first published in Nexus, the magazine of St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Church, Sheffield:
When I was growing up, a visit to the GP always entailed a good deal of waiting. My mother only really trusted one of the doctors in our local surgery, who also happened to be the most popular in the practice, so the queue was often long. Once checked in, each patient was given a number and asked to sit in the seats reserved for each particular doctor. Then a game began, where those waiting for our GP tried to find out which order we were in. When the buzzer lit up, we disappeared through the door to the consultation rooms.
When talk turns to inclusion in our church, it sometimes feels that we think there is some sort of waiting room for folk we are not sure should be included in our worship and life. A bit like my GP’s waiting room, sat together are homeless folk, sex workers, single parents, people with physical disabilities, LGBTQI+ folk, people of colour, people with mental health challenges, refugees and many others with whom the church, local or national, has ‘ issues’. We talk about them as if we expect that they have taken a number and will wait patiently until the buzzer goes and we call them through.
When it comes to hospitality in church, very often it is not about whether LGBTQI+ people (and their relatives) come across the threshold, but what happens when they are there. Put another way, is it appropriate to talk about offering hospitality to people who have been coming for years, but have remained hidden? Apart from anything else, it raises questions about who is the host and who the guest.
Like any good Methodist, I turn to Scripture to help me reflect on these important questions and, in particular, the powerful story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. It is one of those few stories that appears in all four gospels, but I want to concentrate on the version told by Luke in chapter 7v36–50.
‘One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ (vv36-39)
This is what radical hospitality looks like, because it involves numerous inclusions. By accepting the invitation to dinner, Jesus is already breaking convention. The other synoptic gospels describe Simon, the host, as a leper and therefore ritually unclean. Everything he touches is polluted in one way or another. Jesus’ presence as a guest is itself, therefore, an act of inclusion. In today’s church, we are so busy trying to be good hosts, that we have almost forgotten how to be good guests. Being a guest forces us to relinquish control and to acknowledge our needs. What is it that only those who are unnamed, marginalised or missing can provide for us?
In the narrative, the unnamed woman acts as the ‘proper’ host according to the culture of the day. Foot washing was an essential part of welcoming any guest into the home. She honours Jesus by her tears and perfume, and it is costly for her, both in terms of a year’s wages, but also in being expose or humiliated. It is obvious that she is a woman with a reputation and yet she risks ridicule to honour Jesus. Hospitality, properly offered is costly – should be costly – more costly for hosts than guests. Yet, in the Church, when LGBTQI+ people are invited to be guests, they are often expected to pay for the invitation with their silence or dishonesty about who they really are. What price are we, as hosts, prepared to pay?
Like so often in Luke’s gospel, it is the marginalised who are noticed and given primacy in the story – children, Samaritans, women, Gentiles. Jesus therefore asks his host: ‘Do you seen this woman?’ Again and again, by noticing their presence, Jesus affords the forgotten, value and dignity. Whether we like it or not, in most congregations LGBTQI+ people (or their parents, grandparents or siblings) are present, but unnoticed and unacknowledged. Like the woman, those of us who identify as LGBTQI+ have become accustomed to hiding in the shadows, making ourselves unremarkable. Radical hospitality pays attention and therefore gives worth to those the world forgets.
This story makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It turns my idea of a good dinner party upside down. But that, for me, is the sign of inclusion at work. Unless I feel uncomfortable, it is not proper inclusion, sitting alongside folk I barely know and might not even like. If inclusion doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right!