Sermon preached June 12, 2016
Texts: I Kings 21:1-21a
Sometime type in your internet search engine- “Greatest movies of all time.” One film that is often near the top of the list, and is on the top of the list of the American Film Institute’s 100 best American films, is the movie “Citizen Kane.” How many of you have ever seen “Citizen Kane”? It was made in 1941, so it is not a very recent film, but when I asked our daughter Sarah, who is 24, if she had ever heard of the movie, she had.
“Citizen Kane” was directed by and starred Orson Welles. Welles was considered something of a prodigy, a kind of genius. As time rolled on, Welles was often considered someone whose career peaked early. He never again quite reached the heights of “Citizen Kane,” though he lived until 1985. I admit that my first memories of Orson Welles were of him as a commercial spokesperson for Paul Masson wines. In his deeply distinct voice Welles would say, “We will sell no wine before its time.”
So what does wine connote for you? What do you think of when you think of wine? Maybe you don’t think we ought to be thinking about wine in church! For some, of course, wine is problematic because alcohol has been problematic in their lives or in the lives of others close to them. We want to be sensitive to that. More generally, I think that wine connotes a certain relaxed sociability, a welcoming atmosphere, hospitality. With wine there is a certain joy, celebration, companionship, maybe even romance. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart we read in Ecclesiastes. The well-known poem, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” celebrates a book of verse… a jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and thou. These are inviting images, welcoming images.
John Wesley, to whom Methodists trace their beginnings, spoke strongly against the abuse of alcohol, particularly distilled liquor. Wesley, however, drank wine, and the story is told that at one point in his life when he had given this up for some reason, he decided that he would continue with a little wine so as not to encourage those among his followers who were trying to make complete abstinence a requirement for a healthy spirituality. (Dodd, John Wesley: a study for the times, 14-15. Published in 1891)
Wine connotes a kind of welcome, hospitality. So what on earth does that have to do with our Scripture reading for this morning? There seems little welcome here, little hospitality. We have here a story of a man named Naboth who owned a vineyard coveted by King Ahab. Ahab becomes sullen and resentful because Naboth refuses to see the vineyard to him. Ahab’s wife Jezebel, and this is where the name Jezebel gets its bad reputation from, Jezebel devises a scheme to have Naboth invited to a banquet where false charges will be brought against him and he will be executed. It happens. Ahab is then free to take Naboth’s vineyard. God is not pleased, and sends Elijah to confront Ahab with his misdeed. Ahab is not pleased to see Elijah. “Have you found me, O my enemy?”
So how is this story in any way related to hospitality or welcome? Perhaps wine was served at the banquet for Naboth, but it did him no good. The only hospitality here is a phony hospitality masking a harmful plot. It is a story of wine out of time.
More to the point, the story is about power. Ahab and Jezebel have power. Naboth has very little power. Ahab and Jezebel abuse their power, and that is at the heart of this story, abuse of power. It is literally a story as old as the Bible. Power is easily abused. When you have a great deal of power, your inconvenience is easily turned into a need, a need that might be met to the destruction of others. We could easily use this story to begin a discussion about the contemporary world, about power relationships and about how power is being used for good and ill in our world. The story has a significant political dimension to it, but we are not going to pursue that today. In not pursuing it, let’s at least admit it is there.
Rather, I want to refer again this morning, as I did last week, to one of our baptismal questions. “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resists evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Underlying this phrasing is a simpler question – “Will you use your freedom and power well?” Last week I asked that question about the power of touch. This morning I want to ask us to think about our power to welcome, our power for hospitality.
It was in seminary that I first encountered the work of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a priest who wrote deeply about aspects of the Christian spiritual life and Christian ministry. One of his books, Reaching Out, is subtitled “the three movements of the spiritual life.” He writes about reaching out to our innermost self – the movement from loneliness to solitude. He writes about reaching to God – the movement from illusion to prayer. He writes about reaching out to our fellow human beings – the movement from hostility to hospitality. About hospitality, Nouwen writes: Hospitality… means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances…. Creating space for the other is far from an easy task. It requires hard concentration and articulate work. (51)
When our congregation started working with the idea of hospitality and welcome, and formed a group to work on this, I offered Nouwen’s words to us for our consideration. I will be honest with you all, members and guest alike, we would like new active participants in our congregation and we would like new members. When churches form “hospitality teams” that is part of what they are hoping for – new active participants and new members. That is o.k., but if that is all we aim for, we are engaged in recruitment, not hospitality. The two are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same.
What if we all deepened our understanding of and practice of hospitality and welcome? What if creating a free and welcoming space was our deepest priority, creating a friendly emptiness where strangers can discover themselves as created free – free to sing their own songs, speak their own language, dance their own dances? What if sharing God’s love by creating such space was our deepest priority? I think membership will take care of itself.
Let’s confess that the Church, not this church but the Church, has sometimes been just a bit like Jezebel. We invite people to a banquet, but for our own purposes. Now we are not going to bump people off, but if all we are wanting is new people for the pews rather than new friends for the journey who will change us as they are being changed by the Spirit of God, then we are missing the mark. God has welcomed us in Jesus into friendship, adventure, new life. We should welcome others as deeply, giving all space in love.
When we take hospitality seriously, we extend it into the community. Some of you may have noticed the sign out on our grounds, right out there on Skyline Parkway. “To our Muslim neighbors, blessed Ramadan.” Many have made positive comments about it on social media. I have had a person, a little puzzled, ask me why we would be doing this. It is an act of hospitality. We are not endorsing everything Muslim with our sign. We are recognizing that we share neighborhoods, schools, work places, parent organizations with Muslim persons and we need to find ways to live and work together for the common good of our community. Part of hospitality is wishing others well.
A rabbi gathered his students around him and asked them a question. “How do we know the exact moment when night ends and the day begins?” “It’s when, standing some way away, you can tell a sheep from a dog,” said one. The rabbi frowned. Another piped up, “No, it’s when standing some way away, you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.” “That’s not a good definition either,” said the rabbi. “Well,” the students said, “when is it?” “When a stranger approaches, and we think he is our brother, our sister, that is the moment when night ends and day begins.”
Ahab and Jezebel abused their power, but they abused it in a particular way. They were inhospitable among other things. They did not recognize Naboth as a brother, a person with his own song, his own dance. They failed to give him free space.
Will you use the freedom and power God gives you, the freedom and power to welcome, to be hospitable, will you use it well? Will we use it well? By God’s grace and Spirit, yes!