1 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
Nearly two years ago, I arrived in this country and this city to live. I was new to this congregation and in the British Unitarian movement. I was a stranger. I knew almost no one when I arrived. I did not know you and I did not know this land. I did not know how to speak properly! I said weird things like bathroom and sidewalk. I thought that cars had trunks and glove compartments and that they ran on gasoline. And my pronunciation - well, it left much to be desired.
And yet I – the stranger – was welcomed here. I was made to feel at home. We can forget just how important that is, but indeed, it can change and save lives, and I will suggest that it lies at the very core of what it means to be a religious person.
In our first reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah were visited by three men – three strangers. How did Abraham respond to their arrival? He did not say as we might today in such a situation: “who are you and what do you want?” He offered hospitality to these strangers, and he did not stop with the minimum – a little bit of water and some bread and be on your way... Abraham pulled out all the stops – or at least he had his wife – Sarah – pull out all the stops. This was a patriarchal culture after all… (And believe me – I would never try that with my wife.)
Abraham has his wife bring 3 measures of flour and make it into cakes. “Measure” translates to the Hebrew seah which would be about 5 and a half kilograms. Abraham is providing more than 16 kilograms of flour for three guests! That would make enough cakes to feed about one hundred people. He doesn’t stop there. He takes a calf from his herd to prepare for his guests and finally, he also serves them milk and cheese.
Hospitality played an essential role in ancient Israelite culture. Theirs was not a very forgiving climate after all and the traveler would encounter many dangers. Hospitality meant survival for the traveler. It was, for the ancients, a matter of life and death.
What does hospitality mean to us today? We may hear the word hospitality and think of the hospitality industry – of hotels and cruise ships. We may think of entertaining and the proper way to set a table – which fork goes where and how to prepare lovely offerings for guests. But, the hospitality I want to talk about today is not about business and it is not about elegance. It is a wild, untamed hospitality that involves opening our hearts to others. It is about touching the lives of others and it is about our own growth as spiritual beings.
Let’s call this “Radical Hospitality,” which is the title of a book by Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt. In their book, Homan and Pratt write about the practices of the Benedictine monks – an order committed to the practice of offering hospitality to every soul that turns up at their door.
Fifteen centuries ago, Benedict prepared a short guide for the monks of his order. He taught that their greatest duty was to show open-heartedness and acceptance. Benedict wrote: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
What can radical hospitality mean in today’s world – a world where we have become increasingly isolated, fearful, and individualistic? Radical hospitality is about a profound way of acceptance. “When we accept” write Homan and Pratt, “we take an open stance to the other person. It is more than piously tolerating them. We stand in the same space and appreciate who they are, right now at this moment.”
One night during my time as a hospital chaplain, one of the doctors asked me to speak to a patient. She told me that this patient was harassing members of the nursing staff. I entered a hospital room to find a young woman looking at me with suspicion. She assumed correctly that the doctor had sent for me to try to calm her down - to make her more manageable.
I introduced myself to the patient - I’ll call her Maria. And – perhaps because I didn’t know exactly what to do, I decided not to do anything, except to listen. I did listen, and noticing that I would listen and not try to change her, Maria began to talk.
She was terrified. She was a healthy young person who had suddenly developed a mysterious ailment that threatened her life. She lived in the inner city of Boston, where she struggled to raise three sons by herself. The neighborhood they lived in was infested with drugs, crime, and prostitution. All too often, young people and even children were killed in drug-related gang violence.
From what she told me, Maria was a good mother. When she talked about her sons, her face lit up with pride. Against the odds, all three were doing well and staying out of trouble. Maria often took other neighborhood kids into her home, providing them with a refuge from the danger of the neighborhood streets.
But Maria was anything but a saint. She told me of how – two years earlier – she had served four months in prison. The human being who sat so vulnerable before me had attacked another woman – slashed her neck with a razor.
Imagine the thoughts that went through my mind then. How did the images fit together? Mother, criminal, patient, prisoner, nurturer, violent offender, protector… human being. Human being. As my feelings settled, I couldn’t label this person as one thing or another. I couldn’t see her as different from me. She was a human being with the anger and love and care and fear and the capacity for violence that we all have. In this stranger, I saw everything that is true of all of us. I saw our differences dissolve.
I listened to Maria’s story for an hour and a half. Maria had probably never experienced unconditional acceptance before. As we talked, she became softer, calmer, and less angry. Initially the image of the toughness she needed to survive in her world – she cried freely as she shared her life with me. I opened my heart to her. I had not set out to change Maria’s behavior. Happily, I heard nothing further about conflict between her and the nursing staff.
Offering acceptance in this way is something that any one of us can do. As suggested by these words by pioneering psychotherapist Carl Rogers, the only requirement is that we be in touch with our own humanity:
“There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”
Those of you who know your Hebrew Scriptures will not be surprised to hear that Abraham and Sarah’s mysterious guests turned out to be God in human form. These guests visited with a message that would change Abraham and Sarah’s lives. They announced that Sarah would soon become pregnant. The news must have come as something of a shock to the future parents, as they were each over 90 years of age at this point. (Just imagine trying to cope with a toddler in your mid nineties or worse yet, with a teenager when you’re well over a hundred!)
What are we to make of this disguised appearance by God? One way to look at this story is as a warning to be on your best behaviour all the time: “be nice to everyone you meet or you might offend God!”
We don’t take kindly to attempts at scaring us into good behavior and besides – at least this is true for me – God doesn’t pop around for dinner all that often. Perhaps a better interpretation is to consider that the divine is not something found only in special divine beings, but rather in every single one of us.
In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is heard to say “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” I take these words to mean not just that we should treat each person as though they were divine. I prefer to believe that what Jesus was saying is that – at some level – they truly are divine. There is an element of the sacred in each person – a unity that connects all beings – high and low, rich and poor.
Radical hospitality is about seeing through – seeing beyond externalities. It is about seeing through the hurts, the quirks, the defenses, the habits, the appearances… It is about looking deep within another person to recognize and value the worth, the sacredness that lies within each of us.
Radical hospitality is not easy. It challenges us to be open to those who are different or strange to us. It challenges us to get beyond our own fears to make a connection with another person.
Unless you have entirely stopped watching the news, reading newspapers and magazines, and listening to the radio, you hear something every day to tell you what a dangerous place this world is.
As children, we are told “Stay away from strangers” and if we have our own children, we may say the same to them. Stay away from strangers. Even as an adult, I haven’t completely left that warning behind. What does it mean for my religious values that instruct me to honor the worth of every person if I continue to have a suspicion of all strangers? We all need and want connection, but whether for ourselves or for our loved ones; our fears get in the way.
Radical hospitality does not mean letting everyone in. We have to make choices and we have to set boundaries that protect ourselves and others. Still, it is easy to become too self-protective. Radical Hospitality urges us to enlarge our circle of those we are willing to include and to learn to accept those who are not like us. It is all too easy to live our lives surrounded only by people who are just like us, but such a life narrows our perspectives. It does not challenge our minds or our spirits.
My encounter with Maria changed her, and it changed me as well. Through listening to her and accepting her, I began to see a new reality through her eyes. My heart – open to accept her life without judgment – was enlarged. It was left more open, more compassionate, and more ready to embrace the struggles that others face.
This receptivity to joy and surprise does not come without pain. An open heart is a vulnerable heart. An open heart is sure to be broken from time to time. Opening my heart to Maria and her story brought tears to my eyes along with hers. But taking this risk allows us to learn about ourselves and to grow.
Every one of us longs to be accepted. We long to be recognized and valued for who we are.
The story is told of a young family out to a restaurant for dinner. When the waitress arrived, the parents gave their orders. Immediately, their five-year-old daughter piped up with her own: “I'll have a hamburger, chips and a Coke.” “Oh no you won't,” interjected the dad, and turning to the waitress he said, “She'll have roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and milk.” Never taking her eyes of the child, the waitress said, “So, luv, what do you want on that hamburger?” When she left, the family sat stunned and silent. A few moments later the little girl, eyes shining, said, “She thinks I'm real. She thinks I’m real.”
I’m real! This is how we feel when we are really heard – when someone is able to really hear us and see us for who we really are. We feel real. We feel valued. It changes our view of the world and our place in it.
It is sometimes easy to feel that the problems of the world are so vast that there is nothing we can do to make a difference. Opening our hearts in hospitality is something we can do. The way we are with each person can change lives. It may seem a small thing, but it can make all the difference in the world.
I close with these words from “Radical Hospitality”:
“It is a courageous thing to keep getting up every day, and it is a much more courageous thing to rouse your heart and incline it to love. To care for each other, to open the door to the stranger, to open your heart to the stranger, lifts you up into the great dance of life…It is not important that we recognize God in the stranger… What matters is that we stretch our hearts open and draw near to each other. It is the way of hospitality, the way of life, and it is, in this remote place where we have awakened to find ourselves, the only way home.”
May it be so.