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 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

Advent 4 – Hospitality and generosity


Read Luke 10:25-37


Part 1 (Audio 1)

It might seem odd to think of hospitality as a spiritual discipline but like other spiritual disciplines such as prayer and solitude, hospitality is not only something we discipline ourselves to do but it is something we seek to encompass as a natural part of the Christian life. Like prayer, hospitality must be practised before it becomes habitual. Just as the act of prayer engenders the spirit of prayerfulness so the practice of hospitality develops the hospitable nature. That though will probably not happen if we regard it as simply, as a matter of duty. When we practice hospitality because we think as a Christian we should, we verge on acts of self-righteousness and rapidly lose the appetite to continue. We will continue, but often grudgingly. The spiritual disciplines aren’t practiced to accumulate heavenly brownie points or as a means of proving to ourselves that we are good Christians. We carry out the disciplines to work with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of our nature, whereby things like hospitality come to us naturally.

We also need to get to grips with what it means to be hospitable. We often see hospitality in terms of inviting people into our homes and more specifically, feeding them. Those things can be part of it but there is more to hospitality than that, and sometimes those things counter good hospitality. If we can’t cook well, then it is not necessarily hospitable to subject someone to a meal we have prepared. We should also be aware that in our brokenness, we can offer what seems to be hospitality for self-gain, whilst remaining under the illusion that we do it for others. Our culture makes it easy for us to extend hospitality in order to get something in return. People naturally feel under an obligation to return the favour and ill-conceived hospitality can come over as something of a bribe. There is home advantage to think about too. I found it interesting watching the body language of Boris Johnson and Ursula Von der Leyen at last week’s emergency Brexit dinner engagement. It was clear that as host, Mrs Von der Leyen had the upper hand in determining how the thing would be orchestrated. I am also sure that the opposite would be true, had the dinner been served at 10 Downing Street. We need to recognise that in any act of hospitality, the power rests with the host.

This leads me to think that we can show hospitality in accepting an invitation every bit as much as in giving one. It is striking that the gospels record a number of occasions where Jesus is guest at a meal but none where he hosts one. This takes us into a reflection about what hospitality actually is, and the best I can do in that regard is to suggest it is about offering ourselves to others. It is about giving away something of our own resources. That could be time, energy and effort, material resources, our talents or power, influence and status. It is about using all the gifts that we have, not for self-gain but for the benefit of others.

There are three things that I think summarise the characteristics of hospitality.

Welcome

Welcome is about belonging and inclusion. When properly welcomed, we feel at ease in the company of others. Welcome is certainly about doing whatever we can to help people feel that they belong in our social group and environment. There are times though when our welcome is about being prepared to go to where they are. Welcome is only really possible if we understand the position of the person we are welcoming. Our churches are only welcoming if we accept that people can belong without conditions. Here then, the question arises of whether believing or belonging should come first in church The example of Jesus is invariably to accept people as they are, first. The Pharisees, and religious leaders of Jesus’ day demonstrate a notable contrast to this position, keeping well clear of anyone they deemed unclean, be that sinners or gentiles. The counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ position is brought to the open in his conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4). The conversation opens with the woman questioning why he, a Jew should be prepared to talk to her. The same can be seen in Jesus’ care for the woman with a problem of bleeding (Luke 8:40-48) and his failure to condemn a woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). The episode concerning the woman who breaks into a dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair also shows that Jesus is prepared to offer welcome where many fear to go (Luke 7:36-50). Welcome requires us to challenge our prejudices and risk our reputations but I’m sure that in many churches Christians still, even if only subconsciously, at times exclude people through fear of compromising religious beliefs and traditions.

Honouring

I often wonder about the tradition of the New Year and Queen’s birthday honours. We might well deem many of the recipients of these honours worthy of their awards. Others seem to acquire them for less altruistic reasons. I’m not sure though, that singling people out, whatever good they might have done, for honour is always helpful to society. We have to learn to honour people in a different way and that way is by acceptance regardless of who they are. I’ve mentioned before that Jesus does not seem to ever host a dinner but is often a guest. In Luke 19:1:10, Jesus is seen to go even farther than being an invited guest. He simply tells Zaccheus that he is coming to his house for dinner. In this way Jesus publicly shows acceptance to one who is widely hated. In that culture to receive a guest was to honour a guest and to be a guest was to honour the host.

Hospitality is about honouring people. Jesus did not think about anyone’s motive for invitations to dinner, but simply went and ate with them. The Pharisees didn’t get it. They were too worried about honouring the undeserving. Jesus, full of grace, had no such concerns.

Loving

I guess that hospitality comes down in the end to love. Hospitality is I think, the outward expression  of love. As a spiritual discipline, it helps us overcome our fear of not having, and enables us to love more. When we find we can give away without ending up in need, we lose the fear of giving away too much.

In John 13-15 Jesus’ words to his followers that they must love one another could not be clearer. ‘This is my command,’ Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Love one another’. That command is repeated five times in different ways in the space of these 3 chapters. The chapters provide the detail of the last supper conversation that Jesus has with his friends. These are the last words he will say to them before his death and so their importance cannot be understated. They certainly made an impression on John who reinforces these words of Jesus to the readers of his first letter (1 John 4:7-21).  

Consider again the parable of the Good Samaritan that you read at the start of the chapter and think about the cost of hospitality to the Samaritan in the story.

Read 1 John 4:7-21

Reflect on how love might be shown through acts of hospitality



Part 2 (Audio 2)


Generosity is I think, the attribute that underscores the practice of hospitality. Generosity springs from open-heartedness and open-handedness. It is a willingness to spend ourselves. In the second part of this reflection, I’d like to look into the practicalities of generosity in a church context. My focus will be on financial giving for that is perhaps the example that we are most familiar with.

When we think about giving in a spiritual context we are led to the practice of tithing. The concept of making a voluntary offering to God from the fruits of agriculture, was raised in the earliest chapters of the Bible. Genesis 4 relates the tragic story of Cain and his brother Abel. At the heart of the story is Cain’s jealousy over God’s approval of Abel’s offering but not his own. It seems that Cain, unlike Abel, was afraid to let go of the best of his produce. God’s displeasure here was not because He  needed anything material from Cain. What he needed was Cain’s trust. He wanted Cain to be free from the anxiety of insufficiency.

Later, as the tribes of Israel became a nation, the practice of tithing was embedded in the law, the commandment being, that each household should give the first tenth of all that their land produced, both crops and livestock. As with Cain and Abel, the giving of the tithe was a sign of faith in the provision of God. The covenant relationship that Israel had with God was to be built on trust. The tithe was a statement of trust.

Throughout Israel’s history, the matter of how the tithe was used was a consistent cause of difficulty and corruption. At festivals, people brought a tithe to feed all that attended. It was a bring and share supper on a grand scale. Importantly the tithes that the people brought would also be sufficient to feed those that were too poor to support themselves. In addition to festival tithes regular tithing was also practiced. These regular tithes were used to sustain the religious establishment and in particular to provide for the Priests and Levites who were the custodians of the faith and had no other source of income. This though, was the route through which disagreement and corruption entered. The priests often failed to handle the tithes of the people in an acceptable way. Much of the tithe should have been sacrificed to God but priests and Levites consistently saved the best, forbidden parts for their own consumption. Eli’s sons committed this sin as well as abusing their position to demand more from the people than the law required (1 Samuel 2:12-17). Such abuse continues throughout Israel’s history and Malachi at the very end of Old Testament history is still exposing priestly corruption (Malachi 1:6-2:9). Malachi also has interesting things to say about the withholding of tithes (Malachi 3:6-12). Particularly telling is verse 10, ‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’  

References to tithing in the New Testament are sparse. Jesus mentions it twice, on both occasions in a somewhat negative context. The first is in condemnation of the Pharisees who, says Jesus, ‘give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all kinds of other garden herbs, but neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone’ (Matthew 23:23). His second reference is in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where the Pharisee in the story, in a speech of self-justification includes the words, ‘I give a tenth of all I get’ (Luke 18:12). In both references, Jesus is not so much condemning the practice of tithing. Indeed in the first reference he says that the Pharisees should continue the practice. What he is doing though, is stating strongly that the practice in itself does not make anyone right with God, particularly when the false assurance that such legalism brings, causes people to neglect the greater concerns of justice and the care of others. Other New Testament refences to tithing are less direct but the overall impression in the New testament is towards a greater emphasis on the general principle of self-sacrificial giving as oppose to legalistic, prescriptive practices.

The practice of tithing and attitudes to it have come and gone over the course of church history since New Testament times. Much of that has been to do with preserving church establishment. In England in the 16th and 17th centuries, the state church was dependent on tithes for its very existence and political and economic factors were pre-eminent in Archbishop Laud’s attempts to increase tithes. Despite considerable conflict and opposition to legislative tithes, (to the point at which they were a factor in the outbreak of the English Civil War) their imposition survived until the twentieth century.

Whilst tithes should never be seen as a form of religious taxation or as payment for religious services there is still something to be said for encouraging the practice of regular giving. There are spiritual benefits to tithing and like the other more recognised spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, solitude and Bible reading, when done well, it can help us to foster a sound relationship with God, specifically in the area of trust and faith. We do not have to be so particular as to calculate the exact tenth of our income, though some do find it helpful to do just that. There is also logic in thinking that our regular giving should go towards the ministry of the church. The practice throughout Biblical history and beyond, of giving to God is not only an expression of faith and trust but one of devotion. As people who love God, we naturally want to contribute in every way possible to His mission and the furtherance of his kingdom. I am convinced that we can only contribute effectively to mission if we do so as a corporate body. In terms of the church the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of the parts and in order to function as a church body, we have to pool our resources. At this point I have to confess to having some unease over some issues around giving within the Church of England system. The system is undeniably bureaucratic and therefore expensive. I also feel that some church policies and statements give rise to the impression that the church as an institution, expects contributions from individual members of parish churches as payment for stipendiary ministry, rather than seeing those contributions as a gift, from which stipendiary ministers are enabled to carry out their work. I wonder also whether the current system inadvertently supports more wealthy Parishes and Dioceses. Certainly, small churches are less able to meet the costs of managing organisation and expensive ancient buildings and with fewer people available to raise funds, are less able to resource the necessary income from elsewhere. Having said all this, I feel that the Church of England is inefficient rather than corrupt and regular giving to parish funds is still the best way to resource mission and ministry in the local church. We must remember though that regular giving is first and foremost an act of love for God, a statement of faith in His provision, and an expression of desire to see the furtherance of His kingdom rather than a meeting of material need.

The final thing I want to add to this reflection is that we must not allow our generosity to stop at the point of tithing or regular giving to the church. If we do, then our practice of tithing as a spiritual discipline has been worthless. Our regular giving should encourage us that it is safe to give things away. Generosity is the attribute that demonstrates a fearlessness in giving. As a matter of justice, mercy and compassion we will be moved to give beyond our contribution to the Church to those that most need our help. As a matter of encouragement, I want you to know that I consistently see in all of our churches, acts of great generosity, not only financial but also of time and energy and care for others. When we do any of these things, we are giving away something of ourselves. I finish with the observation that many of you have charities and movements that are close to your heart and to whose work you contribute regularly. God places on our hearts those he wants us most to support. We can’t and shouldn’t try to support every worthy cause, but it is worth praying to ask God where our point of compassion is and where our generosity is going to be best expressed.


Advent 4 - reflection 1.mp3 Advent 4 - reflection 2.mp3