For the past year I have been thinking a lot about hospitality, or hou haak in Cantonese. This is because it is an idea that I decided to make a big part of my dissertation. Or to be more exact, it is an idea that my PhD advisor told me I’d better make a big part of my dissertation. But I have to admit, it’s grown on me and it is a good way to talk about today’s Scripture. Now when I say hospitality, what may come to mind is something like inviting the neighbors over for dinner or opening up your home to a relative. In North Carolina, where I am from, we have a thing called southern hospitality. Basically this means being ridiculous friendly to everyone. You have to invite the neighbors up for coffee or a “mint julep”. If there is a new family in the neighborhood, you have to take them a casserole or a cake. And they absolutely must accept it! Or else it would be a scandal. Another good example of Southern hospitality is waving at every single car that goes by, regardless of whether or not you know the driver. This kind of hospitality is a competition over who can be the nicest. And it can be quite intense, even stressful, for someone who isn’t used to it.
Now, when you google hospitality, you get a bunch of information on the hospitality industry, which is hospitality for profit. It’s about vacation packages, hotels, and restaurants, and the amount of hospitality you receive depends on how much you are willing to pay (and I can never pay all that much). Ironically, when I think of hotels, I don’t think of hospitality. I think of Fawlty Towers, with Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) running around abusing waiters and insulting guests.
The hospitality I am talking about is radical and unconditional. It’s what Jesus Christ is speaking of in Luke Chapter 6. It is the unconditional love of your enemies. It is a sacrificial giving to everyone who comes begging. This hospitality expects nothing in return. You are to love people, but not because they love you in return. It is doing good for people, but not because others do good for you. It is to love simply for the sake of love, and it is to do good simply for the sake of doing good.
If this sounds difficult, it’s because it is. Actually, it is not just difficult. It is impossible, because hospitality is really a paradox. True hospitality is, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida said, to accept a total stranger without invitation. You accept them no matter who they are, and you never expect anything of them—even that they eventually leave. Absolute, or unconditional hospitality, makes us hostage to the stranger. We even have to resist the temptation to get to know them—to turn them from stranger into a friend—because that to would be to impose something on them, and that isn’t real hospitality.
That is the exact opposite of the southern hospitality that I knew. Look, if I were to bring you a casserole, then you absolutely have to be my friend…or else…well, I might have to spread a little negative gossip about you, wouldn’t. And this whole thing about welcoming the absolute stranger? Well, there are good strangers and there are bad strangers. Oh, you’re white and Protestant, well come on by! Oh, you want to build a mosque down the road? Not in my backyard!
Now, I know none of us would ever do that, but even our hospitality is limited. On the one hand we want to accept the absolute stranger into our homes, our communities, and—of course—our church. We don’t want to refuse anybody, no matter who they are. On the other hand, we can’t provide hospitality without rules or limits. In order to be a host, you have to have a home or other space to be the host of. That implies that you have ownership or sovereignty over this space, and with this sovereignty comes power and the need to set rules.
These are rules like taking off your shoes when you enter a person’s home. That was something I had to get used to in Hong Kong and China. Naturally, if relatives were coming to stay for the holidays, we’d naturally offer own home, but expect them to get out eventually. If we let a homeless person used our bathroom or shower, we wouldn’t expect payment, but we probably would expect that they try to clean up after themselves.
And as host, you are responsible for everyone’s safety, and so you must set rules about that. If you ride in my car, you have to wear a seatbelt. A homeless shelter might have a curfew, or keep men and women on separate floors. If someone were to bring a sword into this church, I am not sure what we would do. We might let that slide once, maybe twice, but eventually we’d have to say to that person: “While we respect your right to be eccentric, the sword makes us a little uncomfortable. It’s a silly example, but some churches actually have to put up signs, saying: “Please do not bring your guns in here.”
And finally, hospitality is a finite resource. A host has to choose who to accept and who to send away, as sometimes there is just “no room at the inn.” If suddenly hundreds of people wanted to come to Christ Temple, it would be a blessing. But we would probably have to set up an overflow room with a TV screen in Pilgrim’s Hall. Is that so bad? Not really, but if I walked half a mile up a mountain I would much rather worship in here, not over there.
You can go back all the way to the Old Testament period, to the time of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and you will find these kinds of rules and limitations. People in the ancient Near East were nomadic, they traveled all the time from wells to oases. By today’s standards, they were very hospitable, but they had unspoken laws that governed this hospitality. Hosts had to offer certain things, like meals, to their guests, and guests could only stay a certain number of nights, after which they would be in violation of the norms. And people were hospitable because they gained something from it. You opened your tent to the strangers because you never knew when you and your family would need somewhere to sleep. You made friends, because you needed friends in what was a very hostile environment.
But God’s covenant with Israel challenges this understanding of hospitality, as does God’s covenant with the rest of the world through Jesus Christ. God’s hospitality for us is unconditional and superabundant. His hospitality can never run out. It is available to each and every human being that will receive. God keeps giving it even when we turn away from Him and from each other. When Joseph’s brother’s betrayed him, God brought them back together in Egypt. It was awkward—Joseph knew who they were and they did not recognize him. But he was moved by love to reveal himself and to invite them into his home. And when the Egyptian hospitality turned to hostility, God delivered Jacob and Joseph’s descendants from slavery.
God does not expect hospitality in return, but He does expect that His hospitality continues to flow outward from us. We see this in the ministry of Christ, who is both guest and host. He accepts the hospitality of strangers, entering homes, going to weddings, and preaching in different synagogues. But whenever He receives hospitality, He returns it many times over, blessing strangers, offering His wisdom, and healing the sick. Christ brings with Him the hospitality of God.
But again, God’s hospitality is unconditional and limitless, while we human beings can only imperfectly imitate it. Is it because we are fallen, afflicted by sin, or is it by design? It is possible that the reason it is so difficult to offer ourselves and our home to the stranger, even though we feel compelled to, is because it is through such an encounter that we are able to come to know ourselves as strangers, and thus our duty as Christians? Derrida thought that hospitality, true hospitality, was something that challenged our sense of self. When I invite family or friends into my home—or as I will do when I am not living in a dorm—if I were to invite such people over it would be easy. I know them well so I am comfortable with them. This is because, psychologically, I have made them part of myself. But in an encounter with a stranger, we are forced to think outside of ourselves. We can’t turn them away, but we can’t take possession of them.
This causes us to reconsider our self-centered thinking. Suddenly we are able to somewhat imagine what it is like to be sojourners. We can feel like the Hebrews felt wandering the deserts. We can feel as the disciples felt following Christ through Galilee. We can feel as Derrida felt, an Algerian Jew living in France. We can also start to understand how migrants and refugees feel in a place like Hong Kong.
We could never fully meet the challenges that Jesus sets before us in today’s Scripture. We can turn our cheeks only so many times. But today’s readings are a call to be as hospitable as we possibly can be. Our compassion and empathy have limits, but if recognize those limits we can push against them. Hospitality can also change how we understand what it means to be good Christians. There are many ways we try to spread the Gospel. We have different ministries and outreach. We do evangelism and mission. We have potlucks. But these things are not to grow the church. The reason we are witnesses to Christ is not to make new Christians. Rather it is simply to share the hospitality that God has given us, to open are hearts to others without expecting anything in return. Amen.