Many Christians do not know that throughout history the religious orders in the church, monks and nuns, considered hospitality as a key responsibility of the religious life. Monasteries always included a guest house and were the only safe medieval overnight lodging available to travelers and pilgrims. The sick and crippled were also taken in, sometimes for long periods. In England today, nurses are still called “sister” as a holdover of terminology from past centuries of religious orders’ healing ministry and hospitality. The Gospels clearly state Jesus’ call for us to “take in the stranger” and visit the sick. The parable of the good Samaritan illuminates this aspect of the Christian calling. And do not forget how in the Old Testament we are taught by the story of Abraham that through hospitality to guests and strangers we “may be ministering to angels unaware.” The fate of Sodom was Gods’ retribution for its failure to show hospitality to the sojourners who were welcomed by Lot. We could find many more examples in Holy Scripture.
Today, we Christians must find new ways to express and embody this tradition. Certainly it is a main reason why most Christian denominations support our active ministry to refugees and those who have been persecuted and driven from their homelands. Likewise, our parish churches are involved in programs to feed the hungry and provide overnight shelter to the urban homeless and troubled in mind or spirit. It is a ministry that has led to Ecumenical sharing, since in any given town or city one congregation seldom has the resources or manpower (usually mostly lady-power) to provide meals or lodging on a continuing basis, so, in most localities seven or more churches share the weekly round of hospitable service. Our churches need to consciously be places of hospitality on Sundays. Most congregations have breakfast or coffee hours, and everyone, not just appointed greeters, must show a welcoming attitude to visitors no matter what their race or social class. Do we only talk with our friends on such occasion or do we try to bring those we don’t know into our circle of fellowship?
Finally, hospitality is not merely doing nice things for strangers and visitors. The attitude we show to each other and to outsiders is of critical importance. It must be an attitude of kindness, not fault-finding or indifference. I will always remember the first time I heard a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was at the Naval Academy Chapel, and right afterwards a young lady, who was a friend of those I was with, came up with a copy of the oratorio’s score and announced, “they made six mistakes,” while the rest of us were thinking of all the beauty we had just heard. Some of us seem to come to worship God with the same attitude, looking for mistakes in the bulletin or music we don’t like. I hope we can all show more kindness to each other in this regard; giving compliments and suggesting things that we would like, rather than looking for things we don’t like (which may be things someone else does like). If such an attitude of mutual kindness could pervade our gatherings, the atmosphere would be noticeable and attractive to visitors and newcomers. Episcopalians at large don’t do as well as some other denominations in creating an atmosphere where both grief and joy can be shared and where mutual kindness and real caring are evident and experienced. Some have called Episcopalians “God’s frozen people.” It is the ordained pastor’s job with the other church staff to join in and foster a positive welcoming atmosphere but it must be in cooperation with every other member of the community of faith, not as “professional” substitutes for a comprehensive spirit shared by all our members.
Remember the last worlds of our Maundy Thursday Gospel. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.” That is the true meaning of Christian hospitality.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Tom Bauer