Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Hospitality was a very big deal in the ancient world. The nomadic people living in the Middle Eastern desert understood the hardships of travel. They believed that God required them to offer warm hospitality to anyone who came near their camp.
“The Hospitality Texts” begin in Genesis 18 – Abraham and his clan are camped near the oaks of Mamre when they are visited by three men. Abraham immediately ran to greet them and invite them to come into the camp for rest and refreshment. He made them comfortable then set about preparing a wonderful meal for them. He had the servants prepare a tender calf and all the trimmings and this is set up as a model for how God’s people should treat vulnerable strangers.
Leviticus, the book of regulations for the Israelites that gives guidance on just about every aspect of their lives, has this to say about hospitality: “Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13)
He wrote to the Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
The whole idea of hospitality is: “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” (The Online Dictionary) Apparently, God intends for us to be friendly and generous – hospitable – to EVERYONE. In today’s gospel Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” I believe that Jesus is talking about two things here. First, this text is part of the longer “Missionary Discourse” that Jesus uses to give his disciples instructions to prepare them for the mission he has called them to. After warning them of the hardships they will face and the persecution they are likely to endure, he comes today with words of encouragement and eternal reward for them and for those they reach in Jesus’ name. For the disciples the text speaks comfort that God will be with them as they go forth in mission. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…” Others hear this gospel and recognize that their reception of others is a critical part of being a follower of Jesus. “Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The clear implication here is that, if we do not welcome Jesus, then we reject God.
This idea of welcoming strangers works well for the people of the ancient world. As we saw earlier, they are very familiar with the scriptures that call for radical hospitality. They know the way they have been treated and understand that they are called to do better toward the “others” in their lives. We may not have the same frame of reference or the same experience of hospitality. Do we even understand who “the prophets” and the “little ones” that Jesus talks about are in our culture?
- Is it possible that our own ideas about hospitality may have little or nothing to do with strangers?
- Is our hospitality restricted to people who mostly look like us?
- Are we primarily “friendly and generous” to those who will quietly blend in to our environment; who will wipe their feet and not spill on the furniture?
- Are “strangers” really just the Sandites we haven’t met yet or the new people who can afford to live in our neighborhood?
- Does our hospitality engage the needy simply because of their need?
In the midst of unprecedented homelessness in our country, millions of carefully furnished and decorated guest bedrooms sit mostly forgotten until it comes time to dust or run the vacuum. Countless commercial buildings, apartment complexes, foreclosed homes, and other weather-tight structures stand chained and locked against intruders as human beings sleep in the streets outside them. I understand we should not open our homes to the first homeless person who wanders by, but…Does Christian hospitality invite us to engage this situation and seek some viable solutions? Are you able to envision an idea that might lead to a better use of resources to benefit the homeless in our country and do you have the courage to share that idea with people who have the power to make it happen?
I wonder if our definition of “the prophet” Jesus refers to is too narrow. Today it is a pretty rare occurrence for the church to be asked to receive a travelling missionary and extend them hospitality. If we were, the extent of our involvement would probably be finding them a nice hotel for the night and feeding them lunch after church. I think Jesus wants us to think bigger in terms of whom it is we are called to welcome as emissaries of Christ. Is it possible to imagine the homeless or the chronically hungry as bearers of the Christian message? Can we not include these within the reach of those to whom we are called to offer radical hospitality?
I fear that we are too quick to draw boundaries between those we understand as the objects of our charity and those who have something to share with us for the sake of our faith. Too often we are more aware of what we are giving and the graciousness of our gift and not enough aware of the powerful message these indigent travelling preachers offer, mostly without even knowing they are representing Jesus. We see the Face of Christ all around us when we are willing to set aside the blinders we wear that are woven from our fear, our bias, and our inward focus. Homelessness, chronic hunger, abject poverty…These are truly big and complex issues that seem to overwhelm us and leave us unable to imagine making a difference. What Jesus tells us in this text is that we only need concern ourselves with the one we encounter. None of us can single-handedly change the condition of the homeless population of America; we may be able to change one person’s reality. We are not going to leave here today and feed the world; we may be able to feed one person. Each one is a beloved child of God and each one bears God’s image – the Face of Christ.
Remember Matthew’s text about the last judgment? When the righteous and the unrighteous are separated in the end to answer for their lives on earth, the righteous are reminded of all the things they did to help the least, the lost, and the lonely. They are modest and ask the Lord when they did these wonderful things and he simply says:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
I think part of the problem for us as we engage the issue of hospitality is that we tend to hold our thoughts in where we are comfortable with the size of the problem. We talk a lot about being hospitable to visitors to the church…people who took the time and made the effort to come to us, on our turf. For most of us, it’s not so hard to be friendly and welcoming to those folks…After all, they want to be here; they came to us. If we’re nice to them they’ll keep coming back. Well, first of all, it’s not really that simple. People who come to visit our church did indeed make the choice to come here and check us out. Being nice to them will go a long way toward encouraging them to come back. But we need to be aware of trying to find out if we are also making an effort to meet their needs at this stage of their faith journey. Do we offer them more than a smile and a cup of coffee? Do we really offer them a glimpse of Jesus? Do we welcome them completely and offer them the chance to participate in the life of the church on their terms, rather than on ours? Church is sometimes a carefully guarded institution where visitors, strangers, the lost have a hard time finding a place to fit. I wonder if this guarded environment is symptomatic of a larger cultural issue that faces us.
Right here in Oklahoma there is a situation developing that cries out for us to speak words of hospitality. Maybe you are aware of the hundreds of immigrant children being housed at Ft. Sill in Lawton. There is so much about this issue that we don’t know. Most of our information comes from the media who admit that they are not being granted access to all the facts. We can only speculate about how these children got to the U.S. and how the situation grew to what it is now. Our speculation does not bring us any closer to the truth, nor does it help solve the problem. I want to share part of a press release issued Wednesday by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. [Press Release]
Listen again: “The Christian tradition calls on us to welcome the stranger and to care for the most vulnerable among us.” We need to remember that, with the exception of Native Americans, everyone else in this country comes from an immigrant family. Remember God’s Law in Leviticus: “Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Can we imagine the possibility that this huge national debate on immigration reform might be centered in the understanding that the God who created us commands us to show hospitality to foreigners? I know this is a complicated issue; I realize there is much we don’t understand; I get that. What I’m trying to say is that God wants to be part of our entire life – including the big, hard political discussions. We really should consider God’s plan for the world when we talk about homelessness, chronic hunger, immigration, and every other issue that affects the way in which human beings relate to one another.
What I want us to think about today is how hospitality is demonstrated in all the places where we engage other people. What does hospitality really look like in our church? Are we truly being hospitable to the rest of the world as a country? Is it possible that our welcome mat is facing the wrong direction? In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.