The Sacrament of Hospitality

From John 14:1-14

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

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Tim Merrill
Camden, NJ

The world, and life as we know it, is changing right before our eyes… and it is changing me in the process. I pray that in the end, the ways I change will reveal that I genuinely hold onto God. And not just any god, for as an African proverb says, “A good devil is the same as a bad god.”

I live in a neighborhood where the virus is spiking—a black, brown, yellow, and tan neighborhood replete with the underlying medical conditions and healthcare disparities that make Covid-19 especially deadly to people like us. Yet our neighbors continue to answer the call to serve. Many work low-wage health care jobs, and others continue to faithfully grind away at gas stations, bodegas, grocery stores, and factories. Our neighborhood, centered in a city that for years was considered America’s most dangerous, is well acquainted with life and death crises. At the onset of Covid-19, most here were either in the midst of a crisis, trying to heal from the last crisis, trying to stave off the next one, or more likely, trying to do all of these at the same time.

This may explain the quiet local grace I’m finding within the prolonged days of our current emergency. Perhaps it’s a grace subtly forged within fires of grief and pain from continued loss and constant dilemmas. Through this grace, I am finding that God is indeed alive on the street and around the corner.

I couldn’t put my finger on the grace I describe until encountering today’s Gospel reading. Here, we find Jesus, Isaiah’s man of sorrows, who was well acquainted with the fires of grief and pain, standing in the midst of his own life and death crisis. Of course, we wouldn’t expect the Messiah to respond with anger, contempt, and fear. But, who would have predicted that, while discussing his own betrayal and death, Jesus would point to the issue of hospitality?

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled… In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

With these great words of comfort, he suggests that fear, even in the times of greatest crises, is overcome by remembering God’s expansive hospitality toward us.

Nowhere have I encountered this sacrament of hospitality more than among the world’s poorest communities, where people established among ongoing life and death crises have somehow discerned the Godly truth of opening your arms to others.

Struggling communities in Africa, India, and Latin America, as well as violence-torn communities such as on Palestine’s West Bank, and in my own Camden, have always welcomed me with the shared revelation that warm smiles, tender voices, a chair, and the offer of food and drink are powerful counteracting forces to the horrors of life and death crises.

To be clear, I am not trying to romanticize poverty. More often than not, it’s the legacy of injustice, neglect, exploitation, and colonial greed. It creates the conditions of suffering and subjection marginalized communities feel on a daily basis. They pay the price for the sins of others. Sound like a familiar storyline?

On the other hand, some who live in more privileged communities are rebelling in fear against the restrictions and life changes imposed on us by this microscopic menace. Their behavior makes you wonder, do they remember God’s invitation, ensconced in his promise of hospitality, to leave fear behind? Or has the culture pointed them to bad gods and good devils that extoll fear and excess? Who has told them that economic concerns should supersede the lives of the most vulnerable?

That’s not to dismiss the interrelated nature of lives and livelihoods; I understand the tension. But I wonder, would they be reacting similarly if the people in their neighborhood were twice as likely to be infected, and three times as likely to die, as other demographic groups?

I pray that God uses this crisis to continually remind me of the sacrament of hospitality in which my brothers and sisters in poor communities across the globe partake daily. They have learned from Jesus, that even in the face of the crucible, a welcoming disposition is a way to point to God, and also to be shaped into his image. After all, on the night before the pain and grief of the cross, Jesus shared a seat, a plate, and a cup, even with the one who would betray him. And he described the home to which they were all invited.

And he’s still inviting today.

I saw him once in a Kenyan villager who used the last of his water to wash our hands before serving us a modest meal. And I bet you’ve seen him, too. He is the God who welcomes us, even in our darkest hour, into the abundance of his hospitable care. May we remember his hospitality, so we can put fear aside, and take on the pain and burdens of those who are suffering around us as well.