddenly not in control, they are guests. This woman is preparing something they cannot control – they don’t know what their friends will think – they have lost all power.

The beauty of the film, is that through the meal offered to them, through their sharing of it – these women and their friends, having become guests, are touched and transformed through receiving. Not through giving. Not through presiding. Not from a position of power…

Becoming a guest is of the essence of the gospel. Consider the opening chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus is described as a guest in the most decisive terms. “Jesus was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” At the heart of the gospel is the message that Jesus came to our world as a guest – he came into human life and community as a guest.

He is a guest in Mary’s womb.

He is a guest in the home of Simon the Pharisee.

He is a guest in the home of Martha.

He is a guest at the wedding Cana.

He is a guest on the road to Emmaus.

Jesus comes to our world as a guest. He does not come as a person of privilege – he is not a comfortable and secure host. Rather, he comes as one on the margins who relies on and receives the hospitality and good grace of others – the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.

But here is the thing. It is precisely in his role as guest (as one without power, without comfort, and without security – as one who is not at home) – it is precisely in his role as guest that Jesus embodies and brings about the kingdom of God. It is not from a position of power or comfort that he touches lives and brings healing. Rather, it is from a position of humble receptivity and graciousness that he brings the healing and peace of God’s kingdom. As always, Jesus turns things on their head.

To follow Christ is to become a guest with him. To follow Christ is, in our whole attitude and actions, to become those who are defined by movement into our neighbourhood and world, where many are not be like us. Entering the territory of those who may be marginalized – entering their space, their comfort zone as we are welcomed. Going to the place we might even be rejected. And, doing so, to become the guest, embodying the humble receptivity and graciousness of Christ. And from that position of vulnerability, seeking to embody his love. It’s not easy to be a guest, but it is in that position of vulnerability that Christ’s kingdom comes, to us and to our hosts.

The text doesn’t say so explicitly, but it gives a clear impression that Paul eventually got it right. That he accepted Lydia’s offer of hospitality – that he entered into her home with gratitude and a humble willingness to receive. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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