Making a Place for Hospitality
By Dr. Heather Entrekin
“Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” The word for house we find here, is used some 2000 times throughout the Bible. It refers to everything from the house of a peasant (as in this case), to the house of a king, a palace, to the house of God, the temple. It means the structure and building but it also means the relationships or family that cause the structure to be built and find themselves at home in that place — like the House of David, the House of Windsor.
Mary entered the house. We don’t know the address, only that it’s in a Judean town in the hill country. It’s probably made of stone – a little house built on top of and among a lot of other little houses with small courtyards and steep, narrow alleys winding among them. It has a central room with a hive shaped oven where pruned olive branches are burning and fragrant. A pile of dried dung is there, for the cooking fire. Rooms are dark and small with high windows for ventilation. A big jug of water stands by the door that someone filled that morning, to be used, carefully, all day long, nothing wasted.
It’s not the kind of house we know. It doesn’t have an address we know. We do know that Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” He doesn’t say where. Perhaps the lack of familiarity and the absence of specificity can teach us that any place and many places can offer welcome.
Mary entered the house. Somehow she knew or hoped that this was a place where she would be welcomed. Every Sunday, people walk through the doors of a church, this church, because they know or they hope they will be welcomed. We who have been around church a long time know that this is why we are here, to welcome others, but sometimes we get so busy enjoying and welcoming the ones we know that we forget to welcome the ones we don’t know. We leave it to newcomers to welcome other newcomers and to form their own small groups or Sunday School classes because there is no room, there is no welcome in the others. It takes letting go, making sacrifices, changing to bring new ones in.
We think that because we are friendly to our friends we are friendly, but we are not welcoming unless we seek the ones we do not know, members and guests alike, every time we walk into this building, and say, “I see that you are here. I am glad you are here. I care that you are here.”
A newly retired pastor told about using his Sunday freedom from preaching responsibility to visit churches in the area. He and his wife visited 15 churches. They knew how to dress. They knew how to act. But in church after church after church, almost everyone ignored them. There was no welcome. “And what would it have been like if we had looked or acted different from everybody else?” he wondered.
I have sisters and I had a brother who, like loved ones of yours, live far away. And there have been times in their lives when they have been lonely and hurting and I have said, “Find a church,” and then prayed with all my might that there would be a church to find where people inside had enough love to share with a brother and a sister of mine who needed to be welcomed by the love of God.
A Kansas City Star reporter visited a number of churches a couple of years ago to see whether they were practicing what they preached about welcoming strangers. They were not. Sometimes people say, “What if I welcome someone who has been a member longer than I have?” Welcome them. Sometimes people say, “What if I welcome somebody I’ve welcomed before and forgot?” Welcome them. I think I can guarantee that none of you will forget more names than I do. I am constantly introducing people who have known each other longer than I have been alive. But every now and then, by the grace of God, I get it right, and someone feels welcomed and wanted, and it’s worth it. It’s why we are here.
Mary entered the house. People don’t just walk up to a place of hospitality for no reason. They go because they are in need. We don’t know Mary’s need exactly. We know that she’s had a life changing encounter with an angel. We could imagine her to be perplexed, overwhelmed, frightened, anxious, lonely, confused, thrilled, awed, determined, hopeful, some of all of the above as is usually the case when one encounters the Mystery of God. We know that it causes her to hurry to this house in the Judean town in the hill country.
We know that the need for hospitality is no less among us today. Elie Wiesel writes, “Our century is marked by displacements on the scale of continents…. Never before have so many human beings fled from so many homes.” (“Longing for Home,” in The Longing for Home, ed. LeRoy S. Rouner, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996, p. 19)
When we began considering the possibility of Interfaith Hospitality Network ministry for homeless families in Johnson County, many of us were amazed to discover that there are homeless families in Johnson County. And I think what moved and motivated us to make room in our own church for these families, alongside many other churches, was the children who needed a place of hospitality. In our visioning work, we have discovered that there are many older people around us who are isolated in their homes by age, illness, disability and lack of transportation who need a place of hospitality.
Mary entered the house. But no matter how beautiful, comfortable, well designed and perfectly appointed the house, it is the people inside who make it welcoming or not. When I was about 5, I went for the first time ever to a friend’s house after school. I was really excited. I felt special and wanted. But then I got to my friend’s house, and all I remember is her parents shouting at each other over the kitchen table. That memory is about 50 years old.
The word “house” means “go in,” “spend the night,” “find safety from the dangers of the dark.” It would not be too much of a stretch to assume that Mary needs shelter that a friend can give; she needs the blessing that a family can offer. Irish proverb: It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.
To make a place hospitable we must first make room in our hearts. It is the practice, day by day by day, of love and generosity, that makes our hearts spacious enough to make our places welcome enough.
In Hospitality Groups that have been meeting in homes, we practiced hospitality and talked about how our homes and church could be places where people feel wanted and loved and safe. One little thing has happened — not just coffee in the Hospitality Area, but tea and something else that children might like. And not just beverages, but a beautiful arranged table and a person or two standing there to say, Welcome.
Hospitality in our homes is more complicated in some ways than it used to be even a few generations ago, but the pastor of a thriving, inner city church in Los Angeles claims that the front door of the home is the side door of the church. Some of us might renew the practice of festive Sunday dinners. It doesn’t take too much extra preparation to include an extra person or two at the table. Families could be sure to invite a few extra people to holiday gatherings and special events. We could adopt one another into our families.
This is not about entertaining. This is hospitality, the work, the joy of God. Wise woman, Benedictine Joan Chittister says, “Hospitality is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. It is the way we turn a prejudiced world around one heart at a time. Hospitality binds the world together.”
Mary entered the house and the grace of God grew. Open your door.
COPYRIGHT 2006, Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.