The word Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming.” The season of Advent is the church’s way of getting ready for the birth of Jesus into this world, which we celebrate on Christmas Day. Advent just so happens to occur in this part of the world during the darkest time of the year, when the days are shortest and nights are longest. There’s a very real sense of the world getting quieter and settled before the amazing entry of Christ.
Advent at its best also provides us time to reflect on our life as Christians, and how our faith transforms the way we go through our lives. In each Advent sharing we’ll focus on a particular topic that is informed by our faith, and tonight I want to talk about the practice of hospitality.
At its simplest, hospitality is the act of sharing with another. You can practice hospitality at a dinner table. You can practice hospitality by sharing space with a friend or stranger. Hospitality is not limited in who can do it…as long as you have something to share, you can be hospitable. I’ve even seen hospitality practiced in the post office line, when strangers start sharing smiles and end up sharing recipes and phone numbers. Hospitality is about making people feel welcomed and at home, even if they’re not at home.
I want to use the story of what happened with Jesus’ birth as our frame of reference for this sharing. Let’s read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2:
2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
My views on hospitality, and my imagining of this story, have changed over the years I have been with Lydia’s House. For the first thirty-odd years of my life I maintained a feeling of indignation toward all of those with guest rooms who didn’t welcome Mary and her family in the making. How in the world could you turn away a pregnant woman, even if you didn’t have any room available? Couldn’t you have made space for one so vulnerable, even if it meant sacrificing your own bed?
Now, having provided hospitality to many over the last few years, I have taken to imagining the barn was the best offering the property owner had. Perhaps there was sickness in the house, or every bed was filled with a pregnant woman, or he was caring for his elderly mother who was in the guest room. I don’t know why the barn was offered, but I like to imagine it was out of a place of compassion. And God accepted the offering and essentially said, “I can work with this.”
Wherever we start with our offerings, God can work with it. No matter how humble or less-than-polished, God can take it and fill it with holiness.
Just because it looks rough and it’s all we have, we don’t need to hold it back. God can work with it.
And when we offer what we have, we get the gifts that come from hospitality. Most often these gifts come to me in the form of the exclamation, “I didn’t know!” Imagine the spectacle that followed Jesus’ birth, with all sorts of stars and far off folks gathering near to celebrate this baby. The property owner had no idea any of this was doing to happen, obviously, but he got to be surprised. He got to meet God in human form, got to have his expectations completely upended. For the rest of his life he got to tell the story of baby Jesus and hear of the wonders that followed.
Hospitality gives us the gift of having our own expectations upended. Before life at Lydia’s House there were many things I thought I understood: how babies come into the world, how children grow, the experience of young women living in Cincinnati, and so forth. How many times through the years have I had the joy of exclaiming, “I had no idea!” I have had good, patient teachers, community members willing to have me along for the ride in my unknowing. I didn’t know by positioning myself to do the work of hospitality I would have my expectations defied so frequently, but for the rest of my life I get to tell the stories about how the things I believed did not match the ways of God at work in the world.
I feel it only right, however, to warn that the work of hospitality is frequently met with hostility. The gospel story goes on to say in the time following Jesus’ birth the ruler of that area is alarmed to hear about Christ. He does not want his place in the world threatened by this little baby, so he arranges to see to it that no boy babies of this age are left in his territory. The thought of losing control is so great to this ruler that many families suffered great loss to prevent it from happening.
If you are doing hospitality work, and doing it in a big way, people in charge will feel threatened by it. If you are one of the people in power, there’s a good chance that you like things just the way they are. The work of hospitality, of making strangers friends, has real power to it. If too many strangers become friends they may decide to work together to make big changes, to make sure, for example, that there are guest rooms enough for every pregnant woman, or that government decisions that dramatically worsen the lives of families are not good ones. This feels very threatening to people who do not want our world to change, who fear that which they do not know.
So know, when you are doing the work of hospitality, that powerful people opposing you does not mean your work is not of God. There may be repercussions that you did not foresee, and you and those you love may face hardship as a result of welcoming the stranger. But let us take heart knowing that a much greater risk of persecution awaited those who welcomed Christ, and yet the hope and joy He introduced to the world far outweighed the cost. So let us boldly continue our work of making strangers into friends, of having our worlds upended, of meeting Christ in human form. Thanks be to God.