By Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Genesis 18: 1-15 and Matthew 25: 34-40
Have you ever had the experience of being a stranger in another person’s home? When I was 23, I had the unique opportunity to live with a family overseas, a family that I had not known before, for six months as their au pair, or their mother’s helper. It was an extraordinary experience, one that I will never forget. I lived with an American family in the south of France, taking care of their two sons, ages three and 18 months. The mother and I became the best of friends. The father was an acclaimed artist, and he had lived off and on in Europe for a few decades, first as an apprentice of an Italian fresco painter and then as an artist who traveled and lived wherever he could find work. His life depended on the hospitality of patrons and friends, and this had shaped in him a gracious hospitality.
Ben and Ella were outstanding hosts. We lived in a huge compound in a tiny rural French village, and only a handful of the 30 or so rooms in this compound had been renovated since World War II. And the house was often full of people – models who were posing for artwork and their friends, acquaintances who were passing through the region. Friends of friends who wanted to come for a visit. The accommodations were modest – there was only one bathroom in the whole place, with one toilet and one shower. My room (I was the only person who had a room all to myself) was furnished with a single bed and one wardrobe with hangers – no dresser or drawers to put my stuff. I basically lived out of the two suitcases that had traveled with me. The place was huge, but it many ways it was bare bones. But what we had was a beautiful countryside, and hospitality that was full of heart.
Every night there were folks invited for dinner – and often there were new faces of folks I didn’t know, often people that Ben and Ella knew only tangentially. We ate by candlelight every night, and the food was delicious. Anyone and everyone was welcome. It was an adventure every night, and I met the most interesting folks. We would dine until sometimes 10 or 11pm – the wine or the water was flowing, French cheese and fresh bread served at the end of every meal. I remember one evening, an Italian visitor named Giovanna remarked on a scarf that was in the house that caught her eye, and later that evening Ben gave it to her! He wanted her to have it, and I could see the joy in him as he gave it to her. He wanted people to feel welcome in his home, and he wanted to treat them lavishly. He loved encountering people, saying yes to people, inviting them into his life.
I was forever changed by that summer I spent in France with this family that treated me like one of their own. The experience nurtured in me a curiosity about cultures and people different from me, and a fearlessness in exploring new places and encountering new people. I witnessed the joy of flinging doors wide open for others, without a care for the state of housecleaning or matching dinner plates. The people who sat around Ben and Ella’s table usually didn’t know each other or have much in common. But it didn’t matter. There was a spirit of openness and kindness that connected us across our unfamiliarity. I remember that my father had been terrified for me to take this opportunity and go so far away from home. He didn’t know my hosts, and he didn’t trust them. He tried to stop me from going. But I took a leap of faith, and I have always been so grateful that I took that chance. My heart grew bigger and wider because of it, because of the hospitality that was extended to me.
I don’t know about you, but I am drawn to people who have the hospitality of heart that I’ve been describing. This is a kind of hospitality that transcends how we usually think about hospitality today. When we think about hospitality, we often think of welcoming friends or family, people we already know well, not strangers. The focus is often on entertaining and making a good impression. I am guilty of declining to invite people into my home because I haven’t had time to make it or myself “presentable” in the way that I feel is expected. Too often, I am stalled by contemporary Western ideas about hospitality that focus on status and appearance and a capacity for entertaining, and I neglect what hospitality should be about – humble and other-centered care for another person.
The Bible is overflowing with stories of individuals encountering and welcoming guests or strangers. To understand biblical hospitality, we have to set aside our contemporary American thinking about this topic. In the ancient Near East, travel was risky and dangerous, and people often had to venture through unfamiliar places. There was a cultural expectation that you were obligated to welcome and provide for any stranger who showed up in your midst. It was a known custom, a social contract, if you will. One day this would be you, so you were required to respect and extend hospitality to any visitor – a stranger was automatically to become your invited guest.
And we see this in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham sees people he doesn’t recognize on the horizon. It’s not an option for him to ignore them. He doesn’t wait around to see if they might wander away. He doesn’t glance at them and them look away, trying to stay focused on his own affairs. No, at the first sight of newcomers he stops what he is doing and their wellbeing becomes his affair of the day. He reorients his activity and his rhythm to focus on them, to feed them, to provide rest, to make sure they are given the very best care. His hospitality is authentic and generous. He is motivated and energized by a desire to make these people – strangers he has never met before –the most important part of his day. It’s an urgent matter for him. His purpose for being this day is to serve them. Abraham and Sarah have had no heads up to prepare for this moment in advance – except, that is, to cultivate a habit of heart that sees a stranger and is ready at a moment’s notice to make space for him or her and to provide the very best care and attention.
We find that in scripture, hospitality of the heart is deeply ethical and deeply moral. And more than that, it somehow links us to God. In both our Old Testament and New Testament readings, the encounter with a stranger is an encounter with the divine –it is a holy encounter. And it’s a risky encounter – you don’t know who this person is, or what is going to happen. The act of hospitality is an act of faith. And what we see in scripture, over and over again, is the blessing and the goodness that is the outcome of hospitality. In the story of Abraham and Sarah, their hospitality to the three strangers, who end up being angels, opens the blessing of a son in their old age. Their blessing is the gift of hope. The angels are there representing God in their midst.
The first generations of Christians believed that when they welcomed the stranger and offered hospitality, they were receiving the risen Christ in their midst. And what that meant is that they become known for this extravagant hospitality – so much so that one of the Roman emperors in the first century commanded the Roman leaders under his authority to copy the ways of the Christian communities in order to grow the Roman empire. The Christians were demonstrating a remarkable kindness and generosity to all people, and their hospitality stood out so much that it was like a beacon that everyone was drawn to – so much that the political leaders of the time were saying, “we need to be more like that.”
Marjorie Thompson defines hospitality like this: She writes that hospitality means “receiving the other, from the heart, into my own dwelling place. It entails providing for the need, comfort, and delight of the other with all the openness, respect, freedom, tenderness, and joy that love itself embodies.” In describing what it means to open up our dwelling places, Thompson thinks of this broadly. Surely our dwelling places are physical spaces. At Trinity, it’s our sanctuary, our great room, our lawn, our front porch with swing and free little library, and our virtual space that we call Trinity Connect. For you, it may also be your living room or dining room, your patio or back yard. It is also the mental or emotional space that we open up and share with others. We open up our thoughts and feelings, and we invite others to share their interior space, to be heard, to reveal themselves in whatever way they choose, without judgment, without any expectation that they will change, even without any expectation that they will become our friend.
Hospitality at its heart is an act of love, centered on the other with no agenda other than the sharing of the best of what we have and who we are, genuinely, in order to meet the needs of the other. How in the world do we do that? It’s a love that has its source in God and is born out of our love for God. First, we have to know we are loved, and we have to rest in and be rooted in that love. That was the focus of last Sunday’s sermon when we remembered our baptism. Only when we recognize that love in us can we extend it to others. And God does still desire for us to seek the stranger and to care for those who are different from us, those who we find ourselves separated from. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
Think of all the ways now that we live as strangers to each other, all the ways we separate and create unbelonging. We can recognize the dividing lines, some stark and some subtle. The way we move through the world is shaped more than we would like to admit by our locations and the distinctions between us – by the distinctions between churched and so-called “unchurched,” Democrat vs. Republican vs. Independent, the economic haves and have-nots, rural vs. urban, progressives vs. traditionalists, vaxers vs. anti-vaxers. I believe deep down we are hungering for a spirit of hospitality that says, “My door is fully open to you regardless of your ZIP code or status or affiliation, because you are a child of God.” “How can I be open to you?” “How can I care for you?” “You can trust me with your truth.”
My friends, if we can offer that kind of hospitality, folks will notice. They will be drawn to it. If others can see that kind of heart in us, they will want to get closer to it. Because that is the shape of God’s heart, shining in us, vulnerable, inviting the stranger in. With God’s help, may we continue to grow together in heart and in hospitality.
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