A Season for Growing: Hospitality

by Rev. L. John Gable

A Season for Growing: Hospitality by Rev. L. John Gable
July 23, 2017

In April of 2015 I led a study group from Tab to the Holy Land.  After touring Israel and Palestine half of the group returned home while the other half continued on to Jordan.  I had always wanted to visit Petra and this was my chance, so I was glad that others were interested as well.

Petra is located in southern Jordan about half way between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, very remote, right in the heart of the desert.  Established in the 4th century BC it was the capital city of the Arab Nabataean culture and all of its buildings were carved majestically out of sandstone.  It was an enormous commercial and cosmopolitan center on what once was a major trade route, but then it was literally lost for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1812.  The exploration of this massive community is ongoing.  It is considered one of the seven new wonders of the world, UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1985 and Smithsonian Magazine named it as one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”  If you haven’t heard of Petra, Google it, or think of Harrison Ford riding horseback through a sandstone cavern in the closing scene of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

After Petra we traveled two hours farther south along the King’s Highway, just 60 miles from the northern tip of the Red Sea, to a place called Wadi Rum (“wadi” means “river” whether there is water in it or not, and “rum” means “top of the mountain”).  Wadi Rum is high desert with vast expanses of sand and dunes and massive, rugged rock outcroppings.  Picture the movie Lawrence of Arabia; it was filmed there.  We piled in to two 4x4 pickup trucks and took off in to the desert, what Scripture often refers to as “the wilderness”, until we came to a small gathering of brightly colored tents made of goatskin with smoke rising from a cook stove and camels picturesquely standing nearby.

Immediately men in traditional Jordanian garb and head ware came out to greet us. They beckoned us in to their tent, which was welcome relief from the heat, and offered us sweet tea to drink.  They played music and invited us to visit their very simple gift shop.  They were giving us an interesting demonstration of a Bedouin – desert dwelling – way of life, kind of like visiting Conner Prairie when folks are dressed in period costumes.  They even offered us camel rides, something I never thought I’d do, but I did, for only 5 Jordanian Dinar.

I thought it was a very enjoyable, albeit a bit touristy, but the kind of thing you do when visiting a different culture.  However, my opinion of all of that changed when I learned that these were not locals dressing up and playing a part, these were actual Bedouins – desert dwellers- there are still some 100 or so inhabitants in that region, and they were extending Bedouin hospitality to us by offering us food and drink and a place to find respite from the heat, albeit in a commercial kind of way, and we appreciated it.  That was then underscored in an even greater way when our tour guide took us to see some nearby ancient  “petroglyphs”, carvings made on the walls of the rock outcroppings, depicting travelers and camels, a roadmap of sorts indicating how many days it was to the next oasis or watering hole.  Suddenly we realized that Bedouin or oriental hospitality is widely known, not because it is a social custom or even because it is a courteous and polite thing to do, but because it is a necessity; in the desert welcoming the other is literally a matter of life and death.

This is exactly what we see happening in our Genesis story.  Abraham and Sarah are settled by the Oaks of Mamre, an oasis near modern day Hebron.  In this short passage the writer of Genesis goes into great detail describing desert life and Bedouin hospitality.  Abraham is in their tent in the heat of the day when suddenly he sees three travelers “standing very near” to him.  Unless he was dozing, he would normally have seen them coming from miles away, a first clue that these are not ordinary travelers.  Like our hosts, he rushes to greet them, bowing down to them, insisting that they enter his tent and be his guest – classic Oriental hospitality.  He offers them water, food, and rest, not because it is the Martha Stewart thing to do but because these are the necessities of desert travel, quite literally the difference between life and death.  If these hosts do not extend hospitality there may be no one else to do so for several days, by camel.

Of course, we know this narrative is all just a set up for the famous story of the Lord’s visit to the aged Abraham telling him that his barren wife Sarah is going to have a baby.  Of course she laughs at the ridiculousness of the notion, but God gets the last laugh and nine months later their son Isaac is born.

My point in using this passage today is to emphasize how deeply engrained in to our faith tradition is the concept of hospitality.  This kind of hospitality, welcoming the visitor, friend or stranger, is integral to Old Testament faith; quite simply it is the way faith is put in to practice.  “The right of a guest” writes Gerhard Von Rad in his commentary on Genesis, “is the field in which the Oriental’s religion speaks about love, not only for one’s tribe, family or fellow citizen, but also for one’s neighbor.  Hospitality, therefore, is the display and preservation before others of one’s piety, simply of one’s piety.”  The willingness to extend hospitality is not only an expression of one’s kindness or politeness, but of one’s faith, and conversely, the unwillingness to extend hospitality is an indicator of faithlessness or the refusal to fulfill the mandates of the faith.

This principle carries over from the Old Testament Scriptures to the New when James, who most famously writes that “faith without works is dead”, also poses this question in our lesson this morning: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  James is teaching about the unacceptability of discrimination in the Church, among believers and he is equating favoritism or partiality with a lack of or denial of faith.  We can almost hear the push back he gets from his readers, then and now, “We don’t discriminate, particularly not in here, not in Church!”  So James writes, “Really?  Let me give you an example.  Suppose a person with gold rings, dressed in fine clothes comes in to your assembly ( your church), and then a poor person dressed in dirty clothes also comes in, and you take notice of the one wearing fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please” while to the poor one you say, “Stand over there” or “Sit at my feet” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  And suddenly his readers begin to squirm a little bit, and maybe we do as well.  Sure, we do do that, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.

So James reminds us of the importance of hospitality and I find it interesting that the illustration he uses is located in the church, not in an individual’s home.  So, he is talking about how we welcome the stranger here, not how well you can set a table or prepare a meal at home.

I have a pastor friend who told me about an encounter he witnessed while standing in the pulpit of his church.  He saw the back doors open shortly after the service had begun and in walked a young mother with two very young children.  She was disheveled looking and dirty; her toddler looking the same and her baby was fussing.  She slid in to the back pew and my friend watched as those seated around her, all dressed in their Sunday best, gave her a sideways glance as they slid away from her, not so much to give her room as to move away from her, in a respectable kind of way.  It was disheartening for my friend to see this because he knew the woman.  She had come to the church looking for assistance that week and he had not only helped her, but had also invited her to attend worship with them, and there she was, but she wasn’t experiencing the kind of welcome he had hoped for her.  I don’t know how the story ended, but my guess is she never came back.

I too get to watch the way we welcome the “other” among us, and I commend you for the hospitality we extend; but I also think these teachings are good reminders to us about the importance of how we welcome others.  Is it a matter of life and death?  Certainly not in the sense of the lack of food and water, but for many who are among the “least, the lost and the lonely” our welcome may in fact be a matter of life and death for them: socially, emotionally, spiritually.

“Hospitality” comes from the same root word as “hospital”.  The church is  intended to be a place of healing and welcome and wholeness, and we are the Church.  As one has said, “The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”  We are the hands and feet of Christ, participants in His work of healing, so we are called to extend hospitality to others in the same way Christ has extended hospitality to us.

We are all familiar with the Greek word, “philadelphia” – love of the brother or sister, but how about “philoxenia” – the love of the alien, the other, the outsider, the stranger?  Hospitality is the way “philoxenia” is translated in the Bible.  We are to extend hospitality, not only to the known but also to the unknown; not only to the friend but also to the foreigner; not only to the one who is like us but also to the other among us.

In the book of Hebrews we are given another instruction about the importance of practicing hospitality.  In Hebrews 13:1 we read, “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality (philoxenia) to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Perhaps as Abraham and Sarah did that day, or as Mother Theresa reminds when we welcome the poor we welcome Jesus in disguise.

Listen to this Celtic rune of Hospitality.

I saw a stranger yestreen;
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place,
And, in the sacred name of that Triune,
The stranger blessed me and my house,
My cattle and my ones.
And the lark said in her song –
Often, often, often goes the Christ in stranger’s guise!
Often, often, often goes the Christ in stranger’s guise.”

“Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked?”
“As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to Me.”