The Experience of Hospitality

Becoming a Welcoming People

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  July 2, 2017

Although you wouldn’t guess it from the weather so far, summer is here!  A time to wind down from our busy schedules, a time when parish priests are encouraged ro scale their homilies down to "homilettes".   And yet, we continue to gather together on the Lord's day, to be nourished by the God who reveals himself to us in Word and Sacrament and Community.  And in God's Word today, two related themes emerge for our reflection: the experience of hospitality, and the way in which we welcome the Lord's presence in our lives.

Over the course of the summer, most of us will have the experience of both offering and receiving hospitality.  Over the past twelve years, I have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the generous hospitality of St. Monica’s, the way we welcome each other in this church, and even into our homes.  Very soon, we hope, we will have the opportunity to extend hospitality to the six members of the Al-Rayes family, the Syrian refugee family we are sponsoring and whose claim is being advanced as we speak.  We do this most naturally, of course, with our own families, with special friends, with those with whom we share not only food and drink, but values, fellowship, and faith. 

Today's first reading shows us that hospitality was a no less important value in Biblical times.  The Shunamite woman begins by welcoming the prophet Elisha into her home for a meal, and as he becomes a more frequent visitor, she creates a space in her home for him.  The occasional guest becomes a part of the family.  And the result of this hospitality is a blessing on the entire household - the gift of a long-desired son.  (As I read this, I wondered: perhaps we might need to commission a study on the frequency of pregnancies in families following visits by priests, prophets and other "holy people"!)  In any event, the message is clear: hospitality is meant to be life-giving, both for those who offer it and for those who receive it. 

And yet, at times we can experience hospitality - both the giving and the receiving - as draining.  This is especially true when we fall victim to what I call "the Martha syndrome": this is when we become so obsessed with doing for our guests that we forget to take the time just to be with them.  We've all met those talented hosts and hostesses who seem to effortlessly sail through the most elaborate dinner-parties.  (They tend to make many of us feel inadequate.)  But we also have attended cocktail parties where the quality of food and drink was exceeded only by the sheer banality of the conversation and superficiality of the interaction.  Where you stuff yourself with hors-d'oeuvres and martinis not because you’re hungry, but to distract you from the fact that you really don't want to be there.  A crowd can bring us to life, or it can be a place we feel very much alone.

The reality is that entertaining involves a certain amount of work and preparation: whether it's a simple barbecue, a surprise birthday dinner-party, or a wedding reception for 200.   The problem is that we tend to invest about 95% of our energy into the material details of the hospitality, and about 5% into the welcoming and presence to the person who is visiting.  And it's too bad, because it tends to stress us out and leave us feeling empty afterward.  It's also unfortunate because we live in a society where for most of us, the deepest hunger is not for food and drink and comfort.   Most of us suffer from too much of these things, rather than not enough.   No, the deepest hungers - the ones which usually go unmet because they are harder to fill - are for love, friendship, acceptance, community, home.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel today that those who welcome the ones he sends - his disciples, the prophets, the righteous - will most certainly have their reward.  And then he goes on to add "whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones" will also have their reward.  Later on in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus makes this welcome to those in need the central value upon which our salvation depends: "For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; thirsty, and you gave me to drink; naked and you clothed me; homeless, and you sheltered me; sick or in prison, and you came to visit me.  Whenever you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.

What Jesus tells us here is absolutely crucial.  Our kindness and concern must go beyond the boundaries of our natural circle of family and friends and social acquaintances, those with whom we feel comfortable.  Charity may begin at home, but if it ends there, then it's not charity.  This is what Jesus is driving at when he says that those who love parents or children, job or status, language or nation or political allegiance more than him are not worthy of him.   That to welcome Jesus, to welcome his Gospel into our hearts, is going to be a constant invitation to go beyond our limits, to break down the walls which separate rich from poor, French from English, native-born from immigrant, white from black, young from old, gay from straight, man from woman.   That our communities must be truly welcoming to all people, aware of how easily we can slip into subtle forms of prejudice, ignorning the experience of those who "don't fit in", excluding "the little ones" in our midst.  

Although many people are skeptical about our moral future as a nation, I take comfort on this Canada Day weekend that even in these troubled, uncertain times, 89% of Canadians still claim "to feel a personal responsibility to make the world a better place", 84% believe "it is more important to understand my inner self than to be rich and successful", 74% express confidence in the Churches and organized religion, and 53% do volunteer work on a regular basis. 

I take heart from the fact that this summer, a film is being released about Jean Vanier, the gentle giant who sees and has given his life to helping others see that a particular group of "little ones" in our society, the mentally handicapped, whom we so easily exclude, are a real gift and special presence of God in our midst.  

So as we enter these summer months, let us take seriously the Gospel call to become a truly welcoming people.  Let us remember that to welcome someone is more than just to show external hospitality, to meet their material needs. It is to be willing to make room for that person in my life and my heart.  It is to listen and be attentive, recognizing that even the "prophets" who bother me, the "little ones" for whom society has no time for,  may be the ones from whom I will learn the most.   "For whenever you received the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you received me.  Come and receive your reward: enter the joy of the Lord."