The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” But he pressed them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
When I first arrived at my last church, quite early on at any rate, one of the church members who was an especially “Hoo-Ah – Patriotic – kill the bad guys – the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim” kind of guy, thrust a book at me and told me I really needed to read it if I wanted to understand true heroism. The book was Lone Survivor, by Marcus Lutrell, and it is, as I recall, the story of members of a SEAL team who were killed while hunting for an Al-Queda operative. Lutrell was the eponymous lone survivor of the violent encounter. As I remember, the book was hyper-macho in flavor, and poorly written, but there was, in the story, a moment of wonderful irony that made it worth the read.
Lutrell spent a fair amount of time in the book punching at liberals and arguing that the US military ought to be able to kill whomever they want, because you just never know who is going to wind up being your enemy. Yet there, in his own story, was a total blindness to the reason for his survival. In the fight that claimed the lives of his colleagues, Lutrell was blasted over a cliff. Badly wounded, he fought off several attempts to kill him, then dragged himself into the mountains, for miles. He was found by some armed Afghani villagers who, rather than shoot him, because you just never know who is going to wind up being your enemy, took him to their village – despite the real risk to their own survival should the Taliban seek vengeance. Because of the very strict codes of hospitality in that part of the world they tended his wounds, cared for him, and were willing to defend their charge at any cost. I remember trying to point this out to my gung-ho friend as the true story of heroism in the book, but to no avail.
That kind of risky and impressive hospitality is a rarity in our culture, a culture where we will hardly open our doors long enough to shoo the Girl Scouts off the stoop. Yet it is in some ways, not only a profound core principle of all three Abrahamic faiths, it is the central identifier of a Church that has understood its mission. Despite the best efforts of the homophobic lobby, to paint the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as one largely about punishing sexually perverted townsfolk, it is – as Jesus himself makes clear – a story about the kind of radical hospitality that God asked of followers, a demand that even took precedence over the safety of family. The church that treats strangers with paranoid suspicion, or creates boundaries between insiders and outsiders, isn’t being the Church in any identifiable sense. Yet how many of our churches would actually risk very much at all in order to be truly hospitable? We often seem so easily inconvenienced, so quickly tapped of resources, so effortlessly exhausted by the mere hint of obligation.
Imagine though, what the landscape might look like if our Church communities went out of their way to be committed to the practice of hospitality. Imagine the stories of immigrants and strangers encountering Church communities that prioritized hospitality to others over all other virtues. Imagine the shape and tenor of a world thus constructed. I suspect it might actually begin to look like the world that Jesus envisioned.
“Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”
Letty M. Russell
“It is a sin against hospitality, to open your doors and darken your countenance.”