Homily: The Gift of Extravagant Hospitality

The most interesting passage by far among today’s scripture readings is our second reading, St. Paul’s wonderful ‘Hymn to Love’, his well-known but rarely lived standard for loving   Most of us have heard Paul’s text, usually at a wedding, but we mostly fail to do it justice. It is so powerful because little else in the Bible can be seen as more important to the Christian life than striving to love, and people in every age and in every place always long to hear about love. We are taught from early childhood that God is love, and we know that Jesus loves us because the Bible tells us so.

And here, again in the Bible, in a letter from Paul to the church at Corinth, love is held up as “the still more excellent way,” the gift greater than any of the things we think the church, and the world, need so much: our eloquence, our intelligence, our generosity and our faith. “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”; but perhaps we seem busier with trying to figure out how to get the tasks that lie before us accomplished, and whom to recruit to do them, than with how to love in the meantime.

I firmly believe that the greatest gift that parents can give their children is to love them and make them feel safe. It hurts us all so much to see parents, especially young and inexperienced parents, yelling harshly at their children, or striking them, especially in public.  What children learn from being yelled at, is how to yell, and from being struck, is how to strike others.

Someone has suggested that, because you cannot see God, we get our primary idea about what God is like from what our Father is like, and the primary idea of what the Church is like from what our Mother is like. True or not, it gives you much to think about.

 There are those who have never been raised in a religious tradition, who were never were exposed to the teachings of Jesus or His great dreams and promises for us. There are  there others who are not part of the Christian tradition because they have looked at our teachings and beliefs and have intellectually decided that what we believe and teach does not appeal logically to them or does not suit their way of thinking.

 But In addition to the many people who are ‘un-churched’, there are countless thousands who have left their childhood faith, not because of intellectual doubt, but because they were not loved there, have been hurt there. Maybe they felt judged, excluded, or insulted. Perhaps their gifts were not recognized, or perhaps they felt misunderstood. Sometimes this hurt has been institutional, and other times it’s been the work of individuals who failed to live up to Paul’s ideal or Jesus’ example. In a sense, these have been ‘de-churched’. Not just by parents and families, playmates and friends, but by the Church, the Body of Christ that is supposed to be one, to be a community of love.

Our parish – St. James — ought to be the beginning-again place of love, and the love we offer should be a spiritual gift in itself, a gift of healing and hope, a promise of what could yet be in their lives, and in the life of the church because they are now there, too. In this case, the gift of extravagant hospitality can be seen as one more expression of love.

Unfortunately, though, we have turned our lives, including the life of the church, into a series of tasks that we’re trying to get done – all good things, of course – and we forget in the meantime how to love.  We end up making tasks more important than relationships. I know I do, far more often than I would hope.

 So I am grateful this morning that Paul is calling me back to a still more excellent way, reminding me that the things on my long, long to-do list are far less important than the spirit I bring to my tasks. In  just thirteen verses, in this one, inexpressibly beautiful chapter, in this one passage that we all know and remember when we do not know or remember the rest, he writes about the one thing more important than all those gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues.

None of the other things we do matters, Paul tells us, if we don’t love as we’re doing them. None of our gifts matter, if our hearts are not filled with love. None of our accomplishments stand up before love, which never ends and which outshines all the other virtues, even the great ones of faith and hope. We spend our lives trying to figure out how to be patient, and to hope, and to endure all things. But how do we do all these things and still get our tasks and projects done, our to-do list completed? How do we do all these things, and be this way, and not get used, or stepped on by others?

Paul suggests something of a response to these questions. His inexpressibly beautiful rhapsody on love is so beautiful that it has become a classic. It’s the best-known passage in the New Testament, sort of the 23rd Psalm of the New Testament. With God’s help, it can put us back on track, find our way, or, as Paul would say, find ‘a still more excellent way.”

My friends, we at St James parish have, for 143 years been trying to build a church, or rather, God is building a church here and we are helping, God who has provided abundantly for us by giving us one another and the promise of so many more people who are hungry for what we offer: a safe and welcoming place, a sanctuary, a loving community of hope and justice, a place to dream and work together for a better world, a table where we are fed, music to share, one another to hold onto when we are alone and hurting and in need, one another to rejoice with in our celebrations and triumphs, this church home, this base camp where we re-fuel and rest before returning to the world God loves so well, where we can be signs, living signs, of God’s love and grace here, in this community, and in all the towns that surround us.

 In fact, I think what we’re doing here in many ways is similar to a marriage. We enter into a lifelong relationship and make promises to each other and then ask God and our community to witness to those promises. We enter into a covenant, not to gain things for ourselves, or protect our interests, but for the sake of each other. We are equals. We each bring something to the table, and we enter into a covenant to care about one another, to travel with one another on this spiritual journey.

    And none of this will matter one bit if we don’t do what we do with love. If we don’t have love for one another, here in this church, in our families, in our neighborhoods and workplaces, and even for the strangers we meet, even the other drivers on the road, and the people we will never meet, our sisters and brothers who live near at hand or faraway but are still part of our human family, still children of God.  If we don’t have love, everything else is worthless,

   This church, St James, this place, is a beginning-again place of love, and the love we offer should be a spiritual gift in itself, a gift of healing and hope, a promise of what can yet be in their lives, and in our lives, and in the life of the church, because now they are here, too, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. In this moment, the gift of extravagant hospitality is one more expression of the greatest gift of all, the gift of Love.      

© Kate Huey

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