NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
This is the world I want to live in.
The shared world.
“The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” This statement of intention presumes the practice of hospitality, but what exactly is hospitality in church community? This month, the Discovery adult education series is exploring this very question.
Sometimes, we can learn a lot about a thing by looking at its opposite, in this case, by considering current examples of what hospitality is not. Hospitality is not turning people away at the front door (or wall or border) because you don’t like the way they appear, or you fear they will take something from you. Hospitality is not making the barrier for entry so high that only the elite or those who look and act like you may enter. Hospitality is not excluding people aligning with a particular political party or worldview. Hospitality precludes the impulses to ban or shun or publicly shame people to protect the perceived purity of the whole from individual expression. Hospitality does not favor individual freedom over the Common Good. Hospitality is not expecting a visitor to pay for or work for or merit a place at the table.
These things may be trending — even popular in American culture these days — but they have nothing to do with hospitality, and they certainly have nothing to do with Christianity, let alone the Way of Jesus. This ancient value, virtue, social ethic, heartful disposition is not meant to diminish some people and raise up others but, quite the opposite, to protect all people from death-dealing conditions or the fickle circumstances of being a vulnerable human being in search of belonging.
So, what is hospitality?
Hospitality is a call to carry on the ministry of Jesus. It is a fruit of the Trinity, meant to be a life-giving means of refreshment, restoration, comfort, formation — even dignity. It is intended to provide relief, care, and protection to the stranger who shows up in need at our door. Hospitality is meant to be available, to be experienced, to be practiced, to be learned, and to be shared out, in gratitude and compassion.
Hospitality acknowledges and dignifies the presence of God in all people, whether they be strangers, foreigners, or simply outside of our particular tribe(s). One could say that hospitality is a form of love. Christian hospitality is, without question, a form of faithfulness as well. Modeled by the prophets, by Jesus, by the early church, by the communion of saints, and by ministries of mercy — for generations and generations, in nearly every faith tradition, everywhere. What St. Paul said of love is also true of hospitality: not jealous, not pompous, not inflated, not rude, not self-seeking, not quick-tempered, not brooding over injury nor rejoicing over wrongdoing.
Simply put, hospitality is not a choice for Christians at all; it is a sacred obligation. It is a Gospel warrant. It is in and through hospitality that we meet, experience, and encounter God in our daily life and work:
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Hospitality, it seems, has a cost; it may well (and often does) include sacrifice and discomfort. We may need to move aside or stand back, or learn to notice and hold the gaze of the suffering other we tend to ignore. But it may also include creativity, open-mindedness, and a welcome de-centering of the grasping ego, in pursuit of goodness and true humanity, human becoming.
In truth, hospitality is a spiritual practice and discipline that builds community life; it requires daily work and commitment to make it a habit. Let us pray to desire it more fully. Let us embrace it now more than ever. Let us not leave it to a few members or rely on traditional etiquette in this era of social fragmentation and great, great need. Let us practice abundant, extravagant, over-the-top hospitality — to be counter-cultural witnesses to the holiness of life-in-God.
As with all spiritual practices, values, and virtues, the more we practice hospitality, the more we become hospitable people and hospitable communities. In a social world that turns on who is in and who is out, who is on top or in the lead, let us strive to make a habit of loving the stranger into wholeness and, in doing so, loving God’s community gathered into wholeness.
When we look upon the crucifix,
with all the love and vulnerability
of your outstretched arms, we remember
that You receive us and continue to do so,
despite our flaws and quirks and wounds.
Or, perhaps, because of them.
Open our hearts and our eyes, we pray,
to love as You do, in mercy and humility.
Teach us emulate the profligate hospitality
that You have shown to all since the beginning.
Again and again, you meet us in our need —
not because we are special,
but because we are Yours.
We admit that we don’t always know how
to be hospitable or what it means to invite
others to be themselves and to find a place.
We are tempted to limit who and how we love.
We are tempted to forget the gifts we receive
when we open our hearts, those unforeseen gifts
that strengthen our faith and enrich our lives.
Make us more attentive to the faces of others.
Give us generosity and openness of spirit.
Guide us, we pray, to stay close enough to You
that we become a people who
enact the love of welcome
as You would, everywhere we go
and no matter the cost.
We ask this in Your holy name. Amen.
Trinity's Movement Choir joins with the International Sacred Dance Guild to perform Humankind on Friday, December 3, at 7:30pm. This online dance performance addresses the life of our neighbors who are global refugees, including issues of uprooting and trauma, insularity and acceptance, assimilation and diversity, and affirms the truth that all of humanity is essentially connected.
Take a look at this list of readings on hospitality from Spirituality & Practice.
Dr. Kathy Bozzuti-Jones is Trinity’s Associate Director, Spiritual Practices, Retreats, and Pilgrimage. Share your thoughts or questions with Kathy, and join her Wednesdays at 6:30pm for Contemplative Practice with Poetry.