On the Road With God

As some of you might know, before I was a pastor, I worked in a number of industries including retail, healthcare, and foodservice. My wife Angela teases me, “you name it, I’ve done it!” Not true, but I did gain a wide variety of skills and experiences. And as different as all of these jobs were, they all had one thing in common: the need for human interaction and hospitality. Indeed, the foodservice and hotel industries are at the center of the global hospitality industry that provides billions of dollars in yearly revenue and employs millions the world over.

But what is hospitality, anyway?  To me, it’s always one of those words that are easier to describe than to define.  It’s a bit like art…we know it when we see it, but there isn’t any agreement on a definition, even by scholars and professionals! Hospitality. Is it an industry? An action? An attitude? According to the dictionary, hospitality is “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.”  So, at its core, hospitality has two distinct dimensions.  First, hospitality encompasses the sense of welcome a person receives at the hand of another.  That’s the “receiving guests, visitors, or strangers” part.  And secondly, hospitality incorporates providing for material needs.  That’s the friendly and generous part.

But we’ve all had one or two bad experiences….  The rude night-desk service at the hotel, the dirty silverware at the local diner?  And what do those things tell us?—at least subconsciously—it tells us that we aren’t welcome.  That these people weren’t prepared for us, or can’t be bothered to take care of our needs, or don’t really want us to be there.

Friends, this lack of hospitality isn’t just something that occurs occasionally in a restaurant or at a hotel.  No, a lack of hospitality and respect for the basic human dignity of guests, visitors, and strangers is something that is increasingly a part of our general demeanor in society at large. It’s a shame, but it plays itself out in myriad ways across the landscape of our community.  It touches the way we communicate on social media, via email, and on the phone.  It even affects the way we interact with our own families.

The question arises: what is at the root of the issue?  What has caused us to be a society bent towards increasing rudeness?  What has caused us to withhold our welcome from guests, visitors, and strangers?  Maybe we are just busy. Maybe we are just tired. But I don’t think that these simplistic expanations quite get to the core of the issue.  Rather, I think they’rejust symptoms.

No, I think lack of hospitality comes from a much deeper issue that permeates to the root of the human heart.  And that problem is: a fear and suspicion of those that are different from us.  In the scholarly literature, this is called “the fear of the Other.”  Scores of authors have written books about this problem from a variety of perspectives, including many well-known Christian theologians.

The problems of injustice that have been highlighted in our society lately, particularly as it pertains to people with dark skin, is a longstanding instance of this fear of the other.  But racism is more than just a fear of the other…it is a fear that led to distrust, and to hate, and ultimately to the segregation of society, and different treatment of people along racial lines, and a system of injustice toward those of darker skin.

Too often the Church has taken a stance on issues such as racism that have left people of color scratching their heads, to say the least.  To our shame, over the course of our country’s history, there have been many times that the church has even been complicit in the systems that made racism possible.  Maybe the efforts were well meant, maybe not.  But I argue, that if we turn to Scripture, we will see absolutely zero justification for this most egregious symptom of a lack of hospitality, this fear of the Other, in any of our actions, any of our thoughts, any of our teachings.

In fact, as I point out to you today, the Bible calls for mutual respect and reciprocity among the giver and receiver of hospitality that levels the playing field and removes all barriers that are set up among people.  If we show the radical hospitality modeled in Scripture, the barriers that society sets up will begin to crumble.  As the old saying goes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross…

Genesis

Our first passage I’ll touch on is Genesis 18:1-15.  In this passage we find that Abraham received three mysterious visitors to his tent near the Oak of Mamre.  Did you understand this passage? In order to do so, it’s very important to understand the place of hospitality in the ancient world.

There was no other virtue more highly prized to an ancient desert nomad like Abraham than to be hospitable.  In the ancient Near East, the base of society was the community.  The worst thing you could do was fail to welcome and provide for the needs of others.  To do so would not only make you look bad in the eyes of your community, but… you harm yourself when you harm your community. You were shooting yourself in the foot, burning bridges, and cutting off your nose to spite your face, if you didn’t show hospitality! In this world, personal identity is all wrapped up with community identity. Abraham’s story, if you know it from the Bible, is a case-study in hospitality from start to finish.  Both his own, and that of the God who revealed himself to Abraham. 

Remember: Abraham is asked to abandon his old way of life and to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abraham leaves, taking his immediate family with him.  And God promises to welcome Abraham, to provide for him, to give him a land, heirs, and blessing.  Indeed, Abraham’s cup would runneth over, so to speak, so much so that others would reap the abundance! Abraham was blessed to be a blessing.

And Abraham lives out this blessing principle in many ways.  One day, at the hottest point of the day, Abraham gets a visit from three strangers.  Traveling wanderers in the desert weren’t strange in and of themselves; what was strange is that they didn’t come with an entourage.  They were by themselves.  No caravan in sight.  No beast of burden.  No suitcases, bed rolls, or canteens of water.  But Abraham wasn’t suspicious; he didn’t have fear in his heart.  In fact, he was excited!

I hope you heard some of the flourish and hurry the author tried to place in the action.  Abraham rushed to get water to wash the feet of the guests.  He quickly ordered the fattened calf to be slaughtered.  He urged Sarah to knead cakes in haste.  In short, Abraham dropped what he was doing to provide for the needs of these visitors.  He opened his home, his pantry, and his heart to the guests that had arrived.

And of course this was no ordinary set of guests.  Indeed not!  We find out that this is a physical manifestation of the God of Israel come to visit the servant, Abraham.  The relationship between God and Abraham had deepened.  God wanted to personally and intimately let Abraham and Sarah know that the promises made were going to come true.  This barren and old couple—well past their prime and childbearing years—was going to have a son.  The son of promise that was going to be the base on which Israel as a nation was going to spring.  What opportunities might Abraham have missed if he turned away the stranger at the door?  What if he said, “sorry, no room at the tent today, you’ll have to move along…” Or if he simply turned away, and walked inside, ignoring the knock at the tent flap…

The Gospel Passage

But Abraham DID make room for God in his life.  And the promise of a child DID come to pass. And from this one child of promise came the family line that would provide the world with the child of promise par excellence.  For it is from the nation of Israel that the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, was born.

The second text I want to explore comes from the Gospel recorded by Matthew 9:35-10:23. In this passage we heard again this notion of hospitality—both the giving and the receiving. It’s at the forefront of the story. Jesus had already begun his public ministry, undergone baptism, endured trials in the desert, and has called his first disciples.  He has already given his sold-out Sermon on the Mount and done many miracles and healings as signs that the Kingdom of God had indeed come in the midst of the people—it had drawn near.

And now, Jesus looks his disciples in the eye and says: “It’s your turn now.  I’ve shown you the way.  I’ve taught you the way of the kingdom.  Take ye authority!  Go, and as you go, heal the sick, raise the dead, preach the good news to the lost sheep of Israel…”

You probably already know, the world that Jesus was born into was one of factions and divisions, much like our own.  There was no such thing as a united Jewish religion at the time.  There were the Pharisees who were passionate for the law and the traditions, there were the Sadducees who collaborated with the Romans and ran the Temple hierarchy.  There were the zealots who wanted to overthrow the Romans by military force.  And then there were your average everyday people of the land.  They were tossed this way and that, not knowing who to listen to.

Jesus sees this.  In the passage it said that Jesus has compassion on the people because they were harassed and tossed about like a sheep without a shepherd.  This is a great metaphor, very easy to understand.  But it has deeper history, too.  It sounds a lot like a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34, in which God harshly reprimands the leaders of the people for being poor excuses for shepherds and for leading the people astray.  Now, Jesus says, people were playing for power and the common folks were caught in the middle, just like before.

Into this world of confusion, Jesus sends his disciples

Yes, the nation of Israel was chosen as the vessel through which salvation will come, but that salvation is for all people!  In our passage, the disciples are sent only to Israel—did you notice that? But later (Matthew 28:16-20) we see that Jesus does in fact extend that commission to the entire world. God’s intent, from the very beginning of the Bible, was for human beings to be one huge, diverse, colorful, amazing family.  The mission to exercise dominion and bear the image of God wasn’t just given to one nation—notice that Adam and Eve weren’t given a personal commission in Genesis 2.  No, that commission is given in Genesis 1, to all human-kind, to all men and all women, every size and shape, every color and combination.

What have we done with that commission?  We’ve broken faith with God through sin.  We’ve divided societies along every possible imaginable line of demarcation.  We distrust people from other countries.  We distrust people who don’t worship like we do.  Or speak like we do. Or vote like we do.  Or think like we do.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the sin of racism.  And I do call it what it is: it’s sin.  I see that now, in light of these scriptures. When I was growing up, I was taught to excuse what some call “quaint racism.”  The racism of prior generations was excused with “well that’s just how she was raised.”

Well, today I know better, and I do better.  I have learned from friends of color, from my friends of other cultures, other nations, other religions, and other ways of viewing the world, that silence in the face of “quaint racism,” or any other type of discriminatory language, is not OK.  I had the power to stop that kind of talk, but I didn’t.  I had the responsibility to speak out for those that had suffered under the guise of hospitality that was indeed not hospitality, but I remained silent. And I harmed myself in the process, by not showing hospitality within my community and allowing inhospitable speech and acts to go unchallenged.

You see, a welcome is no good unless it is a welcome to all.  If we are only welcoming to those that look like us, think like us, vote like us, talk like us, that’s not hospitality.  That’s not a church, that’s a social club.  We need to ask ourselves, particularly in the light of current events, how willing are we to be open to those that differ from us?

Many churches would like to become more diverse, more representative of the communities they serve Many in my local area specifically want to be open to younger people.  But being open to younger people will mean that we have to be willing to be hospitable.  We have to give them the best seat in the house. We have to prepare and serve them our best food. We have to give them our attention.  We have to say “yes” to their requests as far as it is possible. We have to be open to ideas of people who don’t think like us.  The statistics don’t lie on this point.  Young people don’t think, vote, believe, or relate like people of older generations.  In order to welcome them, you have to understand that. Or at least, be prepared for it.

And think beyond just age.  Are we as the church ready to have the conversations necessary to be a truly welcoming presence in our communities?  Are we willing to let fresh voices tell us about their lives?  Are we willing to encourage people of color to share about how they have been excluded in society?  Are we willing to believe the stories of immigrants who fled to our country for safety and the promise of a better life?  Are we willing to side with women who aren’t making an equal wage for equal work?  Can we listen to young people who tell us that they are tired of religion being used as a tool or rule-book to divide and conquer, instead of a fresh well of peace where they can gather?

More importantly, can we listen to the Christ? Can we listen to Jesus, who we claim, who we worship, who we confess?  Can we listen to the Gospel afresh today?  Can we see that it is not just a message of spiritual comfort, but a message of social, physical, and emotional comfort as well?  Can we hear that the gospel is holistic, not just concerned with souls, but with the bodies that go with them?

Can we follow along the road with God today?  …

Who are we called to welcome?  Who are we called to visit to tell of the promises of God?  To whom have we been sent to bear the good news?  How do we heal the sick, raise the dead, free the captives, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near?

We can start by focusing deep within, to the recesses of our hearts.  In prayer and soul searching, ask ourselves the tough questions.  Am I open to other voices?  Have I created echo chambers in my life, in my family, on my social media, in my reading and viewing habits?  Do I explore, consider, and seek out, other perspectives?  Do I listen to people before I judge them?  Am I open to receiving guests, visitors, and even strangers in my home, in my life…or am I too busy protecting my personal bubble?

It’s always through these individual acts of personal examination that the whole body becomes healthier.  But that’s just the beginning. Then, at the corporate level, we need to ask ourselves:  Is our community open and welcoming?  Do people hear good news, or have we placed barriers in the way?  If Christ were to rate our hospitality for the heavenly hospitality guide, how would he rate us? Would he rave over the radical welcome we gave, or would he be leaving a warning message on Yelp to find another place to visit?

When I was in my teens, the question people were asking was “What would Jesus Do?”  It was on bracelets, magnets, mugs, and books.  Today I want to leave you with this question: “Who would Jesus welcome?”  Sit with that question this week.  “Who would Jesus welcome?”  I encourage you to read through the Gospel accounts, see who Jesus talks to.  “Who would Jesus welcome?”  And then let’s ask ourselves this question: Are we… ready to welcome… who Jesus welcomes?  Because it’s only when our willingness to welcome rises to the level of Christ’s willingness to welcome that we will see our communities grow and thrive. 

As Jesus said, the harvest is great, but the laborers are few.  Don’t look for peaches when it’s strawberry season. Don’t look for pumpkins when it’s corn season! Brothers and Sisters, I pray (and ask you to join in praying with me) that the Lord will send us out as workers into the field.  When we, the body, fight against ourselves, we wither away…. When the body works together however, we grow… When God is for us, who can be against us?  Thank you, God, for your hospitality to us. Thank you for your hospitality to those who are not like us at all. Amen.

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