“Where is the Lord?” When we hear that question, it usually comes from someone who is lamenting the loss of an older practice or custom, such as prayer in public schools or businesses closing on Sundays. There is often a depth of frustration hidden beneath the question, presuming that the Lord is nowhere to be found. In other words, when this question is asked, the speaker sees things going awry.
The Old Testament lesson for this week includes this question but actually pushes it in a different direction. Instead of marking a dire shift in present circumstances, the prophet Jeremiah says that the Israelites should have asked this question. In fact, he conveys God’s lament that the Israelites did not ask it (2:6, 8). That is, after their sojourn in the wilderness – a journey that occurred “in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives” (2:6) – the priests and the people of Israel had other priorities than God, which led to a rebellion built on neglect, a rebellion that carried on from the exodus to the time of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah condemns the people for two errors: abandoning God and relying on themselves. Ironically, their misplaced priorities did not lead them to success (2:8, 11). They left behind a “fountain of living water” in order to have a leaky reservoir (2:13). All because they did not ask, “Where is the Lord?”
It is easy to get caught up in the anxieties that blanket our day-to-day existence. Aside from the concerns of school, work, and family, we can add growing worry about ever-present gun violence, signs of economic slow-down, and even the instability and inaction of elected leaders. The talking heads of our radios, podcasts, and televisions sometimes recognize these concerns. Yet, even if they are asking, “Where is the Lord?,” we find their focus to be on power as the way forward, even coveting positions of authority for themselves or for others.
The Hebrews lesson seems to offer an alternative: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (13:1-2). Literally, the second part of the text says, “Do not neglect love of strangers.” In her book, Untamed Hospitality (Brazos Press, 2007), Beth Newman writes that in our world, hospitality has been privatized, sentimentalized, and even commodified within the market. We tend to see it as an occasional gift from one person to another or as a transactional industry built around customer service. We might even add to Newman’s list the current phenomenon of churches arming their “hospitality teams” in order to defend their churches from would-be assailants.
By contrast, true hospitality is open to the other. We do not simply share time and resources with someone else; we share ourselves. Potentially, this can become an encounter with the Lord, which Hebrews notes: “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). Thus, this hospitality, as Newman writes, “names our graced participation in the triune life of God” (14).
The Gospel lesson speaks to this as well. Jesus’ discussion of table seating etiquette draws from expectations concerning power and status, where the social hierarchy is plainly evident by where people sit. Jesus’ instruction is to practice humility and avoid self-exaltation (Luke 14:11). Yet, Jesus is not talking about a false humility that does not make claims on one’s life. We see this when he moves to discussing who is invited to banquets and other social gatherings. Instead of inviting those with financial means and social connections (i.e., people who have something to offer), Jesus’ advice is that “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” should be invited (Luke 14:13). This shift transforms the customary practice (both in the first century and in our day) and teaches us about the nature of genuine hospitality.
So where is the Lord? As Newman describes, Christian hospitality is “a practice at once ecclesial and public, embodying a politics, economics, and ethics at odds with dominant cultural assumptions” (14). In these texts, we see a God who carried Israel through a place where no one should survive and a Lord who reaches out to the marginalized and forgotten. Instead of seeking the Lord in places of power, then, our lessons point us to those who are suffering: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). Here is where we find the Lord, but only when we can see those in need. When we rely on ourselves – on “our cracked cisterns” – we will be blind to those who are suffering.
This hospitality is only possible if we rest in contentment, trusting in the God who will never leave nor forsake. There is risk involved here – the risk of rejection, the risk of embarrassment, the risk of losing material resources or status. Nonetheless, we find the logic of our world challenged by the radical hospitality offered by God to us. Israel was presented with a “plentiful land,” yet rejected it for broken wells. Where have we relied on our own cracked cisterns instead of the God who provides? In many ways, the people of Israel were supposed to end their journey through the wilderness in order to begin another once the exodus ended – a quest for the Lord. Likewise, our hospitality is a journey and thus always on the move, shaping a church that finds its true home in Christ.