One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. – John 6:8-11 (CEB)
A couple of weeks ago I was with a group of pastors at a program I’m involved in at Marquette University. We represent many different denominations and wide-range of pastoral contexts. We meet every few months for three days. Each day, we participate together in morning and evening prayer. Everyone, including the staff from Marquette, takes turns leading our time of prayer. One of the participants, a priest, brought candles when he led our prayer service. At the end of the summit, he said we could take them home with us – a remembrance and connection to our time together.
One member insisted that he take the candle back because he was from a poor parish. Hearing this, others also moved to return their candle. His reply that it was “OK” was met with another request that he keep the candle. Finally, he said that it was a gift to each of us. The candles were finally accepted.
My intent here is not to judge or demean the individual who kept insisting he take the candle back. She meant it with a kind spirit, recognizing her resources versus his parish on the south side.
Several years ago, I was tutoring two children who were refugees from Somalia. I always went to their apartment. One time the mother, who spoke very little English, offered me something to eat. I didn’t really know what it was or how it was prepared. Also, they were very poor – I didn’t need to eat their food, so I declined it.
It was only later that I realized I had rejected this woman’s hospitality. I came into her home once a month – essentially a stranger. I spoke a language with her kids she didn’t really understand, thus excluding her from our conversations. I worked with them on reading and math because she wasn’t able to. Why couldn’t I just accept her hospitality? Why couldn’t I receive what she had to offer so that our relationship could be mutual rather than one of privilege and power?
As good people, we don’t want to take advantage of those who have less than we do. Even when something small is offered, we politely say “no thank you,” meaning it as a kindness. But is this really kindness or is our “forced generosity?”
Are we really being generous when we refuse to let others be?
When I did my student chaplaincy at a nursing home, we were given guidelines on our interactions with the residents. It was everything you might expect: don’t help them move in or out of bed, ask the nurse before providing anything to eat or drink, don’t accept money or gifts. However, one of the facilitators did say we could accept something nominal. One of the women in our group mentioned that one of the ladies she visited with in assisted living wanted to give her a crocheted hot pad, but she had declined it.
A couple of months into my chaplaincy, one of the ladies I visited throughout the six months I was there offered me a pear from a fruit basket she had received at Christmas. She knew I had kids and asked me to choose one to take home to them. My first response was to say “no thank you.” I didn’t need to eat this lady’s pears.
But then I saw the whole picture.
I began my chaplaincy thinking that I was doing a ministry to others. I was the one with something to offer. But every time we visited, she was inviting me into her one-room home. If I were actually visiting at her home, I would have accepted something to eat and drink if she offered it. As the guest, it would be appropriate (and right) for me to accept her hospitality. Taking the pear wasn’t taking advantage of her. Accepting the pear in the spirit that was being offered allowed us to be on even ground. If I refused it, I would be refusing her hospitality.
I would be denying our equality as human beings.
Last week, I was staying overnight as a host at Divine Intervention, a “warming room and prayer vigil” for the homeless (you can read more about Divine Intervention here, here, and even here). There is a desk where folks sign in, and I noticed this large flower with LED lights sitting in the cup with the pens. One of the staff saw me looking at that and told me a guest had bought it for the pastor. The homeless person bought a plastic, LED flower for the pastor.
I wasn’t there, but I’m sure she accepted it with grace in the spirit of generosity and thankfulness it was offered. For 120 nights during the winter, this church offers supper, breakfast and a safe place to sleep. One man saw a pretty flower and bought if for the pastor.
As I sit here tonight in the wee hours of the morning, I look at this flower. And what I see is generous hospitality and a heart-felt gift. Both given from what each have to offer. Both accepted in mutual recognition of their equality as human beings.
Before we decline someone’s hospitality, a gift, or an offer of help because we don’t want to inconvenience them or take advantage of the giver, may we step back and see the whole picture. May we realize the greatest kindness is often to simply accept the gift with gratitude for the relationship, offering in return a simple “Thank You.” May we be as generous in our receiving as our giving.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” – John 13:6-8 (CEB)