Bowing To Strangers

The last couple weeks, we’ve explored how to intentionally cultivate a church culture that’s focused on creating belonging through church’s hospitality teams. But today, I want to go even deeper into the topic of hospitality in general.  

In week 1, we articulated that the best businesses and organizations are the ones that focus on what’s best for their customers verses what’s best for the company. People love an organization for its service, not its product. People love an organization that stands for transformation, not transactions. Therefore, the best customer service departments—or in our case, hospitality ministries—are the ones that meet deep seeded humanitarian needs…

It’s all based on service. Service.

But what kind of service? You see, the hospitality we extend, whether in our churches or in our own homes, should be characterized not by our society’s best examples of customer service, but by the gospel’s best examples of self-sacrifice.

I’m all around passionate about hospitality. I love having people over for meals and playing board games and hearing updates about their lives. My wife and I just did that the other night with two dear friends we’ve made since we moved back to Indiana. We cleaned our house, made a meal, played Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit, talked about adult stuff like taxes and retirement plans, and laughed the night away. It brought us so much life in this season of establishing roots in a completely new environment, career, and home.

But here’s the thing. They were the furthest things from strangers.

Isn’t it ironic that our best examples of hospitality are to our friends or people we really hit it off with at work, at church, at trivia night? That’s certainly good…. But this modern American take on hospitality doesn’t go quite as deep as the Gospel’s take on hospitality. 

Jesus’ parabolic teaching in Matthew 25 communicates the sheerest essence of Gospel-hospitality when he says:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Matthew 25:36-37

When was the last time you invited strangers into your home? I can honestly say “never.” But how far do we take this? What does feeding hungry people and quenching thirsty people and inviting strangers in and clothing the naked and caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner look like in our day-to-day?

There’s an old saint from the 6th century by the name of St. Benedict. I like to call him St. Benny for short. St. Benny is known in church history for starting up his own chain of monasticism. He was practically a 6th century church planter. But one of the ways he did this was by writing a little “rule book” for how monks were to conduct their lives when they devoted themselves to the monk life (which is not to be confused with the thug life). 

This small little rule book is renown throughout classic Christian literature as one of the greatest works on community life ever. Ever! It is still being read, and his rule is still being followed by Benedictine monasteries today. Talk about a legacy.

In chapter 53 of his tiny little rule book, St. Benny reveals his radical approach to hospitality—or at least according to our 21st century standards. St. Benny takes Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in,” not just seriously, but literally. When a guest shows up to the monastery, he instructed the monks to drop everything to welcome them, serve them, and meet their needs, because Christ is literally present in their midst. They were even instructed to bow, and even lay themselves prostrate on the ground, to acknowledge the unique presence of Christ’s lordship in the guests.

I could imagine some guests were a little taken aback when they popped in to the monastery for some water on their travels and were treated like kings and queens.

But this image is insane, isn’t it? It’s to look at every human being, regardless of background, life history, race, physical and emotional needs, gender, ethnicity, political stances—anything that might possibly divide us as human beings—and break down the barriers of prejudice between us because we can see Jesus in them. 

Gospel-hospitality is not just treating people really well. Gospel-hospitality unifies the human race by showing them who Jesus is. 

Joan Chittister, who is a nun of a Benedictine Sisters order, wrote a book on Benedictine spirituality called Wisdom Distilled From the Daily. And I love what she says when writing on Benedictine hospitality:

“Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward a dismantling of the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought prejudice was dismantled through rallies, movements, Twitter trends, mission-driven nonprofit organizations, and marches on Washington. Not through hospitality. Those approaches do a great job fighting for a cause and spreading awareness to make a difference, but also at the cost of further alienating those who stand against that message. There’s a lot of proclamation without understanding the other side.

Hospitality according to St. Benedict, however, takes the fight for justice a step further… and deeper. He challenges us to not stop at spreading awareness of our cause to others, but actually do life and deeply care for those who are different from us, and may even be prejudiced towards us. We make a difference not just through parading and declaring, but loving and befriending.

Knocking down prejudice is not just about spreading awareness. It’s welcoming the people who literally stand against us. It’s loving our enemies. It’s seeing Jesus in the stranger. It’s believing there’s more to them than just the things we disapprove about their life.

Isn’t that the essence of the Gospel?

Simply bringing a “stranger” into our churches, homes, inner circles, and even our conversations, will slowly begin to dismantle prejudice, knock down barriers, transform people’s hearts, and come to know the heart of Jesus more than a social media post proclaiming one’s opinion ever could. 

Maybe we should start bowing to strangers more often.

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