The theme of this day and of this
season is Thanksgiving. It is the season we have set apart for giving
thanks. But there is another aspect of this day, and every day that
we should be mindful of and that is hospitality. Hospitality is one
of those words that have a different meaning for us in our modern
world than it did in Jesus’ day. But the basic meaning of
hospitality is “the relationship between a guest and their
host.” The word “hospitality” comes from a Latin
word that means “to have power over.” It literally meant
to be “lord of strangers.” It is about taking care of a
stranger, making them feel protected and cared for and then guiding
them on to their next destination.
However, in our contemporary world, hospitality is rarely about protection and survival as it is about entertaining someone. We talk about the hospitality industry that exists. But despite its meaning something different to us today, it does, however, still mean to have respect for someone and providing for someone’s needs, and treating them as equals. In biblical times extending hospitality was not a courtesy but an obligation. During those times many people were traveling and traveling was dangerous. Inns were scarce and travelers were often dependent on the local people for food, water, shelter and protection from attacks. There were often many political and social boundaries in the land that often changed and so it was not always easy to know if you were on land that you were not supposed to be on. When a stranger would arrive in a community it was often considered a potential threat. And so there was a hospitality code that people followed to find out who the stranger in their community was and whether or not they were a potential threat to the community. Hospitality customs provided a way whereby strangers could be welcomed and made guests and might depart as friends instead of as strangers or enemies. It was necessary for people to carry out their roles as host, stranger. or guest in order for things to run smoothly. There were four steps in extending hospitality; initial invitation, screening of the person, provision and protection, and departure.
Outsiders were suspect and had to be approached cautiously. For a community to not approach them with an invitation was considered dishonorable and could result in violence. If someone was approaching a community they might first stop and wait by a well or some open place and wait for someone from the community to come get them and take them to the town, or village. If no one came to invite the person to the town by nightfall it was considered an insult and those who failed to invite them were considered to be of bad character. The strangers might be asked to speak, or present a letter of recommendation in order to be invited into a community. They would either be accepted or asked to leave.
The acceptance of a stranger as guest was signified by washing the guest’s feet and providing them with a meal. The meal might be lavish and include entertainment. The meal might be the best the host could provide. A bond was created between the guest and their host by eating salt under the host’s roof. Additional honor might be signified by inviting a male guest to speak or anointing his head with oil and an honored place at the table. It was also the host’s duty to protect his guest from enemies. The reference in Psalm 23 to “a table prepared in the presence of enemies” may refer to the code of hospitality where someone could find safety within a tent for one day and two nights. Usually a guest could expect to stay in one household for no more than two nights. It would be rude and dishonorable for a guest to prolong the stay unless it was extended by the host. The goal was to have the guest depart in peace without having disrupted the community. A generous host would send a guest off well fed and supplied for the journey.
While everyone in the ancient Near East practiced hospitality toward strangers, the Israelites understood their hospitality in relationship to their history with God and their relationship with God. Israelite hospitality went beyond what was the custom and was not extended out of fear of a stranger. It came from the heart of the Israeli people whose identity and home rested in the God who had made them no longer strangers. Proper treatment of a stranger by the Israelis, then, was an act of gratitude in response to God’s love and provision for them and it revealed the character of God’s people. There was an emphasis on either punishing or rewarding those who either failed or excelled in their hospitality. For those who excelled in hospitality the rewards were often great. Abraham and Sarah, “entertained angels unaware” and were rewarded for their hospitality with the promise that their son would be born within a year.
The woman from 2 Kings who made a cozy guest room for Elisha with a bed, table, chair and lamp, was rewarded with a son. God himself extended hospitality to the Israelites in the wilderness providing them with water, food, and protection. He invited them into the Promised Land. The psalmist writes as if all the cosmos is God’s garden in which all living creatures receive provisions from God.
The New Testament is also full of many references to hospitality. Jesus’s life as a teacher and miracle worker is story of hospitality received. Jesus made hospitality to himself and to his missionary brothers the key to entering the kingdom of heaven when he said, “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.” When Jesus sent his followers into the world it was with the assumption that they would depend on hospitality as they traveled from town to town.
Hospitality was an important part of the missionary work of the early church. Jesus told his disciples to take nothing for the journey knowing that those traveling to spread the Gospel would find the food and shelter they would need. People such as Peter and Paul relied on the hospitality of strangers as they traveled. Paul planned huge tours across the country without knowing where he would sleep or eat beforehand. Imagine going a trip across the United States on foot not knowing where you would stay or where you would eat. The New Testament tells us to “extend hospitality to strangers”, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Heaven is described as a place where God will supply the ultimate in hospitality with a never ending feast. The person who accepts Christ is described in the book of Revelation as the host, with Christ as the self-invited guest who says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hers my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Those who enter heaven are pictured as guest at a marriage supper.
One of the negative aspects of today’s modern world is that anything that requires effort beyond our everyday routine seems to be an inconvenience to many people. Part of the reason for that is that we live in such a fast paced world that is full of luxuries and conveniences that relieve us of much of the work we once had to do. Every kind of pre-prepared food you might want is available at the grocery store. Ask someone to bake a loaf of bread or cookies for a special event and they are more likely to just pick up them up at the local bakery or grocery store. The thought of the preparation and the clean-up after a meal is often reason to not bother. Too much trouble. I don’t have time.
It is nice to be able to have someone else do all the work considering how busy we all seem to be. But there is an aspect of hospitality that is lost when we rely on someone else to do all the cooking, and baking and preparation, and yes the cleanup. When we have a meal catered instead of preparing it ourselves we no longer have invested ourselves in the event. The love and generosity of our time that goes into the preparation of food for people is no longer part of the celebration. One of the traditional aspects of extending hospitality is the sacrifice the host has made to care for their guest. It is that sacrifice of time, expense and effort that tells our guest how special they are to us and how much we care about them. I am reminded of Christmas when I take the time to invite friends over for an evening, how much work it is to get ready. To clean the house and prepare the food on top of all my other obligations. And yet, after they have come and gone, and we have shared gifts, and food, and laughter, and stories with one another, and I am alone in a silent house cleaning up and putting things away, I am grateful for that sweet time spent together with the people I care about and love.
Hospitality should be a joyful thing for us especially if we love God. If we want to please God we joyfully want to do what God asks of us. Because God commands us to extend hospitality to one another in the same way God extends hospitality to us. By extending hospitality to one another we show God that we love one another. The time we spend with one another is an extension of God’s love for us and our love of God. Hospitality is strengthened by eating with one’s host and especially when the food belongs to the host. There is a special kinship between people that comes from eating together. There is a table bond between us when we eat together. The bible tells us we must “practice” hospitality. Perhaps because God knows that hospitality does not always come easy for us. It is especially hard for us at times to extend hospitality to strangers or people who are not like us, people who make us uncomfortable. Hospitality is something that can be developed.
I read an article while working on this sermon that said that hospitality is a skill more prevalent in the elderly, especially among elderly women. If you read my article in this month’s newsletter you will recall that I said that it was my grandmothers who kept my families coming together for dinners at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It was my grandmothers who prepared the meals, set the table, invited everyone to come to their house to eat. After they passed away we no longer came together as a family to sit down at the same table under the same roof to eat. Perhaps extending hospitality is easy for the elderly because their lives have slowed down a bit and with age comes wisdom as to what is important in life and what is not. That it is the elderly who see how important it is to spend time together with loved ones.
There is another kind of hospitality that we can extend to one another that does not require us to prepare food or set a table. That is the hospitality we extend to people who come to our church to be a part of our worship service. You will notice that our bulletin has explanations as to what the different parts of our service mean. A collect is a “prayer before the reading of scripture”; a doxology is “a song of praise to God”. For someone who is new to church, who has never worshiped with us, words like collect and doxology can be a foreign language. And when we assume everyone knows what the words used in a worship service mean, we are not being good hosts. It is just as important to us to show hospitality to our guests at a worship service by making sure they are comfortable and feel welcomed and included in our church families time together. Especially if we want them to come back and worship with us again.
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who wants to begin attending church again. But the prospect of walking into a strange church terrifies her. She asked if I would ask a member of the church she wanted to attend to meet her in the parking lot and go in with her and sit with her. I have heard that story from other people as well. People have told me they went as far as driving to a church parking lot with the intention of going inside for the service but could not find the courage to do so. They turned around and went back home. In our contemporary world hospitality is not so much about protecting someone and the survival of a community in the same way as it was in biblical times. And yet there are many spiritual travelers not sure where they are going in this world who need someone to invite them in to a place of protection from world. People, who are searching for a church family that will invite them in, protect them from the world, feed them and give them a place of rest. And in that way hospitality is still about the survival of a community, the survival of our community of faith. The survival of the church.
Hospitality is still about showing respect for people; it is about providing for people’s needs, it is about treating one another as equals. It is about sharing a worship service, it is about sharing a church building, it is about sharing a meal, it is about inviting people in and providing them a safe place in the world. As we continue in this day of thanksgiving, of music, and food, and laughter, and stories. Let us remember our God who has always invited us to come into his shelter, and rest, and eat, and find peace in his presence for the journey ahead. And in that there is much to be grateful.