Guests, missions, and hospitality
1 Kings 17:8-26, Psalm 146
by Isaac S. Villegas
June 9, 2013
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued his infamous decree called Dum diversas, Latin for “until different.” This papal decree is infamous because it marks the beginning of European expeditions into West Africa to capture and sell human beings, the beginning of the African slave trade. In his decree, the pope gave permission to King Alfonso of Portugal to take possession of the land and peoples of West Africa. I want to read to you part of the pope’s letter, just so you can hear the language, the words that ordained so much oppression, so much violence and death. This is what Pope Nicholas authorized in his decree:
“To invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue… To reduce persons to perpetual slavery, and to appropriate the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods… the said King Alfonso doth possess these islands, lands, harbors, seas, and they do of right belong to the said King Alfonso and his successors.”[i]
With these words, with this blessing, King Alfonso sent ships to claim ownership of the land and people that the pope had already given him. They were on a mission, a mission to become masters and make slaves. They were sent by Pope Nicholas, the one who was supposed to speak for God. Their mission was to possess what was already given to them by God — a foreign land and strange people. They went as owners, as lords of the earth.
In 1 Kings 17, God sends Elijah on a mission, not as an owner, not as a lord, not as a master, but as a beggar, as someone who needs help, someone who is desperate for hospitality. Elijah goes in weakness, dependant on the generosity of strangers, people who are foreign to Israel and Israel’s God. Elijah is sent on a mission to learn dependency, where his life depends on the benevolence of the poor, a handout from people who have been devastated by drought and food shortages.
“Bring me a little water,” “Bring me a morsel of bread,” he says to the poor widow in Zarephath — “a morsel of bread from your hand.” I love that detail: “bread from your hand,” Elijah says. The bread comes from her hands — hands that till and plant and weed the hard, dry soil; blistered hands, tired hands, worked to the bone, as she tries to make a life for her only child. Empty hands, but hands that, nonetheless, share food with a stranger; hands that make room for a foreigner, Elijah, a needy and demanding prophet of an alien God and an alien people, Israel.
Elijah arrives and asks for help. He’s weak and vulnerable — like a beggar, not like one of King Alfonso’s invaders, whose mission was to claim a world that was already given to him by God.
We are still living in the world of King Alfonso, a world where we imagine ourselves as owners, as lords of the earth, or we dream of becoming owners and lords. The modern world begins in the 15th century, with global movements of conquest, of claiming ownership of land and peoples, of creating national boundaries, imaginary lines crossing through mountains and deserts, seas and tribal lands, borders drawn by Europeans on pieces of paper, maps, as they imagined their dominion over the earth, the earth that God gave them to possess, and defend.
I’m reminded of our modern world, of this way of thinking about the earth, whenever I hear news about U.S. border security or the mission of the department of homeland security, as it begins to use drones to police the U.S. border with Mexico, an invisible border through cacti and palo verdes, mesquite trees and creosote bushes — an imaginary border that, in some places, becomes a wall of metal posts and wire mesh.
This ideology of dominion, of ownership of the earth with fences and maps and walls, was foreign to this land, to North America, to the plants and animals and peoples who lived here before the invention of America, before the creation of the Homeland Security agency.
When British colonists arrived here to claim land, when they arrived in what is now called New England, the people who already lived here were confused, bewildered by the colonists’ fanatical ideas of ownership, their fantasies of possession of the earth. Massasoit, a leader of the Wampanoag peoples, had this to say to the colonists. This is from the year 1620:
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?”[ii]
These words from Massasoit in 1620 would have been familiar to Anabaptists in the 1500s. These words are familiar to the Mennonite tradition. Anabaptists were saying the same sort of thing in Europe, as they spoke out against princes and lords, priests and popes — against the way the people in power were claiming that God had given them dominion over the earth, over the common land.
Listen to Peter Walpot in 1577, an Anabaptist living in Moravia, who wrote:
“By divine law all things should be held in common and nobody should take what is God’s… the air, rain, snow or water, the sun… these cannot be divided up… Whoever encloses and holds privately that which is and should be free, sins and goes against the One who created it free and made it free… It has unfortunately gone so far that if they could reach the sun and moon and contain the elements, they would call them their private possessions and then sell them for money.”[iii]
For early Anabaptists, it was a sin to claim possession of what belonged to God, the earth that God shares with us out of God’s generosity, God’s hospitality.
This belief, this spirituality, was rooted in bible passages like the Psalm we heard tonight, where we hear about a “God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Ps 146:6). Or, as it says in Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” If it belongs to God, then no prince or king or pope could claim any of the earth as a possession.
Like I said, we are still living in this world, the modern era, a world that is still working itself out, the legacy of the 15th century, which unleashed forces of possession, powers that seek to own the earth, powers that, in the words of Peter Walpot, seek to enclose and hold privately that which is and should be free.
We are children of this world. The modern spirit possesses us; it lives in our thoughts. We can’t help but think and talk like we are owners — that’s just what it means to be modern, to be western, to be American.
What I find so striking about the story of Elijah and the widow in 1 Kings is that God tells Elijah to become a guest, to live in someone else’s world, to put himself in the care of a stranger. With Elijah, we are invited to learn how to become guests — not as owners who show hospitality, but as guests, to think of ourselves as guests.
We usually talk about our need to be hospitable, to be welcoming, to be a welcoming church, to be a community of hospitality. But that way of thinking, that language, tricks us because it assumes that we should be in the position of owners, it takes for granted that we are the ones in power, that we are the ones who get to decide who can stay and who can’t.
The problem, I think, is that the way we talk about hospitality already means that we are thinking like owners, that we own something that we should be sharing. Our starting point is that we get to decide, because our home, our church, our community, our county belongs to us. We are owners.
But, with this story from 1 Kings, this story about Elijah, we are challenged to think of ourselves as guests, as people in need, as beggars who are grateful for the hospitality of others.
Maybe, before we talk about hospitality, about extending hospitality to this or that person, to this or that group, we should learn how to become guests, to think like guests, guests in our own homes, guests in our own church, guests in our own community.
Because, wherever we are, wherever we live, wherever we feel like we belong, we arrive as guests, not as owners, not as lords of the earth, not as claiming what has already been given to us by God, but as guests in someone else’s house, guests in someone else’s world.
[i] Quoted in Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010), 29.
[ii] Quoted in Jennings, 226.
[iii] Peter Walpot, “True Yieldedness and the Christian Community of Goods,” 191; included in Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel Liechty (Paulist Press, 1994), 138-199.