Why I . . . Practice Hospitality – July 11, 2021

While it may not be good form to admit as a minister, I don’t like having houseguests.  I’m not referring to having people over for dinner or spending an evening with someone.  But the joy of having company significantly decreases when it comes to overnight guests.  I’ve always admired those people who are able to do things like take in a foreign exchange student.  To me, having a stranger stay in my house for an extended period of time sounds like torture.

There are many practical reasons for this.  Because I’m a little OCD, people rarely live up to my standards for cleanliness.  I find myself discretely trying to spruce up after them.  But not only that, there is a certain sense of ease that is lost when someone you don’t know well is staying in your home.  You aren’t able to put on whatever clothes you want and eat a dinner of French fries while seated on the bedroom floor watching Anderson 360, not that I would ever do that.

There was a period of time before I got married when I had a houseguest for an extended period of time.  A good friend of mine from college had recently gotten married.  And her husband was unable to find a job after graduating from law school.  Knowing I had some connections with the appellate court, she asked if I could help him out.  So I talked to some people I knew, and he was able to get a job doing research.  Little did I know, however, how this would impact me personally.  Because the job was where I lived and the commute would be long, my friend asked if her husband could live with me during the week while he worked.

I felt put on the spot.  I wanted to just hang up the phone and act like there was a bad connection.  I didn’t have a good excuse for him not to live with me.  I had a spare bedroom.  I just didn’t know him well.  I didn’t know if he would get on my nerves.  I didn’t know if he would give me my space.  Sensing my reluctance, my friend told me she had warned him of the need to keep everything clean.  And because my inability to say no is stronger than my desire to avoid houseguests, I got my new roommate.

In our text for this morning, we read of a significant social custom which existed in Biblical times, the custom of hospitality.  Due to the nature of nomadic life at the time, people would often be brought into contact with unfamiliar people.  This was particularly true for the people of Israel.  They lived on a natural land bridge between Africa and Asia, so the area was a popular trade route. In the absence of modern conveniences, people had a social obligation to welcome strangers.  And this practice of hospitality was extremely important.  To not practice hospitality was to bring great shame upon your family, would bring dishonor to the person who failed to abide by this important social norm.  But practicing hospitality was not easy.  This hospitality would be offered to complete strangers, anyone seeking an escape from the elements.

For the people of Israel, this practice was not just a social norm.  It had a spiritual meaning as well.  The experience of the people of Israel played a role in their understanding of the need to show hospitality.  For much of their history, the Israelites had been strangers in a foreign land without protection, without a sense of safety and security.  Even after they arrived at the promised land, the people of Israel continued to view themselves as tenants on the land of God with God as their host.

Once the stranger was offered hospitality by the host, there were certain standards for how the custom would proceed.  The stranger could refuse the offer, but such a refusal rarely happened.  Declining an offer of hospitality would dishonor the host and could even lead to physical conflict.  Once the stranger accepted the invitation, the guest would not ask for anything – would not make specific requests, would not make any demands of the host.

This seems counterintuitive to us.  How would the host know what to give the stranger if the stranger didn’t tell him?  But this was not necessary because the host was always to provide the best he had available.  And the host would take care of all of the stranger’s needs without having to be asked.  The host would take care of the stranger’s animals, water was provided to wash his feet, a meal was provided, and an opportunity to rest.

But the care which was provided to the stranger moved beyond just providing food and shelter.  It also entailed a respect for the stranger as a person, for his value.  The host was not to ask personal questions, only what the stranger offered would be discussed.  But perhaps most valuable to the stranger was the peace he could find under the roof of his host.  While the stranger accepted the hospitality of the host, he was also under the host’s protection.  It was up to the host to ensure that no harm came to the stranger while the stranger was a recipient of his hospitality.  This was true even if it put the host and his family in peril.  Hospitality went well beyond just providing for basic needs.  And perhaps through providing such good care, the host could turn that stranger into a friend.

The practice of hospitality also involved an element of risk for the host.  A traveling stranger might be someone in genuine need, someone who simply needs a place to stay or a meal.  But the stranger could also be an enemy, someone from a warring people, a thief bent on stealing from the host.  And often this determination could not be made until the host had brought the stranger into his home.  But the importance of protecting their honor, and for the people of Israel being faithful to their beliefs, was greater than this danger.

Practicing hospitality today in a community like ours involves a certain level of risk as well.  There is fear that comes with offering hospitality to any person who walks through our doors.  While NCC has a proud legacy of being an open and affirming community, practicing hospitality is broader than that.  Hospitality is about welcome that moves beyond fear.  Fear that the person may present a threat to us because they are different, because they do not fit into the mold of those who are presently in our congregation.  Fear of the loss of the intimacy we feel with a close-knit group of people who have known each other for years.  People may come whose personal histories are different than ours, people who take a different approach to faith or politics, people who live their lives differently, people who make us uncomfortable, people who understand and experience the Divine differently than we do.

While I don’t like to have houseguests, I also don’t like to be a houseguest.  But frequently, when I was in college, I could not avoid it.  If I wanted to travel somewhere for spring break, it often meant staying with relatives of friends.  One year, several of my friends stayed with the uncle of someone in our group so that we could go to the beach in South Carolina.  When I first arrived, everything seemed fine.  My friend’s family was very friendly.  But soon after we arrived, I felt we may have made a bad decision.  My friend’s uncle was very odd.  He had all kinds of rules we had to abide by in his home.  We were only allowed to use one bathroom and enter certain parts of the house.  We had set times for meals and were required to sit in designated chairs.  When he was not there, we were told to remain in our bedrooms.  It began to feel a little like a prison.

What we don’t often think about when it comes to the issue of hospitality is the outlook of the person who receives the hospitality, how it feels to be the stranger seeking a place of safety, a place to be nourished.  Because while it is nice to be greeted in a friendly manner, it is sometimes what comes next that is the most important.  Do we fully incorporate them into the life of our community, regardless of who they are, regardless of our differences, regardless of our fears of change they may make to what NCC looks like?  Or, like my friend’s uncle, are we initially friendly only to tell them to stay in their rooms, to not be open to changes in our household, to not be hospitable.

It may seem strange that of all spiritual practices, I chose hospitality.  But I find it to be one of the most rewarding as well as the most challenging.  Like the Israelites, in practicing hospitality I am reminded of the times I have felt like a stranger, the times others have provided me a home.  I am reminded of what it feels like to be given a place of safety when all is turbulent around me.

But while it is rewarding, it is also challenging.  I think of those of us who view themselves as recovering fundamentalists, and the reluctance to interact with those of a more conservative Christian view.  I think of the bitter political divides which exist right now, and the avoidance of the other side which is often the easier path.  But in those times I have been willing to entertain the stranger, no matter our differences, I have grown.  And as this community seeks to grow, this spiritual practice is one that each of us needs to consider.  What might this look like in our context?  How do we welcome the stranger, despite the risk and discomfort it might entail?

When I took my friend’s husband into my house, I did not expect he would end up staying there for two months.  The longer he stayed, the more I realized how different we were.  He liked to stay up late while I went to bed early.  He ate only health food while I ate mostly pizza.  There were times in the beginning that I considered changing the locks, but by the time he moved out I was a little sad to have him go.  And through that experience, I began to see that hospitality is not just for the guest but for the host.  Because if we don’t push ourselves to welcome those we find it hard to open our doors to, those doors remained closed to our own growth and perhaps, like Abraham, we would miss an opportunity to entertain the Divine.