February 3, 2019: The Lost Art of Hospitality by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 9: 1-6)

At this key moment in the gospel story, after many healings and teachings and miracles, Jesus turns to the trusted disciples and says your turn – go out there and do likewise, take what you’ve witnessed and put it into action. And by the way, don’t bother packing a travel bag. He sends them out, entrusting them with a very important mission and says travel light and just reply on the hospitality of strangers.

The word hospitality is not even in this scripture passage but it’s implied. If you’re not packing bread, money or clothes then it’s surely the hospitality of strangers that you’ll be relying on. Though there were no hotels where they were going you’ve got to think that having a bit of cash would have enabled them to purchase some favours along the way.

I’m curious to know when you hear the word, hospitality, what comes to mind for you? This is not a trick question there are no wrong answers. Hospitality: what images, words, stories rise up for you? Give them a moment to think and then hand microphone around. Let’s make this a non rhetorical question, who’d like to share their answer? Then bring together response. Speak to what’s been said…

            So much of it focuses around food, friends, family, it’s always been that way and is obviously appropriate on this Super Bowl Sunday. In many ways our understanding of hospitality is very much in line with the biblical view all those years ago. There too it often involves food and welcoming.

In the biblical world certainly the household was the primary place where hospitality was expressed. There was an expectation that should a stranger show up at your door, or at your tent, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah, you would offer food and whatever else you could to the unannounced guest. It was much more than family and friends enjoying some ribs and beer in front of the TV. Throughout the New Testament we hear stories of Jesus offering hospitality to strangers who are very much “the other.” Samaritans and Romans and Caananites, these were not felt board characters but people who were often at odds or hostile with the Jewish community.

In the Hebrew tradition and as an expression of the covenant with God you had an obligation to welcome, to feed, to offer a place to sleep to travellers who came to your door. In the early church as Christian communities formed, they were rooted both in this Hebrew tradition and in the perspective Jesus brought to the practice.  Jesus’ example and the household broadened to include the church community. Hospitality was characterized by respect for those who were different in status, by meeting the physical needs of strangers and by caring for the local poor as well as other believers.”[1]

Hospitality was a significant part of the identity of the early church. It was shaped by Jesus’ ministry and modeled a practice of reciprocal benefit to the stranger and host alike.

Over the generations hospitality was essentially lost as a Christian practice. “By the eighteen century, the term ‘hospitality’ had been emptied of its central moral meaning and left only with its late-medieval trappings of luxury and indulgence.”[2] Today hospitality has all but lost its traditional meaning in the church, being most often reduced to the warm welcome we extend to those who are known and loved by us. Hospitality is seen as making sure our connect cards are well stocked, wearing name tags, or making sure new comers can find their way to coffee hour, no small thing to be sure! But this deeper meaning of both caring for and relying on one another is a bit elusive.

It is a bit of a stretch for us to really comprehend what it looks like, to rely completely on the hospitality of strangers. Imagine the times you’ve been the recipient of hospitality, imagine being dependent on hospitality, it’s a place our minds can’t easily go, certainly not in a biblical sense. Extending hospitality is one thing but receiving it is another.

            As we delve into this idea of hospitality over the coming month I really want to root our explorations in this idea of being recipient, not just being the host. And in fact to push the idea ever further than our lived experience and consider not just receiving hospitality but like the disciples, being dependent upon it. I wonder if in instructing the disciples to go out there with no safety net, if you will, was Jesus revealing something about what he had come to do? Was he expecting that this would in fact teach them even more about the upside down kin-dom that he was bringing into reality?

It’s intriguing that he says don’t take anything with you as if he knows that they like us will pull out the compass or the Google map, if they lose their way, will reach for the stash of cash in hopes of buying some good favour if they first knock on a door and get a cool welcome, will put on the extra tunic so as to not have to be seen as anything but self sufficient? Don’t take extra stuff, because you know you’ll pull it out and use it when the going gets tough. It’s like Jesus knows that all of sometimes and some of us most of the time will be in the vulnerable position of relying on the good favour of others. By sending them empty handed Jesus is equipping them to lean into the vulnerability of being reliant on others.

Without the usual supports, in experiencing relying on the good nature of the stranger does our ability to be empathetic open up a bit? Do we learn in a deep way what it means to be the stranger, to be the refugee, the poor, the lost, the oppressed? And is there something about tapping into that experience that informs how we might show up as host?

And besides that there are times in our lives when all of the extra things are absolutely useless to us and maybe leaving your reservations at home is practice for the times all of our baggage will prove useless to our circumstance anyway. Like the times your mind is wracked with grief and you are dependent not just on the casseroles that get dropped at your door but dependent too on those who dare to stop and look you in the eye and catch a glimpse of your agony, dependent on those who offer a hug and allow your tears to fall on their shoulder.

Maybe it’s practice for the times when illness comes as it always does unbidden and you don’t have all you need to get through this one and you become dependent on doctors and loved ones and more than anything dependent of hope and faith. Being the recipient of hospitality, in a practical way it shakes us just a little bit frees us from the desire to be in control that is so very core to the mindset of our industrial world view. It is so very contrary to all we’ve been taught to not be able to understand, predict and control. Perhaps when we pay attention to the times we are reliant on the hospitality of others we catch a glimpse of God in the casseroles and the tears and the doctors and the meals. 

Needing hospitality is a story that requires vulnerability and letting go. A story that gives up control and eases into risk. A story that anticipates rejection at every turn and yet gives witness to God’s love regardless.  You need to know how the stranger feels, you need to be the recipient of hospitality if you are to turn the tables of power.[3]

Hospitality is not just having someone over for a nice meal. Hospitality is not just letting someone in for a spell. And really, there’s no such thing as “radical” hospitality or “genuine” hospitality. We like to add all kinds of adjectives to our hospitality practices as if to suggest that ours is better than others. At its heart, hospitality is, simply, radical. There is no other kind of hospitality. You either are or you aren’t hospitable. If you welcome some and exclude others don’t pretend you are hospitable.[4]

This is the upside down world of the kin-dom of God. The way of Jesus is so often contrary to the way our minds work, to our assumptions to the stuff we’ve learned along the way. When we consider Jesus’ example we begin to see that being a guest changes us more than being a host ever does. “If I’m able to offer any kind of hospitality at all, then it is thanks to…”[5] the family how housed me for a month in Costa Rica when I was just 19, thinking I had gone to their country to help them. Yet it was that family who gave me a room, cared for me when I had a tummy ache, allowed me to sit at their table for every meal, and to play with their daughters and to pick eggs from the hens in their kitchen and to bear with me through my utterly broken Spanish.

If I’m able to offer any kind of hospitality it’s because of the grandmother of my high school boyfriend who didn’t like it much when the young black men in her close knit community dated white girls and yet she greeted me with a hug every time I entered her kitchen, put me to work, fed me countless meals, treated me like one of the grandkids and genuinely wanted to know how I was doing at a time in my life when I didn’t know where I belonged or fit in. If I’m able to offer any kind of hospitality it’s because of the Sikh cab driver who gave me that free ride last spring when my poor planning left me late for a wedding. This is the upside down world of the kindom of God and we glimpse it in the moments we’ve left our usual crutches behind by design or happenstance.

In such gracious hosts, I have both met the Christ and been welcomed in his stead, to the point that being a stranger seems to me no longer like something to be avoided but like something to be sought. Whichever side of the door I find myself on, faith is the risky decision to open wide, on the pretty good chance that I know who is standing on the other side.[6]

Hospitality is a core Christian spiritual practice. So, this afternoon, enjoy your Super Bowl parties, relish in the simple pleasures of good food, fine friends and a sport that some of us have absolutely no affinity for. Then tomorrow as you open the door, maybe pause for a moment and say a prayer or set an intention to dare the vulnerability to be the guest. How are you called to show up as host? Because Following in the way of Jesus is not complicated but it is hard. Whichever side of the door you find yourself on, – faith is the risky decision to open the door wide and there is a pretty good chance that you know the Christ is standing on the other side. Amen

[1] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 43.

[2] Ibid, 38.

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3648

[4]  ibid

[5] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-09/guest-appearance

[6] ibid.