hospitality |ˌhäspiˈtalitē |
the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers
During August, as we explored the topic of hospitality through our sermon series, a book club also took place before the evening service. For five weeks we gathered to enjoy a meal together and discuss a couple of chapters from Douglas Webster’s book Table Grace: The Role of Hospitality in the Christian Life. We were a group of relative strangers, some faces that were familiar and some faces I hadn’t seen before. Over those five weeks, our disparate band of people became a community, knit together through food and conversation. So often, this seems to be the way that friendships are formed – over coffee and meals, in celebrations and sorrow. As humans, we connect through food, a truth that we both enjoyed and discussed in detail throughout our time together.
In our first week, we each brought a story of hospitality that we had received. In a wonderful mix of stories, we spoke of friends and strangers who had opened their lives and homes to feed us. Some told stories of spontaneous invitations to dine with friends old or new, while others shared tales of intentional hospitality. One couple spoke of people who persevered for months, continually trying to connect with them until they finally prevailed.
We told stories of hospitality abroad, and hospitality at home. One woman remembered traveling through France when she was young. One night, as she walked through the village, she happened upon a fellow Canadian who was delighted to meet her. This new acquaintance invited her in for a meal and, since she had nowhere to sleep, offered her a safe place to stay as well. Another person shared the story of welcoming a widowed neighbour named Betty into their family by inviting her to join them for dinner whenever she wanted to come over. The widow ate dinner with their family for years, becoming part of the fabric of their home. In sharing the story, the storyteller admitted that growing up, she believed that every family had a “Betty.” As I heard more stories, I realized that food played an important role in each. As I thought through the Biblical narrative, I realized that food plays a major role in that story as well.
Acts of hospitality are scattered throughout the Bible. Some of these are grand gestures of hospitality, while others are smaller, everyday actions. In Exodus 16 we see God extend a grand gesture of hospitality. The Israelites are wandering in the desert and complaining: they are unhappy that they don’t have much to eat, and long to be back in Egypt where they were slaves. They grumble to Moses and Aaron, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). In spite of their grumbling, God responds hospitably and generously provides the whole assembly of Israel with manna and quail.
Some biblical stories speak of acts of hospitality on a slightly smaller scale. In Genesis 18, three men appear to Abraham. Abraham immediately invites them in, saying, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant” (Genesis 18:4). In reality, he brings much more than a morsel of bread, preparing fresh cakes, a young calf, curds, and milk. He sets before them a great meal. But, as Abraham learns, his hospitality could not have been extended to a more worthy guest: his visitor is none other than the Lord. After the meal, the Lord makes a promise to Abraham and Sarah: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:10). And so we see that the relationship between God and his people is strengthened within the context of a meal.
Perhaps the grandest gesture of God’s hospitality is in our participation in communion. Here we have the reminder of the sacrifice of the life of Jesus on the cross so that we can be in relationship with God. As we prepare to take communion, the priest says these words:
On the night that he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me.”
Perhaps the grandest gesture of God’s hospitality is in our participation in communion.
Likewise, after supper, Jesus took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink this, all of you; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins: Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”
Here too we meet over a meal to strengthen our relationship and grow closer to God.
In our book club, it was beautiful to see how each one of us was able to come up with at least one story of hospitality, and often many more. Indeed, as we told each story in detail, it became evident that we were speaking of profound experiences. Every experience of hospitality had left an impact on the person telling it.
Often when I consider extending an invitation my mind swirls with calculations of time spent in choosing a menu, buying the food, preparing the meal, hosting the meal itself, and then cleaning up. It can be an exhausting endeavour. However, as I reflected upon these stories, it became clear to me that the blessing of hospitality far outweighs the time and effort that it costs. The very opportunity to extend hospitality, which has been modeled to us by our God and by his people throughout the Bible, is a gift to us. We get to offer hospitality and we get to receive hospitality. We are not required to be either host or guest, but we are invited to open our lives and homes to one another, receiving the blessing of connecting with one another through hospitality.