Hospitality in a Social Distancing World

May 24, 2020
Acts 16:11-15
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Rather than posting full sermons, people have requested that I instead post the reflection from Zoom Church, our virtual service live online.

“If you have judged me to be faithful, come and stay at my house.”

Lydia may have been a brand new Christian, fresh out of the baptismal waters, but she had already grasped the central and defining character of the Christian calling: hospitality.  Hospitality toward strangers was a part of the faith life of both Jews and Christians.  The laws of Moses told the Israelites to “Love the stranger,” because they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)  Jesus described hospitality as a way of showing our love for him:  “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me,” he says in Matthew 25.  The Good Samaritan showed hospitality to the stranger he found beaten on the road to Jericho, and the letter to the Hebrews says famously, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.”  In Paul’s own letter to the Romans, he lists the virtues of the Christian life and ends that list with, “extend hospitality to strangers,” making it the last thing on his list not because it is least important but for Paul because hospitality summarizes all of the other virtues.  

“If you have judged me to be faithful, come and stay at my house,” Lydia urges Paul.  She knows that it is easy to profess faith in Christ; but it is harder to express that faith in every aspect of one’s life, and so she invites Paul to come and experience her offer of hospitality to show him that her faith is more than easy words.  She has given over her entire life to Christ and wants to demonstrate that to Paul by offering to share all she has with him. Hospitality toward others, she knows, is the mark of true faith.

Although for centuries, the church followed Lydia’s lead and described hospitality as central to its calling, we modern day Christians don’t use that word much anymore when talking about the character of faith.  We talk a lot about love but not much about hospitality because when we use the word “hospitality” today, we usually envision a gracious host at a party: someone who offers a delicious meal to their guests, who arranges the seating so that conversation flows easily, who makes everyone feel comfortable, who tops off your glass without your needing to ask, and who has beautiful little soaps at the bathroom sink in the shape of flowers or butterflies.  There is an entire industry devoted to hospitality and you can major in it at school, learning how to make guests comfortable in your hotel, or your theme park, or your corporate events.  Because the word hospitality now has such a widespread secular meaning in our culture, few of us think of it anymore as central to our Christian faith, and frankly, if Christian hospitality meant what secular hospitality means, many of us would be in trouble.  When I throw a party, I consider it a major achievement if all of the glasses match, and I would be petrified to think that God might grade my faith life on the quality of my hors d’oeuvres. 

Moreover, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, our houses have been closed off to others and the thought of opening our doors to a bunch of strangers to come and eat at our tables and sleep in our beds is frightening, and prohibited.  How do we practice hospitality in a time of social distancing?

Or what about the introverts among us for whom social distancing is a life long character trait?  Will introverts be barred from heaven because they aren’t good at throwing parties?

The good news is that Christian hospitality is not about the doors of our homes but is about the doors of our hearts.  The writer Kathleen Norris says, “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. [It is] receiving the stranger on his own terms, and … can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’.”   (Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography)

A good hotel concierge can provide clean towels and polite service to a stranger while secretly judging that stranger for his skin color or the hijab she is wearing, but the Christian is called to demonstrate hospitality toward the stranger by welcoming him or her in the fullness of their humanity, on their own terms, and not on ours.  Christian hospitality means caring for those who are poor without making judgments about the causes of their poverty.  It means accepting people who are different from ourselves without trying to insist that they become more like we are.  It means trying to understand those whose gender identifications or sexual orientation makes us uncomfortable because our faith tells us that it’s not about our personal comfort but about the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and so who are we to shut the doors of our hearts against any person?

In our nation today, physical hospitality may be impossible because of social distancing, but spiritual hospitality is not only still possible but has become a crucial need in our world right now.  Right now, people in their fear are closing the doors of their hearts to each other.  They are yelling at one another across the aisle, and allowing bigotry and blame to arise against each other.  I am especially disturbed by the way so many are lashing out against Asian Americans and our Chinese neighbors and friends.  The world needs us, as faithful Christians, to speak love in the face of such condemnation and cruelty, and demonstrate our faith through our insistent and vocal spiritual hospitality.  We need to push back against the fear and the hatred and the anger that is dividing us from one another by opening the doors of our hearts to all people.

When I heard President Trump say last week that we need to re-open the churches because the nation needs prayer right now, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Our church never closed and we never have never stopped praying.”  We don’t need a building to practice hospitality because faith should go beyond the physical walls of a sanctuary.  We are the church wherever each of us is in the world.  We are the church when you pray at the hospital bed of someone who is sick.  We are the church when you give boxes of food to a hungry man at the food pantry.  We are the church when you send a card or make a phone call to someone who is lonely.  We are the church when you bestow a welcoming smile on the woman with a hijab or stand up for the dignity of an Asian-American.  We are the church when you meet anger with gentleness insisting even on extending spiritual hospitality toward your enemy.  The church is not a building, and it cannot be closed as long as it exists in the hearts of all of us as we live and work in the world trying faithfully to practice hospitality toward others because that is the central mark of the one who follows Christ.

May each of us express our gratitude for the love Christ has shown to us by loving others in every way we can, in every place we can, creating a spiritual home of hospitality for all people in our hearts.