Risk-taking Hospitality

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church  June 29, 2014

Matthew 10:40-42 

We arrived in the little town, barely able to speak the language, but enough to know what was being said. “There is a national holiday. The hotels are completely booked. There is no room.” We were exhausted, our bags heavier by the minute as we melted in the humidity. Someone noticed our tired confusion and came over to us, saying that he had a small apartment he could arrange to be vacated until we found something else. We weren’t sure we could trust this offer of hospitality, but we also knew that we had exhausted our other options. And so, hesitatingly, we took the risk and accepted. He found a room in a hotel the next day, and eventually became our tour guide on some great trips. We were lucky on a few accounts and were grateful for this man’s hospitality.

Our gospel reading offers a lesson in hospitality. Jesus was in the process of sending out 12 of the apostles to proclaim the good news and heal. He told them that they should not receive payment nor should they try to provide for themselves. Instead, they should expect hospitality of food, clothing and accommodation. He warns them that not everyone will welcome them. In fact, they should expect severe persecution. They will need to prepare to be rejected and scorned and even abused. But, Jesus, said, this should not deter them nor cause them to lose hope that there will still be places that will offer them food and drink, shelter and safety.

Why would anyone want to risk their own safety, and that of their family, to welcome a stranger into their home? We teach children not to talk to strangers. We view kind offers with suspicion. We are told not to open our doors to those we do not know. Evil does exist. The news is full of stories of mal-intent and harm. How do we negotiate hospitality with prudence? We obviously have to be careful, but when we close our lives to any kind of risk, we cement another block of protection around our hearts.

“Whoever welcomes you,” Jesus told his apostles, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” When we offer hospitality, we are, as our new Mission Statement proclaims, the hands and feet of Christ. We are the body of Christ, given to the stranger. But the stranger is also the body of Christ. When we welcome someone we do not know, we welcome Christ.

Hospitality is a core Christian value. It’s also a core Muslim value and a core Jewish value. Each of our traditions are steeped in stories and commands to offer hospitality to the stranger. Each offer comes with risk—both to the one receiving hospitality and to the one offering it. Clearly, we need to carefully calculate the risks and not be foolish. Sometimes we need to say no. But perhaps we’ve said, “no” a little too often. The gospel does tell us to be risk-takers as we stretch out our hands to others. Occasionally we will be taken advantage of; occasionally we will suffer mal-intent. When this happens, we have a choice. We can either barricade our hearts from being hurt again or we can say, through the strength of Christ, I will continue to open my heart to the stranger, to welcome those who are different from us into our midst.

Our Board has asked the Outreach Committee to explore the possibility of co-sponsoring a large Syrian refugee family which is currently living in very difficult conditions in a refugee camp in Beirut. There are risks and there are challenges for everyone. I ask for your prayers of wisdom and compassion as we explore funding possibilities. Let us keep in our prayers all of the refugees from Syria, as well as from other places, including Iraq and South Sudan.

On this Canada Day weekend, I invite us to reflect on Canada’s history of hospitality. It all began, for me, in 1773 when the Hector ship set sail from Ullapool of the Scottish Highlands with Angus MacKenzie on board. The old ship, built to carry cargo, was filled with 189 passengers, mostly poor, illiterate, Gaelic-speaking artisans and crofters who had been cleared off the land they rented. They were promised 1 year’s free provisions and cleared farmland in the new country. They left in early July with 6 weeks worth of provisions. Storm after storm carried them back; dysentery and small pox claimed the lives of 18. When they finally arrived on the shores of Nova Scotia, it was Sept. 15—much too late to plant anything that would carry them through the winter. The promised year of free provisions never materialized. Even worse—their stunned gaze was met by forested shores. Nothing had been cleared for them. There were a few settlers already there, but records indicate that they fought with the newcomers over what meager supplies existed. Brief historical accounts refer to the settlers’ fright of the Indians, who watched them from the trees and occasionally attacked settlements on land, which had earlier been assured to the Indians as theirs. These accounts do not indicate what I found in more detailed documents. The Mi’kmaq First Nations were the ones who helped these poor newcomers how to survive the brutal winter. The Mi’kmaq brought them meat and taught them how to use snowshoes and how to hunt. They offered hospitality to the Scots, even though these strangers were settling on their land.

As we celebrate Canada’s history, we are aware that we have not always been gracious in our hospitality. We have closed doors and hearts to the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Jews. We have put Ukrainians, Germans, and Finns in concentration camps in our national parks during WWII. But there are also stories that we don’t know as well—stories such as those of the early settlers, who risked receiving hospitality from the First Nations in spite of their fear of them, and the First Nations, who risked offering hospitality in spite of their fear of losing their land.

There are countless stories of risk-taking hospitality in our beautiful land of Canada. I would love for us to be more acquainted with these understories that lie largely forgotten.

Hospitality not only involves bodily risk. It sometimes calls us to take emotional risks. It asks us to open our hearts, with the risk that they may be broken. It is not for the weak of heart or the weak of faith. To be able to risk an open heart of welcome takes a maturity of faith that is deeply rooted and able to bend with the emotional storms, which can be as wild as this wave of thunderstorms outside.

In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes that “only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality.”[1] She then tells the story of a nun, who had Alzheimers. She lived in a nursing home and asked to be wheeled to the front door so that she could greet everyone who entered. Another sister explained, “She is no longer certain what she is welcoming people to…but hospitality is so deeply ingrained in her that it has become her whole life”[2]

As the book’s title indicates, a predisposition to hospitality begins not with our own commitment to be open-hearted, but with God taking a risk to welcome us with a fully open heart, no strings attached. This is the amazing grace that God offers us: no matter how far we fall from grace, no matter who we are or what we have done, God’s loving hands are always there to pick us up, dust us off and say yet one more time, “Welcome home. I have missed you and I love you deeply.”

This was John Newton’s experience. He was a slave-trader. On one voyage in 1748, his ship was beset with storm after storm, much like the Hector ship a few years later, and he called out to God for mercy. Over the next few years, he gradually converted from a foul-mouthed slave trader to a believer who was stunned to find himself in the forgiving arms of God. In response, he penned the words we all know to Amazing Grace. We might be uncomfortable singing some of his words, but when we know the depths of depravity to which Newton had sunk, we might better appreciate why he wrote about how wretched we are. Even those who have committed some of the most wretched crimes against humanity can find God’s grace.

As God has risked opening heart and hand to us, may we find the courage to risk opening our hearts and hands to the stranger.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, p. 267.

[2] Ibid., p. 265.