Sermons : Living the Faith: Old Virtues for a New Age- Hospitality
Genesis 18:1-12; Matthew 10:40-42
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
July 29, 2012
In late June of 2005 four United States Navy SEAL commandos were on a mission in Afghanistan, when they were caught in a firefight with Taliban militia. As the battle ensued, three of the SEALs were killed, and the fourth, Marcus Luttrell, was blown over a cliff when a rocket grenade exploded in their midst. Severely injured, Luttrell fought off those who were sent to finish him, and then crawled for seven miles through the mountains, before he was found by members of a Pashtun tribe, who risked everything to protect him. In a published account of the ordeal, Luttrell told how the Pashtuns took him back to their village, where the law of hospitality, considered non-negotiable in that Sunni Muslim culture, took hold. They sheltered him, defended him, nursed his wounds, and cared for him, even at the risk of their own lives.
The law of hospitality, as Luttrell described it, is no myth. Such law has been part of Near Eastern culture for thousands of years. The ancient law of the desert, practiced among all nomadic peoples of the region, required that if a stranger appeared at your tent, you were to welcome them, and share your food, drink and shelter. In the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of human survival. It is still practiced among the Bedouins today.
We see that same law in practice in our Genesis text this morning, the law of hospitality prompting Abraham to offer food and drink to his three mysterious visitors. And it is thus no small matter that among the adherents of all three major Abrahamic religions, hospitality is considered an indispensable virtue. Writing of our text from Genesis, Rabbi Joyce Neumark says,
At the beginning of [the reading], Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent when he sees three men.... [H]e jumps up, runs to greet them, and invites them to be his guests. He offers them water to wash and a shady place to rest and tells them he will fetch a bit of bread. Abraham runs into the tent to ask Sarah to bake cakes from the finest flour and then to the pasture to select a calf to be prepared for the meal. And while the main meal is being prepared, he brings a snack to his guests and waits on them while they eat. Abraham is gracious and respectful to his guests, making it clear that he is honored by their presence. He rushes to provide for their needs and, rather than bragging, delivers more than he had promised from the very best his household has to offer.
Rabbi Neumark goes on to speak of the very next text in Genesis 19, when the same visitors drop in on Abraham's nephew Lot in the city of Sodom. Lot, too, extends hospitality to them in the face of a hostile crowd, says Rabbi Neumark:
Surely we might argue that Lot's hospitality was far greater than Abraham's, because the defining sin of Sodom was not, as you might have thought, sodomy, but selfishness and inhospitality. According to the midrash, Sodom was a place of great wealth, which its citizens could accumulate with little effort. But its people were so selfish that they actually enacted laws making it a capital offense to offer so much as a crust of bread to a poor person or a traveler. Rabbi Eliezer says that they even screened the tops of their trees so that a bird flying by would not be able to pluck a piece of fruit.
So, Lot actually risked his life to extend hospitality to the strangers, in the same way the Pashtuns risked their own lives to extend care to a Navy SEAL. If such risky, extravagant hospitality strikes us as odd, it is only, I think, because we have forgotten the true meaning of "hospitality" in our modernity. We think of hospitality as our gracious welcome and care for neighbors and friends. But to Jews and Christians alike, hospitality goes well beyond such graciousness. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, notes, "the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.'"
The Torah, as laid out in the Book of Leviticus, sets forth the rationale for such treatment and care of strangers: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:33-34). What Leviticus sets out is more than an immigration policy; it is also a strong and stern reminder that when we exclude or mistreat the stranger, we diminish ourselves as well, for we do so only by forgetting that we are all strangers and sojourners on the earth.
Such forgetfulness and the resulting mistreatment of strangers is regrettable anytime it emerges, but it is especially egregious when it manifests itself within the community of faith. The driving away of those who are different would seem to be such a clear departure from the ways of faith and faithfulness. The Irish theologian Siobhán Garrigan, who teaches at Yale Divinity School, tells, however, of encountering just such a practice while traveling around her native Ireland, ironically doing research on the quest for peace.
Arriving at a Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland, [Garrigan] was pleased to be greeted at the door by two women...who seemed to invite her into conversation. [She] realized that these women were ushers of some sort, whose job it was to stand at the door of the church and interview newcomers as they arrived. They quietly asked her name and the first names of any other approaching strangers who wished to join in the morning worship.
Then [Garrigan] figured out what was happening. Hearing those names, the ushers would draw conclusions about the cultural and religious identity of each. Those with Protestant names were welcomed warmly and shown their seats. Those with apparently Catholic names, the Marias and the Catherines and the Patricks, were told that they were surely in the wrong church and sent away.
Garrigan's Yale colleague William Goettler observes, "Confronted with the unsettling image of that Protestant church on an Irish hillside, we want to dismiss such boundary keeping as abhorent to the gospel."
Perhaps, however, it is more familiar than we want to admit...The churches we know would never ask the name of a stranger in some covert attempt to find them out and send them off to where they belong. Nevertheless, if we are honest about the church that we know, we will have to confess that, though we define our borders differently, we define them still - and more subtly.
[He speaks of his own congregation.] We are curious about education and profession. In a church community like the one I know best, the higher the level of education, the warmer the community will be. While none will be turned away, we will tell ourselves that we simply have more in common with those who are like us. The implications of such questions are quite clear to all. Not so far, really, from deciding if the visitor's name is Protestant or Catholic in origin.
I have to tell you that I resist Goettler's assessment. I don't like to think it's true in a general sense, and I don't believe it's true at all in this particular context. But this much I do know: that the faith we claim does not smile on such exclusion. This much I know: that the Gospel turns us from a posture of fearing the stranger to a welcoming embrace of difference.
One of the fundamental signs of Christian life blossoming in an individual's or community's life is the practice of hospitality. Not hospitality as we define it here in the South, but a welcome embrace of all those whom God sends our way. It is one of the things that Jesus taught. Barbara Taylor explains: "Jesus did not have a home he could welcome people into. He could not cook anyone a meal nor offer anyone a bed, which may be what gave him such a hospitable heart. While others opened their homes to him, lending him a table to preside over for a night, his own [hospitality] was much more likely to take place in a field or a boat, on a road or a mountain - wherever people who felt like strangers happened to meet the person who made them feel like kin. It was a gift Jesus had, this divine practice of encounter, so valuable to him that he did his best to teach his followers how to do it, too."
The New Testament Greek word for "hospitality," as you may remember, is philoxenia, a word formed from two root words (philos, one of the several Greek words for "love," and xenia, which translates as "stranger". Christian hospitality is the love of a stranger. And it takes shape in the earnest welcome we offer to others. Presbyterian pastor Trace Haythorn says of such welcome,
It's such a common word. It adorns floor mats outside all sorts of entryways. It's often on road signs as one enters a new state, a new town... a national forest. There are places where people offer "welcome" as a greeting as I enter: "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" "Good evening and welcome -- table for two?"
[But such] conventional uses hide the loveliness of this word. Welcome. In English the word finds its roots in a compounding of "well" and "come" ... [so] "welcome" can offer in its earliest sense an invitation to come and be well, or to be well in coming. Either way, it is an invitation to be received into the goodness of this new place, this place [where] one has just arrived.
While we use the word casually and commercially, making one welcome is not as simple as offering a word, though it often starts there. The art of making one welcome is rooted in the ancient practices of hospitality. Preparing to welcome someone takes thought, intention, discipline. Some practitioners of hospitality are masters of the art; they're always ready with the accoutrements of welcome: an appropriate beverage, food, a comfortable chair, a few thoughtful and respectful questions of the [guest.] Their very presence seems to wipe away the strangeness or awkwardness of social greeting and make one feel as if [he or she is] at home.
Our Gospel lesson today compels us to consider the welcome and hospitality we offer to one another within Christ's family - the church. Says William Goettler,
Jesus...describes the love that families hold for one another, the tenderness with which we care for parents and for children. That tenderness and that compassion must be our model for loving all who come into our lives, in Christ's name. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome none other than the Christ.
This may sound at first like terribly unsettling news. The ushers at the door of that Irish Presbyterian church behave as they do because they have been informed by a culture of distrust. Their desire to bar the door is born of the hope for security in their lives and in their tiny parish. We [may be] more like them than we care to admit.
Now Jesus arrives and says, "Take that love for family, that love for your closest community, and extend it; extend it further and further still. Welcome in the stranger. Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand. Not to change them, but simply because they too [belong to God]."
Friends, hospitality is undeniably an essential virtue for us as people of faith. It is a non-negotiable part of our Biblical identity. Trace Haythorn says:
For Jews and Christians, such hospitality has always been a part of who we are. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Torah and was a part of the measure of the Hebrew community's faithfulness to God. When a traveler came to town, [he] waited by the well, and it was incumbent upon the townspeople to house and feed the visitor for the night.
Of course, these travelers were rarely family. These were folks unknown to the community. They were aliens, often foreigners, people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, different gods. Opening one's home was risky. Today we'd describe such a thing as out-and-out foolish. As Ana Maria Pineda reminds us, "Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger." But such hospitality was central to the Hebrew identity. The risk did not define the people; their hospitality did, for they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God.
The same was true in the early Christian communities. Paul reminded the Romans to offer hospitality to the alien, and in the Letter to the Hebrews the people were reminded to show hospitality to all, for in so doing some entertained angels unaware. In Acts, the early deacons practiced hospitality throughout the community, bringing welcome to those in need. And in Matthew's community, hospitality still measured the faithfulness of the people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples (those whom Matthew called "little ones") was a disciplined practice of the young churches.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, discipline is the key to faithful hospitality.... Kathleen Norris tells the story of a nun who, although she has Alzheimer's, still asks to be rolled in her wheelchair to the door of her nursing home so she can greet every guest. Said one nun of her sister in ministry, "She is no longer certain what she is welcoming people to...but hospitality is so deeply ingrained in her that it has become her whole life." Norris continues, "I read somewhere, in an article on monastic spirituality, that only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality...hospitality has a way of breaking through our insularity."
We've caught a glimpse of such spirit in London in recent days. I would hope that that spirit would break through the insularity we experience so often in our world and nation in our time. And, indeed, I pray daily for the grace of hospitality myself.
 Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
 Rabbi Joyce Newmark, "Welcoming the stranger," November 4, 2009, as accessed at http://njjewishnews.com/article/304/welcoming-the-stranger
 Neumark, op. cit.
 Taylor, 96-97.
 Slobhán Carrigan, The Real Peace Process, as recounted by William Goettler, "Pastoral Perspective: Matthew 10:40-42," Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 188.
 Goettler, 190.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, New York, Harper One, 2009, 98.
 Goettler, 192.
 Haythorn, op. cit. He cites Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, New York, Riverhead Books, 1998, 265, 267.