By Rev. Amy Butler
Have you ever noticed that it is always the moment of recognition that changes everything?
Just think about some of the most powerful stories we know—recognition is the twist that reframes, not just the story, but, more powerfully, the actual characters themselves. Whether it’s about the twelfth time you’ve watched the scene in the newly acquired DVD of the movie “Enchanted” when Princess Giselle finally gets true love’s kiss from the real handsome prince or Shakespeare’s King Lear who suddenly recognizes his daughter Cordelia, there are moments of recognition in our favorite stories . . . in our lives . . . that change everything.
The biblical account of the weeks following the resurrection is full of recognition stories. I don’t know what it is with Jesus’ disciples, but there’s story after story about their difficulty recognizing this one with whom they spent years and whose death has rocked their lives to their very moorings. Just think: Mary at the tomb; the disciples in the locked room; and today, the two travelers on the road to Emmaus . . . everybody’ssurprised when they suddenly recognize him.
And, frankly, considering the fact that they are recognizing someone who, last time they saw him was dead, you can’t blame them all that much. Shocking recognition, I suppose, is apropos, because these moments of recognition are pivot points in the story—in our stories—turning points that change everything.
And, it’s these moments for which we live—moments of recognition and direction that define who we are and what our lives mean. It’s moments where we make sudden, unexpected discoveries that change everything, experiences like . . . Easter morning, in fact . . . it’s these moments for which we live and long.
But, Easter comes only once a year, and when it’s all over we’re left, like the disciples, living in its aftermath, trying to figure out what it all means for our lives. And in the aftermath of something as life-changing as Easter we’re likely to overlook what it takes to cultivate lives in which these moments of recognition can happen.
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Today we observe the very first followers of Jesus determined to practice resurrection by the studious spiritual discipline of hospitality . . . the discipline of welcoming the Gospel message into their lives and their hearts and the resulting practice of welcoming each other, along with other strange people, to their fellowship.
They learned, as we must if we want to practice resurrection, that it’s hospitality that creates opportunities for us to encounter God, some of these encounters most profoundly in our efforts to welcome each other to the table of Christ.
We’re a little handicapped here because our concept of hospitality is different from what the first disciples new and practiced. In a world of Martha Stewart Living and scented guest soaps, hospitality to us is about creating a nice space where out of town guests, preferably not family members, can come for a little while to visit us and be suitably impressed with our guest accommodations. We want to have a good time, of course, and we want our guests to feel comfortable. And then go home.
But hospitality in Jesus’ day was a completely different thing.
Traveling in places like Galilee when Jesus lived was probably one of the most vulnerable experiences a human could have. There were no convenient rest stops, no drive-through McDonalds, and no Jerusalem Welcome Center. As a traveler away from your home and community, you became a stranger and, as such, an easy target for violence. Your main objective was to make it to the next town before sundown, and once you got there, of course, it wasn’t like Motel 6 left the light on for you. It was the custom to enter a village, to go to an individual home and to request hospitality.
And it was the solemn duty of the receiver to offer that hospitality, no matter who you were or where you came from.
In fact, the custom was, you’d be received into the house, given fresh clothing to wear and water to wash your dusty feet. It wasn’t until you had eaten and rested that it was appropriate even to ask: your name, where you came from, or what your business in town was.
Hospitality included practices you and I might cringe to hear of: offering the best food of the house to the guests, the most honored place to sleep, the attentions of your servants to the guests’ personal needs. All at the likely expense of family members. And all without any consideration of where this guest came from; who he was; or even . . . how long he planned to stay.
In some places around the world, remnants of this ancient practice of hospitality remain. I went to seminary in Europe with Baptists from all over the world. Occasionally we would travel into places like areas of Eastern Europe that had been cut off from the Western world for generations. In the tiny homes of Eastern European Baptists, homes with no indoor plumbing and little evidence of the kind of opulence with which we live, I—a total stranger—was welcomed in and offered the kind of hospitality that, obviously, cost these folks significantly.
One story I will never forget was told often by the president of our seminary. John David Hopper had spent his entire adult life living in Europe as a Baptist missionary. Over the course of his career he learned the languages of communities in which he lived and became a prominent leader in Baptist work all over Europe. As a result he traveled often into remote and dangerous areas that Westerners didn’t often risk.
Now, when I was traveling in Eastern Europe it was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when communication was eased and we didn’t seem so foreign to each other. When John David was traveling, this was not the case. He told us once of traveling to a remote region of Romania once to visit a small Baptist community of believers there. When he arrived he was shown to the home of the pastor and his wife, where he would stay during his visit. The pastor showed him where he’d be sleeping and let him get settled. John David noticed he had been given the biggest room in the house, the one with a double bed. Since the pastor and his wife had a rather large family, John David knew this was a burden to them all and he protested that the room and the bed were too much.
The pastor and his wife were appalled. They insisted that it was their holy honor to offer him the best room and the best bed in the house, and that they did it in the name of Jesus, who had welcomed them into relationship.
Well, how can you argue with that?
The family served John David a warm meal, showed him where the outhouse was, and gave him some water for washing. Then, tired from his traveling, John David said goodnight and went to the room they’d prepared for him. He washed, changed into his pajamas and got into bed, where he quickly fell asleep.
It was a few hours later that his sleep was interrupted, when the pastor and his wife came quietly into the room, changed into their pajamas, and climbed right into bed . . . with him.
All night long he laid there, smushed in between the pastor and his wife, wide awake. Talk about hospitality.
The earliest Christians adopted this cultural custom of hospitality as a spiritual discipline. It was radical enough that they’d opened their hearts to the strange message of Jesus of Nazareth. What they found when they did, though, was that the message they’d welcomed so rigorously asked them to open their livesto live in true community with others who also welcomed the message.
Even others who looked, talked, smelled, believed, lived . . . differently.
True hospitality is not about impressing our friends; true hospitality is studiously welcoming someone who is a stranger to you, and allowing yourself to be changed in the process. It was a radical and rigorous expectation, but the first followers of Jesus found it was a powerful and potent way to practice resurrection . . . to ready our hearts and our lives for moments of recognition that change us.
Sociologists will point out that contemporary Americans are wanderers. Henri Nouwen observed that our modern world is a “world of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and from God.”
It’s true, and nowhere have I seen this truth more than in this city. People here come and go; almost everyone I meet is from somewhere else; folks often show up here in DC looking for something of meaning—a politician that will change things; a cause about which they are passionate; an educational opportunity they can’t get anywhere else. They come here . . . we come here . . . and we are missing a place where people know us, even the distasteful parts of us, and welcome us anyway.
We’re all looking for a place where folks will move over to make room for us at the table, aren’t we?
As the first followers of Jesus tried to figure out how to practice resurrection, they opened their lives and their hearts to other followers of Jesus who were different from what they had always known.
And it was then that powerful moments of recognition happened.
Just look at the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were stunned with grief and totally involved in the events of the past week, but when the stranger kept walking they knew enough to insist—strongly, Luke says—that he stay and eat with them. When they made room for him at the table, when he broke and shared the bread, then . . . it was right then that a moment of recognition happened and they saw Jesus.
Practicing resurrection means practicing hospitality, radical hospitality that spreads a table as open and welcoming as we possibly can, a way of living that causes you and me to instinctively move over to make room for everybody seeking real and life changing relationship with Jesus Christ.
When we manage to do that . . . well, it’s right then that we very often experience life-changing moments of recognition. It’s then that we experience what we’ve been longing for so long—a place to be fully known and fully loved. And it’s then, in that place where we are welcomed that, sometimes, we even see Jesus.