The discipline of hospitality

RCL Year C, Trinity Sunday

I was the very last of four kids in my family, and came along much later than the other three. So by the time I was 8 or so, I had the house and my parents to myself. Only every now and then, when one of my siblings came back from college or to visit, did we have other family members in the house. So on the one hand, I was sometimes lonely as a kid, pestering my parents to play board games and badminton with me when they just wanted to tend to their own things. But within one day of my siblings’ return home, I would be counting the days till they left. Because them being home meant I had to share my bathroom, and sit in a different place for breakfast, and generally have my life routines upended. Being kind of an only child, I didn’t take to this all too well.

As my husband will tell you, it’s taken me a while to learn to share space in my home easily. (He might tell you I haven’t quite learned it yet.) But I have worked especially on being more open to guests. When we lived in New York, we had a steady stream of people coming to take advantage of our guest room, and I learned to relish the flow of different people through our home. But it didn’t come naturally, as much as I wish it did – and now that we don’t have quite the same flow of people (San Jose seems less popular than Manhattan), I find myself relapsing into my old ways. That’s my teacup! Do you have to talk to me right now? Can’t you see I’m writing my sermon? Why do you need a towel now? I try not to show it, but well, I don’t think I’m always successful.

For some people, hospitality comes naturally – some people are that wonderful sort who always make dinner stretch and be plenty for whomever sits at their table, who seem to have inexhaustible supplies of goodwill and conversation for whoever drifts through their kitchen. For others of us, we have to work at hospitality like we do other disciplines. It’s nice to have people over, but not for very long – guests and fish smell after three days, as the saying goes. And we want guests on our own timetable, when it’s convenient. We may not always like hosting and hospitality, but we know it is the right thing to do. Hospitality means welcoming other people, which is what Jesus tells us to do and demonstrates in his own ministry. Hospitality keeps us from stinginess, holding onto our stuff and our territory as if it only belongs to us, rather than being given to us to take care of and share. Hospitality means being open to other people and the gifts they might share with us, allowing them to give. And hospitality opens us to the Spirit’s activity in our lives, God’s voice and love through others. For these and many more reasons, hospitality is simply good for us. Just like prayer, fasting, and giving alms, hospitality is not just a nice thing to do – it’s a spiritual discipline.

I’m repeating an image again on our bulletin cover this week, the famous Rublev icon of the Trinity. Because, of course, it’s Trinity Sunday. But what I hadn’t realized before was that Rublev himself titled the icon ‘The Hospitality of Abraham.’ It depicts the Trinity as the three strangers who visit Abraham at his tent under the oaks of Mamre. Abraham rushes to provide them hospitality along with his wife Sarah, preparing meat and cakes for them. Before they leave, the three men tell Abraham that his wife Sarah will bear a son, the long-awaited promise of God. Without knowing it, Abraham has hosted God in the form of these three strangers.

Choosing to show the Trinity in the form of this story, Rublev is making a profound theological statement. We encounter God not simply in our own personal prayer and meditation, me and God alone together; we encounter God in and through the practice of hospitality to the stranger. The Trinity itself is a community of three, deeply united in love – we, too, Rublev seems to be saying, share in God’s community when we extend hospitality to the stranger.

But Rublev brings in one more symbol to the icon: rather than portray all the meat and cakes that Abraham prepared on the table, Rublev includes a chalice, symbol of the Eucharist. Again, he’s making a point: at this table with God, in the Eucharist, we are hosting and being hosted by God in community. The Eucharist, again, isn’t just an act of our own personal communion with God – it is an event of divine and human hospitality.  And along with those three figures, we are invited to the table. At the Eucharist, in worship here together, God is welcoming us to fellowship with God, and we are welcoming God in our midst. And in every act of hospitality, that element is present – every act of welcoming the stranger is a sacramental act, with God present to us.

This is powerful stuff, isn’t it? There’s a good reason to share our bathrooms, even with our siblings. It plays out in our own individual lives – with summer coming, many of us will have the chance to host people and be hosted by others. But it also plays out in church. For starters, hospitality in church means that we always think of the stranger, the newcomer, the guest, and consider how to make them welcome. We might have to make changes to do this – rather than getting to have church all our own way, we might adjust things to make a guest comfortable. We might need to adjust our worship style or music, or even the time of the service or the classes. We definitely need to stop talking to our friends long enough to talk to the newcomer at coffee hour instead. We go out of our way to make others who are new feel as at home as we do.

The hospitality extends not just to the stranger, however, but to each other. We each come to church for different reasons and value different aspects of our common life – for one person, the fellowship of the community is the most important thing of all; for another, meaningful worship is the center; for another, the value is in outreach, or in learning and exploring in classes and workshops. If we are hospitable to each other, we remember that others have different reasons for being here, and that they have a perspective we might need, that we need to walk in their shoes to see the whole more clearly. We don’t get to rest in self-righteous certainty about what’s important – we think about what others here need and find ways to compromise. We share our space and our time and our community freely.

In the language we’ve been using this spring, hospitality is ultimately about being a neighbor. Rather than preserve our own desires or those of our group, we look out for those of others. We are curious about what other people think and value and we go to some effort to find that out. We don’t just rest in what we already know and assume it’s true for everybody else. That’s why we’ve been looking into the tools of community organizing – it’s a way to really learn about each other and others, get below the surface assumptions and truly develop a relationship.

Hospitality, then, really is a spiritual discipline, and it’s one we have been practicing in our church community for some time now. When we practice hospitality, we grow; when we give hospitality, our community grows; and most powerfully, when we welcome others we encounter God, the God of the Trinity with hospitality at his very core. Come to this table today and be welcomed; welcome God; welcome others in this church and in your life this week. And know more fully God’s deep love for you and all.