I’ve had a couple of different conversations lately that bear on the topic of hospitality. We were talking about the houses that people build these days. Used to be, the house would be sited on the property so as to leave a good side yard or front yard, which were semi-public areas for children and families to play in, and there would often be a large front porch, on which the residents would sit and greet those passing by. There were rituals that gave you access to these areas, and other rituals that yielded an invitation to come inside the house or into the back yard.
Nowadays, we build much larger houses than we used to, and the recreation areas are mostly indoors – with big-screen TVs and all sorts of stuff -- and people don’t play or visit outdoors much. In fact, the houses are often built almost to the property line in order to enclose all those recreational rooms. And nobody knows their neighbors any more.
That doesn’t mean that people are unfriendly, but it means the customs of our society have changed. We are much less “hospitable” than we used to be. Too busy to have people over, maybe too embarrassed to have others see our mess. We present an affable exterior to the world and guard our privacy behind closed doors.
So it may come as a surprise to you how often the New Testament speaks about showing hospitality – some 21 times, in fact – and how important it was considered by the early Christians. Meanwhile, the Old Testament is replete with many stories of hospitality, the archetype of which is in this story of God visiting Abraham and Sarah by the Oaks of Mamre. This is probably the story that the writer to the Hebrews had in mind when we said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Abraham is minding his own business outside his tent when he sees three men approach him. One of them (or perhaps all of them) is apparently God himself – a mind-boggling possibility – though it’s not clear at first that Abraham knows whom he’s entertaining. In any case, it’s just unthinkable in that culture to refuse hospitality to a guest, however unexpected. Abraham and Sarah soon know whom they’re dealing with, however, when the Lord promises them a son to be born the following Spring.
Now, Abraham and Sarah are very old, and they’ve given up hoping for a child between them, and Sarah laughs. God takes her laughter as a personal challenge, and when their son is born the next year, he is named Isaac, which means, “Laughter.” Isaac is the child of promise, the one who will inherit all that God has promised Abraham. His birth shows the faithfulness and the power of God.
Almost every Eastern Orthodox church has an icon of the Hospitality of Abraham in it, which in their understanding is an image of the Holy Trinity in an Old Testament setting. But the point I want to make is that Abraham’s hospitality is rewarded with the promise of the birth of Isaac, and so we are encouraged to show hospitality as a means of being open to God.
The early Christians would have thought it very odd that some people would join a big church just so they could be anonymous and not have to relate to other people (slip in, slip, that sort of thing), but they would be absolutely horrified at the thought that people could join any church and be more or less ignored by those who already belonged. The addition of every new person to our company means we all need to shift our relationships, be it ever so slightly, so that all people are genuinely welcomed and have a chance to get to know others who are also following Christ.
Sad to say, we have made of Christianity a programmatic thing, and “getting with the program” is often seen as having little connection with building relationships with other Christians. But salvation is a restoration of right relationships in all ways, beginning with a right relationship with God and going on to right relationships with each other within the community of the redeemed, and thence to right relationships with all the world. So while programs can be a means to the building of those right relationships, they can also be seen as something more imp than the relationships – which we might term, the Programmatic Heresy.
“The Church is not a Club!” some people declaim, and that’s true, but neither is it a Chautauqua offering True Enlightenment in nine easy lessons. The New Testament knows nothing of solitary Christianity, and, as John Wesley said, the New Testament knows no holiness which is not social holiness. The upward way is too hard for the solitary hiker, and the way too narrow for huge crowds. So, it’s important that we find a few companions for our journey, that we learn to build intimate friendships in Christ.
This is particularly important if we really want to offer Christ to outsiders – as opposed to merely those we are already more or less connected to by friendship or kinship. Those seeking refuge from the spiritual wasteland which is unchurched society, especially, come to us desperately hoping for a new life, but without new relationships with other Christians they probably won’t be able to sustain their new faith. If you only relate to your fellow Christians on Sundays and all the rest of the week you’re still going around with your old crowd, well, remember what St Paul said: Bad company ruins good morals.
“Well, and why is that my responsibility?” you may ask. Because that is the mission of the Church: to welcome and assist those seeking Christ who come to him from out of their lostness, just as you did, once upon a time. And they've done all they know how to do. They’re here, now, trying to put together this new life; you're the ones who say you know how to do this, so if they come knockin’, you get to answer the door. Which ought to be a joy, by the way, and not a chore.
Well, let me kind of run down the inventory of some of those we should show hospitality to and how we might do that. Obviously, we’re supposed to show hosp to each other, and our love for each other should be genuine. I see a lot of this in our congregation, and I am very pleased by it. I see those who call each other up to see how things are going, who ask after those who’ve missed a few times. I also see the little gifts of food and help that pass between various folks. All this is really important and the sign of a healthy spirit.
Beyond that, the New Testament Church was exhorted frequently to care for widows and orphans, and there are places in the world where that’s still a very big deal, where there are few other supports for those who’ve lost a breadwinner. My friends in Tanzania and Congo see caring for widows and orphans as a primary activity of the Church, for instance.
Here, it’s important to remember that we should continue to include the elderly, especially those who can’t go places as they once did. And while the old may have their physical needs met by pensions and Social Security and insurance, we shouldn’t forget that for many people, increasing in age means increasing in loneliness. There are fewer friends who shared your world, and you can’t see them as often as you once did.
Not only that, but you begin to long for human touch. “Nobody hugs me any more,” I remember one old lady saying once upon a time. Is it because they’re seen as fragile? Or because they’re somebody else’s grandma, not yours? I don't know. But the old want to belong, too; they need human touch and human company, and they need to see somebody other than old people sometimes!
In addition to fostering hospitality between the elderly and others, we show our hospitality as a church by making sure people of all ages and abilities can enter our facilities and come to our events. We have a nice chair lift to Rogers Hall, and eventually, the Trustees are planning on putting some wheelchair cutouts in the sanctuary, I think, as well as working on something for those hard of hearing.
At the other end of the spectrum, hospitality has to include the children. Children need right relationships, too. They need relationships with other young people, and with other adults besides their parents, for them to grow as Christian disciples. How we treat children, personally as well as congregationally, is a major test of how serious we are as followers of Jesus; after all, Jesus himself said that whoever welcomes a child in his name welcomes him – and Him who sent him.
We try to be a kid-friendly church. Which doesn’t mean a “fun” church, necessarily, because you can wind up committing the Programmatic Heresy with kids’ programs as easily as with adults’ programs. But a kid-friendly church has ways of including them in all things. We like to have children in worship, f’rinstance: we want them to learn the songs and the prayers and take part in everything; meanwhile, we also have a staffed nursery, because we realize that pre-schoolers need a place to go sometimes.
We value children's contributions: their prayers, their ideas, their service, the offering of themselves in relationships of love with others of all ages. Our Scouts do a lot of service for the church and community. They show a lot of hospitality in our name, and our having a scouting ministry is a ministry of hospitality to the whole community. Scouting is like an old-fashioned front porch or side yard. It’s a safe place where newcomers can meet the folks who live there and eventually become forever friends.
Meanwhile, “Blessed is the man who considers the poor,” says the Psalmist, and hospitality toward the poor is a major touchstone of Christian ministry. We have a food pantry, and we do lots of missions projects and offerings. And those are wonderful things, but the poor are people, too, and building relationships with actual poor or struggling people is at least as important as giving stuff to poor people you don’t know.
Churches tend to self-select their membership. People join a church where they feel comfortable, so most congregations are much of a muchness: either everybody’s wearing khakis and polos or everybody’s wearing sweats or everybody’s wearing suits and ties. And there’s no harm in that. We are a town church, however, and the town church is the most diverse kind of congregation in Christendom, because we get everybody. If you grew up Methodist in a town of a certain size, then you went to that church, whether your dad was a truck driver or the bank president. You prob played on the same ball team. Churches like ours probably have more different kinds of people in them than most others. This is one of our strengths, and an opportunity to show hospitality to the (relatively) poor – as people, not as a “cause”; for those with lesser means don’t feel poor when they’re treated as just folks, and that can happen in a congregation like ours.
What we don’t do terribly well is show hospitality to those who are of different ethnic backgrounds. We just don’t have much opportunity for that. But churches in places or ministry areas where there’s more opportunity for that have a special call to show hospitality across the lines that so often divide us.
We also need to make sure we offer a warm welcome to those whose sins are different from ours (or perhaps just more public). Which is not to excuse their sins, but neither is it to excuse ours, which we are way too comfortable doing. We are all sinners, so we dare not divide people up into “good” people and “bad” people. And we need to love everybody (and mean it), even as we confess (with fear and trembling) that if we want to go to heaven, none of us can take with us even the smallest souvenir of hell (to quote C.S. Lewis).
Finally, we should remember that the New Testament places a great deal of emphasis upon showing hospitality to those who come to us on missions from God. It’s a great thing to go on mission trips to other places, but that means they’re always showing us hospitality. Maybe we ought to be raising money to bring people from far away here, rather than sending us there, you know?
In any case, sharing hospitality is as much a spiritual discipline as prayer or giving – and a joyful one at that: a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb, to which we have been invited. Be welcome here. And pass the gravy.