Sermon: Yet Another Horse That’s Left the Barn

08.28.2016     Preaching Text: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Last Sunday I quoted G.K. Chesterton as saying that “the modern world is full of Christian virtues gone mad” and that they are doing “terrible damage.” Why? Because they’re “isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”

What this means is that the church community that brought these Christian virtues into being no longer influences the way they are being interpreted and practiced outside the church.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from Germany to New York in the 1930s to study at Union Theological Seminary, he was stunned by the way Americans viewed church and state. Echoing Chesterton’s earlier characterization of the United States as a “nation with the soul of the church,” Bonhoeffer was struck by how our culture collapses Augustine’s “City of God” into his “City of Man,” two distinct entities merged incongruously into one.

Americans, Bonhoeffer concluded, tend to see American culture as synonymous with the church. Its values are the church’s values. Lost is Jesus’ distinction between giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. The “civil religion” of a once-seamless Protestant establishment tended to interpret the gospel in a wholly distinctive American key.

Perhaps ironically, over time, this has made the church less important, if not irrelevant, to many Americans. Why go to church to learn Christian virtues, for instance, if the wider culture already embodies them?

This is especially significant when we consider the ways in which secular culture has appropriated the church’s terminology while changing their meaning.

Last week I talked about how the wholly unique biblical concept of “progress” has been borrowed by a secular culture which seeks to create a perfect world through human agency alone, without, that is, God’s directives.

Today I’d like to talk about the church’s unique understanding of “hospitality to strangers,” as the author of Hebrews puts it. Over the years, the Christian virtue of hospitality has been separated from the community that gave rise to it, and gave meaning to its practice.

Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with what has been otherwise called “Mediterranean hospitality.” In antiquity, hospitality was a staple not only in Greco-Roman culture but Jewish and Christian cultures as well.

This is because inns in those days were filthy, expensive, and considered places of ill-repute. Thus there was a need for travelers to find safe and friendly accommodations when away from home.

All 3 cultures believed that welcoming guests was a religious duty. It was a way to show reverence to the god or gods. But in the Greco-Roman world, reciprocity was not only expected but required. Hospitality was a quid pro quo.

In Greco-Roman culture hospitality was confined mostly to extended family and guests of a certain social class. Upper-class male hosts would provide lavish meals and accommodations with the clear expectation that they would be repaid by means of a “chain of obligations.” Hospitality was a contractual arrangement entered into by both host and guest. In a very real sense, the agreement was a “social exchange of power.” The guest had to be in a position to repay the host!

Jewish hospitality was different. It was based not on a contractual arrangement, but as a response to the commandments of the Torah to care for the stranger. For Israel always understood itself as having once been a homeless nation. Thus the alien had a special significance in the Jewish home. God had served as host to the erstwhile wandering Jew.

In spite of this, it may surprise you to learn that Jewish hospitality was not available to everybody, but was narrowly confined to one’s own extended family or to other Jews.

Later, the Christian church altered and expanded Jewish hospitality. As in Jewish practice, hospitality was also a sacred duty. Because every Christian was understood to be, by definition, a wayfarer or stranger, as Christ himself had been, the importance of welcoming the stranger was fundamental.

The early church also saw itself as an “eschatological” community, one called to live out the future in the here-and-now, to live by the heavenly virtues and norms it one day would experience fully in the world yet to come.

The early church, significantly, also felt a strong impulse to show hospitality to the poor, to those unable to repay. Hospitality was therefore entirely self-sacrificial, unlike the Greco-Roman model. It was a free gift offered selflessly to “the least of these.”

Unlike the Greco-Roman and Jewish versions, the church sought complete social equality. All were welcome at the table, including women (who also could be hosts as well). In Christ there was no east or west. Even those among society’s lowest ranks, including slaves and gentiles, were welcome to sit with bishops and other leaders, equal before God at the table.

But here again, perhaps to our surprise, Christian hospitality was mostly confined to other Christians! Because Christians often found themselves persecuted or their livelihoods adversely affected, Christian charity and hospitality sought to address their needs. The difference, of course, is that membership in the early church was no respecter of wealth, status, or race.

In essence, while conventional hospitality focused on welcoming family, friends, and influential acquaintances, Christian hospitality welcomed the vulnerable and the poor into one’s home and community of faith.

Over time concerns about the needs of strangers and the poor eventually gave rise to hospitals and other mechanisms of assistance. The church created a kind of institutionalization of care which had the effect of distancing the church community from those being “welcomed.”

Increasing specialization meant that needy people were cared for at a distance, away from the local body of believers, more often provided for by paid workers.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this, as Christine Pohl has written, is that those who are “poor, refugees, homeless, have significant disabilities, or are gravely ill are often detached from the connections that give people a safe place in the world. They are without the networks of relations and the various ties to institutions that usually protect us and provide settings in which we can share our gifts.” What has gotten lost, in other words, is “home- and church-based hospitality,” the foundation of Christian hospitality, where the “nourishment we gain there is physical, spiritual, and social.”

In our culture, hospitality has been effectively outsourced to institutions and governments, so that this loss of community is especially poignant.

Today the Christian virtue of hospitality functions in ways that would be mostly unrecognizable to the early church, where the table in one’s home or church served as the place where Christian charity begins and ends.

Pohl sums it up: “A welcoming place [a home or church community] is rich with stories, rituals, and a history. It is never simply a physical space but a place alive with commitment and relationships – a space bounded by particular values and meanings.”

“Boundaries,” she continues, “help define what a household, family, church, or community holds precious. The practice of hospitality challenges the boundaries of a community while it simultaneously depends on that community’s identity to make a space that nourishes life.”

In a culture where the Christian community, with its particular boundaries, identity, set of values and meanings, and relationships, is considered increasingly irrelevant, the church’s unique practice of intimate and personal “hospitality” is being reshaped. One could even say that the virtue of hospitality has become yet another Christian virtue “gone mad,” yet another horse that’s, in effect, left the barn.

Too often, even in the church, the practice of hospitality fails to connect host and guest into an intimate and meaning-filled relationship. It is indeed curious how few appeals to “welcome the stranger” nowadays involve personal involvement, sacrifice, or accountability. Welcoming the stranger, in other words, is increasingly left to others outside the very community that properly gives such welcome both meaning and purpose. Amen.