This week, at the National Arts Centre, the play Come From Away is sold out on every night. This is the story, as many of you will remember, of how the small town of Gander responded when nearly 40 planes were suddenly grounded following the terrorist attack of 9/11. What happened on the ground has been made into a Tony-nominated play, and meets with applause everywhere it goes. What is it about this story that makes us respond on this emotional level?
There is the obvious: it is a good news story of a very dark day. A counterpoint to the hate that brought the Twin Towners down, now nearly 18 years ago. It is hard to believe that it has been this long, since the shadow of those falling towers have irrevocably changed life for all us. The reverberations of that day continue. But in Gander another story was taking shape – one that gives us hope, one that helps us believe in the innate kindness of humans, one that helps us carry on in terrible times.
But perhaps what really lies behind our fascination with that story is that the people of Gander had nothing to gain. They didn’t go in expecting an award, or that a famous play would be written about them. They didn’t want for the airlines, with their deep pockets, to take care of it. They didn’t even wait to be asked to help. They stepped up instinctively, with no expectation of gain. They donated items they couldn’t really afford to share. They invited strangers into their homes, and to sit with their families at dinner. And not for one night, but until they were no longer needed.
They did what Jesus asks of all of us in the gospel.
Except, how often do we answer in the affirmative?
Think about what Jesus is saying: Literally, Jesus is talking about throwing a dinner party, and not inviting friends and family. Instead, we are asked to invite strangers, people who cannot benefit us in any way. And yes you can say, well that is clearly a metaphor – Jesus doesn’t really mean that we should only throw dinner parties for down and out strangers. But the fact that this feels so uncomfortable, so awkward, so unreasonable is what makes the metaphor work. Jesus knows the truth: we spend most of our time helping out people who can help us, doing favours for those who can return, treating our neighbors so that they will treat us the same. Doing unto others so that we can get back in equal measure.
It is interesting that this gospel message – care for those who can do nothing for you – is linked to its precursor: don’t take the best seat at the table, take a lesser seat and wait to be invited. Both of these actions are transactional: in the second, we are busy earning the best seat, the favour of those who have room at their table. In the first, we have already assumed we have, by virtue of deeds or just because of who we are, earned that very seat.
But Jesus cautions us against this practice – Jesus warns us not to see life as a transaction, but as service. He reminds us that it is the humble person who wins in the end – for she is invited out of honour and respect. And it is the openly generous person – the one who seeks no gain – who ultimately gains the most. This person is respected for who they are – not who they have flattered and wooed. And they also have their own self-respect. This is true power, and true wealth. The ability to reject the transactional nature of society, and act from a place of what is right, and true to the gospel.
That is not easy – we live in a world of transactions. Do this work, and get this pay. Earn this mark and get this grade. Win this competition, and receive this award.
As parents, we fall prey to it, focusing on the grades our kids make, and the activities they succeed at – rather than the values and goals they have for the future. We ask: what mark did you get more than what did you learn? We ask what do you want to be (and hope the answer is prestigious) rather than who do you want to be? We don’t ask them – or ourselves – how we can be people who are invited to the best seat, rather than forced to claim it before anyone else can. Or how we can be people comfortable sitting at a table of strangers, sharing what we have to no advantage?
These are skills to be cultivated as much as grit or perseverance, or calculus. But they have to be taught, often by learning to ask the right questions: What is the value of the goal I am chasing? Why do I want to be at that particular table, in that seat, in the first place? Am I generous as often as I can be? Do I persevere at the cost of kindness?
The gospel devotes a lot of time to teaching us how to be good hosts – many of Jesus’ lessons involve etiquette at the dinner table. Those lessons still apply to us today, so many years later, as we navigate the same social dynamics of guests arriving unexpectedly, or strangers at our door.
Why would Jesus consider this so important to fulfilling the gospel? The true story of the generosity of the people of Gander does not start on 9/11. It began years and decades before. In a community that valued social ties, and cared for neighbors. In a place with a tradition of welcoming strangers and giving that guest the best seat in the house. The foundation for the kindness of 9/11 was already solid. The people of Gander had been doing dry runs – with each other.
It is as Jacob Remes, a historian and disaster scholar at NYUtold the Atlantic in a story this week about the communities that do best when a hurricane strikes.“The sort of work you have to do to build communities that will do well in disaster, you can’t do in the days or the week before the disaster. You have to be doing them all the time.”
The people of Gander had unexpected guests and strangers at their door. They welcomed them, and fed them and cared for them – and for this, they find themselves feted around the world. Not because they asked for it, but because their actions justify it.
Jesus calls us to value a different kind of transaction – the respect and self-respect that comes from not needing to claim the best seat, and giving your own best seat to someone who needs it most. And Jesus urges us to practice those behaviours each and every ordinary day.
Those who are humble and selfless will be repaid, Jesus says. They will be loved – no only by God, but by others. They will have the comfort of knowing they lived well. That they did good. That they did what was right. That they were true to the gospel.