In case you are wondering from the title, this is a message about being welcomed. About the spiritual gift of hospitality. About what it feels like to be included and excluded and invited back in, in our culture and our world.
I’ve mentioned before that the messages I prepare for Sunday mornings always seem to arrive in a familiar chain of inspiring events. First in a quiet time, usually on Monday or Tuesday, the title pops into my head. And then with that as a kind of magnet, I suppose, other resources—articles, ideas, stories, people—begin to show up throughout the week. That helps to steer and shape the message you eventually hear on Sunday morning.
This week I was sitting in silence and just gently wondered, in prayer, what the message would be this morning, and this title arrived: “But Not the Hippopotamus.” I almost laughed. I was surprised. Where in the world would something like that come from, out of the blue, in the middle of prayer? I hadn’t been thinking about hippos or children’s books—it is the title of a popular children’s book, by the way. And I thought maybe God was throwing out a challenge or something: Here, write something about this. But through the week, I sat with this idea, not really committing to it. And by Thursday I realized that nothing else was coming—that was supposed to be title for the week. And so here we are.
But the fascinating thing is that this title—and Sandra Boynton’s book, and Sandra Boynton herself—all fit perfectly with the topic of welcome and hospitality and being neighborly. The author, as I learned but didn’t know before this week, was a Quaker and from Kindergarten through the end of high school, she and her sisters went to Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, where her father taught English. She has said that the values of pacifism, independent inquiry, and individualism that she learned at the school have been important in life and work.
Boynton’s lighthearted books for kids are full of humor and gentle grace; they’re uplifting, inclusive, friendly, and fun. The characters in her wonderful illustrations are all animals—hippos (her first children’s book was titled, Hippos Go Berserk!), chickens, puppies, cows, frogs, sheep, and more. In the book that gives us the title of our message today, But Not the Hippopotamus, Boynton reminds us in a gentle and sweet way how important it is to be included, to be welcomed, to be invited to be part of God’s fun. Here’s how it goes:
A hog and a frog cavort in a bog.
But not the hippopotamus.
A cat and two rats are trying on hats.
But not the hippopotamus.
A moose and a goose together have juice.
But not the hippopotamus.
A bear and a hare have been to a fair.
But not the hippopotamus.
Now the hog and the frog hurry out for a jog
With the cat and the rats in their new running hats
While the moose and the bear and the goose and the hare
are doing their best to keep up with the rest.
But not the hippopotamus.
Then the animal pack comes scurrying back,
Saying, “Hey! Come join the lot of us!”
And she just doesn’t know…should she stay? Should she go?
But YES the hippopotamus!
But not the armadillo.
And so the reconciling work of God continues.
It’s a common thing we have all experienced, from our earliest times on the school playground to cliques and clubs in high school to the groups of friends we have today. We know how good it feels to be included, to be part of something, to belong; and we know how bad it feels to be excluded, left on the outside of things, unwanted, unchosen. Inside feels warm and good and right. Outside feels cold and isolated and alone, and there are legitimate and likely ancient reasons these two states feel the way they do.
Social theorists have long understood that we humans are group makers—and that both helps us and hurts us. We feel stronger and safer when we’re in community, and on a very real and biological level, it continues to be true that people with strong connections to other people—or even to their pets–are happier and tend to live longer lives. The downside of our group-making ability is that we also make “in groups” and “out groups” in our societies and those groupings are all made by judging and categorizing people in a thousand different ways. Anytime you have an in group, there is also an out group. The judgment, projection, distrust, and negativity that gets assigned to the out group—whoever they are–is damaging to a nation, to a family, to a life.
In the story we heard from the book of Ruth, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law is going through a time of despair. They have moved to a new country because of the famine in their own land, when suddenly Naomi loses her husband and then, tragically, both of her sons. Naomi’s daughters-in-law are still young and could go on to have full lives and new families, so she tells them to go home to be with their parents. During this terrible time of despair, Naomi (whose name means “pleasantness”) tells people to now call her Mara, which means “bitterness.” She chooses the name because she says, “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Suddenly, because of all this tragedy, Naomi believes she is in God’s out group. But Ruth will not go. She knows Naomi is grieving and feels so alone that isolation could do her in. Exclusion—even when it is self-exile—can be a dangerous thing.
When Naomi tries to send her home, Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
This is Ruth’s beautiful promise of devotion, loyalty, togetherness, love. This is the same promise of “being with us always” and “never leaving nor forsaking us” that we hear from God in Deuteronomy and Isaiah and from Jesus in the book of Matthew. This is the standard of communion God so freely and tenderly offers us—always—and yearns for us to offer one another as we do our best to create the God’s kingdom in this world. There is no out-group, God’s devotion says. We are all beloved. With God’s love for us as our model, we can find our way to peace, to harmony by following the mercy of God.
At the beginning of our New Testament reading, a lawyer stands and asks Jesus what he needs to do to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the scriptures say and he responds: “To love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he has answered correctly and if he follows that teaching, he will have eternal life.
But then something interesting happens. He wants to ask something more. Wanting to justify himself, the verse says, the man asked, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus answers by sharing the story of the Good Samaritan, about a man who has been beaten along the roadside and left for dead, and the people who will—and will not—help him. The people you would expect to be the first to show true compassion and offer real help—one a priest in the temple and the other a priest’s helper—think of their own needs above the needs of the stranger. Only a man you would have expected not to care had the compassion in his heart to be of help to this person in such desperate need.
Richard Foster says in his commentary on this passage, “For those listening to Jesus tell this story for the first time, it would have been very difficult to take. The hero is not a priest, but an enemy of the Jews. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans went back hundreds of years. It would have been inconceivable for Jews to have identified with the Samaritan.” My Expanded Bible at this point says that the prejudice the Jews had against the Samaritans came from the fact that Samaritans were only partly Jewish and they worshipped in a different way. Foster continues that the priest and the Levite both, “erred on the side of caution rather than compassion (touching a possible corpse would have rendered them unclean and made social interaction temporarily impossible).” In other words, they were only thinking of themselves—what a risk it would be to help this hurting person, how it might impact their status, their livelihoods, their connections—and not caring about the wounded person in pain right in front ot them.
And let’s go back to why the lawyer even asked this question. Wanting to justify himself, the verse says. Wanting to justify his own actions, to feel better about times he’d walked away, or looked away, or pretended not to notice someone in need. That question of who we include and treat kindly, who we will help and who we won’t, is one of the biggest stumbling blocks we have to living a life of Love in the here and now.
Jesus makes it clear which person in the parable chose the right path. The man who acted with mercy, who felt the man’s suffering and did all he could to care for him, was acting in harmony with God’s love that day. The others, even though they were pious leaders in their community and supposedly servants of God, they thought only of themselves when they saw the injured man. They lacked the basic human kindness to reach out and do what they could to help. And with that choice, they turned their faith into empty, loveless idols.
Act with mercy yourself, Jesus tells the lawyer. Go and do likewise. There’s no Godly justification for putting people in an out group for any reason—the color of their skin, the nation of their birth, the way they worship, their age, sexual orientation, education, income, gender identity, marital status, mistakes or accomplishments, past, present, or future. Act with mercy yourself, Jesus said. When someone in pain, someone in need, calls; answer them in My name.
We are living through a time, when hospitality seems to be at a low ebb. Distrust is high because of a whole perfect storm of factors—including the current Coronavirus crisis—and the reality is that we, too, are walking a road each day seeing countless others who feel as far from us as the Samaritans were from the Jews. We don’t always know how or when or whether to respond; sometimes we see so much need and we wonder how to know when a need is real. It’s part of the challenge of this time.
But our hearts have a compass that is sensitive to God’s leading, always active and available in the quiet within. Spirit will inspire mercy if we are listening. Spirit will show a way forward if we are willing. And soon the right people will appear alongside us, helping us expand the effort, bringing answers, widening prayer.
And that’s how the kingdom of God begins to be visible, full-color, in this world: with each of us being willing to let God’s mercy lead. God mercy to us—God’s example of hospitality, welcome, inclusion, and tenderness—is what enables us to invite the hippopotamus…and the armadillo, the aardvark, the sloth and the Samaritan and the leper. And the person struggling financially and the irritating in-law and the sister we’d rather avoid. We open our hearts to the ones who annoy us and make us uncomfortable and believe things that seem beyond belief. The ones who we once thought were in the “out groups” in our lives. First person by person and then on a larger scale, we begin seeing the sacred value and inherent spiritual worth of every living being on the planet. Why? Because mercy. Mercy is the heart and hospitality of God, and within it we all—we all—live and move and have our being.