Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hospitality of Psalm 23

The following is a homily offered today in chapel at Sioux Falls Seminary for our Lenten Communion services.

Psalm 23
1 The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. 2 He makes us lie down in green pastures; he leads us beside still waters; 3 he restores our soul. He leads us in right paths for his name's sake. 4 Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; for you are with us; your rod and your staff— they comfort us. 5 You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies; you anoint our heads with oil; our cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.

I want to spend the next few minutes thinking about hospitality which has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, both inside and outside of the church. And yet the two conversations are often radically different each competing for our desires. Elizabeth Newman, professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia has written a powerful reflection on the nature of the Christian hospitality called Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers.

Beth begins by critiquing our cultures distorted understanding of hospitality. The world around us sees hospitality through the eyes of HGTV, Martha Stewart, Southern Living, or Ladies’ Home Journal. We are sold images of the immaculate private retreat homes, lavishly decorated for this and every season where only the select few are welcomed. We see friends gathered to rough hewn Asian hardwood tables sold at your local Pottery Barn…enjoying elaborate feasts cooked in beautiful shining pots from Williams Sonoma…served on the newest line of dishes from Crate & Barrel.

This is how many in our cultures think of hospitality.

So too, our cultural perspectives on hospitality have become synonymous with sentimental expressions of forced smiles, nice manners, pleasantly bland conversations[1] and has often been relegated to the private sphere of our home life.

Not all forms of hospitality are confined to the home. There is of course the hospitality industry of spas, hotels, restaurants, cruises and resorts. This form of hospitality operates on the market economy where services are exchanged for money. Here, hospitality is rooted in our culture of leisure and consumption, branded and bought identities and lifestyles, and is driven by our desire of desire itself.

Perhaps we have been invited to sail away from the busyness of life on a Carnival Fun cruise that will take care of your every need or whim…for a price.

We are also invited to soothe the soul by comforting the body through luxurious indulgences of exotic skin treatments and massages at spas…again for a price.

I am not criticizing these things outright, but we must ask, are these really acts of hospitality…or is it mere entertaining?

Hospitality as entertaining/entertainment is concerned with cultivating a particular appearance rather than a true self giving to ones guest. What is intended to welcome another into ones way of life becomes a way to hold others at a distance.

And yet in our Psalm today we are given a glimpse of God’s hospitality.

John Goldingay says Psalm 23 is a psalm of radical trust[2] told through symbolic images of Yahweh as shepherd and host, protector and provider. Yahweh acts as our caring shepherd by his guidance and protection and as generous host where we enjoy feasting and celebration.

Several things in this psalm stood out in my preparation.

First, Israel refuses to see a distinction between their physical and spiritual needs. Yahweh, is the satisfaction of all. If we are to take this psalm seriously we must consider our own consumption in the market of desire and the call to utter reliance upon God’s ways to first define our desires and then offer their fulfillment.

Second, a shepherd generally watches over a flock rather than individual sheep, this psalm is a recounting of Yahweh’s past protection and provision recalling Israel’s exodus and journey through the wilderness. The powerful potential of the psalm recognizes that its hope is intimately tied to its memory. By rehearsing God’s past hospitality, we reconstitute our hope for the future in our present celebration and worship.

Newman states, “Just as God provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, Christians acknowledge that God continues to provide living bread in the body and blood of Christ and living water in the pools of baptism. God has provided for us and always will.”[3]

This table and these elements become the means of God’s hospitality. Here we are received and welcomed through the power and gift of the Spirit to participate in God’s own triune life…an unimaginable abundance of self-giving and receiving.

But here at this table we also receive our identity. This table and these elements become a central means of forming the distinctive characteristics of God’s flock utterly dependant upon God’s protection and provision.

Gathering together as we are and through these practices, we are more than a collection of individuals. Alexander Schmemann goes further suggesting that in the liturgy, we become “a whole greater than the sum of our parts.”[4] Here the Spirit gathers us from around the globe to forge us into the physical body of Christ that we may embody God’s hospitality to the world, unbounded by the walls of our homes.

At this table you are not held at arms length.
Here you are welcomed into the life of God.
Come and receive the Gifts of God for the People of God.

Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanks giving.

[1] Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, 23.
[2] Goldingay, Psalms Vol. 1, 345.
[3] Newman, 15.
[4] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 25. See also Newman, 49.