A Few Stories About Church Hospitality

 

There were two brothers who planted a field together.  When it came time to produce the harvest each brother toiled and collected the grain in each of their respective barns.  Each evening when they returned to their individual homes the brothers went out of their way and contemplated upon the well -being of the other.  One brother began to think to himself that his brother would need more of the share of the harvest than himself because he did not have a wife nor children that would take care of him in the later years of his life.  He then reasoned that the most responsible thing to do was to go out in the middle of the night and take a part of his share of the harvest and put it into his brother’s barn.

The other brother not aware that his brother was putting an extra share of the harvest grain in his barn reasoned in his home that his brother would need an extra share of the grain because his brother was married with children and therefore would need a larger portion to help him take care of his family. Thus he went out in the middle of the night to place an extra share of his grain into his brother’s barn.

Unbeknown to both brothers this process of placing their extra share of grain into each other’s barn continued for some time.  Each, were thinking of the other’s particular needs and life situation.  Then one night both brothers somehow ran into each other on the road to their destination of the other brother’s barn and realized the tender care each had for one another.  They disembarked from their grain carts and lovingly embraced each other as tears flowed down their cheeks.

God the Father of these brothers saw how they loved and cared for each other  and he therefore told Solomon in his palace who was praying for wisdom at the time to build His temple on the spot where the two brothers embraced.

There is another story about Jesus visiting a religious leader named Simon. While Jesus was reclined at the table, a woman of the town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.  As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears.  Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

I have been to Israel Egypt and Jordan and the roads even today are particularly dusty.  I can well imagine in the time of Jesus the need to wash ones feet before dinning to be a requirement.  Yet the religious leader was not thinking about the care of his guest but was more circumspect about the sinful condition of the woman touching Jesus.

When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is, that she is a sinner.”  Jesus realized the thoughts of the Simon and takes advantage of a teaching moment.

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you. “Tell me, teacher,” he said.  Jesus tells him about a couple of men that owed a debt.  One man had more debt than the other and yet Jesus says they were both forgiven.  Certainly the one man who owed more was even in greater gratitude than the other who had a lesser debt to be resolved.

In this way Jesus was teaching Simon to put away his judgment and preconceived notions about the woman who was attending to him. She obviously was imperfect in every way to Simon’s thinking.  Yet this woman offered something to Jesus that Simon neglected to do.  He tells Simon that when he entered his house he received no water to clean his feet, and received no kiss nor anointing oil and yet this woman who had sinned much had accomplished all these things with him in Simon’s home.

In a sense Jesus is instructing us church people to put away our preconceived notions of who is visiting with us in our Church home.  Sometimes we want a certain profile of church people who are just like us but Jesus is teaching us about hospitality towards people who may not quite fit our notions and profile of what good church people are to look like.  Some might think the church is a resort hammock for saints, but in actuality as St. Paul would tell us that all have fallen short, thus the church is a hospital bed for the weak and imperfect.  This hospital needs a caring bed side manner of hospitality so that people, brothers and sisters can recover and get healthy again in the eyes of God the Father.

We may ask how welcoming are we when they arrive for the first time during our Masses and parish functions?  We may ask ourselves how well we know them after their first visit.  Do we know their names?  Do they have a prayer request for a special intention that we can include them in our prayers?  What a wonderful way to demonstrate that we really care about them in their life situation.    Will they feel like returning after meeting us? The shortest distance between two people is a smile.

We can have all the latest modern church stuff, like hip music, flat screen TV’s, coffee bars, the coolest youth programs, the really modern approach to biblical studies and the like but in the end how is the experience of the new comers going to be felt.  What will they remember most about us after they return home?  How do we make others feel when they meet us?  People will remember how we made them feel long after their visit with us than the music, sermon and look of the church campus.

Some visitors will undoubtedly not match our preconceived profile of the perfect potential new church member.  They may arrive with a rich arrogant attitude forced to attend by a friend or spouse, or they may be poor and homeless.  They may have unruly noisy children or adolescent children disengaged with the liturgy.  They may be divorced, or they may have brought their same sex partner to participate.   The Jews during the ancient times were in fact, accused of, “hatred of the human race.”  They regarded themselves as the Chosen People, as indeed they were.  But they regarded themselves as chosen for privilege and never dreamed that they were chosen for service.  Their thought was that someday the world should serve them, not that at all times they should serve the world.  They wished to keep the offer of God’s love exclusively to themselves and did not wish the Gentiles to have any share in his grace.  This underlying thought subliminally influenced the discussion among the apostles at the first council in Jerusalem on whether one had to become a Jew first before becoming a baptized Christian.

We tend to see others the way we see ourselves. Some of us are stars in our own movie.  It is difficult to see things the way God does.  Our concept of heaven is us there and all of those we don’t like are in hell.  Our notion is that we are the spiritual achievers who work hard.  Thus others will have to be our certain way for God to love them.  From God’s perspective we are good because God loves all of us first.  “God created the world and saw that it was good.”  God has this crazy love that we do not comprehend fully. God has a crazy type of love where everything and everyone matters to Him.  God through his Son Jesus sacrificed much to say we are something special and His beloved.  It seems you have to be God to love us. We pray, help me Lord with that part of me that is dead to your understanding and love of others so that when I wake up I may return home to the Father.

There is a story about father Abraham who had a ungrateful guest.  Abraham wanted to demonstrate the finest Middle Eastern hospitality. He put out the best dinning ware, softest reclining pillows and carpets, drew the best wine, and delectable foods for supper.  He then provided his guest his own sleeping quarters with the finest of Egyptian linens.  His guest the next morning complained about father Abraham’s hospitality.  The food was just not right, the furnishings for reclining were not comfortable and the bed had lumps in it.  Abraham was steaming from such a rude guest and was about ready to call on his servants to rough up his guest and expel him from the camp when God then spoke.  “Abraham, Abraham,”  “Why are you going to be as rude as your guest is to you.  Do you not know that I have tolerated this man for over 50 years of his life and all I am asking of you is to tolerate him for one night?”

Even before we begin a new welcome campaign, we might ask how well we know each other in our own parish family.  We might ask the following.  Do we keep a record of prayer intentions of our parish membership family?  Do we have a grasp of individual family situations and special needs?  Do we know our parish members birthdays, anniversaries, special memorable occasions that are important to them?  Are there financial needs like retirement planning, or obtaining a job important to our parish members?  What are their hobbies, likes and books and media they enjoy?   What support do we have for married couples to have a date night or care of their children?  Do we know the names of their pets?  What does our singles group look like?  What discipleship programs do we have in place to help our members grow in their faith and commitment to our Blessed Lord?

The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.  When we Catholics show that our Christianity makes us better workmen, truer friends, kinder men and women, then we are really preaching.  The outside world may never come into our church to hear a sermon but it sees us every day outside church; and it is our lives which must be the sermons to win men for Christ.  We personally may be the only bible others may ever view in their lives.  St. Francis upon returning from visiting the Sultan Malek al-Kamil instructed his brother Franciscans to not convert Muslims but by being the very best version of Christ incarnate among each other and with others will be the way to bring Muslims back to Christ.  Legend has it that Kamil admitted to Francis that he did not obtain a convert to Christianity today but he said that if there were more Christians like Francis then Islam would be in real trouble.

Scripture is about hospitality right from the start in the Book of Genesis when God so loved the world that he created and saw that it was good.  God wanted to share his love with His creation.  Then in the New Testament, God so loved the world that he gave the world His only Son.  The world is something special to God.  We have story after story in both the Old and New Testament about hospitality and lovers of God being hospitable. Some of those lovers of God were saints and others were saints in process.   Abel presented gifts to God with a pure heart, in hospitality.  Abraham provided hospitality to three angelic visitors.  Joseph gave gifts and hospitality to his brothers who originally sold him into slavery.  Moses received hospitality from his father in law, Jethro.  Rahab comforted and protected the two spies for Israel.  Abigail the wife of Nabal provided foods and comfort to David and his men.   David was hospitable to Saul with his music.  Jonathan, Saul’s son cared for David.  Solomon provided hospitality to the Queen of Sheba.  God provided  hospitality of food and drink to Elijah so that he would not perish from starvation.   Jesus would not let the wine run out at the wedding feast of Cana.  Jesus cured Peter’s mother in law.  Mary was at the feet of Jesus as Martha was preparing foods of hospitality.  Zacchaeus and Matthew people whose careers paths were despised by the population, both dined with Jesus in their homes respectively.  Before his ordeal Jesus showed hospitality to Judas to give him the last opportunity to recant from his betrayal with a kiss, as he said to him.  “You betray me with a kiss?”  It was his way to ask Judas to seek forgiveness for doing such.   Ananias reluctantly but obediently to God, showed hospitality to a blinded Saul who later became St. Paul.  St. Paul says in his Roman letter, that you would pour hot coals on your enemies if you offered them hospitality.

Hospitality calls us to tap into our own humility for selfless love.  With humility we recognize the importance of others who are made in the image of God just as we are made in His image.  Even though we are made in His image our humility entrusts us not to return the favor to God by making Him in our image.  Both Shepherds and Wise men showed up at the nativity crib to pay homage and hospitality.   Shepherds knew they knew nothing and the Wise men knew they could never know everything.  They did however have one thing in common and that was their humility. The arrogant and proud did not show up.   Jesus showed the ultimate form of hospitality with great humility as he washed the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday night.  Imagine the love of God’s creation to wash their feet.  He tells us that when we do good unto others we are doing good to Him.

All can show hospitality even if one is constricted by ill health or is alone, by praying for others.  We will never know from how much sin we have been saved and how much temptation we have conquered all because someone prayed for us.  It is told that once a servant-girl became a member of a Church.  She was asked what Christian work she did.  She said that she had not the opportunity to do much because her duties were so constant but, she said,  “When I go to bed I take the morning newspaper to my bed with me; and I read the notices of the births and I pray for all the little babies; and I read the notices of marriage and I pray that those who have been married may be happy; and I read the announcements of death and I pray that the sorrowing may be comforted.”  No man can ever tell what tides of grace flowed from her attic bedroom.  When we can serve people no other way, when , like St. Paul, we are unwillingly separated from his congregations throughout the middle east, there is one thing we can still do—we can pray for them.

In scripture, hospitality requires the host to provide safety and security to ones guests.  We find the curious story about Lot in order to protect his angelic guests from the local town’s people was even willing to sacrifice his daughters to be molested in lieu of the angels.  Through the middle ages and into modern times the church buildings in most towns have become a place of sanctuary for both the just and unjust refugees.  The churches provided sanctuary for African slaves prior to and during the American Civil War.  The Vatican provided sanctuary for Jews during  World War II.

Now we come to a point in the Gospel of John, another curious passage after the resurrection of Jesus the apostles go off fishing, some scholars think that the passage was an addition to John’s Gospel but the real point of the writer is showing the hospitality of Jesus to have cooked a fish fry breakfast for His apostles and then when Jesus speaks with Peter who denied him three times asks him if he loved Him three times.  It is when we get to an expanded Greek translation of this passage do we find the full impact and understanding about the host’s responsibility. Two of four forms of love are used in the passage, one fraternal and another sacrificial.  In the first instance Jesus asks Peter, “Peter do you have devotional love for me that impels you to sacrifice yourself for me?” Peter however responds that he loves Jesus in a fraternal kind of way.  Jesus asks him again, “Peter do you love me in a sacrificial way?”  Peter again responds in the affirmative but only in a brotherly kind of way.  So Jesus then lowers His expectation for sacrificial love and asks Peter if he loved Him in a friendly and fraternal kind of way.  Peter is grieved because he now knows the sacrificial love Jesus expects from him. Peter is not quite ready to offer himself in sacrifice for the Lord.   In all three inquiries Jesus asks Peter to provide the same hospitality he did for the apostles and that was to feed His church, the lambs and sheep.

We might ask how does our own church not only provide the sacraments and spiritual needs but does it look after the physical well-being of its members.  There are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy to be accomplished in every parish.  Do the members feel a sense of hospitality that the parish really cares about them?  When there is such a parish environment then all members are encouraged to gather and feed those who are not members to join in on the hospitality of the parish family.

St. Mother Teresa said that she would receive the Holy Eucharist each day and then go out into the streets to find and comfort Jesus dying wherever she found Him.  One such soul remarked that today he would die as a human being and be loved by this woman.

Jesus speaks about the hospitality of heaven as a banquet table to be shared.  To people of his time a banquet certainly meant a wedding feast.  On a recent trip to Egypt, Israel and Jordan our tour guide told us especially in the smaller towns whenever there was a wedding, it was expected that the entire town was to be welcomed to attend.  How appropriate to think of the banquet of heaven to be in unison with a wedding.  In the Old Testament, God is the groom and the people of Israel are the bride.  In the New Testament, Jesus is the groom and the Church is the bride.  The concept of banquet and nuptials go hand in hand through scripture.   How comforting it is to know that through the covenant relationship between God and his people that there will always be love and acceptance into a heavenly banquet.

As a church on earth we can demonstrate hospitality in such a way to give our guests the feeling of joining a mutually loving banquet each Sunday at our Masses.  It is our promise in a covenant relationship like a Jewish kibbutz that no one who enters our doors will go without love or be forgotten. All our welcomed and all our loved for who they are without any preconceived notions about who they might ought to be.

Endnote:  A Story-

 

His name is Bill.  He has wild hair, wears a T-Shirt with holes in it, jeans, and no shoes.  This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college.  He is very very bright. He became a Christian while attending college.

Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed very conservative church.  They want to develop a ministry to the students but are not sure how to go about it.  One day Bill decides to go there.  He walks in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.  The service has already started and so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat.  The church is completely packed and he can’t find a seat.

By now, people are really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything.  Bill gets closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the carpet.

By now the people are really uptight, and the tension in the air is thick.  About this time, the minister realizes that from way at the back of the church, an usher is slowly making his way toward Bill.

Now the usher is in his eighties, he has silver-gray hair, and a three piece suit.  He is a godly man, very elegant, very dignified, courtly.  He walks with a cane and, as he starts walking toward this boy, everyone is saying to themselves that you can’t blame him for what he is going to do.  How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid on the floor?

It takes a long time for the man to reach the boy.  The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane.  All Eyes are focused on him.  You can’t even hear anyone breathing.  The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the usher does what he has to do.  And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor.  With great difficulty, he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won’t be alone.

Everyone chokes up with emotion. When the minister gains control, he says, “What I was about to preach, you will never remember.  What you have just seen, you will never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

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