Hospitality Gen 18:1-14, Luke 14 7-14, Hebrews 13:1-3
Many years ago I decided to walk the Heaphy Track which runs across the northwest tip of the south island. Not owning a vehicle and not having much to come and go on I was dependent on hitching rides to get there. The tramp started from near Collingwood and I spent a glorious four days tramping and eventually arriving at the track end at Karamea on the West Coast in the early afternoon, with the plan to hitch back to Christchurch. What I hadn’t contemplated was the almost complete absence of traffic on the West Coast in those days. With about three cars passing every hour I realized that hitching a ride was not going to be easy. To make matters worse a southerly front came through and it began to rain and in no time I was feeling like a drowned rat. As I walked along and with the light began to fail I was looking for a suitable bridge or shelter to camp under. In the gathering dusk an old farm truck approached. It was obviously a local vehicle so I didn’t hold any hope of a ride, but it slowed and stopped. He driver opened the cab door and suggested I throw my pack on the back. “I’m not going far,” he said, “but I’ll give you a bed for the night.” This was music to my ears for I was wet through, shivering, and cold.
What ensued was an interesting experience. I was graciously welcomed into a home that
was unlined on the inside as obviously the family had no money to finish the
build. There were some old curtains pinned up against some of the exposed
framing to give privacy. I don’t think there was running hot water but I was
offered a towel to dry off. I had a very
simple meal with the mum dad and three kids with the food being stretched to
include another mouth. I quickly
realized they were a devout Mormon family as we prayed together and talked a
little about our lives. We retired early
but not before they had made a telephone call to the local mailman who they
assured me would pass that way in the morning and would be happy to take an
extra passenger into Westport. I told them I was happy to sleep in the
barn, but they would have none of it. I
suspect I ended up getting one of the children’s beds, and possibly they
doubled up. Whatever I slept well and in
the morning not only was the sun shining again, but I made it to Christchurch. I will always remember the hospitality of
that family taking in an unknown drowned rat and treating him with open handed
hospitality. They had so little but they were so gracious and kind. I sensed
the presence of divine gracious love. In
their willingness to eat a little less tea that night, give up a bed, make
space in their home for a drowned rat stranger I knew God alive in their home. I might say in many travels in many places
and most of the time I have discovered a gracious spirit of hospitality. This spirit is of God.
Hospitality is a concept that is central to our scriptures especially hospitality to strangers. I love the story of Abraham and Sarah offering hospitality to the three strangers by the Oaks of Mamre. In typical middle eastern fashion they really go to town with their hospitality, cancelling the planned activities of the day and cooking up a wonderful meal. And something happens as they make space for these unknown travelers and engage in conversation. A word from God is delivered. Sarah will have a child. I think strangers who cross our paths often bring messages from God and what we may think of as random encounter is not quite so random as we think.
Jesus himself often talks about hospitality. In Luke 14;12-14 he tells us that we should offer hospitality not just to our friends or those who might offer us something in return but to people beyond our normal circle. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits and the nobodies. And when you do you’ll be and you’ll experience a blessing. They may not be able to return the favour, but the favour will be returned. Wait and see!” offering hospitality, making space for others is absolutely central to life. We have often forgotten this in our crazy busy western world.
When Jesus left us he said remember me in this way and he invited his disciples to gather around a table and share a meal together. Sharing food and drink together is a powerful act of reconciliation and trust. You don’t really eat together if there are outstanding issues, hurts that divide.
Contemporary life is nomadic. We pass one another as ships in the night – a sea of strangers. Even here at church we may know names but we know little more about the lives we sit next to. The frenetic pace of life means most of us are even alienated from our deep selves. Our growing youth suicide figures are the canary in the mine telling us of the desperate need for a more hospitable society. Henri Nouwen the great Catholic spiritual teacher of our time said “if there is any concept worth restoring to its true depth it is the concept of hospitality.” Making space for each other, listening to the story of another. A few days ago Janet and I engaged our neighbour and his son just outside our home. The son is a shy difficult child who I think is really struggling at school and I suspect at home. He often doesn’t engage at all when you say hello. We were heading out but somehow the boy got talking about movies he had been watching and with some encouragement we got to hear about Angry Birds 2, ninja turtles, and a host of other characters I had never heard of. Our cup of coffee at the café went by the board as we listened and engaged. I think even dad learned something about his silent son as he just kept spouting forth about things that were important for him.
Hospitality….. listening, making space…..
In a fragmented anxious world hospitality is a spiritual practice we need to nurture. Nurturing life – building connection we say on our noticeboard.
Scholars tell us that the remarkable explosion of Christianity in the first century was due not only to proclamation of the gospel, but also to the extraordinary quality of Christian hospitality. Evangelism wasn’t standing at street corners haranguing people but making space for others, listening to their stories, reaching out over the boundaries of ‘you are different to me’. Early Christians met around a table where the very wealthy sat next to nobody slaves as fellow and equal human beings. Bread was broken as a sign that we are all broken and people could be honest about the hell they were going through, the bad mistakes they had made, or the joys they were blessed with. There was a quality of welcome that patiently dismantled the fences we like to construct around ourselves. There was some wonderful conflicts that emerged, but hospitality didn’t sweep those under the carpet. Through this hospitality people knew they mattered, they were accepted, and as their lives were touched by human hospitality they sensed the divine love and healing of God. Special places of hospitality and healing were created…. They were called hospitals… special places of hospitality.
Saint Benedict who began many monasteries in the Middle Ages proclaimed that all guests to the monasteries should be welcomed as Christ, because he will say, “I was a stranger and you took me in.” The heart of Benedictine spirituality is hospitality – a Christian community should warmly welcome anyone in the name of Christ regardless of status, looks, or respectability.
In our own midst I witness many wonderful acts of hospitality every week. Our Elder Care programme, the listening in the walking group, the warm welcome as people gather on Sundays, the invitation to share a coffee or a meal together… there are many ways we create space for others and open our hearts to see in them the presence of God.
Hospitality is a spiritual practice just like prayer. It requires discipline and work. Often we find it hard to open our hearts to others especially if they are different. We know it’s hard to walk up to someone wearing a head covering and engage in conversation. What do you say? But it is not only dress and religion that causes us to hold back. Within our midst we have huge divides between generations. Even I find myself saying sometimes “young people these days…!” I had a young person call by the other day trying to sign me up to regular donations for UNICEF. I made it clear I had other projects I supported but complemented her on her commitment and affirmed her. The encouragement opened the door to a significant conversation as she asked about what I did as a job. Finding something to genuinely affirm in the other is a great way of opening the door of hospitality and deeper engagement.
As Jesus said to us it is easy to offer hospitality to those who are just like us but as his followers we are invited to do more. In the gracious gift of life God is wonderfully hospitable to all of us. As Abraham and Sarah discovered when you offer hospitality to strangers you often discover a message from God. The truth of this is found in that memorable verse from Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. In doing this many have discovered they entertained angels without knowing it. Angels are simply anyone with a message from God.
So I invite you to work at the spiritual practice of hospitality. Notice more often the wonderful hospitality of God in your life. Be prepared to alter your planned day to make space for others. Have more coffees and conversations and be prepared to meet angels who of course are broken human beings just like you and me. Maybe you could think of yourself as an angel and what message of God would you like to pass on to those you meet today
Dugald Wilson 1 September 2019