The Civic and Parish Church of Bournemouth

Sometimes we get hospitality wrong!

Interfaith Sunday – Sermon on Shabbat

The hostess apologised to her guests:

We don’t seem to have any cheddar cheese to offer you with this apple pie – very sorry!

Whilst she was out of the room, her 5 year old son disappeared from the table and came back with a cube of cheese which he cut in two and, with a big smile, gave a piece to each guest.

They smiled back at him in gratitude and popped the cheese into their mouths along with a spoonful of apple pie.

‘Where did you find that?’, asked the boy’s father.

‘In the mousetrap’, said the little boy.

The guests spluttered ….

Sometimes, unknowingly, we get hospitality wrong.

Sometimes we get it wrong and we do know what we’re doing.

That’s what happened with those men who surrounded Lot’s house and threatened to abuse his guests.

The passage from Genesis makes it clear that abuse of the responsibility of hospitality is serious stuff for God.  For God, hospitality is not ‘take it or leave it’ behaviour, it reaches in to the core of who it is to be God.  If we are to align ourselves with the mind and heart of God then hospitality is non-negotiable.

Very often it works – and the live connection with the divine life is a delight to experience and a fundamentally attractive witness to God’s life-giving presence shot through his cosmos.

You were simply lovely in the warmth of the welcome you have given me this morning, and one of the memorable highlights of my trip in September, with CCJ, to Yad Vashem, was the wonderful hospitality we experienced from the family who invited us to join in their Shabbat meal.

However, sometimes we are not just inhospitable to those who are ‘others’, we get it appallingly, atrociously, violently wrong – and on a very large scale.

I had no doubts before spending ten days at Yad Vashem about the mind-blowing evil of the Shoar.  Well, now I know a lot more of the ghastly details.

Equally, I knew about the widespread massacre of Christians in the Middle East before I spent much of Tuesday at the CCJ AGM, but my awareness of this was reinforced by Bishop Angelos and Bishop Christopher Chessun.

What stays with me, as I reflect, is the human reaction to pain of numbing.  What worries me is the numbing of conscience that comes with trying to take-in and cope with the scale of the human evil in the Holocaust and in the horrors that continue in the Middle East to this day.

Faced with disproportionate evil, we need, I begin to think, to actively seek for a proportionality of feeling the pain that is not so great that we just switch off and go numb, nor yet so little that we can say, ‘Well, it wasn’t so bad really’.  Oh yes it was, and it still is!

My experience is that Jews are very often better than Christians to coping with a paradox.  Now – that in itself is only true if Christians are being lazy about engaging with some of the paradoxes right at the heart of our faith and religious tradition;  but I think we Christians are often a lazy lot, especially in our tendency to reduce the holiness of God in humanity down to an unrealistic binary, namely, it’s either there or it’s not, and the evidence shouts against this polarisation of good and evil that most of us are in fact all mixed up.

Accounts of Adolf Eichmann’s trial at Nuremberg are united to emphasising how very ordinary he looked and sounded.  What is shocking to us is that those who do such great evil see it as relatively inconsequential- no big deal – ‘I was just doing my job’, said Eichmann.

So that says to me that we cannot always trust our instincts.  It says to me that we need to ensure for ourselves a level of ‘critical friend’ scrutiny that enables us to see what we would, otherwise, prefer to avoid.

This will not work if it is imposed too-down, from above – for we will resent it, and people are really quite skilled in subverting such attempts at control.

No, it has to be voluntary and mutual.

Within one frame of reference this is something like lateral subsidiarity.  Within another, this is what mentoring and coaching are about in schools.

I think this is the point at which I leave it with you. 

Let me conclude by thanking you for your ongoing hospitality, and for our partnership in seeking what is best for rough sleepers. I value and cherish this shared hospitality as a profoundly Godly activity.

The Genesis story, with its raw violence, not least towards women, (Lot – how could you?! – I am the father of three daughters…) is horribly contemporary.  There is no easy way of explaining away through historical and contextual differences our common human tendency towards control and commodification.

We can no longer live in the comfort of not knowing – for we know.

It is clear that, like Lot with his household, we are entrusted by God with his world and with each other.

We might prefer to ‘other’ Lot, and tell ourselves that we would never do that – ah, or anything like it?

It is my great privilege today for me to speak as a Christian in your synagogue. Tomorrow we shall be honoured by your Rabbi in our pulpit.

Do we have differences?

Of course we do.

Will they stop us working together for the common good?

Absolutely not.