May 20, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Easter/New Members 1 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “From Hostility to Hospitality”: Acts 16:16-24; Acts 16:25-34

Intro

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (NRSV)

And all the tourists in town, all the visitors, Jews from every nation, they heard the deeds of God being shared in languages they could understand. That’s the usual story told in the Church on this day, Pentecost. The howling of a fierce wind, tongues that look like fire, and the gift of being able to speak in other languages that strangers could understand. That’s the miracle that we celebrate on this day, the fire that brings gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Trans.

But at the beginning of this week, I was dealing with a very different fire, and a very different flame.

I.

It took a few days to figure out what I was feeling. I first saw two images juxtaposed in the news on Monday, but it took a few days. It took a few days to find words for the rage that flooded through me when I first saw, in side-by-side frames, Palestinian protestors bleeding to death in Gaza on one side, and the blithe, golden smile of Ivanka Trump dedicating a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on the other, a move made unilaterally without consideration for how it would affect the lives of real people who live in that tense and conflicted land. Those two images linked in a news article may not even have been the worst news this week. But they were the ones that filled me with fire on Monday. It was a flame of hostility. And it took me a few days to figure out what to do with those feelings, with that fire in my belly. (Pause)

II.

A couple weeks ago, I shared with you a book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out. In that book, he diagnoses this fire as hostility. We’ve all got it. It’s really human, and it’s really normal. Whether due solely to personal experience or symptomatic of our larger disillusionment these past two years, I’m not sure, but that hostility seems quicker to flame in me. Maybe in many of us. Reaching out to our fellow human beings in some ways feels more difficult today than in years past. Even when we come with no baggage, even when we come not in the middle of a difficult political climate, even when we come to regular human relationships, we carry some hostility. At best “our spontaneous feelings toward strangers are ambivalent,” Henri Nouwen writes.[1] To be human on this planet is to navigate suspicions about other people. That includes everyday people we encounter in our neighborhood, work, school or here at church. As rational as we like to imagine ourselves, we are still animals often demonstrating a biological instinct for survival. We are wired to defend ourselves against threat, even if it is imagined. Those reptilian parts of our brains are still the most reliable, ready to fight or flee or freeze. When Nouwen wrote in 1977, he described a culture in which strangers were increasingly assumed to be a danger up and until they proved otherwise. How much more true, 40 years later? Some hostility develops naturally from past lived experience. We’ve been hurt. We’ve been betrayed. We’ve been taken when we’ve tried to reach out with compassion. But some hostility is conditioned, the strange fruit and intentional produce of deep prejudice and white supremacy evident in the language people use to dehumanize another. We come into relationship with other individuals in groups with suspicion, our emotional switches set to competition and survival almost by default. Hostility is human. (Pause)

III.

It may be some comfort, then, to hear that suspicion and hostility dog the first followers of Jesus, too, even in the most positive version of their story in the Acts of the Apostles. As they set off to share the good news of Jesus far and wide, it’s not all sunshine and happiness. Paul, in particular, seems to court trouble, everywhere he goes. By the time today’s story happens, he’s already been imprisoned twice and miraculously set free. So with the storyteller’s audience we’re expecting something similar to happen today. This third time Paul lands in prison, there is not really an escape. There is, however, a rescue.[2] Some backstory may help. Paul’s been turned away, by humans or by the spirit, from a couple different provinces. He has a vision of a man begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he gets to Philippi, it’s not a man but a woman he meets. (Spirit is surprising like that.) Lydia, a businesswoman and head of her own house of faith, has been leading a synagogue of her own at a place of prayer on the riverbank. She embraces Paul’s message and invites him to stay in her household. It’s while he’s staying with Lydia, going daily to the place of prayer, that a slave girl fortune-teller begins following him and shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God. They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” All of that, of course, is true. But something about the proclaimer… or the repetition of her claim… or perhaps her volume… annoys Paul. He turns one day and orders the spirit to leave her, which it does. Now, we should note: he didn’t ask. He didn’t turn to the girl one day and say, “What you’re saying is true, actually. Do you want to have tea?” And there’s no follow-up on how this decision affects this slave girl. But her owners are incensed. And instead of taking Paul to court for the real offense – eliminating their slave girl’s income stream – they trump up ethnocentric charges: “They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” Sound familiar? Nice and vague and scary. Unsettling enough to get them arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison. Hostility, all around. In prison, however, Paul and Silas don’t hush up, they sing and they pray. When the miraculous earthquake breaks open everyone’s chains, the Spirit opens up a place of hospitality. There is giving and receiving. Paul and Silas end up rescuing the jailor, who in turn offers hospitality, washing their wounds feeding them, listening to what they have to say. Paul and Silas share their story and offer to baptize the jailor and his household. This third time Paul lands in prison, there is no escape, but there is a rescue, a making whole, a salvation, a saving. The earthquake that comes opens up a place of hospitality. Community is made. In a jail. That’s the rescue. If we look closely, we see: songs and prayers sung, the Word spoken, needs for food and medicine served, baptism, and a shared meal. Sounds like church. In jail. We see a picture of the life of the church in which the jailor has found a home.[3] Home. (Pause)

IV.

What we see in this story is a shift from hostility to hospitality made possible by the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit in that place. It’s a shift I’ll note Paul does not make possible for the slave girl. (And I can’t help wondering what would have happened if he had turned toward her and made room for her word and experience.) But it does happen here. And it’s the second movement of the spiritual life that Henri Nouwen writes about in Reaching Out.[4] He writes that one aspect of hospitality is confrontation, that we are who we are, that Paul and Silas kept singing their church songs in jail. A good host offers themselves as a point of orientation, Nouwen writes, a frame of reference. Nouwen calls it “confrontation.” What I think he means is “You do you.” Be an unambiguous presence, not hiding yourself, but showing your ideas, opinions and lifestyle clearly and distinctly. Speak up for what matters to you when with others. What he means by “confrontation” is not antagonism or attack, but the matter of being ourselves in our particular bodies and bringing our specific perspectives and experiences in a way others must reckon with. That’s the confrontation needed for true hospitality. The other side of hospitality is that a good host always makes room. A good host expects the guest will bring unique gifts and intentionally carves out space for those gifts, doesn’t fill up the space with all their own talk, ideas, stuff. That’s what happened on Facebook when I finally spoke up about what was angering to me last week. When I did finally share, I was surprised at the gifts I received. Two of my rabbi friends offered some thoughts, and an article, and some context, and a whole lot that I didn’t have beforehand. And at the end of it, one of my rabbi friends still back in Cleveland wrote, “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that this conversation has stayed respectful and open.” That’s receptivity. “Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody,” Nouwen writes. “Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.”[5] (That’s what we usually get on social media.) Hospitality though is a dance of both: receptivity and confrontation. Give and take. You being you and also being open to other people being really, radically different. It takes both receptivity and confrontation to weave a free and friendly space, a place where a human soul can feel at home. (Pause)

Trans.

Hospitality makes a household and vice versa. [6] That’s what we see happening here in the jail, where Paul and Silas and the Jailor are each of them themselves, but also leaving enough room to receive what the other brings. We can do that, too, in our families and households and all the groups we create when we gather – whether in the choir or in a books study or over a meal. We can make those home spaces. (Pause)

V.

Okay. Who watched the Royal Wedding yesterday? I have a theory that it wasn’t just frivolity and fascinators that drew people to their screens yesterday. It was also a gospel choir and social justice preaching breaking into the white slave trader’s church. It was receptivity – the gifts of another culture – the American black church, African-American preaching tradition – given equal room in an Imperial, colonial family and church. It was confrontation – an unapologetic nose piercing in the mother of the bride, beautiful crowns of black hair on the gospel choir, feathery concoctions on so many ladies’ hats saying, “This is how we do it here.” It was a young cellist and some unabashed religion. All of that created… for a day… for an hour… a household whose joy touched hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. At the close of a week littered with so many potholes of hostility – a school shooting in Texas, administration pronouncements about separating immigrant families – we got a glimpse yesterday of hospitality, of human hostility moving toward hospitality. We got to experience for a moment a household of joy. (Pause)

Concl.

Today, as every other time new members have joined, we will give thanks for the households of faith that shaped and formed our new members. And then, we’ll say, “Welcome home.” When we do that, we explicitly name and claim the abundant grace God gives us to make room – free and friendly space, room enough to both confront one another in our particularity and expectantly receive the gifts one another bring. We say “Welcome Home” as a promise: This is a place where the Holy Spirit moves us from hostility to hospitality each and every day. Thank God.

*********

 

“We cannot change the world by a new plan, project or idea,” Nouwen writes. “We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.”[7]

 

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1975), p. 68.

[2] Beverly Gaventa, qtd. in Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Acts 16:16-34,” www.workingpreacher.org

[3] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on Acts 16:16-34,” www.workingpreacher.org

[4] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1975), pp. 65-109.

[5] Nouwen, p. 99.

[6] Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Acts 16:16-34,” www.workingpreacher.org

[7] Nouwen, p. 76.