Friday, March 14, 2014

Christian Practices - Hospitality

Martin Copenhaver argues that no Christian practice is more necessary today than hospitality.[1] He points out that in Biblical times it was common practice to offer hospitality, because travel in the ancient east was so dangerous. You were morally obligated to supply food and safe travel to a stranger – or an enemy – who came to your door asking for help or shelter. Marjorie Thompson says, “All sorts of people had to travel at times through ‘enemy territory,’ which meant that hospitality to strangers was a matter of mutual survival.”[2] Or as Copenhaver puts it, “Remember that the next time you may be the stranger in need of hospitality. This time you may be the host, but next time you may be the guest.  … It is a reminder that you never know which role you may be required to play next.”

“To understand why I would say that,” says Copenhaver, “I think we need only consider some of the elements of hospitality. For one, we are hospitable when we welcome someone to a safe place. To be sure, we do not live under the same threats as ancient near east travelers. Nevertheless, there are still so few safe places in our own time.

Safety means freedom – as President Roosevelt put it, freedom from want, from fear, freedom of worship, of speech. Churches can offer that kind of freedom. My youth group in high school was a safe place, away from competition, being belittled, freeing all in our group to explore who we were for one another and for God. A critical moment for us came when we asked our youth minister if we could have communion when the group next met – in a private home. As far as he knew the group had never been permitted to do that before, but he knew of no reason why we couldn’t. So we did. It was a most intimate, sacred moment.

Copenhaver points out that some individuals are themselves a kind of place where you can feel safe enough to let down your guard and be yourself. Their hearts are like sanctuaries. He says Henri Nouwen put it this way: “Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space... The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free, free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances.”

For Copenhaver, hospitality, welcoming the stranger, also means accepting differences. He recalls Will Rogers being remembered for saying, “There are no strangers, just friends I haven’t met yet.” But there are some strangers we would not choose as friends. Perhaps they are strange. But hospitality insists that they be welcomed in and they are not asked to change.

This can be a most difficult task for church people. We operate conditionally in the world, and it carries over into the community of faith. Our inclination is to welcome the stranger, but to do so with our hidden agendas. We invite them in on the condition that within a reasonable amount of time they (take  a shower) (accept Christ) (learn English) (be baptized). We are willing to accept them as they are for a while, but eventually they need to come around. True hospitality makes no such demands.

Copenhaver finally defines generosity as a mark of hospitality. “ I don’t mean the kind of generosity that leads us to share a little bit of what we have with others. Rather, true hospitality requires that we begin to loosen the grip of those distinctions between what is mine and what is yours.” He relates the story in Genesis:

In Copenhaver’s words, Abraham sees three men, three strangers approaching his tent. He doesn’t even wait for them to arrive. Instead, he runs out to meet them and says, “My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and a morsel of bread—just a morsel—that you may refresh yourselves, for I am your servant.” And then, once Abraham is on the other side of the tent door, he says to Sarah, “Quick, get three big sacks of flour and make cakes.” He takes a calf—the one he was saving for a grand occasion—and gives it to his servant to be prepared. Then Abraham takes milk and makes cheese. All of that without a pantry chef. When he is done, he lays the meal before his guests. (Mind you, this is before he knows who these guests are.) And Abraham stands by while the guests eat their fill of that “little morsel” he had promised them.

Copenhaver: “For the most part, we are not prepared to recognize the extent to which hospitality requires generosity. We are people who say in a thousand ways that good fences make good neighbors. What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours. But the hospitable spirit says, What is mine is yours. The hospitable spirit holds possessions with open hands. Understood in this way, hospitality is not a trivial thing, but the quality on which the whole of Christian ethics rests.” In Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, the thief Jean Valjean is granted refuge in a mountain church, but awakens in the night to steal the church’s silver communion settings and run away. Dragged back by the police, he is taken to the priest, who says that the silver wasn’t stolen, but was a gift. And to Valjean: “Here. You forgot the candlesticks.”  
“The Hasidic masters tell the story of a rabbi who disappeared every Sabbath Eve to commune with God in the forest -- or so his congregation thought. Then one Sabbath night they sent one of their cantors to follow the rabbi and observe the holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor. When the chores were finished, he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue. Back in the village, the people demanded of the one they'd sent to follow him, "Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?" "Oh, no," the cantor answered after a thoughtful pause, "our rabbi went much, much higher than that."”[3]  Hospitality is generous unconditional welcome – and generous service.

[1] Copenhaver, Marvin B. “Practicing Our Faith – Entertain Angels.” Wellesley Congregational Church, March, 1999. Many thanks to Marvin for his attention to the Christian Practices, especially this sermon on hospitality. It and many other resources can be found on the website, .
[2] Ibid
[3] Joan Chittister, from "There Is a Season," excerpted from Spiritual Literacy, Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, p. 343, in Norfleet, Agnes W. “Practicing Hospitality” North Decatur Presbyterian Church Decatur, Georgia.

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