Lesson 6: Sabbath and Hospitality
Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15
We are a friendly church.” This is how many churches describe themselves. Generally, they mean that they notice visitors and speak to them. Before COVID hit, some churches sought out visitors and gave them a gift: a loaf of homemade bread or a goody bag with a magnetic notepad and information about the church. In other churches, visitors stopped by a welcome station where a volunteer chatted, got contact information and someone called later to invite them to an information class.
Welcome is a good thing, but it is not the same thing as hospitality.
Hospitality means the “love of stranger.” Biblically, it was a sacred duty to welcome strangers into one’s home where they found protection, shelter, food and rest. Today, hotels are referred to as the “hospitality industry,” but biblically, hospitality was providing for the stranger in a more personal way.
During a mission trip to Guatemala, we stayed with local Christians. I did not share my host family’s language nor did they speak English. We communicated as best we could, and it was clear they were eager to meet my needs. They provided an abundance of food with the rare addition of chicken. It was hard to eat when I knew they had used their meager income to prepare a dish for me. The home was modest. The toilet was an outhouse. The washing machine was a large tub with a wash board, which they used to wash my clothes. As a North American used to being able to afford appliances and buy meat regularly, I was humbled by their hospitality. For them it was an honor to receive a guest and welcome me into their home.
Hospitality to strangers has more radical aspects. Jewish scholar David Marcus reveals the “astonishing fact that the Bible has more laws dealing with the protection of the stranger than with any other law, including honoring God.” Not only is the stranger to be welcomed into one’s home, the stranger is not to be abused or discriminated against. In every age, it is easy to scapegoat the stranger, blaming foreigners for crime, taking our jobs or bringing undesirable elements into the culture. To include the stranger in the observance of sabbath is to remember we were all once strangers in the land, which is true of all people in the United States who are not Native Americans.
Today, many churches are concerned with survival. The stranger is seen as a potential new member, preferably one who can serve on a committee, give money or help with the work of the church. But Americans are less interested in faith. Increasingly, there are people who are done with church, often called “nones,” who have no religious affiliation. According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of the United States population self-identifies as “nones,” a number that has grown slowly but steadily each year since the 1990s. Of those surveyed, 41% said religion was very important to them, a loss of 4% in one year.
The decline of faith in America may make us anxious about the survival of the church. If it inspires a sense of urgency, that is a good thing if it makes us do something different like thinking of hospitality not as a welcome once people visit the church, but getting to know and accept people outside of the community of faith. Hospitality is about being faithful to Christ by welcoming people to a meal or into our homes.
Michael Frost, in his book Surprise the World! The Five Habits of Highly Missional People, urges us to eat with three people per week with whom we don’t normally eat, at least one of whom is not a member of our church. In eating with individuals within the church we build supportive bonds. In inviting acquaintances or nonbelievers, our goal is neither conversion nor inviting them to church. It is opening one’s heart to another person — hearing their stories, hopes and dreams and sharing ours.
Really?! I would have to clean my house! I would have to thoughtfully reach out to people to have lunch or coffee! I would have to lay aside my stereotypes and prejudices to welcome even those with whom I might disagree! Yet, in eating with others we imitate Christ, who ate with shady characters, knuckle-headed disciples, strangers and dear friends. We accept people as they are and if faith comes up, we listen without judgment to their experience and share ours. As much as the idea challenges me, it is time to get out of my rut and try something new.