The account of Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre being visited by the three men is a well-known and oft quoted passage that speaks to us so clearly about the abundant and generous spirit of welcome and hospitality that was common nomadic practice. We see echoes of it in the Book of Hebrews “1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1-2)
We know that it was God who Abraham entertained or received through his welcome, and there are some specific points I wanted to make about the passage:
- God might be present or appear amongst us when we least expect it. Abraham was sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day when the LORD appeared. God was ‘embodied’ and accompanied by 2 angels (who later left for Sodom).
- Our hospitality should not be dependent on who the stranger is that we entertain. At first, Abraham didn’t recognise that he was being visited by God and yet his greeting was not lessened in any way. He ran from the tent entrance to meet them rather than simply rising to greet them, and bowed down to the ground – the kind of greeting that exceeds that given to a mere stranger. We should greet strangers and show an unreserved, unrestrained and generous hospitality irrespective of who they are and with no expectation of reward or return which isn’t to say we shouldn’t have ANY expectation as we shall see later.
- Real hospitality is sacrificial and costly. Abraham offered costly gifts in the desert. He offered water to wash the feet, choice flour for cakes, a “tender and good” calf, and curds and milk. Abraham gave of the best that he had. Again we see echoes of this in Jesus converting the water into the best of wine.
We cannot show hospitality if our hearts are in the wrong place or if we don’t seek the mind of Christ. If we don’t look after ourselves properly – we are tired, grumpy, burned out physically and spiritually and trying to do things in our own strength then at best our attempt to be hospitable will come across as being uncharitable or reluctant. We see something of the place our hearts should be in our reading from 1 Peter. “9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” To be in this place frequently involves dying to self and not allowing our ego and selfish desires and expectations to dominate. It involves getting rid of a critical spirit. We’ve all come across it before “He should be doing this…she should be doing that” etc. And we are to serve with whatever gift we have received from God – whatever that gift might be…and I know some people who are truly blessed with such an incredible gift of welcome and hospitality. We are to be constant and unswerving in our love for one another and the stranger.
One of my favourite authors who wrote at length about hospitality is Henri Nouwen. He speaks of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality which is not only very challenging but also gives us much food for thought:
“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, welcome, to accept.”
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking our words more seriously and discovering their true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
In his book, Reaching Out, Nouwen paints the spiritual progression from hostility to hospitality as an essential reflex and result of the spiritual life. Nouwen sees hospitality as being characterised by a great expectation for the presence of God in all his relational encounters. For Nouwen, hospitality is a combination of receptivity, openness to others, and honesty. He writes “Hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest [receptivity] and freedom without leaving him alone [honesty].” Elaborating on this simple definition, Nouwen writes:
“Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances, free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own. Reaching out to others without being receptive to them is more harmful than helpful and easily leads to manipulation and even violence, violence in thoughts, words and actions.”
Note though, in Nouwen’s commentary there is an implicit expectation of change…the creation of a space where change can and will take place. Whenever Christ had an encounter with someone who was receptive, they never remained unchanged. All too often the wider church fails to acknowledge this really key point. When we practice hospitality there should be an expectation of change, even if there has to be and a humble recognition and acknowledgement that that change might begin and end with us and us alone. It is God who transforms lives and changes hearts; we are called to be holy because he is holy. But we must also have a hope that the one receiving hospitality might be receptive to Christ in and through us too.
To practice receptivity of this magnitude requires tremendous courage, honesty and candour – speaking the truth in love. Nouwen continues:
“Real receptivity asks for confrontation because space can only be a welcoming space when there are clear boundaries, and boundaries are limits between which we define our own position…We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want…When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and nobody. We can enter into communication with the other only when our life choices, attitudes and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.”
At the heart of our meeting has to be grace and love – with each other and especially with our enemies. Receptivity is by no means passive. It is dynamic and active and is a catalyst for change and growth tempered by love.
A community commitment to the receptivity and honesty that Nouwen bundles into his invitation to hospitality would catalyse an enormous transformation in the authenticity, accessibility, and mission of the church.
Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other. It is not difficult to see how those ‘who know it all’ can kill a conversation and prevent an interchange of ideas. [also] When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for a stranger. In a fearful environment it is not easy to keep our heart open to the wide range of human experiences.
There is a paradigm for hospitality which is illustrated well in the Book of Romans and I would have these words etched into the very fabric of the existence of the church:
“9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)
We as always, have a choice about how we may facilitate that – how we might help it to happen. One choice might be to covenant ourselves to God.
To be a Christian means belonging to a diverse and varied community. It means sharing my life with people who have very different views to mine; and that’s hard! It means learning to differ in Christian love, respecting opinions other than mine and always seeking to understand the experiences of faith and life that lead people to the convictions that shape their discipleship. Realistically I will therefore experience the church as a place of joyful unity and painful conflict. It isn’t something I find easy. I don’t think it is something that anyone finds easy. We often have such huge and unrealistic expectations of each other. We need to be prepared to repent and ask for forgiveness. We need to be prepared to make peace with God, with each other and with ourselves. This will be so because it is a community of forgiven sinners not finished saints, and because the questions matter deeply and passionately, and because we will always ‘see dimly’ in this life.
Let’s enter into that covenant with God and each other now. I invite you to stand and say with me the Methodist Covenant Prayer:
“I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.” Amen