Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.


Our Baptism and the Lord’s!

This coming Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This has always been the focus of the first Sunday after Epiphany Day, January 6.  This whole season continues week after week with miraculous revelations of God’s mighty power. At Jesus’ baptism God’s voice spoke and the Holy Spirit like a dove landed on Jesus and claimed him as God’s – a beloved Son with whom the Father was well pleased. Baptism does that for each of us, too. In baptism we are affirmed and claimed by God, set apart for holy endeavors and divine companionship.

The problem is that often I don’t feel that special. I’ve been rebuffed, picked last, and criticized. Anyone who has played a pick-up game of basketball, sandlot baseball, or backyard football knows how the experience can be downright exhilarating or humiliating. It depends on your team, and when you were chosen. No one likes being chosen last. Sometimes your estimated worth in the eyes of your peers isn’t what you had hoped. If you’re not first, you’re the first of those chosen last. If you’re not top dog and first in line the view changes appreciably, and not for the better.

Check out God’s way of picking people. Does He go for the fleet-footed? The Scriptures describe a God who picks his team without regard for what seems to make for usual success. Abram and Sarai were awfully old to be making a cross-country trip and bearing babies. Jacob was a deceiver. Joseph was an egotistical dreamer. Moses had a speech problem. David was too young when he was first picked by God, and when he grew up he went down hill with his penchant for window-shopping; i.e., Bathsheba. Solomon’s untidy way of making alliances certainly raised a mighty harem, but also destroyed his family.

The list of neurotics could go on and on. God chooses the unlikeliest cast for his tasks. In the New Testament one doesn’t have to look far before bumping into the likes of impetuous Simon Peter, money-grubbing Judas, and Paul with whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was. Of course, everyone is neurotic in some way. We all have quirky little habits that help us avoid realities that we don’t like. Nevertheless, God says that each of us is of sacred worth, and chooses us for His team. The only person ever chosen by God who was perfect was Jesus, but the greatest epiphany for me during this holy season is that he picks the rest of us, too.

God picks us before we ever choose Him. Every human being has enough vestige of God’s image, a spark of resonance with God’s perpetual love affair with humankind that allows us to respond to His grace. We differ from those who might declare that Jesus’ atonement is limited in its scope – the elect and the damned. We are universalists with regard to God’s grace. We believe God chooses everyone. There isn’t anyone from whom God wishes to withhold His grace. However, we don’t believe in a universalism to which most people commonly refer.

We believe we must respond to God’s universal election for it to work. If we don’t choose to receive God’s grace then this isn’t the love affair that it’s meant to be. People of the West really can’t fathom arranged marriages anyway. We think marriage is best when two people choose each other. So it is with God! He wants us to choose Him as much as He has chosen us. God initiates the relationship, and it’s up to us to consummate it.

Perhaps you have a gift for someone that’s leftover from Christmas. Maybe you thought that you would see them at a family gathering or the like. No matter the reason, the connection wasn’t made and you’ve taken down your tree, the holiday goodies have been consumed, and all you have left to remind you of the season is that present all wrapped up but not yet delivered. What do you do?

Someone has to make the effort to deliver the gift, and the gift-giver is the one who has to do it. However, the recipient still has to actually receive the gift. A gift isn’t really given until it’s received. It’s the same with God’s gift of grace to us. The gift is wrapped in the incarnation of Jesus, and the gift has been delivered to the doorstep of our hearts. We must open the door and receive it, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (John 1:12), and “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…” (Revelation 3:20). The gift of grace is yours through Christ! Hear God’s voice say to you, “You are my beloved, whom I have chosen,” and respond!