Being Radically Hospitable
Let me set the scene for these thought-provoking words from the lips of Jesus. He had just called the twelve and given them their marching orders: who they were to go to, and what they were to do while they were among them - what they were to do if people were receptive to what they said and did, and what they were to do if they weren’t. He cautioned them about the dangers that were probably going to come their way as a result of their saying “yes” to becoming one of his followers. He warned them that they possibly would be ridiculed and rejected - be betrayed by loved ones - they might even have to face death as a result of living out their faith.
Then Jesus offered some words of comfort to his followers - some words of assurance: that God would be with them no matter what circumstances they found themselves in and that they should not, as a result of God’s promise to be with them, go forth in fear. But, that’s only the beginning of this open-air workshop, this mini-course in discipleship summarized in the 10th chapter of Matthew. There’s more - much more - for those not yet scared off.
In the portion of the 10th chapter of Matthew just prior to the portion of the scriptures I wish to reflect on in this post are perhaps some of the most disturbing words in all the scriptures. They are so disturbing we want to avoid them and pretend they don’t exist. Phrases like: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
It is with those words ringing in our ears that we read again these words at the end of the 10th chapter of Matthew. This time according to the new revised standard version: “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.” (1)
Jesus was using a commonly understood rule of hospitality etiquette among the Jews of that day to make his point. If someone was a messenger for someone else, it was understood that the host should greet and treat the messenger the same as if it was the sender visiting. (2) Jesus’ words to his followers simply meant: “Those who open their homes to you - their tables to you - are basically opening their homes and tables to me and to God. Those who offer you hospitality are offering it to me as well. When you visit others in my name, your presence is as good as my being present.”
Now, we know from some of the other things it is recorded that Jesus said in other places in the scriptures that Jesus was saying much more here than simply that his followers were going to be taken care of because of their relationship with him. This instructive word from Jesus wasn’t just to reassure those who follow him that the future’s secure - that social security and health insurance and retirement benefits are part and parcel - part of the package that accompanies responding to the “call” to follow Jesus.
Nor, was Jesus’ primary point to say that those his followers went to who welcomed them welcomed him. Rather, it was in addition to say that they, the followers, were ministering to those to whom they went, as Jesus. A paraphrase of Matthew 25:40 probably states it as clearly as it can be stated: “Whatever you did for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, you did for me.”
The one of the characteristics of the people of God who make up the church is to be a radically hospitable people. As the church we are to create an atmosphere of hospitality.
Perhaps my all-time favorite book by Henri Nouwen is his book Reaching Out. The fourth chapter in the book is titled “Creating Space for Strangers” and is without a doubt the most referenced chapter in all the books I’ve ever read except perhaps some of the passages in the bible. His point in this chapter is that the world is full of strangers in search of community. We’re strangers because we’ve lost touch with our past, our culture, our country, our neighbors, our friends, our family, even from ourselves and God. And so, we desperately seek to find a hospitable place where we can live life without fear, let down our hair and be ourselves, be accepted for who we are. We crave, we search for, community. Despite the fact that most strangers probably become victims of hostility, we must, as human beings, especially as Christians, must be about trying to create hospitable space where we might connect with one another. Despite the increasing tendency to be fearful or suspicious of one another and to protect what is our own, it is our calling, it is our vocation, as Christians to convert the hostility we experience in this world into experiences of hospitality - to make the enemy into the guest and to provide space for brotherhood and sisterhood to be explored and experienced. (3)
In Nouwen’s own words: “The Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.” “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them . . . thus the biblical stories help us to realize not just that hospitality is an important virtue, but even more that in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and thus bring new life to each other.” (4)
According to the teaching of our master and friend, Jesus Christ, whenever we welcome the greatest or the least of those among us, we welcome him - to entertain the stranger is to entertain the savior. The rule of Saint Benedict is based on this understanding: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Hopefully, when we hear the rule we don’t hear it as a burdensome rule but rather as a rule which creates for us a privilege. Think of it: the opportunity to entertain Jesus - to offer him a drink of water, a ride, a place to stay? Do you sense the privilege that would be?
Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners community in Washington, D.C., tells of how on Saturdays they open a food line to the hungry and homeless who live within sight of the White House. Before they open the doors, they gather around the food, hold hands, and are led in prayer by Mary Glover, the best pray-er of the community - someone whom herself stood in that food line a few years earlier. Wallis says, “She prays as if she knows the person with whom she’s talking,” and this is what she prays: “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through this line today. So, help us to treat you well.” (5) The last few times I had the opportunity to pray before a rummage sale or a dinner where guests were expected I tried to include this concept for those whose role it was to create a hospitable space and atmosphere.
The United Methodist Church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Several years ago our West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church with the leadership of Bishop Bruce Ough determined that there's a process for disciple-making and it involves paying attention to four key elements: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Faith-forming Experiences and Risk-taking Service and Mission. Bishop Ough noted in his 2001 West Ohio Annual Conference address: “If a local congregation is not intentionally addressing all four of these elements of the disciple-making process, it is most likely not fulfilling its mission.” (6)
While we need to reflect together on the meaning of each of these important elements so vital to being all the church can be, the Gospel reading hits us right between the eyes with the message of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality, according to the way our conference vision team expounded on it, involves “. . . reaching across economic, racial, age and gender lines and focuses on the stranger and those outside the community of faith.” (7)
While, to be sure, the challenge to be radically hospitable involves making sure the community is aware we exist (advertising); making sure our brochures, newsletters, etc. use language newcomers understand; making sure the outside of the building invites people to come in; making sure there’s adequate parking and is accessible; making sure people are greeted and made to feel welcome when they come into the church; making sure our worship is passionate and alive; making sure our morning message speaks to real needs; making sure we are all friendly and welcoming to newcomers before and after worship and making sure we do some intentional follow-up on visitors and newcomers - while these things are vital and important we also need to remember that “hospitality is about listening to those who hunger and thirst for love, acceptance, justice, bread, salvation, and new life.” (8) Radical Hospitality has to do with offering cups of cold water to the little ones, those who are outside the fellowship, those who act, live, dress, smell different than we do. What that cup of cold water is depends only on our imaginations, creativeness and sensitivity to what is going on around us and who is around us.
Dr. Michael Cordle was assigned to St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta a few years back. When he arrived he discovered a struggling inner-city congregation with a shrinking average attendance of just under 100. After one of the Sunday services early in his ministry as Pastor Mike’s family was leaving the church they were stunned to find themselves face to face with Atlanta’s “Pride Parade” - a steady stream of exuberant marchers. I assume similar to the one held in Columbus and many other communities throughout our country. As the participants paraded by his family, Cordle was struck with the thought that these were people from St. Mark’s neighborhood - St. Mark’s parish.
A year later, when the Pride Parade participants paraded by St. Mark’s they were greeted with an unexpected surprise. And I read now from the source of the story: “On that hot and steamy June afternoon, the church had set up a small oasis - - offering cups of cold water to all the marchers who felt hot and thirsty and tired. In no time, the water was gratefully guzzled down, and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church had transformed its image in the face of that neighborhood.” (9)
Still reading from the source of the story: “What a difference from the other nearby church that bordered the parade route! That church sent out its message loud and clear (as well) - - as it erected barricades, strung up temporary fencing, hired mounted policemen to ride their perimeters, and posted “no trespassing” signs across church property.
“The ‘cups of cold water’ St. Mark’s offers on parade day have brought all sorts of thirsty neighbors inside the doors of the church once more. Membership has climbed to over 400 in the last two years, and the neighborhood feels like it has a spiritual presence in its midst again.” (10)
How indeed shall we go about offering cups of cold water as local churches and individual Christians to those thirsty around us? How is it we need to be about being radically hospitable? To whom will you offer a cup of cold water these coming days?
1 Matthew 10:40-42, NRSV.
2 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958) p. 410.
3 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 46.
4 Ibid., p. 47.
5 Jim Wallis, Sojourners.
6 West Ohio News, June 29, 2001, “‘Make Disciples’ is West Ohio Vision, Ough Says”, pg. 3.
7 Ibid. p. 3.
8 West Ohio News, August 31, 2001, pg. 2, “What Do They Really Need?”