Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14
I Have a Dream
August 28—just days ago—was the 50th anniversary of the most famous speech of the civil rights movement. The speech was originally titled “Normalcy, Never Again,” and hundreds of thousands listened enraptured as Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Near the end of his speech which dared to dream of justice and freedom, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
At this point, Martin King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started preaching, reaching back to parts of a sermon he had delivered some months before. “I have a dream,” he said. And he dreamed his dream with us. He dreamed of social enemies transformed into friends. He dreamed of places deserted of justice turned into oases. He dreamed of valleys lifted up, of mountains made low, of rough places made plain, of crooked places made straight. He dreamed of the glory of the Lord revealed to all.
Martin King’s dream originates in the dream God dreams with us in Isaiah’s book—a dream of restoration, peace, justice, and love. It is a dream that God continues to dream with us and for us. It is a dream that Jesus dreams too.
And it is a dream that begins with hospitality.
It is hard to hate those you know. This adage has been proven true, but its converse is also disturbingly revealing in our world. The fact that there is so much hate proves how little we know of one another. The world is so broken. So violent. So wanting. The need of our world—and yes even our little town—is so vast that we are easily overwhelmed. We know it is broken and something needs done. We might even want to work toward its healing. But our limited resources are but tear drops in the ocean of need.
But I believe our global problems have local origins. I believe if we treat the local source of our world’s illness, we can heal the whole world. And the medicine we must use to treat this illness is hospitality.
Hospitality is key to everything. Somewhere along the way we stopped being neighbors. And then we forgot how to be neighbors. And then the world came apart.
Used to be front porches were gathering places. Kids played in front yards. We knew those who lived around us, and we looked after each other.
But something happened. I don’t know what. But we rearranged our lives and closed ourselves off to our neighbors. We decided it was dangerous to have the kids play in the front yard, so we moved them to the back. And in order to protect them from the unknown dangers of the world, we built tall privacy fences that completely enclosed their play spaces. With the advent of garage door openers, we stopped even using our front doors, entering and departing through the garage. And, of course, because of our fear someone would steal our things, those garage doors were closed all the time, whether we were home or not.
We became afraid. We wanted to protect our families. So we closed ourselves off. Our friends became limited to our work friends or our church friends—but rarely our neighbors. So we travelled from island of safety to island of safety, never really engaging those around us.
But you know what happens when you don’t know your neighbors? Among other things, you lose perspective. Because those at church or work are people who are likely similar to yourself—they might have same hobbies, or the same political party affiliation, or the same religious background, or the same musical interests, or the same ethnicity, or the same place on the economic ladder. And so we become more and more homogeneous—more and more the same as we surround ourselves with others just like us.
Few things are more dangeorus than a lack of diversity. You see, when everyone you know thinks a certain way, then it is obvious that anyone with a differing opinion is just wrong. It is easy to be against something—even aggressively so—when you don’t know anyone on the other side. Being neighborly—showing hospitality—used to correct against that, but not anymore.
Now, our neighborhoods, communities, states, nations, and world are more divided than ever. Everyone is polarized. No one believes in diplomacy, hospitality, or even decency because our whole world has become “us vs. them.” It’s not about being human, showing kindness, or practicing hospitality—it is about winning, and winning at any cost.
“I have a dream,” Jesus declares in today’s scripture reading, “of a kingdom characterized by humility rather than humiliation.”
“I have a dream,” Jesus proclaims for all to hear, “of a kingdom characterized by kindness rather than compensation.”
When you are invited to dinner (Jesus says), don’t assume you are the honored guest. Assume everyone else is more important of a guest than you are. In doing so, you give your host the chance to honor you rather than doing it all yourself. After all, there might be someone there more important to the host, and it is humiliating to be knocked off your own pedestal like that. If you think too much of yourself you will be ashamed. But the only consequence to humility is that it gives others the chance to honor you.
But more than that (Jesus says): When you throw a party, don’t invite other people who throw parties. Don’t invite your friends, your family, your coworkers, your church friends, or anyone else like you. If you invite them, they’ll probably invite you to their next shindig, and that is all the reward you will get from it. But if you invite people who cannot repay you—the poor, the physically disabled, those suffering from mental illness—then it is God who will reward you.
When Jesus teaches in parables, he is almost always telling us something about the Kingdom of God. That means these parables are instructions for our now and future lives as citizens of that Kingdom. After all, Jesus says, the Kingdom is both now and not yet.
These parables, then, are vital pieces of instruction for those of us who would follow Jesus. Their message speaks to hospitality. And though you may not have heard many sermons preached on it, hospitality is one of the key defining characteristics of followers of Jesus. Not surprisingly, hospitality is to be a defining characteristic of all followers of God as well.
God’s call to hospitality is rooted in the reality that we are not at home in this world. For ancient Israel, this involved a reminder that their ancestors were strangers in a foreign land. “You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” Exodus 23:9 reads. And so God, through the Law and the Prophets, builds this identity into a commitment to hospitality—a radical display of welcome beyond anything the world has ever known.
Since you were a stranger in this world, show hospitality to all.
Fast forward to the NT. And Jesus has been busy preaching the Kingdom of God. He teaches mostly through parables like those we are reading today, which illuminate rather than obfuscate his scandalous message of grace. The powers that be conspire to have Jesus arrested and killed because of this message, this message of hospitality and grace.
Across the board, Jesus instructs his followers to practice an arms-wide-open kind of welcome, which he models in the company he keeps: sinners, IRS agents, women, lawyers, prostitutes, the poor, the down-and-out, the nowhere-to-go, the fallen-between-the-cracks, the no-hope-for-tomorrow. The reason we practice such hospitality is because when we are born again, we become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus states quite clearly in John 18:36 that “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Hospitality in Hymnody
We are merely travelers passing through this world. We know this, as Christians. We cannot NOT know it; it’s in so many of our hymns:
This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore
Or how about:
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
I’m traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go
I’m going there to see my mother/father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
Or one of my favorite hymns:
We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are trav’lers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping.
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
‘Til we’ve seen this journey through.
Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.
This hymn hits on a key to hospitality: it is not only in the giving but also the receiving. In other words, we also benefit from the hospitality of others. We are forever intertwined—giver and recipient—locked in an embrace of God’s love.
But we have let even our church communities become focused on something other than the welcome of God’s love and grace. We have forgotten our first love—the hospitality God extends to us and invites us to extend to others. And we have become something entirely less honest.
These parables strike us like flint because they remind us that the Christian life is not about posturing or posing. The church is not a place to pretend we are better or more than we are. It is not a competition in being good.
In fact, posturing is the antithesis of hospitality. The House of God is not a place where we come to pretend we are as perfect as is God. It is a place where we bear our wounds to the Wounded Healer and to one another. There is no room for ego, control, or selfishness. It is a place to plea for mercy and to offer forgiveness. To share in tears of both joy and sadness. To admit failure and experience acceptance. It is a place where the Kingdom of God should be most directly lived out. It should be a place where all experience welcome. It should be a place where we are—as that hymn pleas—Christ to one another.
It begins and ends with hospitality.
Larry & Bud
Some years ago, I was working on a research project that took me to Atlanta for a month. I was staying with friends, but was basically alone and working too much, so while talking to my wife on the phone, she suggested I go hiking.
The place I ended up choosing was Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, known throughout the region for its beautiful waterfalls. It was further than I wanted to go, but oh well, I’ll get up early.
I woke up that Saturday morning at ten. My alarm had failed, and I overslept—neither of which had happened in the previous two weeks. But not to be deterred, I grabbed my stuff and headed out.
I’ve done this hiking-backpacking thing enough to know a thing or two, so I made sure my wife knew my route and had a set time to call search-and-rescue if she hadn’t heard from me. I had plenty of food and water in my pack, along with maps, compass, a multitool, and anything else I might need for a day hike.
Despite my preparations though, my going was difficult. I had consulted a topographical map, but I was still not prepared for the ruggedness of the trail, and I ended up climbing the equivalent of 2500 vertical feet instead of only 900. But my biggest challenge was myself. I forget I’m not as young as I used to be, that I don’t do this regularly anymore, and that I still have to drive almost two hours in order to get to a bed for the night. Though the trail was harder than I thought, I still felt strong. So pushed a little further.
But eventually, my knees began to ache. One knee and calf started having these spasms, so I’d have to stop and stretch. I did not, as would have been prudent, turn around, acknowledging my lack of conditioning. In my stubbornness, I forged on, determined to get as far as possible in the time allotted. By my turnaround time, though, I was in real pain. And I realized that pain would make me much slower on the return trip. But all I could do was plod on.
Before long, I realized I was praying. At first I was praying to make it to the car before dark; before long I was praying to make it to the car that night. Eventually, I was even calculating the benefits of sleeping on the trail. And of course, whereas my cell phone signal had been so strong while going up the mountain, now I couldn’t ever get a call to connect. It started raining, and of course I didn’t have any rain gear. Minutes turned to moments, moments turned to hours.
Then, after hours of isolation, I saw someone. A couple people, actually. Fumbling with my map, I estimated I was less than two miles from the park. Almost home. After another ten minutes of hiking, I was met by a dog. Looking around, I quickly located the dog’s owner, an older man sitting up ahead on the trail. I greeted the dog (his name was “Bud”), and continued up the trail toward the fellow. So close to home, I planned to simply say “hi” and move along, but something didn’t seem right. The man was breathing quite heavily. A quick glance at his pack and clothes told me everything I needed to stop what I was doing: a new pack, stuffed to the point of breaking; new water bottle, almost empty; new jacket, heavy shoes—these are all signs of someone who is on their first backpacking excursion.
His name was Larry. Larry said he was ok, but he couldn’t get his dog Bud to eat. As we talked, I learned that Larry had retired a couple years ago. He hadn’t been coping well since leaving his job, and he always dreamed of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. For the last two years, he had saved, researched, and planned this trip. His brother drove him and Bud from Texas and dropped them off that very morning to begin their trip. The problem was that Bud, like many animals, gets a bit funny when he travels and doesn’t eat much. When embarking on a trip like this, a couple days without food could be deadly. After repeated attempts to get Bud to eat, Larry decided his dream trip would have to wait—he needed to get Bud off the trail until he was better.
By the time I met them, Larry and Bud had already hiked four miles further than he had planned. The campsite they had picked out earlier in the day did not have a water source. Larry was stressed, dehydrated, and hopeless. I tried to give him some water, but he refused, despite being out himself. He didn’t need food; he had enough of that for weeks. He was simply trying to get off the trail, to call his brother.
But I did have a phone. Not that I’d been successful in using it over the last hours. And here we were, pinched in a valley, but it was worth another try. And as fate would have it, now there was a very strong signal. At my insistence, Larry eventually took my phone and dug out the number. His brother answered right away, even though he didn’t recognize the number. Larry’s brother had been driving all day and was already in Louisiana, but he immediately committed to returning for Larry & Bud. It would just take him another day. After the call, Larry was definitely in better spirits.
We were both heading the same way, so I thought I’d walk a ways with Larry and Bud. Larry wasn’t much of a talker, and he was pretty winded most of the time, so we didn’t talk a lot while we walked. Every fifty yards or so, Larry stopped to catch his breath, and tell me to go on, he’d be ok. Eventually, Larry even let me share my water with him and Bud. But at each break, Larry insisted I shouldn’t let him hold me up.
Truth is, I didn’t need Larry to remind me time was slipping by. I was acutely aware of the fact that we were traveling at slower than one-third my previous pace. I kept trying to estimate our location on the trail and our pace, so I could determine when I would make it back to the car. My phone decided not to work for me again, so I wasn’t sure whether I could get back to the car before my wife would call search-and-rescue. Time seemed to speed by as we crawled down the trail.
Then BOOM. I heard a car door slam shut. Scanning through the trees, I caught a glimpse of a car driving by. There was a parking lot ahead, the one where the trail began.
I stayed with Larry until we got within about a quarter mile of the trailhead. We were meeting people every minute or two now, so I knew he would make it back and have any assistance he might need.
We shook hands one more time and parted ways. As soon as I got out of sight, I quickened my step to my original pace. Or rather, I tried to obtain my original pace. Speeding up, I felt every mile I had traversed. I felt the tension and soreness in my knees, hips, thighs, calves, ankles, back, and feet. Whereas before, the pain had become numbing, the last two hours at a slower pace allowed me to regain feeling in my lower extremities, which was not a good thing. To make matters worse, I realized this was the parking area at the top of the falls; I had parked another mile south in the lower parking lot. Pardon the cliche, but I was not out of the woods quite yet.
I did make it back to the car in time to prevent the deployment of a search-and-rescue team. I even had fifteen whole minutes of daylight remaining. All the way to the car, I kept thinking about Larry and Bud. You see, while I regretted the time I lost walking with Larry, I knew it was the right thing to do. When I met him, he was in trouble; had I or someone else not taken the time to help him, I don’t know what shape he would have been in when he finally made it out, or even if he would have made it out without a stretcher.
But then I had an epiphany. I realize how much I benefitted from Larry. When I met Larry, I was in bad shape. For over an hour, I had been paying close attention to a tendon in my knee, wondering if I would have any more notice than the pain I was experiencing before it snapped. When I passed a clearing, where others had camped in times gone by, I had to convince myself to continue past, to not stop for the night, even though I was ill-equipped for an overnight excursion and I could not reach April on my phone. I had plenty of food, like Larry, and water. But like Larry, I had already pushed my body beyond what it was capable of doing. It was only a matter of time before something broke, or something shut down.
You see, had I not slowed down to help Larry, I don’t know that I would have made it back to the car that night. I don’t know how badly I might have injured myself by going further and faster than I was capable. I realized that, unwittingly, Larry had taken care of me in the same way I thought I was taking care of Larry. I realized, that by showing hospitality to someone else, I probably saved myself in the process.
And I just can’t help but think that’s the way it always works. Maybe, if we can just start being neighbors to each other again, if we can start practicing hospitality again, we might just save our world and ourselves in the process. It’s a dream anyway.
Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.