With Charity for All, Part 8: A Generous Hospitality

Throughout the “With Charity for All” series, I have been building a case that God’s love and desire is to bless the whole world and every creature. Not just human beings. Not just Christians. Not just the right kinds of Christians. But everyone. From the beginning, God created the whole earth, graced it with his presence, and God’s love extends to all the creation. This means that every person has essential dignity as the Imago Dei, and that the default operating principle of all human beings is to work for the flourishing of all other human beings and human culture (Gen. 1:26ff). Even the Great Commission of Jesus, often narrowly understood as a text about proselytism, is an extension of this essential human vocation to spread good news to the human race as an announcement of the upside down kingdom of God where all are returned to their original goodness, equality and dignity before God.

It is the virtues and assumptions that I’ve laid out before in this series that guide our practice. If we believe in common grace so that even those outside of the Christian realm can speak truth and create beauty, if we believe in human freedom as God practices it so that we allow others to choose their way without imposing our own way on them, if we believe that one can uphold the highest moral standards without standing in judgment of others, if we believe that Christians should be hesitant to correct the choices of those who haven’t accepted the Christian lifestyle, and if we believe that Christians are called to practice hospitality to strangers, then we also must begin to practice these virtues in a way that is open, generous and kind. Brian McClaren calls this attempt to hold to the convictions of faith while giving freedom to others a “generous orthodoxy,” and it is that concept that guides my thoughts here.

I believe that it was a “generous orthodoxy” that set apart the way of Jesus from the orthodoxy of the religious sects of his day. These sects of Judaism, and even the Greek cult religions, practiced religion in such a way that it constantly drew lines of inclusion and exclusion. It was clear who was in and who was out. Black and white lines were drawn clearly so that people knew who belonged and who didn’t. The woman at the well in John 4 expected Jesus to operate according to these same religious limitations. She tried to nail him down to a correct religious formula that would tell her whether she was right or wrong, or whether her neighbors to the north or south were truly God’s people and not those of her region. “Some worship on this mountain, and others on that mountain … .” Jesus draws a whole new box. It’s not about which mountain, which church building, and what name. It’s about where the Spirit of God is present so that people “worship in spirit and in truth.” To Nicodemus who came to Jesus in John 3 to discover what he had to do to please God, Jesus told him that it was a matter of allowing the “Spirit that blows where it wills” to wash over him to bring him a whole new birth into an alternative kingdom and a religion that is no religion at all. It’s about an organic relational kingdom blowing into this world, not the preservation of old orthodoxies and lifeless institutions.

All of these came to Jesus for the orthodox answer. They went away having been confronted by the One who is Orthodoxy, and it turns out that his orthodoxy was kind, truthful, and generous. The lines were softer. The colors were more subtle. Their dignity and common humanity were his first concern so that he was never judgmental, never overwhelming, and always human. As he began to speak in stories and instruction, they did not hear memorized passages of Scripture. They did not get a 3 point sermon. They heard wise and authentic reflection that seemed to come from real human experience and that resonated with the deepest longings of their hearts. When they heard him, they felt as if they heard Heaven itself. And they did. But it turns out that Heaven was generous and kind.

When Jesus met the woman at the well, he does not try to give her the gospel or preach his truth. He firsts asks her for something — a drink of water. To receive from another person is better than to give, in some ways, because to receive from another is to honor them with the dignity of having something to share. This request affirms our common humanity and our common vocation of helping each other to flourish in the world regardless of gender, race or religion. Beyond any orthodoxies, we owe it to our fellow human beings to be able to hear them, to receive from them, and to help them flourish.

It seems to me that this stance towards the world and our neighbors, shaped by the hospitality we find at the Table, then has some necessary implications for how Christians engage culture and live in the world we are given to love.

A generous hospitality first rids itself of all forms of sectarianism. I grew up in a church tradition that perceived itself as the only true church, and any association with those outside of its boundaries was nearly equivalent to association with the devil himself. I don’t experience that in my tradition so much anymore. Our boundaries are larger, and our lives are more intertwined with those beyond our prior fences. Yet, it seems to me that many of our efforts even today are more concerned with the preservation of tradition and the continuation of a church than with the enlargement of God’s Kingdom. If your goal is the preservation of a tradition and a church, then this requires one’s primary energies to be devoted to the maintenance of that tradition and to the preservation of the fences that give it distinction or uniqueness.

I have come to call this “functional sectarianism” or a “generous sectarianism.” Those who practice it are not sectarian in their theology. They just practice sectarianism in their policies and actions. It’s a sectarianism of the heart, if not the head. This “you’re in, but you’re not” still results in a kind of real sectarianism because it creates an implied inner circle where some still are “in,” and others are out.” The ones who practice it just don’t plan on being in any kind of real or deep relationship with others beyond the circle of their own denomination or tradition. They are still more at home with those of their own brand. “You’re with us, but not one of us” is the message. And it’s all done with the rationale of maintaining the tradition. There seems to be a lot more interest in maintaining the tradition than in living large in the Kingdom of God where the Table is open to strangers and where God’s orthodoxy is generous. What if we became less concerned with the maintenance of the tradition and became more passionate about Kingdom enlargement? What if the Kingdom became our tradition?

Practical sectarianism can be found in our churches and in our Christian institutions. Some otherwise open-minded Christians still create Christian universities where all the faculty or administration must be of one tradition or the other, a practice that still communicates a message that some are more in than others. Some even assume that the preservation of the tradition is necessary for the success of the institution and is its primary mission, rather than the expansion of the Kingdom of God where we do not control the boundaries and its vision is as broad as the creation God loves. When an institution sees itself as the keeper of a tradition primarily, it then is forced into positions to satisfy that tradition rather than open itself to the breadth of the kingdom of God and all of its possibilities. Tradition and kingdom are not mutually exclusive visions for the church or for its institutions, but one will receive more passion and energy than the other. It seems to me that many of our leaders have worried a lot more about staying connected to tradition than about expanding the kingdom through the church, universities and Christian organizations in kingdom partnerships.

I’ve seen practical sectarianism when members leave one tradition for another, and otherwise open-minded souls look down in derision or cut off the one who has left as if one has left the Kingdom of God. When people who leave our tradition, but stay within the Kingdom, are treated as if they have forsaken the family, that’s a dysfunctional kind of practical sectarianism that is not rooted in a kingdom perspective. I recently read a Twitter message from a very prominent pastor in Orange County who wrote, “The Mainline is now the Sideline.” Why was that necessary? God’s Kingdom is active and alive in Methodist and Episcopal Churches as much as it is in OC evangelical churches. But his evangelical orthodoxy felt the need to draw a line or exclude some from his Kingdom boundaries. Mainline Churches too can write off their evangelical friends as “fundies” though they share in the largeness of God’s Kingdom together.

What if our churches, institutions and parachurch organizations began to represent the Kingdom where the Spirit blows where it wills, rather than traditions where the Spirit blows only where we’ve determined it will blow? I have nothing against tradition. I love liturgy, creeds, and history. But tradition can thrive even where our hearts and minds breathe with Kingdom perspective.

This kind of generous orthodoxy does away with the kind of qualifications for entry that have to do with adherence to a particular tradition or with where one’s body sits in a pew on a Sunday morning. It allows its policies and its practices to open up to all the possibilities if the Kingdom of God is really the breadth of our vision and not the preservation of tradition.

Secondly, this kind of generous orthodoxy opens itself to conversation with nonbelievers, those of other religions and even atheists. Interfaith friendship and conversation is badly needed in a world being torn apart by religious strife. Being willing to talk to the Catholics next door, or the Baptist at work, is not “interfaith” conversation. Interfaith relationships happen when we reach beyond all of the Christian boundaries to open ourselves to the generous gifts of others that are a manifestation of God’s common grace. It happens when we join with them Muslims in our community to erase anti-Muslim graffiti. It happens when we join with the Buddhists and Hindus in our city to address violence or to eradicate homelessness. It happens when our church decides to just help a government program or a non-profit agency to thrive in its work rather than creating a program that reinvents the wheel. It happens when we attend a synagogue on Passover to celebrate with our Jewish friends, or we sit down over coffee with a Mormon neighbor to learn more about their family life. In this way, we first ask for a drink of water and speak to our neighbor as human to human and not according to our religious labels.

When I first came to Camarillo Church of Christ here in the Los Angeles area to serve as its senior minister, I found a church that largely was cut off from its community and without significant relationships with other ministers in town and especially with faith communities beyond Christianity. I accepted an invitation to join an interfaith council for a local state university, and together along with other Christians, Muslims, Jews and Eastern religions we began a center for spiritual discovery on the campus. Some were concerned that our involvement might mean that we compromised our beliefs or that we would appear to condone the beliefs of other religions. It did not. Instead, we entered into relationships with people in our community that were never possible before. A local Jewish rabbi taught one of our Wednesday evening classes on his perspective on Christianity, and his insights were so helpful that a couple of our members even joined his Jewish Scripture study at his Temple. He invited me to say a prayer for Holocaust victims at his Temple during Rosh Hashanah. Neither of us gave up anything we believed in order to enter a friendship of mutual respect and service. I left my ministry there in 2006, but just a few months ago, my former church took the courageous step of inviting the Temple to share their worship space. The Jews worship there on Saturday, and the Christians worship there on Sunday. They sometimes have joint gatherings and enjoy each other’s company. Christians marched with the Jews in the streets of the city as they transferred the Menorah and the scrolls from their old location to the church building. Nothing has been lost, and a whole lot has been gained.

These practices all begin at the Table where all are welcomed. It is at the Table of God’s hospitality that we assume the position of receiver and not giver. Such a generous hospitality gives way to a generous orthodoxy where it is more blessed to receive than to give. And it is in receiving that we embody the fundamental and default stance of the Christian who, over and over again in humility bows before the One who invites us, “Take, eat. This is my body broken for you.” And for the whole world.

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