Reception, compassionate welcome, hospitality — Jesus tells us to practice these things in the Gospel passage today; they’re hallmarks of Christian life and if I do say so myself, St. Augustine’s is awfully gifted at them. Our Community Meals, our eagerness to fill up meal-train slots, our great gifts in casserole-making and in big-dinner-cooking, our saying hello to newcomers and inviting people into our pews — this community is one who knows the importance of compassionate welcome, of reception, of hospitality.
But now most of those typical ways of sharing this gift — of sharing this mandate, really — have been taken away in the time of Coronavirus. So are we to do with this urge, this habit of hospitality that we have? Where can we put that energy? How can we exercise that muscle?
Well, there’s good news and bad news: the good news is, there’s still plenty of field to harvest when it comes to practicing hospitality. The bad news is, it’s perhaps more demanding, more sacrificial, even, than our more comfortable habits of hospitality with respect to food.
Jeremiah gives us an idea of how we might engage hospitality outside of food or bodies: he’s is hanging out with the — false — prophet Hananiah, who has just given a very optimistic prophecy. The first verses of chapter 28 record that Hananiah has declared that God will bring his people out of exile in Babylon in just two years’ time.
Hananiah says that their travail is as good as over, their suffering has practically ceased. The favor of the Lord returns! Huzzah!
Jeremiah’s response is generous, one might even call it compassionate welcome. He tells the truth with gentleness, saying, “Oh, may that be true! What a wonderful thing that would be! Yes, ‘may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied’!”
You see, he joins in the desire and hope that the people long for, he affirms Hananiah’s instinct to give the people something to hang on to. Jeremiah seeks to understand where Hananiah is coming from, seeks to slip into the shoes of the people of Israel who are suffering exile. He knows their heart longs for deliverance. He acknowledges and reflects back to them — showing he’s an active listener — their thirst for better days ahead.
But that’s not all he says.
Jeremiah continues with a warning: prophets from of old have prophesied disaster, destruction, continued suffering for the people. And clearly, he need not remind his audience, all this has come to pass. Indeed, they’re right smack-dab in the middle of some of the terror and hardship that Jeremiah himself has prophesied. So, if Hananiah has a message of imminent deliverance for the people, what a wonder it would be to behold, but it would go against decades, and even centuries of prophetic tradition, it would go against all that God seemed to have been communicating for years, it would be a complete 180-degree change from the direction and message that God has been giving and that has been coming true. And Jeremiah himself stands in that tradition.
Jeremiah bore this affront with great humility, with a generosity of spirit toward Hananiah and the people of Israel that shows a compassionate heart and a willingness to be hospitable to even those who are maddening. He’d had a lot of practice bearing the worst stuff — delivering bad news for decades, and living in the middle of that bad news with the people.
While Jeremiah knows the truth of God, the repentance required for deliverance, the years still ahead of difficulty and of exile and of oppression, Jeremiah sticks with the people he’s been called to serve through prophecy. He stays with the exiles, he commits to suffering with, listening with, and living with the people of God as they reckon with their sin, their disobedience and hardness of heart.
And isn’t this the same thing that God in Jesus shows us by his own behavior? Though he is God, he does not consider his almighty power and ultimate authority as something to be grasped, to be taken advantage of, something to be flaunted and waved around over the heads of sad, fleshy humans.
God, the creator, the source of all wisdom, continues to show a willingness to be a compassionate parent. God surely knows better than any of us what the future will hold and how we ought to meet it, but like Jeremiah, God approaches us with curiosity and with gentleness in his truth, rather than trying to violently bend humanity toward his will.
When I’m faced with opposition, I tend to dig my heels in. I desire to ah, “violently bend” others to my will. And I don’t think I’m very unique among humans on this account. We have a very strong bias for ourselves, and a need to be understood, to get our way. To remain the same, be unchanged.
Now, God is the only one who is truly unchanged, and is fully consistent, and the only being whose will it would be a very good idea to bend toward. But this is not how God approaches us. It is his right to do so, but it is not his method. Instead, God in Jesus Christ becomes human. Chooses to walk around in our skin, to suffer our trials, feel our pain, enjoy our happinesses. God chooses to enter into our experience, to walk around in our shoes, to feel our feelings and to show he understands.
Jeremiah is able to, intellectually, prophetically, sidle himself up alongside Hananiah, to look together, next to, with, the people of Israel at the prophecy that’s been given, and the truth of the prophecies received already, and the witness of God’s hand and behavior. Jeremiah receives and welcomes Hananiah, listening well, being curious instead of shutting him down, looking deeply into what Hananiah and all of Israel longs for, and uses that truth to guide his response of compassionate truth.
God in Jesus Christ makes the ultimate example of love in coming alongside humanity as a man, living with poverty, ministering with the sick, teaching with the uneducated. Listening in love, loving in truth.
To whom are we called to listen in love? To whom are we called to love in truth? Who in your life, which individual, or what group, tempts you to pull on that rope, to trip them, rather than to understand? To silence and squash them, rather than to welcome, and receive them, and then, in curiosity, to redirect?
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union. Grant that we may not so much seek to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.