Sunday, April 1, 2012

Communion as Hospitality

In 1989 I took a vacation that I don’t think I will ever forget. It was to the Island of Maui in late November. If you’ve ever been to any of the Hawaiian Islands, I’m sure you will agree that they are paradise on earth. But it’s not just the great weather, the ocean views, and the beautiful beaches. The tourist activities are incredible. I decided not to bore you with posting the 800 pictures I took. But some of the highlights of my trip were snorkeling above the reefs; touring the pineapple fields; hiking up to the top of the volcano; and one of my most memorable activities, waterfall jumping.

But Hawaii is also the picture of hospitality. And the highlight of my trip was the traditional event that every Hawaiian tourist must experience. The Luau. It is, in fact, at the very center of the Hawaiian custom. But did you know this was not always so?

Believe it or not, in ancient Hawaii, men and woman had to eat their meals apart. Commoners and women of all ranks were also forbidden by the ancient Hawaiian religion to eat certain delicacies. This was all changed in 1819 by King Kamehameha II. Can you say that with me? Kam-e-ha-meh-a. King Kamehameha abolished the traditional religious practices and put on a huge feast. This feast where the King ate with women was the symbolic act which ended the Hawaiian religious taboos, and the luau was born.

The favorite dish at these feasts is what gave the luau its name. Young and tender leaves of the taro plant were combined with chicken, baked in coconut milk and called luau. The traditional luau feast was eaten on the floor. Bowls filled with poi, a staple of the Hawaiian diet made from pounded taro root, and platters of meat were set out and dry foods like sweet potatoes, salt, dried fish or meat covered in leaves were laid out on top of mats made of ti leaves. Utensils were never used at a luau, instead everything was eaten with the fingers.

These royal luaus tended to be big. One of the largest ever was hosted by Kamehameha III in 1847. The list of foods prepared included 271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 3,125 salt fish, 1,820 fresh fish, 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 taro plants and numerous other delicacies. Hawaiians used to thrown these feasts as celebrations for special occasions such as the launch of a new canoe.

Luaus today are not as big as those hosted by Hawaiian royalty in the 1800s, but they are a lot of fun and feature the same traditional foods… and of course, utensils are now allowed. Today, these types of luaus are still held, for example one to celebrate the first birthday of an infant. 
Your participation at a luau makes you ohana, or family.
It is the greatest Hawaiian symbol of welcome and hospitality. (source:

Now to us folk who live on the mainland, hospitality can also conjure up other images; white tablecloths, candles and RSVP invitations. A backyard barbecue, Christmas open house, a cup of coffee with a neighbor. The whole idea has fallen on hard times. Budy schedules, working mothers, the disappearance of servants, and the rise of a highly mobile population has combined to make genuine hospitality seem a thing of the past. We wistfully think of the “good old days” when neighbors dropped by or when company for supper was a regular occurance. Was hospitality just a passing fad, now obsolete, its usefullness over?

In our scripture text this morning, Jesus must not of thought so. He apparently was facing the same decrease in hospitality as he gathered his disciples around him for their last meal together. In the Old Testament the stories of hospitality are rich and numerous. In the lives of Semitic peoples, hospitality was not an option in life, but a moral obligation. The harshness of the desert life made nomadic people sensitive to the needs of those who appeared at their tents seeking food and shelter. And it wasn’t just among the Hebrew people, many followers of pagan religions also considered it a duty.

Yet in the New Testement hospitality has a different flavor. Inns and hostels that sprang up along Roman roads offered placed to say, which lessoned the importance of private accommodations. The strong sense of community was breaking down and with it the practice of hospitality. Even though the Romans like to throw their own lavish banquets, it was not their custom to offer hospitality to wandering strangers. By the second century of the Common Era, hospitality had become something of a burden. The result was that people had to be reminded to show hospitality. And as it became less impromptu, it began to require rules. Invitations became more formal. Banquets, weddings, social occasions; all required an etiquette. It was to this reality that Jesus addressed his disciples on his last evening with them, and he was reminding them of the importance of hospitality from their ancient scriptures, the Torah.

You see, Old Testament hospitality was not just about offering food and shelter to strangers, it was also marked by sacrifice. Killing an animal was regarded as a sacrificial act. Therefore when meat was eaten on festal occasions it carried sacred significance. In these sacrificial meals, the people and their God came together at the same table to partake of the same holy food. Eating together resulted in being drawn together, in a renewal of the covenant bond. Hospitality became an expression of the covenantal relationship with God and other human beings. The guest if accepted into the family community and receives food, not only for the body but for the soul. Through fellowship, story sharing, and being welcomed, the guest goes forth renewed and restored.

Through our hospitality, it is possible to imitate God’s loving care. Both the Old and New Testaments stress that the primary recipient of hospitality is to be the stranger. However, strangers are not necessarily those different in culture, race, or socioeconomic status. They may be members of our family, or friends or neighbors who have become alienated from us. When we offer hospitality to anyone “estranged” from us, some curious and unexpected results occur. To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our life. Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imagination. Hospitality to the stranger gives us a chance to see our own lives afresh. Genuine hospitality to the stranger calls us to do the following:

1) Value the strangeness of the stranger, accepting their differences without fear, annoyance or distrust. The guest is not someone for whom we are doing a favor, but one who is honoring us.

2) See yourself through the eyes of the stranger and either be affirmed or be willing to learn and change because of what has been revealed to you about yourself.

3) Recognize that we are strangers too. God’s faithful people have always been “exiles and strangers on the earth.” Abraham, himself, was a wandering Aramean. Even Jesus had no permanent place to lay his head at night. We to, are but travelers on a journey to somewhere yet discovered.

4) Bring about reconciliation and renewal for the one who is alien or lost. You just might be the one person in someone’s live that can offer them the healing they’ve desired.

5) Finally, you extend hospitality to God by showing lovingkindness to those in need. Jesus said, “When you show it to one you’d normally show the last, you show to me.” (source: Breaking Bread: The Spiritual Significance of Food, Sara Covin Juengst (1992: Westminster/John Knox Press).

I invite you to consider some recipes for action, as we go and practice hospitality to each other and to strangers. The communion table is the place that we gather on a monthly basis to practice this covenant between each other and God. But this sacred symbol of hospitality doesn’t happen just here. It happens every moment that we share in an experience of giving and welcoming. Think of everything that you do for another as an act of hospitality. That’s why we don’t put restrictions on who can or can’t receive communion in this church. Although some might say you have to believe the same way, or have at least been baptized first, I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended to happen. He even extended hospitality to Judas, the one that, according to some texts, betrayed him. Jesus never turned anyone away, and neither should we. For it is in the moment that we embrace the stranger, we embrace God.

Later we will take communion together and engage in a Hawaiian Luau, the feast of hospitality. My challenge to you is this; as you partake of communion and enjoy our Hawaiian Luau after the service, reflect on the words of Jesus as he said; Remember Me. We remember Christ when we look around the table of hospitality and discover who is missing; and invite them to join us. For when we do this, we embody the Hawaiian understanding of ohana…we are the family of God. Aloha!