The Challenge of Welcome

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Sun, 04/30/2017 - 9:30pm

Romans 12:13,15:7; Genesis 18:1-15Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 30, 2017 

            Once hospitality was not an industry but an ethical practice. It was an expectation that made travel possible. There were very few inns in ancient times, and those few were dangerous. People didn’t travel for fun in those days, but out of necessity—to carry a message, to deliver goods, to escape famine, to seek refuge from war. They had to travel long distances on foot, and they needed places to stay overnight and find food. Most of the time, they didn’t pay for these things. They depended, like Blanche DuBois, on the kindness of strangers. Hospitality to strangers was a basic moral principle in early Christianity, but it was also part of Judaism and most cultures of the ancient world.

            That’s what is going on in the Abraham story we read, which is truly ancient. Abraham is a relatively wealthy man, with flocks and servants, but he is still a nomad, living in tents. He is settled for a while in a place called Mamre, identified in later centuries by its large oak trees. One day Abraham looks up and sees three men standing near his tent. It’s like a scene out of a western: Abraham’s out on the dry prairie with no neighbors, and suddenly three strangers show up. It’s an event.

            He has no idea who these people are, but he bows down to them and offers them hospitality. “Please don’t pass us by! We don’t get many visitors out here. I’ll get my servants to bring you water and wash your feet. You just relax a while and we’ll get some food ready.” To us, this may seem awfully gracious since these were strangers, but for those who first heard the story it would have seemed normal. This is what the ethical code of hospitality required. If you went on a journey to Egypt, say, you’d expect the same thing from a settlement you passed toward the end of day.

            Of course, this normal obligation does put a little stress on Abraham. He runs into the tent and tells his wife Sarah to get a huge amount of flour—about half a bushel—to knead into bread. He gets a calf from his herd and tells a servant to slaughter it and grill it. There must have been quite a wait for dinner! But eventually he serves the visitors the beef along with yogurt and bread.

The reward Abraham receives for his hospitality is that he is given a promise: Sarah will have a son before they come back. The stranger we take into our space brings with him a gift. At this point the story kind of enters The Twilight Zone. At one point, it is three men speaking to Abraham, and then it is Yahweh, the Lord, as if they are interchangeable. Some rabbis said that one of the strangers was the Angel of the Lord. Some Christians have said that the three strangers were the Holy Trinity. The author of Hebrews said that we should always practice hospitality “because some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).

In the New Testament, hospitality is said to be a spiritual gift that some people have, but it is also a duty for all believers. Besides the command we read from Romans 15, and the one in Hebrews, there is 1 Peter 4:9, which says “Be hospitable to one another without complaining,” which suggests that already church members were getting annoyed by traveling preachers and the ever-present poor. The early Christians were notorious among the Romans for taking in poor people and widows and foreigners. The pagan emperor Julian wanted to restore the old Greek gods to the Empire, so he urged his pagan religious leaders to imitate the Christians by being hospitable and showing mercy.

This practice of radical welcome and care-giving in the church is what gave birth to hospitals. Did you know that? The word “hospital” first meant “place of hospitality.” The Old French term for hospital was “hôtel-Dieu,” hostel of God. After the Council of Nicea in 325, the church built hospitals in every cathedral town; they were complexes that included housing for doctors and different buildings for different diseases. When the monastic movement began, especially after St. Benedict, the rule was that the monastery would take in and feed anyone who showed up. There was a close connection between the development of monasteries and the growth of hospitals. Medieval hospitals were staffed by monks and nuns, motivated by Christian values of hospitality and mercy.

On an individual level, hospitality expresses itself as an attitude of welcome. Do you remember the words of Jesus when he is pictured judging the nations in Matthew 25? To some he says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and they are welcomed into their reward. To others he says, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” and they are sent out to their punishment. Jesus comes to us in the form of the stranger, so our attitude toward strangers is to be one of welcome, all the time.

Where the King James Bible used the word “stranger,” modern translations often use “foreigner,” “resident alien,” or “immigrant.” The Greek word for stranger is xenos, from which we get the word “xenophobia,” the fear of foreigners. On the flip side, the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, the love of foreigners, or the love of the strange. In the ancient world, where travel was difficult, many people never left the place where they were born, so their world of awareness was small. Hospitality was a kind of antidote to that. When you welcomed a foreigner into your home, you were bringing an awareness of the strange into your mind and broadening your world.

It was a two-way blessing, but it was clearly an ethical duty for Jews and Christians. The Old Testament roots it in the experience of the Jews as economic slaves in Egypt. Exodus 22:1 (KJV), for example, says “You shall not mistreat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9 says in the King James, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Listen, though, to a modern translation (CEB): “Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” The Hebrews were economic refugees like many coming illegally into the US, and they were treated so poorly that they became a nation of debt-slaves. Leviticus 19:4 (CEB) speaks clearly to our current situation: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.”

Jesus was a man who depended on the hospitality of others. He had no home and lived off the welcome of others. When he talked about welcoming others as you welcomed him, he wasn’t talking about making room in your heart. He meant room on the sofa and room at your table. One time when Jesus was on the receiving end of hospitality from some religious leaders, he said to the one who welcomed him, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid. On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind” (Luke 14:12-13 HCSB).

In the first century church, welcoming other Christians who were in danger or hardship into your home was an essential part of the Christian life. “Welcome one another” meant to welcome fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ, whether they were neighbors or people passing through. We began the service with Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” How has Christ welcomed us into his home, his family, his band of students? Without condition. He has welcomed sinners to his table from the beginning.

Being welcoming has its challenges, especially in the church. By its nature, the church is a conservative institution, preserving traditions and skeptical about change. This is a good thing in terms of our central beliefs, but a bad thing when it makes the church xenophobic, afraid to let people in who are different from us. Harbor Church recently adopted a statement of our vision going forward with the title, “Welcoming the Future,” and the first of the three basic emphases was called living as a “Safe Harbor.” The motto that goes with that emphasis is “God welcomes you, and we do, too!” I think Harbor Church does a pretty good job of welcoming people into worship and into service, maybe a less good job of welcoming people into our homes, because we live in a very private culture now. I believe Christian homes ought to be open homes where people can drop in, but I’ve found that concern for appearances makes most people reluctant to have the pastor into their homes, much less a stranger.

I’ve been thinking about some of the great experiences I’ve had in the church welcoming people. Becca and I had some of our richest experiences in our early ministry in work with foreigners. We got involved in English as a Second Language classes, which any native speaker can teach, and it seemed that the Lord led us to a lot of Japanese medical researchers in Birmingham, of all places. That led to organizing a Japanese fellowship to which about 50 people would bring food—the most amazing potlucks of our whole life—and that led to friends who welcomed us into their homes when we took a trip to Japan. Mutual hospitality is the greatest thing!

When I was getting started at Columbia University, I learned that an unmet need was people to welcome international students. We sent letters asking students if they would like an American host family to welcome them, and we got more than 200 letters back from overseas asking for hosts. We were able to round up 200 people from local churches who were willing to say they would invite these students to dinner and help them feel welcomed to America and New York City. Many of the students hung out with us for the rest of the year in a daily tea time we set up for wives and children and at special outings and dinners.

A completely different experience of welcome came in an urban church in Kentucky that was in a blue-collar-to-poor neighborhood. We had a big parking lot, but this was the kind of church that had “No Parking” and “No Skateboarding” signs and had a glass door you had to be buzzed into by the secretary looking through a video feed. My youth minister was a welcoming spirit like me, and we decided that we should put up signs that said, “Skateboarding Welcome.” We built ramps and a half-pipe for the parking lot. A young adult who was a veteran of the extreme sports world as a BMX biker coached a church skateboarding team. That was the beginning of going from a youth group of 6 suburban kids to one of 50 high school kids from the neighborhood, mostly. I baptized a bunch of those skaters. It was a God thing, but it began with an attitude of welcome rather than caution or self-protection.

Common Ground is the third coffeehouse I’ve run over the years, and that whole model is premised on hospitality and welcome. In every location, I’ve met countless people I would never have met in church and made countless friends. As a Christian, my attitude is that I need all the friends I can get—not only because they enrich my life but because friendship is an opening for Jesus and the kingdom. Here on Block Island, the coffeehouse has been a different experience because we had no choice but to put musicians up in our apartment. There was no ferry home on Friday night. But the result has been a roster of some of the coolest and most faithful friends we have in the region. Just this week I sent out a dozen Facebook messages asking if any of these musicians would like to come see us and perform this summer. I don’t think any of them failed to respond, and almost all signed up for a date right away to perform for peanuts and stay with us. And all of them said something like “We love you guys!”

Besides that, of course, there is the welcome we extend at the coffeehouse to island residents and visitors. This past Friday night saw the place packed with people wanting to hear friends and their own children reading poems, and I can’t believe that any of them failed to perceive that Harbor Church welcomes them. Over time, that makes a difference. My dream for a church coffeehouse—maybe this will have to wait until retirement—would be to have a place open long hours so people can just hang out and talk, a kind of Third Place without booze, just a hospitable place for building community.

The International Student Center does serve as the Third Place for many of the summer workers. It’s the place they can go that is not work and not their sleeping quarters. The Center is a way we invite others in the community to join us in the work of welcome, sharing food and time and money. It creates community not only with the students but with those who care about them. And it is all about saying, like Jimmy Fallon, “Welcome, welcome, welcome.”

We’ve also extended a welcome to a Hispanic congregation that was trying to meet at the library in cramped quarters. They have been so happy to have a church home, and so thankful. It’s also given us a connection to the entire Hispanic community on the island, which is one reason the church was asked to host a conference on the legal rights of immigrants this afternoon.

I’m sure there are differences within our congregation about what it means to be a Safe Harbor as a church. Aside from our policy differences, can we live in a spirit of welcome whatever the government chooses to do? I think of the American Christians who hid runaway slaves in their homes as part of the Underground Railroad, even though it was against the law. I think of European Christians who hid runaway Jews in their homes during the Nazi regime, even though it was against the law. You have to decide for yourself what would be right and what you are willing to risk. My job is just to remind you that Paul commanded the church to welcome others as Christ has welcomed them. My job is to help you picture the day you will meet Jesus, hoping he will say “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”