Many years ago when I arrived in a new church, I was told by many that a particular lady has the gift of hospitality. Within a short time, this lady had a visitor from out of state who was in the area during World War II. He and his wife came to take her out for dinner because when he was stationed here, inevitably, he had his Sunday dinner at her house.
As I was talking with this lady, I found out that her gift was to invite anyone who looked new during the Sunday morning service to have Sunday dinner at her home with her husband and her children. During her lifetime she invited hundreds of people who came to visit the church. Some came for one meal and some became regulars at her table.
The Advent story has a sad aspect that Mary and Joseph were rejected by people who had homes and by the innkeepers because their inns were overcrowded. In the Old Testament we have so many stories of hospitality – no one was allowed to sleep in the city square. Even though the travelers were from different tribes, they were all brothers and sisters and they were always welcomed guests.
Is there a possibility that the development of the inns and hotels took away the hospitality component? In contrast with this lady that I mentioned, there are fewer people in our congregations who are looking for the new person, the visitor, and the stranger to invite them into our homes. In listening to both sides of the equation, one is surprised at what one hears. We no longer welcome strangers, but are afraid of them. I assign my Church History students to visit churches and a great number of them tell me that no one makes an attempt to talk to them. This happens in small and large-size churches. The stranger is not welcome even in our churches because it means an effort from our part – seeking, greeting, finding out maybe the stranger needs our help. In talking with some of the sisters in our congregation, I hear that the house is not immaculate, they did not prepare a dinner, or having a stranger in the house is inconvenient. Yet in talking with the strangers, I never hear that they were inspecting the house to bestow the Good Housekeeping Award or compared the food with a particular culinary achievement. No, they were glad that someone talked with them, gave them a sandwich, allowed them to sit on a soft couch, and allowed them to talk for a while.
The New Testament is emphatic on hospitality. Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome: "Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality." The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats has a hospitality/welcome component. Jesus says: "Whenever you have welcomed one of the least of my brothers/sisters you have welcomed me."
It is easy for us to get melancholy when we hear the story of Jesus who was born in the stable and how hardened the hearts of the Bethlehemites were. Sometimes during some of the pageants presented by children, adults cry. The reality for us is to open our hearts and our homes to people who like Jesus find themselves in different, unpredictable situations and need our help – a welcome, a meal, and sometimes even a place to rest.