Once upon a time, in a time much earlier than our own and a place far from here, lived an old man and an old woman. They had walked the earth for many years together as husband and wife. Many years before, when the possibilities of the world stretched endlessly before them, they had dreamed together of family, of children and grandchildren and both the joys and the heartaches that come with being parents. However, the years passed by with no child in site, and almost before they knew it, they discovered themselves to be old and gray, far past the years of bearing children. They still had one another, and loved each other with great passion, but there was an empty spot in their hearts as their dreams grew further and further away from reality.
One day, the man was sitting on the porch of his house when he saw three men walking in the distance. It was a strange sight, for the old man and the old woman lived far out in the country. If we were to see these men coming toward us today, we would likely run inside the house, bolt the door, and hope that they would pass on by. But it was a different time and place, and the old man knew that these men would be tired and hungry since the closest town was miles from his house. Without thinking whatsoever, he jumped up from the porch, ran to meet the strangers, and invited them back to the house for a shower and a shave, as well as a hot meal and a bed for the night. He wasn’t really sure why he was offering this invitation, for he was sure that he had no idea of where these strangers had come from. All he knew is that he had been blessed and it was his duty to God and to these strangers to share of his blessing.
While the men came up to the house and began to go through their things, the old man ran into the house and told his wife to fire up the stove and start baking some fresh biscuits because they had company. He cooked up some steaks that he had been saving for a special occasion, and headed to the dining room with biscuits and steak in hand, wanting to host a great feast for these strangers.
As they were sitting at the table eating the food that had been prepared for them, one of them asked “Where is your wife?”
“Back in the kitchen,” the man replied.
“Hear me now,” the stranger went on, “we are messengers from God. Your faithfulness has been seen from above, and your willingness to show us hospitality will not be forgotten. You, old man, are about to be a daddy, for God is going to bless you with more kids than you can imagine.”
The old woman, who was listening from the kitchen door, giggled. Surely this man couldn’t be serious. After all, she was old. It had been a long time since she and her husband had . . . well . . . you know. How was it possible that this could happen?
But it did happen. It happened because God intended to bless the world through this old man and old woman, named Abraham and Sarah. It happened because this old man and old woman opened their hearts and their home to the stranger. It happened because of their gift of hospitality.
We continue today to think together about the concept of The Embracing Church. During the past several weeks I have tried to make the case that God desires his people, and especially his body the church, to be people of embrace, and we’ve talked about that in terms of how we exclude and how we welcome people into our midst.
This week someone stopped me and said, “That’s all well and good preacher, but how do we go about doing that?” They wanted to know what it would take to become a people of embrace. Was this all just a word game without any implications for our personal lives or our lives together? Or, are there things that we can do, values we can assume, actions we can engage in, that will help us to embrace all as Christ embraced with world?
These questions can be put in another way: How is it then that we are to love the world? That is, after all, what the call to embrace is about – loving the world as Christ has loved us. To be a people of embrace is to be a people filled with love, a people who know that in our love of others we are drawn closer to God. So if we are going to think about embracing others, we are going to have to think about the nature of love.
One of the problems we have in the English language is that the word “love” has many different meanings. With one breath we will look at our spouses or girlfriends and passionately say, “I love you.” In the next breath we might be hugging our kids and telling them that we love them as well. Another breath comes and we are talking about loving our cars, our houses, our pets, or the comfortable jeans and shoes that we are wearing. Are these all the same thing? Is the love for my wife the same as the love of my jeans? For that matter, is there a difference between the love that I have for my kids and the love that I have for our poodle? The fact is that we throw the word “love” around easily, which makes it harder for us to know how then we are called to love others.
The Greek language, the language of the Bible and the dominant language during the time of the Apostle Paul and even around during the time of Jesus, doesn’t have the problem that we have in English. It turns out that there are at least five words in the Greek language that describe some specific aspect of live. These words recognize the difference between true love and infatuation, between the love of family and the passion we hold for our spouses and lovers. These five words (and some scholars even suggest six) provide a picture and guide of how we are to embrace others. They are a series of spiritual practices which kindle the love of God in us, and help us to think intentionally about the different ways we embrace others on our way to God’s kingdom.
Hospitality, the practice of Abraham and Sarah, is the first of these loves. In Greek it is known as Xenia, which literally means “the love of the stranger.” Xenia may be familiar to most of us for it also serves as the root of another word: xenophobia, the fear of the stranger than many live under today.
Throughout the scriptures there is an understanding that God’s people will be engaged in ministries of hospitality. It’s rooted in the story of Abraham, connected to the blessing that he became to the world. Hospitality became ordained in God’s command to the chosen people to take in and care for the alien and stranger, for they too were once strangers in a strange land. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul commands the church in Rome to care for the stranger. And, of course, we have the example of Jesus, who suggested that the kingdom of God is like a banquet where all persons are invited.
Hospitality, the welcoming of the stranger, traveler, visitor, or person in need, runs deep in Middle Eastern culture. After all, much of that land is desert, and there is a belief in our responsibility to one another while living in a harsh land. To offer hospitality is to recognize that that all comes from God, and thus what is ours is available to all. Within the nomadic culture there is a strong desire to include others in the bounty of God’s goodness, so much so that it’s not unusual among the Arabic people to announce to the community when dinner is being served so that others can join in the feast.
Xenia, the love of the stranger, is most clearly demonstrated in Christian tradition in the monastic tradition. Monasticism, the creation of communities dedicated to prayer and growth in God’s grace, began in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine when individuals would separate themselves from the world for prayer and meditation. One might think that these hermits would be reluctant to engage with others, but that was far from the case, for these mystics deeply believed that hospitality was a spiritual mandate for one never knows when Christ himself might show up at the door in need. Ultimately, a man named Benedict created a guide for the monastic communities that continues to be used to this day, and hospitality is a core belief of Benedict’s “rule.” “All guests who arrive should be received as Christ…” Benedict wrote. He would go on to say that hospitality must be at the core of the life of these communities of prayer.
Hospitality is absolutely a part of the tradition we’ve inherited. So why do we seem to struggle with it today?
Hugh Feiss, an author and a Benedictine monk, says that “the great enemies of universal hospitality are busyness, fear, and professionalism.” I can certainly vouch for that, for I often find myself failing in the call to offer hospitality because of these things. Someone will show up at the door of the church or call me on the phone just as I am headed to another meeting or on my way out to pick up the kids and I quickly shrug them off for I simply don’t have the time and the inclination to be welcoming. Another will show up at the door dressed in rags and looking menacing and I find myself filled with fear that welcoming this person might be dangerous and lead to attack. And, as a professional religious person, someone comes by and I find myself thinking of sending them to the appropriate helping agency rather than offering a cup of cool water in the name of Christ. In doing these things and acting in these ways, I fail to recognize Christ’s presence in the other, and God grieves.
There is another reason we struggle with hospitality as well. In our society hospitality has been equated with providing entertainment to the other, leading us in our busyness to avoid it all together since we don’t have time to make our houses look like they came from Home and Garden magazine or cook fantastic meals with fancy finger foods. Author Karen Mains suggests that our notions of hospitality are all wrong:
“Entertaining,” she writes, “says, ‘I want to impress you with my home, my clever decorating, my cooking.’ Hospitality, seeking to minister, says, ‘This home is a gift from my Master. I use it as He desires.’ Hospitality aims to serve. Entertaining puts things before people. ‘As soon as I get the house finished, the living room decorated, my house- cleaning done – then I will start inviting people.’ Hospitality puts people first. ‘No furniture – we’ll eat on the floor!’ ‘The decorating may never get done – you come anyway.’ ‘The house is a mess – but you are friends – come home with us.’ Entertaining subtly declares, ‘This home is mine, an expression of my personality. Look, please, and admire.’ Hospitality whispers, ‘What is mine is yours.’”
Hospitality is not simply a home thing, however. It extends to our church as well. To be radically hospitable is to understand that everyone who walks through the door is Jesus Christ. Offering hospitality in a church context recognizes that this place is a gift from God, and all are equally welcome to it. To offer hospitality here is to celebrate when some new person is sitting in “your pew,” to ignore the mud that is being tracked in on the carpet, and to be willing to do new things so that our guests may better know the love of Christ.
There is a story told about one Sunday in a church in which a long haired, hippie kind of guy showed up at church. He was wearing ragged clothes and covered with tattoos and piercings. He hadn’t showered in a few days, and several in the church had raised eyebrows when he showed up at the door. He came in, took the bulletin from the usher, and then proceeded to march up to the front of the sanctuary and took a seat on the floor in front of the first pew immediately just below the pulpit.
The service started, and this man didn’t seem inclined to take a seat in a pew. So, no one was surprised when an old man, in a freshly pressed suit and tie, creaked down the aisle toward the front. The old man was the head usher, and he had been called in to service to “deal” with this situation.
When he finally got to the front, he put his hand on the man’s shoulder and bent down to whisper something in his ear. The congregation held their breath, for they weren’t sure what was being said or how it was being taken.
The old man walked around in front of the hippie, and everyone was convinced that this usher was about to kick out the man on the floor. But when he got to the other side of the hippie, the old man creakily made his way to the floor, and proceeded to sit with the hippie guy through the rest of the service.
That, my friends, is what Xenia, the love of the stranger, is all about.
And that practice of faith, the practice of hospitality, is the first step on the way to fully becoming a church of embrace.