Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14
Surveys have been done. It is a universal perception in churches that they are welcoming and hospitable places. However, that welcome and that hospitality are not always easily shared with outsiders.
I used to joke that the first church I served would grow when cloning became legal. Cloning is not yet legal, and, as of last December, that church has closed. Now, we didn’t often get visitors – but when we did, I would almost always get a call on Monday morning. “Who were those people – or who was that person – in church, yesterday?” I often had to point out that I didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk with visitors because members, regulars, demanded my time. “Why didn’t you talk to them?” I would ask. There usually wasn’t an answer.
Now, that church, when I came, spoke glowingly of the days when the pews had been filled – brought in by my predecessor’s predecessor. “Those were the days,” they told me. Money wasn’t an issue. They were able to do things. I also heard about the difficult days when some people tried to change the way things had always been done. Someone told me that one of the women had a habit of calling the presbytery to complain about non-Presbyterian actions. It was some time before I began to realize that the good old days were also the bad old days. The newcomers who came in with that particular pastor were also the ones who stirred things up. When the pastor left, so did all those new people. And, generally, the congregation breathed a great sigh of relief. Consequently, strangers were to be feared. For strangers brought with them the promise of change. The only way to enter that church, legitimately, was through birth. Marriage provided a possible entry – with time! They wanted the people as workers and givers who would fit into their ways of doing things.
What is hospitality? What is Christian hospitality? The letter to the Hebrews has this wonderful declaration. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” “Some have entertained angels.” What does it mean to entertain an angel? We have to remember that angels aren’t the cute little figures that modern culture has made them. Angels are the message bearers God sends us. Angels come to proclaim God’s judgment, transformation, intent, and God’s call to human beings to get on board with all of that. Hospitality to angels requires an openness to hearing the message that they bring. It asks the “host” to be willing to be changed by the stranger.
Thomas Ogletree wrote: “To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown in our life-world…Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imaginations. The stories invite us to view the world from a novel perspective.” Madeleine L’Engle reflected on communities: communities of family, village, church, city, country and globe. She said, “These communities tend to become rigid. They stop evolving, revolving, which is essential to their life, as is the revolution of the earth about the sun essential to the life of our planet, our fully family and basic establishment.” Perhaps our hospitality to strangers is a way of welcoming God’s presence, to stir up that which has become placid or rigid. The person who comes with different stories, different traditions, different expectations and values invites us to expand our concept of what God’s good creation is.
I am grateful for a childhood that included hospitality to strangers. When I was young, my parents housed college students. Later, we had teaching assistants from France and Spain. Then we had a series of exchange students. After that, my parents opened their home to young people caught up in the court system. The college students brought different traditions. I remember one young woman who brought us bear meat from her father’s hunting trip. For us, that was different! Pierre, from France, brought wine into the house – and exposure to French cooking. The little boy, with my parents through the Probation department, expanded my growing realization that this world is not equally fair. He was in trouble because his mother used him to shoplift. His story introduced me to a world I could barely comprehend.
Hospitality, in our world, is often offered as a sense of transaction. “I will extend hospitality to you because you have something to offer me.” Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet is as contemporary as you can get! How many couples see the wedding banquet as something offered to get something in return? I’ve read the complaints that the gifts were not adequate. I just read about a couple that sent a bill to someone who didn’t show up at the banquet after saying that he would.
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”`
A story made the news about a year ago. A bride-to-be in Sacramento, California, called her mother to say that the groom had backed out. It was too late to cancel, so the bride’s mother decided to give the reception to the homeless. She, the mother, was the hostess. People came: single people, families, grandparents and newborns. When the first guest, a homeless elderly woman, arrived, the bride’s mother knew it would be worth it if she was the only guest. But, they served 120 people the gourmet meal at the fancy restaurant. That story has since been replicated in Seattle. The bride spent the day hiking with her dad while her mom and maid of honor hosted a “reception” for people from a homeless shelter, including many children. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.” These families may not have, initially, intended to invite these groups, but they did, in the midst of their own pain. And, their stories indicate that they were blessed by the experience.
Hospitality is much more than offering a bite to eat. It speaks of making space for those we do not know – for those who might be very different. It is what we, as Christians, are called to do. That is something to remember as the immigration debates rage and, too often, fear seems to dictate the response. Ana Maria Pineda wrote the chapter on Hospitality in Practicing Our Faith. She wrote of the hard work of being hospitable. It is, at times, “undertaken under risky conditions, and without structures and commitments for welcoming strangers…fear crowds out what needs to be done…In the face of overwhelming human need for shelter and care, and in the face of our own fear of strangers, we need to develop ways of supporting one another in the practice of hospitality.”
That book was written in 1997. Yet the issue is a very current one. She wrote of a Roman Catholic response to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The Archdiocese of Chicago “challenged all believers to resist unjust treatment of the men and women who seek refuge in this land and invited communities to give the finest of their resources for the compassionate care of the immigrant…[They] challenged Christians to join together in attending to the needs of the stranger in ways that would go beyond anything a single person could do.” I am reminded that the voices that stridently proclaim our need to be a closed society cannot, at the same time, be claiming to do so in the name of Christianity. Christianity calls us, instead, to a radical, and admittedly at time, risky hospitality. We have seen that hospitality offered in churches, communities and people who have welcomed immigrants, providing friendship and support. There was a small church in Utica, New York. It was a struggling church. But they found an opportunity to welcome an immigrant group in the city, Haitians. They helped provide winter clothes. The immigrants and the old Welsh congregation began to worship together – and discovered a shared passion for music, for singing hymns. The old church found new life, (until the Haitians decided that northern New York winters were not for them!)
One of the things I love about that story is that the church didn’t wait for this immigrant community to show up at their door. They had looked at their community. They had asked themselves who was in need. They offered hospitality – first, in the simple meeting of needs. They didn’t ask anything in return. They didn’t demand that this group of immigrants come to their church. They offered goods and friendship. They cared, because that was God’s call to them. They didn’t expect anything in return.
It’s tempting for churches to do little more than passive hospitality – to work at being welcoming to those who find their way to our doors. That’s good. We need to be sure that we are welcoming – that we make space, that we are willing to be challenged and changed by the perceptions and experiences they bring. The church always needs to be involved, as well, in active hospitality – hospitality that looks beyond ourselves. Who are our neighbors? What are their needs? What can we offer to address those needs? For the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that among the strangers we meet, we will encounter God’s messengers.
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