Miguel woke up troubled. He had not slept well and remembered a particularly vivid dream. In the dream he was making his way across a cliff face by a narrow ledge, hugging the wall with great care and determination. He never looked around. It took all his concentration to find the next fingerhold. As hard as it was, he took great pride in his skill as a ledge-walker. Just fifteen feet below, his wife was walking in a lush meadow calling to him, "Miguel! It's much easier down here. You don't need to struggle. Drop down and walk with me. He never could. As restrictive as the ledge was, it was more comforting to Miguel than the unknown of the meadow below. So, he just kept inching his way along.
Edwin and Sylvia lived in a small Midwestern town. They were born in the 1890s and married in 1917. Edwin thought he owned the town. He held a business interest in the railroad and the utility company, was a founding member of the local Chamber of Commerce, the Park and Recreation Department, and the museum, but by no means did he won the town. He and his family were "upright citizens," active in the local Episcopal Church and generous contributors to most worthy civic causes. He always assumed people knew him or wanted to. He would thrust his hand out and introduce himself with so much confidence that his children and later, his grandchildren, were embarrassed. They knew he meant well but found his unbridled enthusiasm overbearing. Edwin felt it was his duty to put their little tow on the map. Alter all, in his eyes it was as wonderful as any place on earth. The few times Sylvia convinced Edwin to travel to Europe or Asia or Australia, he insisted that their hometown had everything the other world centers offered. Edwin died in his mid-seventies, a big, well-intentioned fish in a very small pond.
How often so we get so attached to a particular outcome, a particular identity, that we are unable to experience the present? Miguel and Edwin both clung to their perceptions of reality at the expense of growth. Neither Miguel in his dream, nor Edwin in his life wanted to experience anything new. Whether it was fear, in Miguel's case, or self-importance, in Edwin's that restricted their vision and their hearing, it was pride that sustained their isolation.
Our pride, our investment in looking right, succeeding, not failing may not always be so obvious, but it is there. It isolates us from one another and from God. In today' lesson from Ecclesiasticus, we are told, "The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker." This suggests that, whatever the degree of pride, it is rooted in our unwillingness to trust God, our determination to be in control. Pride blurs our vision, aiming it inward. It hides our brokeness by not letting us admit our need for healing. Today's gospel reminds us that we are fooling ourselves if we think we will ever be in control through our own efforts. The parable extols the virtues of humility and hospitality. The kingdom of God - that ultimate experience of wholeness and joy and belonging - is God's gift to offer and will only come to those who do not presume their place in it.
Hospitality is a lost art in much of the Untied States. Where did we ever get the idea that it must be reciprocated? Hospitality is not a transaction; it is not a deal, a calculated gift with an anticipated return. It has nothing to so with improving one's social status in the community or enticing someone into some kind of commitment. It is by definition, an unconditional gesture, offered in love, with no obligations attached. We can offer it, but we cannot control the outcome. As soon as our hospitality is intended for a particular person or population at the exclusion of others, it is no longer authentic. It is, instead, a performance or a trade.
A good example of this performance hospitality might be the coffee in some congregations. It is not uncommon for the gentle coffee hour hostesses to become enraged when small children flood the table and gobble down the goodies. Aside from the issue of bad manners - which may indeed by in the mix - the goodies were not, in fact, intended for the children. The intended recipients were the adult members of the congregation who would appreciate them appropriately. Offering authentic hospitably is difficult. It is risky because you do not know the outcome, and you may attract the outcasts.
That's only half the challenge - the giving half. Sometimes our pride is well camouflaged in our generosity and only revealed in our capacity or lack thereof, to receive authentic hospitality. Edwin, for example, was a very generous man in the public arena, awarded by many honors for his compassion and caring. But Edwin rarely accepted unconditional hospitality. He always assumed people were offering him kindness because he deserved it, or because they desired his acquaintance, or wanted to reciprocate his generosity. He gave the impression of being "full up," not needing anything from anyone, not even God. As a result, he missed the joy that comes from being utterly surprised by another's unexpected and unconditional love. He missed knowing his own vulnerability, his own brokeness. His profound loyalty was based on principle and habit, not faith. Who knows if he had one real friend? His heart seemed withdrawn from its Maker.
Authentic hospitality requires willingness on our part to enter into relationships and events in which we do not control the outcome. It means using our energy and gifts to create an environment where anyone, no matter how outcast, will be welcome. It means going ahead with the party whether or not the "fun" people can make it. It means offering to give someone a ride home because it makes sense, even if it isn't convenient. It means accepting with grace the extra care a friend or stranger offers, by resisting the question, "Why is she doing this for me?"
When our hearts are connected with our maker, authentic hospitality is a natural by-product. We recognize God's hand and are not tempted to believer that we are the center of the universe. We accept the outcast in ourselves, that part which is poor or lame or blind or imprisoned, and enter into relationships with humility and openness. We know deep down that the Lord is our helper and that we do not need to be afraid.
Maria's family belonged to a prestigious Los Angeles tennis club. The athletic teenager learned quickly that it was a terrible thing at her club to be seen playing tennis with someone less accomplished than you. This explained why the courts often stood empty with potential players hanging out in the clubhouse. They were all waiting for a better player to ask them to play. Frustrated by this behavior. Maria started going to the public courts in the local park. The contrast was profound. They were always full. In fact, there was a waiting line. Players were eager to play with anyone for fun, exercise, and practice. The camaraderie was sincere, the laughter audible, the mistakes honest. She never knew exactly what would happen. The kingdom of God is a gift, which comes to those who do assume their right to it. Amen.