My daughters at the wedding
...to show to others the same befriending love that God shows to us.
This week we packed bags to go and stay with 'perfect strangers' and I mean perfect also with a literal meaning that the phrase does not usually connote (perfect with a God-given status as we stand dressed in the robes of the Son.) We would be 'put up' by the Smiths so that we could attend the wedding of a friend whose father and mother serve a church community down south. Our friend who would be married had arranged this.
What we were to experience that weekend would be a kind of radical hospitality that I do not think either my husband or I had ever experienced to such a degree before.
We were to ring half an hour before arriving at the Smiths so that a meal could be made for us and we were given a key so that we could come and go from the wedding celebration. We were taken into the home of this wonderful couple who had made beds up for our children with cuddly toys set out on pillows, a collection of books and a night light. We were greeted with hugs and kisses when we arrived and taken for walks around the countryside with their dog in tow.
We ate together and prayed together and the children dug potatoes from the garden which we ate for our lunch with roast chicken. Mrs Smith took the girls around the garden to pick flowers for mummy and we were shown family photographs and shared some of the angsts and the hopes of life as we conversed about our different life journeys. We asked them the secret of their happy marriage, 54 years long and reflected on the wedding that we had all attended together the day before.
The wedding was beautiful and everything we ate and gazed at had been produced by members of the church family who had cooked and prepared four courses and created a wedding cake and flowers for every high place and low place, folded paper into table settings and donated fairy lights to transform a church hall into a reception suite. Two cultures came together: as an English bride married a Serbian groom. A band played modern worship music and a trumpet played out the wedding march. We met with God in the worship and focused on Ruth's courageous choice to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi and make Naomi's people her people and Naomi's God her God. We understood that Kate would accompany her new family back to Serbia, a call that God had placed on her heart. Kate met Zeljko in Serbia as she worked proclaiming the message of the gospel and taking it quite literally to the streets in outdoor activities she set up to feed the local people.
The sun shone for the couple after early rains and we ate cake on the lawn of a church whose people have a vision for welcoming in and sending out, who exude a warmth that can only be the product of a secure identity in Christ. The next morning we came together around the Lord's table in the same church in which we had participated in the wedding the day before where the liturgy had been very corporate.
Yoder (For the nations: essays evangelical and public, Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) writes that the Eucharist is "the paradigm for every. . . mode of inviting the outsider...to the table." We had shared the Lord's supper, the wedding feast and the foods taken from this couple's garden as we sat together around the tables in their home. All of these meals had a sacred significance so that breakfast too seemed infused with the 'breaking of bread' as we broke croissants instead. 'In the beginning' Buber writes in I and Thou 'is relation'. When we begin to see each other with God-vision, radical hospitality is made possible. It should not be radical for those of us who follow the lamb, for it is only a necessary outworking of the love we have for God, it is radical though when in its mirror we see all the more clearly the fear and suspicion and mistrust that people have for one another in our world, as we alarm ourselves against each other, gate in our houses and hoard up possessions that we then have to protect because we are dominated by myths of scarcity and the idea that we can not trust one another. What we experienced this weekend and I reflect on here was a tear in the fabric of that worn-out cloth, a gap in the usual record of that ongoing dialogue that is preached from the television, as it encourages us to file claims against one another. We breathed the heady fragrance of that thing we have often caught a whiff of, but it was sustained for an entire weekend as we were welcomed into the arms of this community with its inclusive embrace.
I am left from this weekend with many things, amongst them:
a challenge to exercise a kind of hospitality so that God might leave a person somehow changed;
a challenge to bring alive a liturgy that is spoken by many a well-meaning and 'engaged' but really so disengaged couple throughout this land. Our participation as a congregation in the words of this ceremony cemented further still that common identity that we share in Christ.
A challenge to seek help, to think less about 'smart' usually costly solutions and think more about the people whom God has gifted with such creativity that in asking whether they might exercise such giftings you find that the blessing is for them as well as for those they provide.
...and perhaps most of all, that when we come together to remember the gift of God to us in the Eucharist, it is because we are also engaging, in every small and undramatic way, in the gift of ourselves to one another, just as Sunnyside church did for one family they had never met before, who traveled down from Nottingham, one weekend after a period of such changing locations and homes, to find 'home' the minute they arrived in a welcome that they will always remember.
Bless you Sunnyside!