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Hospitality

I smiled this morning when I opened up my postbox and pulled out the latest edition of the Ruminations magazine. Winter’s theme: hospitality. 

I had just been thinking about the highlights of the last week being the warm meal and laughter shared at a hearth in Henty and, on Sunday, at the dining room table in my own home which now doubles regularly as an altar for worship. 

Hospitality.

It’s a hard thing to hold on to in the midst of rules around gathering, our wariness of strangers, posters urging social distancing and safe food handling, and practices like Holy Communion and sharing the peace having to be expressed in new ways. 

Yet, all around us, people are struggling with a deep sense of disconnection, an engulfing loneliness, and, even, a growing self-centredness without the gift of community to stretch and challenge and inspire and frustrate us. We can’t wait to “get back to church” because that’s going to magically fix all that? 

I keep coming back to the story of the woman in her kitchen hiding a small piece of leaven within her three measures of flour that it might be transformed to a fluffy, risen loaf that will feed her family and any others who might find themselves that day at her table. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like that (see Luke 13:20-21; Leaven). It’s right there – in her home, in her daily routine, in her hope-filled action, in her preparation to meet the need of another, to satisfy a hunger.

Hospitality. 

I wonder if that’s something that we, as the Church, are really good at. Well organised morning cuppa’s after a service – yes. Fellowship groups, social outings, and activities for our members – yes. Many valuable, heartfelt ways of reaching out to those less fortunate – yes. 

But learning people’s names in the supermarket, having conversations with someone from an obviously different background to our own, working towards changed language and rituals and music so that newcomers may feel a little less like they’ve just arrived on a different planet, inviting a church acquaintance into our home so that they can share our technological resources to join in an online service, safely hosting as individuals at our kitchen and dining room tables those that we know to be struggling with loneliness and isolation in this time, meeting up at the lake or the park or the Botanic gardens for a walk with someone who might really just need to get out of their house … these acts of hospitality are radical in that they demand that I need to get intimately involved, hands on, in opening up my own time and space for another.

The closing prayer that I used during our communion service on Sunday reads:

We thank You, O God,
for the nourishment and strength 
we have received at Your table.
We thank You, O Christ,
for the new life that we enjoy
and which we now take into the world.
We thank You, Holy Spirit,
for feeding our souls with this simple meal,
and for equipping us to be Your hands to feed others. 

John van de Laar, A Liturgy for the Spiritual Feast

The sacrificial hospitality that we receive at the open table is the same hospitality that we are called to embody as the people of God. It stretches beyond the sacred hour in a sanctuary on a Sunday to a way of living with others that proclaims: the kingdom of God is here!

Leaven

It’s a short story – only a verse in the Gospel of Matthew and two in the Gospel of Luke. 

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [hid] in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:33 (NRSV)

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21 (RSV)

In Matthew, it is prefaced by the parables of the sower and the weed; in Luke, by the call to repent or perish, the story of the barren fig tree, and a nasty confrontation with the Pharisees over the healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. In both instances, immediately before this parable is another: the parable of the mustard seed – the smallest of all seeds which, when planted, grows into a large tree that offers shelter to the birds of the field.

In context then, perhaps this story is also about what increases the kingdom – a sense of the nearness of God’s justice and perfect peace – and what might get in the way of that understanding and experience.

As I read Scripture through a woman’s eyes, the first thing that I notice about this story of the kingdom is that it is a woman’s story – probably taking place in her kitchen in her home in among all of the other routine tasks of a woman’s day.

As she bakes bread for the household, she takes a little piece of dough left over from the last batch that has, by now, fermented and mixes it in with the three measures of flour until it is all leavened and begins to produce the gas that makes the loaf rise.

I also notice that the whole process depends completely on leftovers, on just a little bit that she’s been clever enough to keep aside. And I notice that it really is just a little bit in comparison to the rest of the ingredients – but without it the loaf would remain flat, unleavened. I notice that that little bit permeates the whole mixture – changing its nature from unleavened to leavened. I notice that the word used for mixing in is actually the same word for hiding something inside. I notice that in this whole process, there is a a necessary, hands-on action on the part of the woman but, also, a letting go time in which the leaven, once mixed in, does its own work. 

Finally, I note that there is another passage in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus warned others to be wary of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees – and that, in this particular culture, at this particular time, there were many religious moments that involved unleavened bread, so leaven could be used metaphorically to describe a negative influence – and just a little would ruin the whole lot. 

Yet, in today’s story, a woman’s story, Jesus tells us that we discover what the kingdom of God is like …. I wonder what you notice and how it speaks to you of God’s perfect peace and justice growing in our churches, our households, our society. 

Perhaps the kingdom of God is about nothing going to waste.
About the smallest gift making a significant change. 
Perhaps it’s about how we divide and share our resources.
Perhaps it’s about planning ahead, and holding on to a little now, for something today or tomorrow or the next day.
Perhaps the kingdom of God is about those who normally don’t feature in our stories taking centre stage.
Perhaps it’s about finding God in the ordinary places of our homes and the ordinary routines of our work and our rest.
Perhaps it’s about what we hide away in ourselves that transforms us from the inside out. 
Perhaps it’s about knowing when to act – and when to just be part of an unfolding process that we cannot control.

Perhaps the kingdom of God is working unseen in us in this very moment.
Perhaps it’s about the peace and the justice that we long for contaminating our thoughts, our prayers, our language; 
fermenting in our gatherings, our studies of Scripture, our rituals, our planning; 
changing our mindsets, our prejudices, our grudges, our brokenness, our excuses; 
and rising, through the Spirit of God and not through any power of our own, to become bread for all at an open table …. 

It’s a simple story. A parable of the kingdom. May you break off a piece and hide it in your heart this day and see what increases in your life.