May 9, 2021
I wanted to leave, and you wouldn’t have blamed me. I could see nothing but an ocean of gold and blue. There had to be forty thousand people looking at me, and not one was glad to see me. I was at the bottom on the section, and my ticket was marked NN, so I was far past the Z section, meaning we were at least forty rows away from our seats. Looking up, my legs tightened for the climb ahead of me. My parents were then serving one of the Salvation Army’s corps in St. Louis. They got us tickets to see our team, the Chicago Bears, play the high flying, greatest show on turf, St. Louis Rams in 2001. It was a Sunday game and there was no way we were getting out of the Sunday meeting early. So we arrived in the middle of the second quarter as everyone was in their seats watching the game.My brother and I stood, with our Bears jerseys and other fan gear on trying to balance our food as we walked up a seemingly endless staircase. I turned around to see that my team was already losing 14-0. As we walked up the stairs you can imagine the interesting and colorful language that was flying in our direction. Talk about feeling out of place! I have never felt as unwelcomed by so many people as I did that day. Rams fans did not want to make room for us in their stadium.
Have you ever felt unwelcome? It might not be as dramatic as being out numbered at by 80,000 people at a football game. Maybe it is coming into a new setting that is unfamiliar to you. You move into a new town. Maybe as a child you stepped into a new school; maybe it was your first day of college; maybe it was a time when you had to be the bearer of bad news; maybe you were sent in to replace someone else in the workplace, or maybe your boss asked you to give someone an assignment you knew they didn’t want. Sometimes people are forced to make room.
It is possible, as well, that you might not want to make room yourself. Making room is hard, and giving up of yourself and your space is hard. It might be that “making room” is more than a physical reality. Maybe we don’t want to make room in our world for people we don’t like. Making room stinks. Why? Because you have to give up, you have to give in, and you have to share.
Romans 12 is a monumental chapter of the Bible, and for me it is easy to jump past some of the commands that come in this chapter after the beautiful and challenging language of the first few verses. At first glance 12:6-20 seems like a typical list of “dos and don’ts.” We read, “Be devoted…honor one another….never lack in zeal…keep your spiritual fervor…be joyful in hope….patient…faithful in prayer…share…” (Romans 12:9-16).It reminds me of when my wife and I sent our oldest child off to preschool. All of the sudden we felt the need to summarize everything we have taught him in three years of life. “Ask for help, say please, eat your food, tell you teachers when you have to go…” After this list of affirmations Paul, who is writing this letter, says a sentence that takes two words: “Practice hospitality.” The force in the original language is hard to communicate. In Greek, it is as if Paul underlined this word and applied bold marker, with italics, and made it size 24 font saying, “You must practice hospitality!” It is an imperative command to listen up and do something. Another translation is, “pursue hospitality.” The word here for ‘pursue’ was often used to describe a hunt or a vigorous pursuit.
For every story there is a backstory. The backstory of this letter is that there are Christians in Rome who Paul has not met. The church in Rome was not a big group that came together with a thousand people in a large cathedral. Instead there were small churches that met in a variety of houses. What was distinct about this church was that there were groups that were Jews who became Christians and others who were gentile Christians. In 49 AD, the Jews in Rome were exiled, and this letter was likely written as they were returning from that exile, and they had to learn how to love each other and exist as the church in Rome. You can imagine that these groups did not have to get along. Paul was giving them this command because it was something that they lacked. In verse 10 he needed to say, “Be devoted to one another in love” (12:10), and “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need” (12:13). Maybe these Christians needed to be challenged to make room for each other.
We live in a very inhospitable time. As a society we don’t want to make room for anything. We don’t want to make room for others, specifically strangers. Even though I meet strangers every day who are looking for help in my office…it is easy for me to say to myself, “don’t they realize that I am behind on a hundred emails, and our Angel Application process doesn’t start for two weeks. Can’t they read the sign on the door?”As our world becomes flat it is also easy to stick with the friends we have on facebook, the contacts in our email list, or people we see. We don’t have time for new people--for strangers. The heart of the word hospitality is strangers. In Greek, the word for hospitality is an invented word. It combines the word for brotherly love, phileos (as in Philadelphia), and the word for stranger, xenos. The essence of the word hospitality then means, “Love of stranger.”
It is more than the fact that “I don’t want to make room…I don’t want to practice hospitality.” The scary thought to me is this, “I don’t have to make room…I don’t have to practice hospitality…I don’t have to love the stranger.”A society that says, “It’s all about you” let’s us think these things. Our inhospitable world shuts people out. That’s why there is likely not a Salvation Army shelter in the USA without a waiting list. It is why people are starving; it is why children are left alone; it why people are sold into slavery today; it’s why there are wars. We are not going to make room, because we don’t have to take care of strangers.
God didn’t have to make room either. These problems in our world are not his fault. Sin is not his fault. God created our world for us and our corporate sin in Adam has brought us to place of rejecting all that God has given us. Our sin separates us from God, our selfishness keeps us from looking at anyone beyond ourselves, and those things that we know have moved against God’s direction in our lives gives God every right to say , “I don’t have to make room.”
But ‘thanks be to God’ in the person of Jesus Christ—God made room for us. We don’t deserve the mercy of God as he stepped out in time in the person of Jesus Christ and welcomed/welcomes us. But our Triune God is hospitable. When our world is blind and looking for its way, Jesus steps in as the savior for all of humanity to offer us salvation—to save us from our sin, and to offer us a new way of understanding and looking at the world.
The mature Christian is one who knows what it means to “practice hospitality.” The savvy Christian knows that we help people not to make ourselves feel better but we welcome because Jesus has welcomed us (Romans 15:7). The word hospitality has come to be associated with the hospitality industry or conversation over coffee at someone’s house. Until the last three hundred years the word hospitality was specifically understood as a Christian practice. So the root of the word hosp—can be seen in the words hospital, hostel, hospice, etc. The idea was that Christians have a duty to make room for strangers.
I think all of Salvation Army ministry can be reframed by this practice. We are not simply “doing social services” or opening a “shelter.” Instead of thinking of a bifurcated mission separated by terms like, ‘corps’ and ‘social service center,’ what would change if we saw every housing ministry, every community center, every bag of groceries, every holiness meeting, or every mobile canteen as expressing the hospitality of God’s kingdom? If we do our action in the name of Jesus would then be representative of the way we are opening ourselves, our resources, our buildings, and our lives as commanded in Romans 12:13 and following the example of Christ who has made room for us.