The Heart of Hospitality

The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
-Luke 5

Over this past program year I’ve been attending (with a few folks from our church) a Synod workshop/training events called “20/20 Vision: Moving Towards the Church God Imagines for Us.” There have been some relatively interesting conversations, but nothing terribly new. The first workshop was back in November and it was a general introduction and on the topic of the “physics of church transformation.” A lot of the material was on spirituality and prayer. The second workshop was last month, and it was on evangelism and telling our stories. There were some nice contemplative activities that helped me to walk away refreshed. We finished up the third session today, which was on hospitality and connecting with our neighbors, led by Philip Lotspeich, Coordinator of Church Growth for PCUSA and Bill Golderer, Pastor of Broad Street Ministries. Both had some meaty thoughts, which I’m looking forward to mulling over for a while. I liked the turns of phrases that Bill used in talking about the importance of hospitality in a church’s ministry and mission.

In general, what I took from it began with the Dwelling in the Word activity where we spent some time with Luke 5. In a conversation with a “friendly stranger,” I was struck by the Pharisees and scribes’ complaints towards the disciples eating and drinking with the sinners. She wondered why they were complaining that Jesus was sitting down with these sinners since he had been spending so much time with them anyway – healing, teaching, and ministering to them. This was clearly his MO from the beginning. But, then we realized that there was a difference in this type of interaction with people. Perhaps it is one thing to help someone in need – whether it is donating canned foods or writing a check to support a charity – where the expectation is to keep “these kinds of people” at arm’s length. There has to be an appropriate distance. It’s kind of top-down. But, Jesus didn’t do the expected. Eating and drinking with the “low-lifes” was another expression of his ministry. In some ways, his receiving their hospitality, which was also an expression of his own vulnerability and need, was a form of ministry, too…poignant and palpable.

I wonder if I’m on this food kick since I just blogged about Jamie Oliver. But, food and eating are such important activities, and something that connects all of us – we spent much of our break chatting about food places in the Lehigh Valley, the farmer’s markets, and our favorite foods in general.

…It makes me think how it is empowering and enabling (in a good way) when we eat with someone. It’s eucharistic. I’m almost positive I’ve blogged about this before: the ministry of dignity…how we help to humanize those on the margins by the simple act of eating and drinking with someone…accepting their hospitality, whether it’s an extravagant dinner or a cup of cold water. I experienced this in the DR over and over…the experience of the Other becoming more and more human…makes me feel and be more present in my own humanness, too. Bill mentioned something about this connection rooted in compassion, and truly suffering with someone, I think he quoted Aquinas – how I can only flourish when my fellow human being is flourishing, too. James Cone said something similar, about how I can only be free when my fellow human being is truly free, too.

Some tidbits in general from the workshop:

  • In small groups we chatted about where we experienced the most genuine hospitality. Some of the experiences we highlighted had components of presence and preparation. This included attention to details, going the extra mile, continuous thoughtfulness, and joy.
  • We also shared the biblical narratives that spoke to us about hospitality. These included Rahab, Abraham and Sarah with the visitors, the Good Samaritan, the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion.
  • Philip and Bill talked about the importance of breaking down barriers, the need for cultural proficiency, living in solidarity with others, and doing neighborhood exegesis (taking a walk around the neighborhood and trying to understand what are the needs).

I’d say that what I got the most out of this particular workshop was thinking and moving towards articulating how hospitality needs to be central to ministry, and what is central to hospitality is very basic (the roots are Greek – xenos meaning “stranger,” and philos meaning “love”) – love of the stranger. This is incredibly clear, and very powerful to me. Now how do we/I act this perspective – a “kingdom economics,” as Bill put it – out in courageous ways?…in radical ways beyond the “welcoming hostess” or mint-on-the-pillow kind of ministry?