Hospitality from the Margins
By Dr. Heather Entrekin
We are in the season of Advent, of preparing for the coming of Christ, making ourselves and our world ready for God to enter in. We have heard the second part of Luke’s story where John challenges the crowd to live a different way that will make them more welcoming to God and to other people. He teaches them a different way of hospitality the puts the host side by side with the guest.
It’s not the most receptive crowd you could hope for. The word for crowd, ochlos, is not the word Luke sometimes uses to describe crowds of people – those who come to learn and follow Jesus. This is the word that describes the crowd that accompanies Judas, the betrayer. For all the negative connotations of that word, however, there seems to be an urgency among them, a realization that something is wrong with the lives they are living and a hope that John knows how to set them right.
John calls them a “brood of vipers”. Not the ideal way to warm up a crowd. But John is a prophet and he knows things that others don’t know or won’t say – where Jesus’ life is headed and that these people who say they want baptism live like snakes who come out from under rocks when it is safe to spread their poison and then slither back until the next time.
He doesn’t see much good in the way they live their lives (and like Jonah, isn’t all that wild about saving them) but a prophet would understand that the crowd wouldn’t be there unless God’s spirit had something to do with it, so he tells them the truth.
What should we do, they ask, to be saved from the consequences of the lives we are leading? How do we bear good fruit and avoid the axe of God’s judgment? The early church asks the same question later in Acts. The church does well to keep asking.
They ask a marginal person, John, in a marginal place, the wilderness, who challenges them to live their lives in the margins.
Some people find themselves in the margins of life for reasons they do not choose. They are born in poverty, for example, or they are a minority of some kind in their culture. War displaces people. Disability can push a person aside, or illness. Death, also. Last Sunday, a room overflowed with those in our church who are bereaved and know how alien it feels to be grieving in this season of joy.
But John challenges the crowd to choose the margins intentionally. Here’s how: those with two coats give one to somebody in need, those with food share with those without, tax collectors don’t cheat, soldiers show respect and be honest. It has echoes of that other prophet who said God only wants this: that you love mercy and do justice and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
To live like this puts you on the margins because – watch an hour of TV, go to a movie, read a best seller, attend an office party – and you know the world doesn’t work that way.
Yet, as Christine Pohl writes (Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition), throughout history, the church has always been its most vibrant and alive when the hosts were themselves marginal to their larger society.
Most of us are so embedded in our culture that we have to make a conscious decision to experience marginality in our lives – choosing values like simplicity, generosity, chastity, patience, that sets us apart.
People who do this discover that hospitality does not require many resources – only a willingness to share what we have: food, time, space, money. The most gracious hosts are often the poor. Skip and Orady Thomson, Prairie members working among the poor in Laos, understand this. Virginia Fortner, a Prairie member teaching English in China, sees this.
Peter and I had the privilege of living in China for two years teaching English among people with far less than we take for granted in the United States. One day I rode my bike to a park to watch people and take pictures. It was late afternoon on a December day, cold and windy. I saw an old man there, weathered, small, wearing a frayed cloth Mao jacket, no hat, wispy hair. He was flying a kite. The kite looked about as worn as he did, faded, a little tattered. It was a silk kite, painted green in the shape of a bird and it looked beautiful against the stormy, dark clouds.
The man noticed me watching and smiled and I smiled and said, “Hen hao,” very good. And I might have said, “beautiful.” I think I knew that word in Chinese at the time. And then lacking more vocabulary I told him in English how wonderful it was to see that kite in the December sky and he spoke to me in Chinese and neither one of us understood the words but we understood the meaning. And then it began to snow. And what had been beautiful before was magical now. At last, it got dark and the man brought down his kite. He walked over to me and put it in my hands, and got on his bike and rode away.
It takes living on the margins to understand how often those who have the least give the most. Michael McIntyre wrote a book describing his trip across America with no money, entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. He writes, “I walk on, wondering how it is that the people who have the least to give are often the ones who give the most.” A woman with very little provided him with a generous meal and said, “We don’t have much, but we don’t mind sharing what we have. I know what it’s like to be hungry.”
Across the ages, Christians have moved to the edges of culture to be with the needy, not just send help to them. They created monastic communities and other places whose whole purpose is welcoming, sharing with others. Not all of us can or should live that way but we can embody those marginal values wherever we are in life, as Chrysostom challenged the faithful to do.
There’s an urgency about it. A friend said the other day, Christianity is going to die. We are too focused on ourselves. But that gentle spirit keeps nudging at us.
That gentle spirit is in my friend, Mary Kay Myer, who has been directing and living at Shalom House for 27 years. For 27 years she has offered hospitality to homeless men, people who fall between the cracks, living alongside them in a not very fancy building on a not very attractive street in Kansas City, Kansas. She does it because of the prophet John’s call, which soon becomes Jesus’ call, to step away from the status quo, the materialism, the success, the power.
Where we might see sacrifice and deprivation, Mary Kay says, “It has been a great blessing to me.” She speaks of peace. “We haven’t called the police about a fight since I don’t know when. I like having beds to offer people who need them. I like being involved with churches like yours who help us put on a good supper. Before my eyes I can see guys change with nothing more than a good warm place to sleep, clean clothes, a shower. That is a good life. I have everything I need. Nice warm shoes, good socks, a 100% wool sweater from a donation, gas for the cars, money for the light bills. There is nothing I need that we don’t have.”
Sometimes we practice practice hospitality in ways that “fill hands but break hearts.” But not when you fix the meal and sit down and eat it together. Not when you share what you have, whatever it is, in humility, and respect, and hope.
Then God comes in and Jesus is welcome.
Copyright 2006 Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.