Recently, a former United Methodist bishop challenged her listeners with a two-word-seed: “graceful hospitality.” United Methodists are people of grace. We receive grace. We offer grace in response to grace. Hospitality is a broad word, much larger than a table filled with food in a fellowship hall. Hospitality is a way of life for those who follow Jesus—The Way. Dare I say that Graceful Hospitality is God’s idea?
In Isaiah 58 we meet the rag-tag band returning to their ancestral homeland after a half-century hiatus. The prophet offers them a word from God on the nature of true hospitality. Eugene Peterson translates one portion of that message using these words.
“I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— “
If Isaiah were a politician instead of a prophet, we’d be tempted to turn the volume down, or, change the channel. But this is a word of LIFE for beaten down, war-torn, fragile, Israel and its a word for us as well … “I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— “
Isaiah is speaking to the residents of Jerusalem who have just returned home after 50 years of slavery in Babylon. They are faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the holy city and surrounding community following the ravages of exile. And while we might be tempted to think that the first generation of those who returned to Jerusalem, we’re eating together with glad and sincere hearts, thankful for their new-found freedom, the truth is they were fighting over who should rule in Jerusalem, with factions grabbing for power. All the while, these same power-hungry leaders prayed loudly and fasted in false humility.
According to Isaiah, God had enough of this pretentious behavior and was fed up with the self-righteous, chest-pumping, “look at me” crowd bent on ruling Jerusalem. God had a vision for his chosen people. So, here’s God’s vision statement for his people as named by the prophet. Might it be a vision God still holds for the Church?
“What I’m interested in seeing you do is: Sharing your food with the hungry: inviting the homeless poor into your homes; putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad; being available to your own families; get rid of unfair practices; quit blaming victims; quit gossiping about other people’s sins; (be) generous with the hungry; start giving yourselves to the down-and-out.”
Far from a stump campaign speech … in fact, what follows God’s vision is the promise of God to all those who will hear this word as a Word of God. Listen to what God says:
“Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness; your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight; I will always show you where to go; I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places.”
As Amy Oden reminds us:
“It surely would have been easy to believe that simply residing in Jerusalem, the holy city, made the citizens holy. It was equally tempting to believe that performing holy acts, like fasting and prayer, make one holy. Isaiah’s challenge shakes them from these comfortable religious assumptions. We, too, are prone to think that proximity to holy things (church, Bible, sacraments, pastor) makes us holy. This is, of course, idolatry. The proximity that matters is our faithfulness to God which, Isaiah points out, is manifest in our faithfulness to the way of life God has provided.”
By the graceful hospitality of God, each of us has been called to follow the Way of Life who is Jesus. We didn’t find Jesus – Jesus found us. The Spirit witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is working even now to bring us a full life in the emptiest of places.
Blessings & Peace!