Come On In

Matthew 10:40-42

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

This past week, I’ve been living with some tension about this text from Matthew. In a few days, a good friend of mine and her husband and daughter will arrive to spend a few days with us…I want everything to be as near perfect as possible, but I’m a little worked up about this.

I love these friends, but other people will be in my house, and housekeeping is not one of my great gifts. I like to dream about housekeeping and think about home design, and I spend more time that I probably should thinking about what would make my home look nice. Someday, I figure, I’m going to declutter and minimize and have everything totally under control. But right now, I live in that part of life when deep cleaning one room of the house often means that one or both of my children have completely destroyed another room. At this point, unless I’ve got guests coming over, or a party, I tend to just let things slide. Which means I get a little anxious about the state of my house, and tend to not invite people over as much as I’d like to. I’d love to spend more time just sitting my backyard with a friend or two, casually, somewhat unplanned, be able to say, “hey, drop by, anytime!”

We’ve got a disjunct in our culture between what it means to be a gracious host…and what it means to be hospitable. A commentator I read this week pointed out that our affluent North American obsession with making our homes ready for guests and events has really done more to support the bottom line of Home Depot and Lowes than it has done to encourage hospitality.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a beautiful, well kept home. God made us with bodies…and making our aching joints comfortable, delighting our senses, meeting the needs of those bodies, is a good thing.

You know, of course, the word “Hospitality” is from the same root as “hospital.” Our model of hospitals today is based on the influence of a Christian tradition to take in all who needed shelter and care. The word “hospitality” really belongs to Christians. And it runs deeper than good home design and a great lasagne recipe and a perfect wine pairing.

This little paragraph from Henri Nouwen helps me make sense of what Christian hospitality looks like:

Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

The first thing I notice about that quote: it’s pretty intimate. Imagine saying to your guests, “Come in, sit down.

Can you get something to drink?

And, tell me, what are the things, deep in your heart, of which you are most afraid?”

The text from Matthew actually challenges me to take the idea even farther than Nouwen does. For Nouwen, the marker of hospitality is creating space for the guest to change. Matthew suggests that it goes both ways: both guest and host make room for lives to be transformed by each other. This is part of Jesus directions to his disciples before he sends them out. He reminds them: whoever takes you in as a guest, takes me as a guest. Guests are prophets, guests are righteous, guests are those who have been sent to us by God.

And by taking in such a guest, the host will never be the same.

I want to tell you a story about hospitality, and warn you from the beginning: this story is beautiful, but it is extreme.

My parents’ friends, Karen and Bob, gave birth to three daughters and a son. They are a gorgeous, blond, clean scrubbed and successful Midwestern family. Bob is the president of a small college. Karen is a nurse. Several years ago, they announced to my parents that they had decided to adopt two teenage boys from Ethiopia. Their girls were almost all off to college. Karen and Bob knew they weren’t ever going to truly be empty nesters, though, because their son James is differently abled and will live with them for the rest of their lives. The college president’s house was big. They were reading about how AIDS has affected families all over Europe and in Ethiopia, and about older kids looking for families. James was lonely without the girls. So, why not?

Their adopted sons arrived and thrived. They are the stars of their high school soccer team. They caught up with their grade levels. James has brothers. They like to visit my parents, who live in the neighborhood in Chicago with the best Ethiopian restaurants, and immigrants from everywhere in the world. And after dinner, they go play soccer on the beach with kids from all over the place. Karen and Bob have gone back to Ethiopia with the boys and a couple of their daughters. One of the boys is starting college next year.

There’s another wrinkle to this story, though: in Ethiopia, there are a number of children’s agencies that have pioneered a way of caring for children where, as often as possible, instead of institutionalizing children, they subsidize a family member to help care for the kids. This was true of Karen and Bob’s boys: they have a sister who is about 6 years older than them. When their parents died, she was in no place to care for her brothers on her own. But instead of dropping them off at an orphanage, she got help and subsidies. But she wanted to be their sister, not their Mom, so adoption was still the goal for this family. Karen and Bob kept in touch with her after the adoption. Two years ago, they invited her to come live with them, too. She’s working hard to catch up with her brothers education-wise and become a social worker. When I visit my parents, I see them at church. James is a greeter. One of the boys was running the nursery last time I dropped my son off there. We stand in a big circle at this church to receive communion, and this family blesses me.

Last month, Bob took a new position, and they have to move this summer. My Mom was telling me about the planning. They bought a big house that was foreclosed on and has water damage. It’s a ramble-y weirdly set up house, but it’s going to be perfect for them. Bob’s dad is spending weekends fixing all the woodwork that was damaged by excessive humidity. Karen’s busy looking for a nursing position. “A few years ago,” she says, “maybe I could have retired by now…but we’ve got a lot of people to get through college. And I’m happy to do this. It’s our family.”

As parents, Karen and Bob are the hosts…their kids are the guests. In the most profound of ways.

I think about what it’s been like for them, to open their home to those three girls first, and then to James, and then to the boys, and then to their older sister. Everyone, every single person in this story, has been changed. Who is the one in this story welcoming Christ? I don’t know. They are all both host and guest of each other’s hearts.

I don’t think I will be able to do what Karen and Bob did. It might not be my calling.

But I wonder how I create the space to be that sort of host…in my own life…in my collective life with all of you…creating that space shouldn’t be completely comfortable because this is not, ultimately, about you…it’s intimate…it’s about moving over and making room for someone else, and for your own self to be challenged and changed.

Some of it is responding to where we are in life right now. There are things I can’t do because my primary task right now is to host these children of mine (number 3, quite literally for the next couple months). On the other hand, that’s not an excuse to close my eyes to the needs of other people’s children…whether that means I hand out cool cups of water, or teach my own kids to be generous, or look out for kids who are the “little ones” when I’m helping the PTA. And doing this not just because I’m a good person, but going out of my way to do these things so that there’s a little less of me and a little more of Christ.

What does it mean at church? Do we only answer the call to do things when they make us comfortable, or do we ever push a bit of ourselves aside to make some space for others? Do we leave room for the people God sends us to change us (even if they are very different from us, even if we are, frankly, surprised, that are really Jesus in disguise)? Are there people outside our doors who are so little that we forget to see them and invite them in?

You see, this is what happens to us, week after week, around this table.

Jesus Christ, the one who was a guest among us,

is invited, through the power of the Spirit, to become the host.

And so the guest becomes the host.

And once we have been welcomed, we cannot help but be changed.

Friends, this is good news: Thanks be to God.

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