A sermon preached this past Sunday – which we marked as Christian Family Sunday.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of hospitality? Can you remember a moment when you were a stranger – yet you were welcomed without reserve by another? Perhaps given a meal to eat, a place to sleep, a space to make your own if only for a couple of days. Perhaps you were put out of your house for some reason, perhaps you were traveling far from home, perhaps you were close to home but just needed the welcome embrace of another. Many of us here this morning, I’m sure, have at one time or another been on the receiving end of such a wonderful hospitality.
A simple example. While I was attending Regent College in Vancouver I was part of a college community group that was invited to the island home and farm of a professor – for a weekend retreat. He was someone most of us hard barely gotten to know. But on that retreat we were given a place to unfurl our sleeping bags, we dined on fresh pacific salmon, we made and shared in home-made ice-cream together. For just a couple of days we were welcomed and made at home and given a place.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hospitality as ‘the reception and entertainment of guests or strangers with liberality and goodwill.’ The reception and entertainment of guests or strangers with liberality and goodwill. The Dictionary also describes a hospitable person as being ‘disposed to receive or welcome kindly, as being open and generous in disposition.’ Hospitality – welcoming others, inviting strangers in with liberality and good will, with a generosity of spirit. Sharing our space, sharing our table, sharing our home, and sharing our lives with others.
As we think about hospitality this morning, perhaps the most important thing we must say is this: that the gospel of Jesus Christ can be fittingly described as the good news of God’s hospitality. The good news is that God, in liberality and good will, with generosity of Spirit, invites others into fellowship with himself. Hospitality toward humanity is what God offers and accomplishes in Jesus Christ.
With this in mind it’s interesting to have read that remarkable vision from the prophecy of Isaiah – a vision in which God becomes host to all nations at a marvelous feast. It is a vision of God’s hospitality, God’s salvation. We read in Isaiah 25:6-8: “On this mountain (that is, Mount Zion) the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” The salvation of God is celebrated and assured in the context of a great feast – a feast at which God presides as host, welcoming into his presence all nations, all peoples. We might even say that this feast is salvation.
Our God is a God of hospitality.
Our God invites children and men and women to sit together at table with him,
Our God invites us to share in good food, to share in enjoyment of life in his presence.
It is in Jesus Christ that God draws us into this feast, even now.
Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father who feasted with sinners and prostitutes and fishermen and tax-collectors.
Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father who hosted thousands at a meal miraculously provided.
Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father who hosted his disciples at meal in the upper room before his crucifixion.
In Jesus Christ, God has invited you and me to share in a meal of remembrance here in the community of faith – and in so doing gives us a foretaste of that festal joy which will be ours when God hosts us in his kingdom. The gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is the good news of God’s hospitality.
The Apostle Paul makes this point in his letter to the Romans. But in making this point, he goes on to add something that is profoundly important for us. He says: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” In Christ God has embraced us and made us welcome. And God’s hospitable embrace of us implies that we are to turn around and extend hospitality, welcome, to others.
We were strangers to God, far off from God, with no claim on God’s hospitality – but God has welcomed into fellowship with himself through Jesus Christ. Even more, we were inhospitable toward God – sending him away, crucifying his son – yet God has extended hospitality to us. And we are invited, encouraged to extend that same hospitality.
Paul makes the same point, also in Romans chapter twelve. In speaking of the life to which we are called in Christ, he exhorts us, encourages u, saying: Extend hospitality to strangers. It’s interesting to note for a moment the meaning of the word translated here as hospitality. The Greek word that Paul uses is closely related to another word which we might recognize, the word xenophobia. Xenophobia is the fear of strangers – it is the fear (phobia) of the strangers (xenos). Those who are xenophobic have a deep hostility toward strangers and foreigners.
But Paul tells us, in the light of what Christ has done, don’t practice xenophobia but practice xenophilia – practice the virtue of loving strangers. That’s the basic structure of the Greek word translated hospitality – it’s xenophilia – the love (philia) of the stranger (xenos). We were strangers to God, far off form God, with no claim on God’s hospitality – but in love God extended hospitality to us. We were estranged in sin yet God practiced xenophilia. So it is that we are called to welcome others and to extend hospitality – to receive guests or strangers with liberality and goodwill.
It hardly needs mentioning this morning that we are not always good at xenophilia – we are not always good at hospitality. There is and remains something in our nature that holds the stranger at a distance, protecting our space as our own.
One of my favorite poets, Micheal O’Siadhail, has written a poem entitled Folding in which he speaks of a childhood hideout he shared with his friends. That hideout was the crotch of a great Sumac tree which formed a kind of bowl in which they could hang out together. In the poem he speaks of an unknown child who approaches the edge of their hideout, looking up over the edge of that sumac bowl. We read just a couple of lines, in which the poet asks:
Who was that strange child, that face at the rim/Demanding vision? It’s as if our tree contracted,/refusing the danger of renewal. A closing system…
Who was that strange child, that face at the rim/Demanding vision? It’s as if our tree contracted,/refusing the danger of renewal. A closing system.
There was something instinctual and basic in the boys at their special hangout – closing inward and refusing entry to the stranger who appeared at the rim. In these words the poet has captured what is so often the nature of our relationship to others – we may not exactly be xenophobes – but it can hardly be said that we are paragons of xenophilia, stranger love. Hospitality is not our first instinct – to welcome others without reserve is not our first instinct.
In the last line of that same poem, O’Siadhail asks:
Is the child at the rim every stranger I’ve faced?
Is the child at the rim every stranger I’ve faced?
The strangers we face – are they the child excluded from the hideout in the Sumac. We have difficulty with hospitality, with love of the stranger.
This morning as we continue to think about hospitality, I want to add another element into the discussion. As we think about hospitality we also want to think about our life in families – after all, today is Christian family Sunday. What is life in the family? It is life in a covenant community – a community of love and faithfulness and promise. God gives us life into families so that we might
serve and care for one another,
submit to one another,
give instruction and receive instruction.
All in the bond of love. And I want to suggest this morning that at a most basic level the family is a place in which we practice hospitality.
We love and welcome each other, and are called to love and welcome each other, as Christ has welcomed us. This happens in the most concrete terms possible. When parents receive a new child into the home they must create a space for that child – must be open to the challenges and changes that the gift of new life demands of them. And with each subsequent child born or adopted into a family the parents, and now also the older siblings, must create an open space to receive and love and embrace new life.
And as the family grows, as family life takes on new contours and moves through various seasons – we are to exhibit the openness and hospitality and generosity toward one another which God in Christ has extended to us. In this way our life in the family becomes a witness of God’s covenantal love – a love of commitment and faithfulness and hospitality. As Jesus said – they will know you are my disciples by your love. In our families they will know we are his disciples by our hospitality.
But what we also need to see is that the love we share within the family circle – the hospitality we learn in family life – is training for love of others. The love we express in the family must be repeated or echoed in relation to the stranger. St. Augustine had much to say about this. St. Augustine taught that the particular love of special persons in our lives, the particular love of family, trains us for the love of neighbor. He said that the very real love we experience within the family, which demands the disciplining selfish impulses, is a training in openness toward others.
But again, we find the life of hospitality so difficult. Often, our families sit comfortably in the crotch of the Sumac tree:
Who was that strange child, that face at the rim/Demanding vision? It’s as if our tree contracted,/Refusing the danger of renewal. A closing system.
In so many ways the society we have constructed in the West is a society in which home is an entirely private space – cut off from guest and stranger. Every yard is fenced off from the other. We hardly know most of our neighbors. All too rarely do we intentional welcome others, strangers into our homes and our lives.
Furthermore, in our society we have made ourselves so busy that we have a multitude of excuses as to why home must be a private place – a family place only, away from it all. “It’s as if our tree contracted…a closing system.” Sure we have acquaintances and friends who might come into our homes – but family life so often remains a private and exclusive domain. Our networks of friends, so often, are not open networks. Even in the Church we are often only familiar strangers. We aren’t very good at hospitality – welcoming the stranger.
So it becomes apparent that hospitality must be pursued with intentionality – we must strive to make our families, our homes, places of hospitality – so that the reception of guests and strangers, with liberality and goodwill, is a part of who we are – for that’s who we are in Christ. The covenant bond we share as families, must be a bond open to others in Christ’s name. So much in ourselves, so much in our society, militates against it, yet we must swim furiously against the stream in order to be faithful to him who is faithful to us.
Like all other things that matter in the Christian life, perhaps the most important thing we can do as we think about the call to hospitality, is to be in prayer before God. Asking God to create opportunities for hospitality, asking God to remind us what it means to practice xenophilia, asking God to give us grace and strength to welcome the stranger. Perhaps all of this begins as we simply as God to bless our neighbours, to bless the strangers we encounter each day, in this prayerful way opening our hearts to them.
As we conclude, we do so with a particular piece of good news. It is this – that God blesses us in remarkable ways when we live obedient lives of hospitality, obedient lives of xenophilia. In the book of Hebrews we read this exhortation: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” We extend hospitality to others because God in Christ has extended hospitality to us – doing so in obedience opens us to the possibility of blessing. We are not, here, simply in the realm of law – not simply in the realm of the ‘thou shalt’. To entertain strangers, is to open oneself to blessing – whether it is a angel in disguise or some person who might offer to us some challenges, some help, some blessing.
As we become the hospitable children of God in Christ, as we learn what it is to open our hearts and homes and lives to strangers – there is the promise of blessing. To be hospitable is always, is always, to take a risk – absolutely it is to take a risk. Yet without taking that risk, we cannot and will not know the blessings which God pours out upon us as we engage with a guest, a stranger, a traveler, a new person to the neighbourhood. Hospitality is a calling we all have individually, a calling we have in our families, and a calling that we have collectively in the Body in Christ. As we take the risk of hospitality, may we know the overflowing goodness of God in Jesus. Amen.