December 2, 2001
AN EVANGELISTIC COMMUNITY
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
It was several years ago now that John first came to me in the South Bronx. He was young, bright, energetic, and trained for his profession, but he had recently made a fatal mistake. With very limited resources, he and his family moved into a property in New York without securing adequate financial backing and insurance. A tragic fire soon left him depressed and deeply in debt, and before long, John took his place among the many homeless people wandering the streets of New York, Calcutta, Nairobi, and Harrisburg. Homelessness is Johnıs story, Maryıs story, Walterıs story, and the story of many, many, other people in the world today.
Homelessness is a terrifying thing. The Bible has much to say about homeless people, or at least those who find themselves waylaid in comparable situations. In the opening chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve, like John, make a fateful decision, and their banishment from the garden leaves them in essence, homeless. Foreigners who are displaced for any number of reasons, including drought, violence or military conflict, became homeless. Widows who have been deprived of their voice in court as well as their financial support. Orphans who are left alone. Travelers who lose their way. All of these, and others who fill the pages of Scripture, are in potential danger. They are living at great risk. They are ³homeless.²
Imagine, for a moment, not having a home to return to following the service this morning. Imagine not having a family of any sort to connect with. Imagine having no heat in January, no change of clothes, no cupboard with food and no clear sense of identity or rootedness. Imagine not relating to that familiar feeling when, after a long drive down the Pennsylvania turnpike, you finally see ³your exit² on the interstate and think you are just about home. You are totally unfamiliar with that wonderful feeling of crawling into your own bed after you have been gone for several days or weeks.
Homelessness is a terrifying thing. As a result, the Scriptures also encourage people to respond to the homeless in a certain way. The word that the Bible frequently uses to describe this response is ³hospitality.² It is in this context that near Eastern hospitality, so vividly portrayed in various biblical texts, takes shape and becomes so sacred. In Genesis 18, Abraham welcomes three strangers with a lavish out-pouring of hospitality. In his mind, they no doubt had traveled a great distance, and were as a result dependent upon his overtures. Why, the meal Abraham serves must have taken hours to prepare. A midrash on this text suggests that, soon after the three strangers arrived, God spoke to Abraham, but Abraham asked him to wait for a short while until he finished tending to his guests! In Judges 19, we find a Levite who is entertained by a man living in Bethlehem, and the hospitality that this man demonstrates is so extraordinary that the Levite has to figure out for three days how to get out of the house. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz treats Ruth with great care and generosity.
Hospitality in the Bible is crucialit is at the very core of human relationships. Hospitality, by definition, extends beyond already existing acquaintances and connections; it is what Waldemar Janzen calls ³the extension of life to those for whom we have no formal responsibility²not for family members or friends. Hospitality is caring for strangers, foreigners, and interruptions. Hospitality prevents exclusiveness. It is an antedote to a pre-occupation with oneself.
I was living in Jordan some years ago. On one occasion, I did something that I do not necessarily recommend people do. I was hitchhiking from the capital of Amman back to the camp where our archaeological team was living. Cindy Winrow, a friend from the university, was with me when a Jordanian truck driver picked us up. He knew very little English, and I knew even less Arabic. As we were driving along trying to tell him where we were going, it became obvious that we would pass his residence on the way to the site. Soon, he asked if we wanted to come in for a cup of tea. I never turn down invitations like that. So, we stopped at his house.
It was an interesting house, a small house with no furnishings. The family was kind of in the middle between living in tents like the Bedouin and having a house. So, they had a tent in the backyard, a large tent where they did all their cooking, and a little house with no furnishings. And they lived between the two. So, we went in and they gave us tea. A few minutes after we arrived, they asked if we wanted to stay for supper and spend the night there. I never turn down an invitation like that. But, and this was really tricky, I had to tell them that I wore contacts. For me to spend the night with them, they would have to take me back to the tent where I could get my saline and cleaning solutions. After we communicated this, I got into his truck and we went to the site where I picked up my things.
Not more than an hour had passed before we returned to the house. By the time we arrived, more than fifty people had gathered thereall the aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, cousins, nieces, and nephews. They were all there because I was coming. Soon, we sat around the living room of this unfurnished house while the host served us a meal you could not believe. During the last course of the meal, Cindy and I noticed as we were sitting there that our watermelon had been seeded and cubed while all of them were eating theirs off the rind. Afterwards, we spent the night. They greeted us the next morning with slightly sweetened, warm milk, one of the ultimate signs of Middle Eastern hospitality. Before we left, they presented Cindy with a full-length, embroidered Palestinian dress, as a symbol of this occasion. When, in our typical American way, we offered thanks, they said, ³When we come to the U.S., you can do the same for us!²
Genuine hospitality reaches out. It is what Joan Chittister refers to as ³an act of the recklessly generous heart.² But what do homelessness and hospitality have to do with evangelism? Absolutely everything! For in the Scriptures, the biblical writers reflect on all of this, and as they do you can begin to see new insights virtually explode on their mental screens. In a profound way, they realize that all of us who are members of the human race are homeless. Rather than having limited consequences, Adam and Eveıs fateful decision gave way to a tragedy of universal proportions. When the gates of Eden slammed shut behind them, all humanity, all of us, every last person was left to wander the streets of the world in search of a home. The good news of the Bible is that God Himself is hospitable to all of us homeless people. In the Psalmistıs eyes, God becomes the ³host² of heaven. God gives me a place to lie my head, and he restores my soul. God prepares a table, fills my cup to overflowing, and serves as my host forever and ever.
In a similar way, the prophets see God entertaining people from all over the world at an endless feast (Joel 3:8; Amos 9:13-15). In that wonderful passage from Isaiah that we read this morning, in that scene, people from all corners of the earth will be hosted by Godthey will eat rich foods, drink fine drink, and have all of their tears wiped away (25:6-8).
In the same way, Jesusı remarkable acts of hospitalityfeeding the multitudes (the only one of his miracles recorded in all four Gospels), welcoming tax collectors and sinners, inviting all the weary to come to himbecome a glimpse, a foretaste, if you will, of Godıs gracious hospitality to the homeless members of the human race.
The call for you and I to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the task facing us to extend the borders of Godıs kingdom, is not simply the proclamation of a set of doctrines and precepts. It is not primarily an attempt to persuade listeners to affirm a particular creed or tradition. The call to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the call to evangelize our communities and our neighborhoods, is fundamentally a call to extend Godıs hospitality to a broken world. John writes in Revelation 19:6-9:
Let us rejoice and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and purefor the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ³Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.²
Our heavenly Father is preparing a feast. Heıs got the finest china, priceless crystal, and the choicest cuts of meat. And his desired guests at this incredible, internal feast are not so much the angels who surround Him, but the street-dwellers of the earth. Whether its doctors who distribute drugs, or addicts who abuse them. Land investors who own the fields, or migrant workers who till them. The learned who write the books, or the illiterate who only wish they could read them. ³Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.²
You and I have been asked to distribute the invitations. You and I have been given a glimpse of the banquet hall and commissioned to make sure that every seat is filled. You and I have been given the job of sharing with the world not some irrelevant ideas, but the hope of taking a seat at the table. Your neighbors, the people you work with, there are a lot of ³homeless² people all around us, and our call as individuals and as a community is to make sure they know that they have been invited to this unbelievable feast.