Scripture: Genesis 18:1-8; Matt. 10:40-42
Let us open our hearts and our minds in the spirit of prayer:
We come, O God, because you call us
and we stay because it is here
that we are sustained by your loving presence.
When we grow tired, you give us strength;
when we are discouraged, you lift our spirits;
when we are afraid, you comfort us…
You name us, O God,
with grace we do not fully grasp;
for you call us to love as we have been loved…
May we hear you speak our names
and pray you will fill us with courage
so we can move forward with faith
and respond with compassionate love.
In Jesus name we pray.
(Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 1, June 15, 2008, adapted)
Today’s reading from Genesis tells a story of gracious and extravagant welcome and hospitality. Did you notice when you heard the story that when Abraham saw three strangers near his tent he did not casually get up and go and meet them but rather he ran to meet them and bowed down to them in a gesture of humility and generous welcome. Then Abraham lavishly cared for their needs: water to wash their weary feet and to refresh themselves; a shady place to find respite from the scorching heat of the desert; the finest food he had to offer; and his companionship as they rested and ate.
This kind of hospitality was the expected practice in Abraham’s time and culture. For those living a nomadic life in the desert the practice of offering and receiving hospitality was a matter of survival. For those who lived in permanent communities the duty to offer hospitality to anyone knocking at your door was a matter of honour – honouring the traveller and maintaining the honour of your household in doing so.
Abraham’s story of welcoming strangers also offers an important teaching that has been remembered in various ways throughout the ages.
The first line of the story which is easy to miss says that “The Lord” appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. The story says that the “Lord”—which is how the ancient Hebrew people referred to God—appeared to Abraham in the guise of three strangers. The essence of the story is that Abraham’s welcome and treatment of the strangers reflects his welcome and service to God.
The mandate and practice of hospitality carries on through the generations in the stories of the Bible. The epistle to the Hebrews reflects this belief in the sacred nature of hospitality when it says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1)
Jesus, who was steeped in the stories and culture of his Jewish heritage, continued the practice of offering and receiving hospitality but in an even more radical way. The religious and cultural mandate to receive strangers and offer hospitality usually extended to those of a similar class and background. If someone welcomed an emissary of an important person it was the same as welcoming the person himself. You would extend hospitality befitting the station of the person being honoured. A beggar or outcast in society was considered a non-person and would not warrant hospitality or welcome. Jesus, of course, turned those social conventions upside down. He would eat with anyone who invited him and would share what he had with others whether they were rich or poor, elite or outcast. Jesus, and his disciples, modeled sharing in community wherever they travelled and encouraged others to do the same.
This kind of hospitality is commonly known today as radical hospitality that is offered not on the basis of a judgment or assumptions about another person’s character or social status. Jesus is clear in the example he set for his disciples that love was the key to seeing each person as a child of God; seeing God’s very presence in everyone.
Jesus gave instructions to his disciples before they travelled to share the good news of God’s commonwealth in their teaching and healing ministries. He told them that their lives would not always be easy and that they would not always be treated well but they should not be afraid. They were to trust in God and to know that whoever welcomed them also welcomed Jesus himself and God who sent him. Jesus spoke about “little ones” which sometimes referred to children, the disciples, or marginalized persons. He said that anyone who gives “even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will be blessed in this simple but loving action.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes this point when he says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) And when the disciples asked when was it they’d done these things for Jesus he answered, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
As we think about this wisdom that Jesus taught, and lived, it is important to reflect on what it means for us as followers of Jesus today.
One article that I read commented that hospitality is really a:
“spiritual quality, a disposition of the soul. It may end up with the concrete acts of offering food, drink, and shelter to the stranger, but it begins with a letting go of suspicion, a suspension of judgements, and the cultivation of a genuinely open, spacious, welcoming heart. …Hospitality requires the willingness and capacity to create an open, empty space into which strangers can come, and find themselves at home.” (The Strangers In Our Midst by The Rev. Dr. Kathlyn James)
Another comment that I read on the internet this week reveals something of the experience of a guest who visits churches:
“As a person who works within the national structure of a mainline denomination, though not an ordained clergyperson, I often visit churches – sometimes without letting them know I am coming. I have also moved to new communities several times in this position. I’ve done my share of church shopping. Whether inviting, welcoming, affirming, all-inclusive, or whatever the label – I am always interested in the way the people treat each other as they are welcoming (or excluding or smothering) me. If there is a sense of genuine concern for each other, I feel welcomed (or invited or included). If I sense clicquishness, pettiness, or general dislike among the regulars, I know that this will not be a place for me. I am particularly intrigued when someone “welcomes” me with a complaint about the [minister] or the leadership. And when a person tells me that I am “sitting in their pew”, you can be sure I won’t be back and that I will have a little heart-to-heart conversation with the [minister] afterward. It’s not about your worship style, the quality of your [choir], the size of your organ, or the quality of your preacher – it’s about how you are to each other when you think others aren’t watching.”
(We Will No Longer Be A Welcoming Church, Blog Comment by Liturgy Junkie, May 9, 2013)
Jesus said to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34b-35)From this basis of caring community we are able to feel loved and in turn welcome and love others we meet each day.
Remembering that Jesus said that even little actions like offering a cup of cold water are important we can easily think of simple ways that we are welcoming as a community of faith. Kimberley United Church is what I would call a welcoming community. Even so, we always know that we can learn from the experience of those who come to visit us and improve our welcoming and hospitality.
Every Sunday our Greeters set a welcoming atmosphere for our worship services. In this past year we’ve begun to use name tags as a way to help newcomers feel at home more quickly. To be able to call someone by name helps to create a sense of connection both for the newcomers and long-time members of our congregation. Every week without exception, I invite everyone attending worship to gather in the Upper Hall for refreshments and an informal social time. For a guest, who is a stranger to our congregation, this can be a daunting prospect. It’s much easier for most – except the most outgoing – to slip out the front door and not risk feeling awkward with the possibly of ending up in a corner by themselves. What a different experience it can be when one of our regulars welcomes a guest and offers to accompany them to the Hall and introduce them to others. The guest still has the choice to say, “Thank you, maybe next time” but they will know they’ve been noticed, welcomed and their attendance appreciated.
We extend our hospitality into the wider community in many ways as well. Next month, our church will be offering hospitality by opening our church building to JulyFest participants. We’ll be offering coffee and muffins beginning at 8:30 am when the parade participants arrive to have their floats judged. This hospitality has been very much appreciated by the community in the past, especially last year when power outages meant that the coffee they received at our church was the first cup of the morning for them.
Our Church picnic on Deerpark Avenue, is also another opportunity to welcome passers by and invite them to join us for a picnic lunch. This year two young mothers and their daughters enjoyed our hospitality and found out about our Family Day Camp this August. The Family Day Camp, is another way of reaching out and welcoming children, their parents and grandparents, to meet members of our congregation in a fun and informal way. And, our High Teas not only generate revenue for our church but also provide interaction and opportunity for conversations with others in the wider community. We are seen and become known for the friendly welcoming people that we are. There are many other ways of welcoming and providing hospitality in our community. The few I’ve named are simple things, like the cup of cold water that Jesus talked about, that are ways of living the love that Jesus calls us to share.
With thanksgiving for Jesus who shows us the way, I’ll close with an ancient Celtic “Rune of Hospitality” which is in keeping with our readings and reflection today:
I saw a stranger last night.
I put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and in the sacred name of the Triune,
he blessed myself…my house…and my dear ones.
And the lark said in her song,
Often, often, often goes Christ
in the stranger’s guise.
May this wisdom be our experience today, tomorrow and always.