As far as we can tell, the general admonition to hospitality towards strangers pre-dates Christianity and Judaism. We have examples of it in the religious admonitions in the Middle East as far back as we have records. In the Koran, we read this Worship Allah and … and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler who you do not know… (An-Nisaa’ 4:36) I am personally grateful for this verse and verses like it.
The year I stayed out of college, I flew to Zurich Switzerland, and immediately met a group of guys my age that were ferrying cars they had just bought to Syria to sell on the black market. I agreed to drive one of them to Istanbul in this loose caravan.
We drove through the Alps, which are truly glorious, through Yugoslavia, and a few days later I found myself at the border crossing from Bulgaria to Turkey in the early evening.
This is something of a crossroads on the trade route from London to Deli, so it was filled mostly with lorries and truck drivers from literally all over the world. It is where Europe ends- the next stop Turkey, Iran and then Afghanistan which was a lawless then as it is now.
There is a large plaza there with a gas station and a restaurant, only it looks like the scene out of a Mad Max movie- rough looking scoundrels only, burley men, dirt patios, the cheapest plastic furniture, punctuated with wild dogs that roamed in packs, mangy and roaming for food with a menacing look- you would never attempt to pet these dogs.
I was stopped there for a couple hours, waiting for the leaders of the convoy to show up, watching all of these truck drivers play poker, drinking shots, leering at this young Irish co-ed who had hitched a ride with me for the last leg of the journey.
As Midnight approached, I started wondering how I was going to explain to the Dean at Wake Forest how I had come to be stabbed at a truck stop in Bulgaria and an Irish co-ed from Trinity College had been abducted never to be seen from again.
Our leader arrived, surveyed the situation, made his way to the Passport/Visa station, paid the bribes to the custom officials, yanked the two of us from behind where we nearly sprinted to our car, and drove into the pitch black night in the hinterland of Turkey, headed towards the Dardenelle’s. There were no street lights, no neon signs, no lighted exits in that part of the world.
After an hour, we turned off the road to a tiny village, where there are no 24 hour gas stations, no diners open, no hotels with welcoming signs. We pulled up to what looked like an ordinary house from what you could see at 1 in the morning.
I could hear our fearless leader speaking his broken Turkish to the woman that had answered the door but refused to open it, even though he had obviously stayed there many times before. In desperation, a Dutch college student that was with us, blurted out a few lines of Arabic. These Dutch guys know a few lines in practically every language. He was quoting the Koran, the passage I just cited, he told me later.
Upon hearing the Holy Book, the woman opened the door, took the co-ed with her and showed the young men to a dark room of bunk beds that already had three of four other men sleeping there. I dropped my pack, laid down in my clothes, just grateful that my naivete hadn’t quite killed me yet.
I wrote my mother a postcard the next day. “Dear Mom, Turkey is a beautiful place. Met lots of interesting people. Love, your Son.”
Our faith tradition begins with the story of hospitality. It is told in the story of Mary and Joseph, poor, young and pregnant, looking for lodging. Each year that story is re-enacted in Hispanic communities in the ritual of Las Posadas.[i] For days leading up to Christmas, Mary and Joseph wander door to door in the neighborhood, knock, and then say “En nombre del cielo, Buenos moradores, dad a unos viajeros posada esta noche” (In the name of God, we ask those who dwell here, give to some travelers lodging this evening”) From inside, they hear back “This is not an inn; move on- I cannot open lest you be a scoundrel”). Joseph pleads with them, even telling them that he has with him ‘The Queen of Heaven” Mary. All to no avail. For 8 days they repeat the same scene.
Finally on the ninth night, Christmas eve, Joseph’s plea moves a innkeeper. And the innkeeper makes a speech that overflows with love, hospitality, and acceptance. The couple enters, candy is given to all of the children and a big feast with great food and drink is set out. The celebration begins.
They remember that line in the Letter to the Hebrews that says, “be gracious to the stranger as you may be entertaining Angels unawares.” And that line in Hebrews remembers the ethic of hospitality that undergirds the story of Ruth who is shown great hospitality and then shows hospitality back to her mother-in-law. It remembers the life of Abraham who was shown hospitality when he first came to the Promised Land and then showed hospitality to Angels traveling as strangers who were vulnerable.
Jesus underscored that ethic as well. He tells us that ‘our neighbor’ is not only the people that we are in close physical proximity to but also ‘Samaritan’s’, people that may be subject to discrimination but who are in need. Jesus tells us that God is like a man that throws a party but the invited people are too busy to come- and you know who you are- so God seeks out the maimed, the poor, those who have lost their way. It is an expansive invitation literally to the ends of the earth, everyone, everyone indeed.
To all of us multi-culturalist’s gathered here that may not seem like a big deal but I have met some of our converts from India’s lowest caste who wept openly the first time they heard that story because they have never known that kind of acceptance.
I’ve met some of the girls we bought out of prostitution in Thailand who wept because God’s love for them filled them with the foundation of self-esteem and a start towards a new identity, a new personhood, a new life.
Jesus did have a way of scandalizing the world because he gathered lepers, women, prostitutes, and tax-collectors- the great hypocrites of the Roman period. He used to say that the physician comes to heal those that are sick, so the ‘good news’ of the gospel is good news first and foremost for those most broken. The rest of us get to be part of it too.
More than that what strikes me more and more each year that I’ve been a pastor in the church is the hope that St. Paul put on us as a community to help each other be healed and grow more profoundly as people. Every one of his letters has an injunction like the one in Romans 12 where he describes what we can be for each other.
Develop genuine love. Stand against evil. Show each other respect and honor. Develop compassion and help each other through the times of suffering that we have to endure. Bless one another. Help each other out.
Don’t be limited by the revenge scenarios that are the norm in our world but grow deeper as people by learning to be people of reconciliation. Truly, genuinely, work things out.
Don’t limit your moral imagination to beating your enemies to a pulp, even though that is a natural desire. But together, go beyond that, and learn what it means to be a people of peace. You are going to have evil arise inside you because it is all around us in this world. But ultimately, together, you can cultivate goodness in and among each other that surrounds and inoculates evil. And it is more important to cultivate good for our souls than it is to simply hate evil.
As Bill Coffin used to say, “If you hate evil more than you love the good, that just proves that you are a damn good hater and of that the world has more than enough already.”
The profounder spiritual life, in other words, is what you create in community with each other. It is how we develop and actualize compassion, hospitality, reconciliation, forgiveness, peace. It is how we become people that live out of love.
The psychologist Heinz Kohut says that for us to realize our potential and to grow as communal, social beings, we need three things:
We need “mirroring”. We need people around us that understand and identify with what we are going through. That is the foundation of compassion, to be surrounded by people that ‘get you’ and empathize with your particular struggle at the moment.
We need “twinning”. We need people around us that are our genuine peers. We need people that we can trust with our hopes, dreams, and our foibles. We need friends.
I heard someone say to another couple that were good friends. “I love when you all come over. It’s like I just got in my jammies”. Frankly, I don’t want to see all of you in your jammies, but what a blessing to have friends that you really relax with. These are your spiritual people.
And the third thing we need is role models- people we can look up to, people that inspire us to be better people. They live it. They are the real deal. We need role models.
That is the grand experiment that the Church is supposed to be on its good days. The Church, as Paul describes what it can be, is like an extended Spiritual family of families. We need people from all ages that can help out others across the generations. We need people of many different walks of life, we need people from different cultures, people with a broad range of talents and interests. We need people that want to develop themselves and others to become people of sturdy character. This is what the spiritual life is all about.
We want to become a hospitable community? Don’t you want to be part of that. I do. We want to become a hospitable community. I have so many images in my mind from our life together, but just two will do:
Last year, we were hosting the homeless here and I just happened to show up at dinner time. Someone had gone around to all the rooms and invited people to come eat and they were all wandering down to the dinner table. And there in the atrium was one of our High School students, Will Przedpelski, playing this lovely tune on our piano in the atrium. It was almost like you were walking into a sophisticated restaurant in Manhattan, walking by this beautiful music as the Maitre d’ was seating you for your evening meal. And I was noticing how the children were calmed by it. They weren’t racing around like usual but just calm and relaxed so that the family could simply enjoy dinner together. We don’t do it often enough anymore. What a welcoming, hospitable thing to do, I thought myself. The world is a bit more beautiful place.
And last year, Julie and a couple other folks decided we should set up a welcome table at the Farmers Market in Summit. Half a dozen of you all agreed to man the table to be hospitable to our neighbors and let them know that we are here. We put out some literature about the church, but what could we do that would be nice to other people and get them to actually stop by the table? Cookies? Warm chocolate chip cookies are a good idea… sure.
A few of you decided that we would do face painting for kids. Oh, my, what a hit that was. Kids walking around with their parents while they bought white corn and tomatoes, pulling on their parents hands to go over to the face painting booth. And who would know that another of our High School kids, Julia Dorsey’s, would be so good at face painting?
And the moral of the story, we are doing something right when we can get our kids to be hospitable and be a welcoming presence for others. That is what it is all about.
The hospitable community… We all want to find our place. We all want to be part of the blessing. More than just being welcoming, what is it that you can bring to the table? What is that you believe in that you would like to do really well in this community just because it would be- just because… What can you be intentional about that makes those around you feel included, supported, and uplifted?
You know what? This is our life. We don’t get a do-over. We don’t get a replay. Let’s be intentional about actualizing the good in our midst. We can do something great.
Make yourself count. I want someone to say to you, “you know… because of you… I was confident enough to try something I wouldn’t have tried”… “you know because of you… I got on through a very tough patch”…. “Because of you”…. Amen.
[i] My thanks to Derek Elkins who gave me a book edited by Dorothy Bass, Practicing our Faith. This comes from a chapter “Hospitality” by Ana Maria Penada. See pp. 29 ff (Josey-Bass: 1977)