I finished Sunday Musings earlier than usual this week, so I’m sending it out on Saturday with hope that it will prompt some discussions about an important story in the news — especially in congregations.
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This week, I’m departing from the lectionary readings to explore a particular spiritual practice — hospitality. Because sometimes watching the news is like seeing the Bible and church history come alive.
The news about immigrants being lured from a shelter in San Antonio by the governor of Florida and shipped off to Massachusetts as a kind of political stunt is a profoundly cruel use of distressed people for political purposes. And the mirth and amusement that this episode inspired among self-declared “Christian” politicians has been nauseating.
While most Americans understand that the immigration system is strained — and we may not agree how to fix it — there is no disagreement about the centrality of hospitality as a moral practice of biblical faith. Beginning with Abraham and Sarah through Jesus and early Christian communities to the Prophet Muhammed, welcoming the stranger is fundamental and necessary to faithfulness to God.
That a church on Martha’s Vineyard sheltered unexpected arrivals, “angels unaware,” as guests worthy of dignified treatment, is a testimony to goodness and generosity, a vision of the world as God intends it to be — practicing hospitality toward strangers.
The text for today is Matthew 25:34-36.
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.
Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about hospitality. Today, I share an excerpt adapted from my book, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (2004), as a reflection on an ancient biblical practice and a call to genuine faith. This selection makes the point that NO ONE can call themselves Christian unless they practice hospitality to strangers.
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Matthew 25:34-36 represents Jesus’ notion of hospitality — the practice of welcoming those whom Jesus calls “the least of these” into the heart of community. Outsiders are brought inside the circle of protection and care as usual social relationships are disrupted or reversed. Jesus overturns our conventional idea of hospitality as a reciprocal exchange, and depicts it as an act of extravagant grace: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors…But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:12-13).
We tend to equate hospitality with parties and social gatherings, or gracious resorts and expensive restaurants. To us, hospitality is an industry not a practice, one that summons Martha Stewart to mind more quickly than Jesus Christ. But ancient Christians considered hospitality a virtue, an expression of the love of neighbor that was fundamental to being a person of the Way.
While some contemporary Christians think of morality mostly as sexuality, our ancestors insisted that Jesus’ ethics were based upon welcoming the stranger.
Unlike almost every other contested idea in early Christianity — including the nature of Christ and the Trinity — the unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue. From New Testament texts that unambiguously urge believers to “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13) through St. Augustine in the fifth century, early Christian writings extol hospitality toward the sick, the poor, travelers, widows and orphans, slaves and prisoners, and the dying.
As the preacher Ambrose (ca. 339-397) wrote, “Love hospitality, whereby holy Abraham found favor, and received Christ as his guest…You too can receive Angels if you offer hospitality to strangers.” Or as Lucian (c. 160), a pagan critic of Christianity, wrote of the lavish hospitality offered a local prisoner: “The efficiency the Christians show whenever matters of community interest like this happen is unbelievable; they literally spare nothing.” For all these people, from Paul to Ambrose to pagan reporters, practicing hospitality equaled Christianity.
Ordinary Christians opened their homes as house churches that engaged a radical form of welcome. Domestic hospitality wasn’t about church teas or dinner parties. It meant offering shelter for widows and orphans, providing rooms for itinerant missionaries and preachers, making meals for the poor, and hosting family funeral banquets and other ritual meals.
Such arrangements were the purview largely of women, some of whom formed communities of domestic ascetics outside the control of the institutional church, offering prayer, worship, and scripture study as a supplement to the practice of hospitality. As early as the New Testament, the Apostle Paul received hospitality from Priscilla, a missionary teacher in Corinth (Acts 18:1-3). These practices extended throughout the empire and through the first centuries of Christianity.
When Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, pastors and bishops organized hospitality as an institutional function and the “resources of the church were used for hospitality on a scale that cannot be exaggerated.” Gregory of Nyssa’s brother, Bishop Basil, averted a disaster in Cappadocia during a famine in 368 when he used nearly all his family’s fortune to feed the poor through the creation of a sort of ancient food bank, earning himself the popular title, "Basil the Great." He also built one of the first Christian hospitals and a hospice (“hospitality,” “hospital,” and “hospice” all come from the same Latin root) in his diocese. Hospitality heals.
Monks had long practiced hospitality, even in the wilderness of the desert. The ancient traveler Rufinus testified, “Then we came to Nitria, the best-known of all the monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles from Alexandria.”
As we drew near to that place and they realized that foreign brethren were arriving, they poured out of their cells like a swarm of bees and ran to meet us with delight and alacrity, many of them carrying containers of water and of bread.
When they had welcomed us, first of all they led us with psalms into the church and washed our feet and one by one they dried them with the linen cloth they were girded with, as if to wash away the fatigue of the journey.
What can I say that would do justice to their humanity, their courtesy, and their love? Nowhere have I seen love flourish so greatly, nowhere with such quick compassion, such eager hospitality.
Hospitality keeps the church from becoming a club, a members-only society. Through hospitality, historian Rowan Greer claims, “an inclusive ideal of community life is affirmed, and we may suppose that implementing this ideal was no easier in the ancient than in ours.”
In greeting, meeting, eating, and caring, the church acted as a community with its arms open, attracting inquirers through a practical demonstration of God’s love. “Observe, the hospitality here spoken of," preached John Chrysostom about 1 Timothy 5, “is not merely a friendly reception, but one given with zeal and alacrity, with readiness, as going about it as if one were receiving Christ himself.”
From what historians can gather, hospitality — not martyrdom — served as the main motivator for conversions. And early Christians found both spiritual and social power in such acts, for creating inclusive community, a community of radical welcome and love, can put one at odds with ungodly authorities. “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of our many opponents,” claimed the African theologian Tertullian, “’Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”
Would that every faith community was like a swarm of bees, running out to meet the displaced, the lost, and the unexpected strangers with the same delight, zeal, and alacrity as the earliest Christians. Theologian Letty Russell once noted, “The word for hospitality in the Greek New Testament is philoxenia, love of the stranger. Its opposite is xenophobia, hatred of the stranger.” Philoxenia turns strangers into friends.
What a difference philoxenia would make a difference in our world — and in our politics — right now.
(the quotes from this selection are footnoted in A People’s History of Christianity)
PLEASE READ this wonderful piece: “Little Churches Still Matter” is a truly inspiring news story about the congregations on Martha’s Vineyard who rose to the challenge of caring for the unexpected immigrant arrivals. The comment from Rev. Janet Newton, the Unitarian Universalist minister, stood out to me — “We were prepared, even though we had no warning.”
If such a challenge arose in your neighborhood, would your congregation be able to say the same? How might you prepare for the practice of hospitality so you are ready in any case? What might others in your faith community say in response to this story — and the vision it offers for serving in the midst of a crisis?
Hospitality would be a good topic to discuss in congregations this weekend in light of this story. (The Howard Thurman quote, “just in case,” below relates to the Janet Newton comment on preparation.)
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
— Hebrews 13:2
Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet,
and recline under the tree.
This is how everyone should greet the stranger –
With offers of water and comfort.
With fingers pointing to a place to rest.
Not with suspicion or deceit.
Not with a fear of the other.
Take my hand, whoever you are.
What can I fill you up with?
My pillows are your pillows.
This tent yours to come and go
as you please.
— Rick Lupert, from “Let’s Welcome the Stranger and Have Children”
The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
— Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Red Brocade”
Abraham’s down by the oaks of Mamre
and Joseph dreams beside an empty barn
theres a woman by the well with dreams no man can tell
though a broken man might keep her safe from harm
Theres someone else inside this fiery furnace
and Jacob’s gazing up those endless stairs
we are wounded on the road, but we share each others load,
and make each other angels unawares
— Malcolm Guite, from “Angels Unawares”
There are a lot of “missing persons” in our world today whose situation of poverty, injustice, and suffering makes God weep. These missing persons are not strangers to God, for God already has reached out to care for them. Yet they are strangers in the world who need to know God cares through the witness of a church that practices a ministry of hospitality and justice on their behalf.
— Letty Russell, from Just Hospitality
For many years it has been (the desert dweller’s) custom to leave a lighted lantern by the roadside at night to cheer the weary traveler. Beside the lantern there is a note which gives detailed directions as to where his cottage may be found so that if there is distress or need, the stranger may find help. It is a very simple gesture full of beauty and wholeness. To him it is not important who the stranger may be, it is not important how many people pass in the night and go on their way. The important thing is that the lantern burns every night and every night the note is there, “just in case.”
In your own way, do you keep a lantern burning by the roadside with a note saying where you may be found, “just in case”? Do you place a jar of cool water and a bit of fruit under a tree at road’s turning, to help the needy traveler? God knows the answer and so do you!
— Howard Thurman, from “The Desert Dweller”
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