For me, striving to live the life of faith always comes down to “love God and love your neighbor.” That’s why I always say it in any parting blessing I offer. It is the essence of following God in the Way of Jesus (as I understand it based on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience).
While on retreat last weekend with the 19 amazing teenagers who comprise our current Confirmation class and their parents, we talked a lot about that statement. Jesus called it the greatest commandment. I was reminded that my usual formulation of that greatest commandment – “love God and love your neighbor” – is really shorthand for “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” It occurred to me that my shorthand version presumes knowledge of and familiarity with the full version – a presumption that is inherently unfair to those without such knowledge and familiarity! I wonder how many people over the years I’ve cheated out of a deeper resonance with God’s call on their lives by continually using what amount to code words?
This reminds me that it is really easy for we who are comfortable and familiar with the language, traditions, and practices of the church to fall into the trap of thinking everyone is just as comfortable and familiar as we. Yet even a moment’s reflection upon this reveals the obvious truth: everyone really isn’t comfortable and familiar in church.
So what are we to do?
Fortunately, scripture and tradition are full of wise words on hospitality. Here are a few:
- “The Bible is full of stories of sojourners, strangers without homes, whom God called people to protect. The ethic of welcoming the sojourner was woven into the very fabric of Israel. It was more than an ethic, it was a command of God. ‘Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger; you know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.’ (Exodus 23:9)” – The United Methodist Church Book of Resolutions
- “Let love continue among you. Don’t forget to extend your hospitality to all – even to strangers – for as you know, some have unknowingly shown kindness to heavenly messengers in this way.” -Hebrews 13:1-2, The Voice version.
- “You must treat the outsider as one of your native-born people – as full citizen – and you are to love them in the same way you love yourself; for remember, you were once strangers living in Egypt.” – Leviticus 19:34, The Voice version.
- The United Methodist Church “encourages churches to embrace a lifestyle that welcomes all people intentionally.” – umc.org article, Want to Practice Radical Hospitality?
- “If this is God’s world and if the rule of love is at work, then our mandate is not to draw into a cocoon of safety; rather, it is to be out and alive in the world in concrete acts and policies whereby the fearful anxiety among us is dispatched and adversaries can be turned to allies and to friends.” –Walter Brueggemann in Mandate to Difference via Carl Gregg
- Finally, this from Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out via Cheesewearing Theology and Slacktivist:
If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings… Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.
But if we are to live up to our calling to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as ourselves, we must continually seek to be aware of how our language and practices are viewed by those who are not comfortable and familiar with them. We seek this awareness not because our language and practices are wrong or bad, but because God whom we love and serve is the author of hospitality. We seek this awareness in order to make “space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.”
I know that I fail at this, likely often. I hope that forgiveness is offered for those times. What stories of hospitality (or lack there of) can you share?
This is a few years old now, but Church Marketing Sucks has a terrific series on hospitality.