“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” So we’re told in today’s Letter to the Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.
So let me ask you, how’s that working for you these days? What does hospitality mean and look like for you and me, Uvalde? I think it’s gotten a bit harder after May 24th. Sure, by showing hospitality to strangers “some have entertained angels without knowing it” (emphasis added). That’s great but I want to know who or what the others have entertained and what happened to them?
These days I find myself a bit more wary and cautious of strangers, maybe even suspicious. I can easily make up and play out in my head circumstances that probably do not exist in reality. I’m more vigilant about what’s going on around me, who is there, and what he or she is doing. I hear people asking more questions and having more conversations about safety and security. I see higher fences being built, cameras and reinforced doors being installed, and new or additional locks being put on doors.
Does any of that sound familiar? Are you seeing or experiencing any of this in yourself or others? What thoughts or feelings come up for you when you see a stranger?
I wonder how those thoughts, feelings, and actions fit with or get in the way of showing hospitality to strangers. I wonder if they might not say more about us than they do the stranger.
Most of the time we don’t offer hospitality to strangers. Instead, we welcome those who are familiar and known, those who are like us, those we enjoy being with, those from whom we can expect reciprocity, those whose favor we seek, or those who serve our interests. We do the very opposite of what Jesus tells us to do in today’s gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14). “When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” he says, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors.” But that’s what most of us do. It’s what I usually do. More often than not we offer hospitality by invitation only and all others need not apply, let alone show up.
That’s not how Jesus lived or what he taught. Jesus opened his heart, spirit, and life to all sorts of strangers: lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors, the blind and lame, the poor and powerless, widows and orphans, the hungry and sick, Gentiles and foreigners, the lost and outcast, the weary and burdened, the ones on the edge and the ones hanging on by a thread.
True hospitality, biblical hospitality, a Jesus kind of hospitality, means welcoming and loving the stranger. It is “risky business, not an invitation we issue but an unforeseen visitation.” (Caputo, Hoping Against Hope, 88-89) Kingdom hospitality leaves us feeling vulnerable and at risk, and for good reason. Kingdom hospitality tells us to open the door even before we know who is there. If there is no risk in welcoming the other it’s not really hospitality. (Ibid., 89)
Now before you start thinking that I am saying something I am not, let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying we should disregard the past as if nothing happened and assume it or something like it will never happen again. I am not saying we should be reckless with our own or someone else’s safety. I am not saying we should not take appropriate precautions in light of what has happened.
What I am saying is that there is a tension in offering hospitality, a pull between wanting safety and security and the risk of welcoming the stranger. I want to welcome the stranger and I want to be safe. That’s a tension I feel and live with personally and as your priest and the rector of this parish and school. Maybe you feel that tension too. How could we not feel that tension after what has happened?
I suspect that all of us, at some level, are living with fear, anger, horror, bewilderment, shock, shame, and a desire for justice and vindication as a result of May 24th. It’s only natural. I see that in myself, I hear it in others, and I read it in the news. They are normal and common reactions to trauma. They are not, however, the best context in which to make decisions and they should not determine our responses to one another. (Yoder, The Little Book of Trauma Healing, 95).
Everything about those normal and common trauma reactions causes us to focus on ourselves and our needs. But what if we focused on the deepest needs of the other, the stranger? What if the stranger is a key to our security? What if, and here’s the paradox, we become more secure when we promote the security of others, even the stranger? (Ibid., 91-92)
That kind of hospitality asks more of us than just changing our hearts. It begins there but it cannot end there. We must also make structural changes to the systems that inequitably define, influence, and often control people and our relationships. (Ibid., 103) I think that’s what Jesus is doing in today’s gospel.
Hospitality challenges us to face the ways we’ve closed the door of our heart to another and her or his needs. It challenges us to face the ways we support or benefit from systems that close the door to someone else and her or his needs. It begins not by opening the door of our house but by opening the door of our heart.
To whom is your heart open and to whom is it closed today? What structures and systems serve as fences on which you are depending for security?
Despite what has happened it’s not too late to begin unlocking the door of our hearts and dismantling the fences that separate us. What might that look like in your life today? What would it ask of you? Where would you start?
How we show up to and for another matters. It makes a difference. Look at the strangers in your life and world today. What would meet their deepest needs? (Ibid., 91) And if you don’t know, ask and then listen. Isn’t that what a good host does?
Image Credit: Hospitality to Strangers by Gustave Van de Woestijne – Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, http://mskgent.be/collection/work/data/1969-C, CC0, Wikimedia Commons