Staying Put for the Kingdom

Staying Put for the Kingdom

I don’t really enjoy having houseguests.
It’s so much work to have the whole house in perfect shape,
and I’m never really able to relax while in the midst of hosting.
I spend a great deal of time wondering if I’m meeting my guests’
unspoken needs and desires…
…wondering if they’re feeling sufficiently cared for and tended to.
I fret and I fuss.
I try so very hard to accommodate my guests…
…while also, inevitably, feeling slightly put-out by the whole ordeal.
Perhaps, with more than the single bathroom
that South Philly rowhouses provide,
things might be a little easier.
But regardless, I just don’t really enjoy hosting houseguests.

How about you?
How do you feel about hosting overnight guests in your home?
How long can you tolerate houseguests underfoot?
Or are you one of those rare and mythical people
who somehow thrive in the chaos of a house full of guests?

While reading today’s Gospel text,
I kept wondering to myself
how I would feel
if the disciples showed up
hoping to stay at my home.
I have a feeling that I might have been
one of those people who prompted them
to wipe the dust from their feet
and move on in search of a more hospitable place.
I think I might be precisely the reluctant host
that our Gospel text warns against.

And as hard as it is to imagine myself hosting the disciples,
it’s even harder for me to put myself in their place,
as would-be guests, looking for a place to stay.
There is little I hated more as a child
than having to go door-to-door
selling wrapping paper or popcorn or chocolate
for various school, scout, and social causes.
I wasn’t very enthusiastic about trick-or-treating, either.
I disliked going up to people’s doors,
knocking,
and asking for something – whether it be a purchase or a handout.
So it’s hard to imagine myself
doing what Jesus told the disciples to do.
It’s hard to imagine being willing to
bring the message of the Kingdom
into the world in this particular way…
…as a houseguest.
The pulpit is a far safer place, it seems to me,
than the front stoop.
The possibility of rejection much lower in church
than out in the neighborhood.

And yet,
scrolling through my memory bank,
I can also come up with some truly amazing examples
of being a guest, of being hosted.
Of the transformative act of being welcomed.
Of receiving the genuine hospitality of another.
Sometimes only for a few hours, sometimes for a few days.

Perhaps my most memorable experiences as a guest
were Friday nights around the Shabbat table
in rural Vermont,
where I lived for a few years in my late 20s.
I was often hosted by a husband and wife, both rabbis,
who served in our small Vermont town.
And, through these experiences, I realized that…
I had never before known such a generous table.
I had never before known such a holy table.
I had never before known such a story-laden table.

You see, Shabbat dinner, the Friday night meal
in which candles are lit and bread and wine are blessed,
is a time “out of time.”
There’s an intentional slowness to it,
a purposeful lack of hurry.
It feels as if there’s enough time for anything…and everything.
In my experience, Shabbat dinner can be quite magical,
unlike any ordinary dinner party.
There’s a sense that this time, these interactions
are to be counted as sacred, holy.
But of course, Shabbat eventually ends.
It comes around each week, but it also ends.
And perhaps it’s easier to see our human encounters as sacred
when they have a defined beginning and end.

The kind of hospitality the disciples were seeking
was not, of course, of this time-limited variety.
Under Jesus’ direction, the disciples were meant to go somewhere…
…and to stay.

One paraphrase of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples
goes like this:
Carry no purse or sandals. Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest in one home, one family, one town. Speak of what is near, not far. Don’t linger in hopeless places. Don’t get cocky; remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected. Trust that any peace which is spurned will return to you; nothing in God’s kingdom is wasted.

It’s an interesting set of instructions, isn’t it?
It’s not necessarily what we tend to imagine
when we think about the disciples going out
to preach the Good News.
We don’t imagine that a great deal of their work
would have involved tricky negotiations around hospitality,
would have involved learning to be good guests,
would have involved learning how to stay even when things got hairy.

Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

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“Do not move about from house to house.”

Jesus obviously couldn’t have imagined
the pressures of life under late stage capitalism.
For many of us,
staying in one place feels nearly impossible,
even if we really want to.

There are very real forces,
economic ones in particular,
that compel us into perpetual movement and migration.

But there are other forces at work in our lives, too.
Like the difficulty many of us seem to have
with ever really being satisfied
by the people and things around us.
The difficulty we have sticking with people and things
when they get hard, or when they change, or when we change.
The unsettling feeling that nothing
is ever quite good enough.

It’s sort of an epidemic, isn’t it?
Our low-grade dissatisfaction and chronic discontent
are a national malaise.

And it’s not simply the fault of the 21st century,
or of social media,
or of free market economics.

Jesus had to tell the disciples to stay, too.
Because we humans have never really wanted to stay.
Never been very skilled at staying.

There have always people who do stay, of course.
Multiple generations living in the same small town.
People committed to a particular way of life in a particular place.

But sometimes, staying is more about inertia than anything else.
Sometimes, the body stays, but the heart doesn’t.
There’s a half-hearted, lifeless kind of staying…
….an empty staying.
Something that looks a lot like staying,
but that is never quite able to proclaim:
“the Kingdom of God has come near.”

Because staying, really staying, requires something much deeper from us.
Which is why so many of us find it so hard to stay, to abide.
Because staying is a risk.
It is always a risk.
Even if only for a season, to fully cast your lot with these particular people,
in this particular place…is a risk.
There is something at stake when you make this kind of commitment
to being fully present and fully engaged.
When you say:
“I will do all the important things with these people.
I won’t sit around waiting for better people to come along.
I will take the risk of telling these people what I need to thrive
and trusting that they will work to understand and respond.”

Which is simply not something many of us do,
beyond the domestic sphere
and outside of our most intimate relationships.
Many of us don’t even do it in those places.
We’re too afraid to expect much from each other.
We can hardly fathom what it really means
to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
We have only a foggy idea
of the kind of solidarity that these relationships entail.
We haven’t even begun to imagine the Body of Christ’s power
at its full stature.

Because we don’t tend to stay.
Because staying is hard.
Because staying entails
all the messy involvement of becoming houseguests to one another,
either literally or metaphorically.

Staying involves seeing the dust bunnies,
and the spoiled food in the fridge,
and the nail clipping that missed the trash can,
and the binge eating,
and the late-night tears.

But staying also allows for knowing glances,
small kindnesses,
a favorite meal on a birthday,
a hug after a hard day,
fresh flowers just because.
The beauty and the laughter and the joy.

The first Christian communities were built
by the disciples becoming houseguests.
By sharing with one another at this level
of physical and emotional intimacy.
Unavoidable intimacy.
Because houseguests can’t keep many secrets,
can’t really hide.
They don’t have much privacy.
It’s all out in the open.
Which might be why forgiveness
is such an important part of Jesus’ message, too.
There’s really no other way to stay
than to forgive and forgive again…and again and again.

––––––––––––-

Well, just to be clear,
I’m not suggesting that we start showing up
at one another’s homes
proclaiming “peace to this house”
and asking to stay for weeks at a time.

But I am suggesting that our relationships
in Christian community
might be very productively imagined
as ever revolving configurations
of hosts and houseguests.

As hosts and houseguests, of course,
we will see far more of one another
than we ever bargained for.
We will witness the highs and the lows,
the beauty and the drudgery,
of living this life together…even if only for a season.

And when we stay,
when we consent to sharing the whole gamut of human experience,
when we agree to the continual process of forgiving and being forgiven,
something quite magical happens.
We find that we will begin to call this place, this time, these relationships
sacred, holy.

And find that we begin to say,
with greater and greater frequency and confidence:
“the Kingdom of God
has most certainly
come near.” Amen.

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