Recently, one of my friends, Sean Henry, who owns the Houndstooth coffee shops in Dallas and in Austin, as well as the Oak Cliff watering hole, Jettison, commiserated with me about how businesses, especially restaurants, have all been affected by the lack of patronage due to the coronavirus. He mused that the golden age of restaurants was over and that many businesses will have to consider new ways to serve people in a socially distant and ever-growing, fearful world.
As we talked about the drudgery of keeping coffee shops open in this 100-degree Texas summer when people can only grab a coffee for take-out, Sean shared how his business model has changed. He has often said, first and foremost, that Houndstooth Coffee is about the business of hospitality. He wants every employee, every client, every vendor to feel as if they are part of a family, part of a connected network where everyone has a place and a purpose. But what makes Houndstooth Coffee different from other coffee shops, its genuine and noticeable hospitality, has been drastically reduced during the pandemic. With a decrease in work force and a minimal number of patrons able to enter the building, the main service of hospitality, the backbone of his business, is almost non-existent.
Hospitality is what Sean loves about being in the coffee business. He feels that the work, the service, opens the door to hospitality. He believes that “hospitality becomes a shared experience that transforms the quotidian, the daily mundane tasks, into memorable, venerable, and aesthetically pleasing experiences.” You see, Sean trains his baristas to take the posture of host rather than help. Being a host rather than help, means that baristas can include the patron in a way that allows for participation, rather than simply a transaction.
Sean sums it up perfectly in his initiative to weave hospitable moments among baristas and guests. He says, “We don’t host people for a night’s stay or a fancy, celebratory dinner. We soldier with people through their daily, regular lives. We’ve walked with our Guests through engagements and divorces, pregnancy and the loss of children, addiction and recovery, moving houses and cancer treatments, new jobs and job loss. We weave together these short moments we have with people 3-5 days a week. Our internal language for hospitality revolves around getting to spend thirty seconds to two minutes with people over the weeks, months, and years. Weaving moments is the basis for our social fabric – the Pattern of Coffee and People. This is a social ethic of care woven between our Baristas and Guests both in and out of the café. Weaving Moments is at the core of hospitality.”
I love that. Doesn’t that sound like how the church should be? The church should be a community that weaves moments of life together so that all people feel included and involved. But sometimes the church is not that kind of place. Rather, people find inclusion at the gym, or the bar… or the coffeehouse. Somewhere along the way, the church neglected Paul’s words and became a place of bodies, budgets, and buildings instead of open doors, open hearts, and open tables. The church, according to Paul, should strive to be a place of radical hospitality. And Paul clearly laid out how that could happen for those early Christians who were trying to find ways to live amongst people who had shunned them, hurt them, and oppressed them. The question for Paul and for us is how do we welcome all people into community and weave wonderful moments of hospitality? And also, how do we do that when the other people are our enemies?
And Paul seemed pretty clear how that can happen. In our Scripture lesson for today, Paul rambled on, with no particular order or structure, about several maxims on how to possess a Spirit of Hospitality. Let’s read these words again to see where we might be missing the mark in this very divided, polarized, and aggravated season of our lives. Paul said that a Spirit of Hospitality happens when we “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. It is when we do not lag in zeal, but are ardent in spirit and serve the Lord. We are hospitable when we contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to strangers.”
And Paul’s not done. “We are to bless those who persecute us; bless and do not curse them. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We are to live in harmony with one another without being haughty. We are to associate with the lowly and not claim to be wiser than we really are. We are called to live peaceably with all.”
But I do have to wonder if Paul’s understanding of church was different than what the institutional church has become two-thousand years later in this powerful, Western world. Remember the word for church that Paul used? Ekklesia. Ekklesia was understood as a community that was “called out” of the world and “set apart” to practice a distinct and purposeful mission. And I believe this called out mission of the church in the first century and the called out church now is to live the law of the spirit and to do so with a Spirit of Hospitality.
So, I wonder today, are we as a church undertaking what Paul asked Christians to be and to do? Are we providing hospitality to our neighbors… to strangers? I know, we are still social distancing and wearing masks and trying to remain at home as much as possible. But are we weaving moments of hospitality when we post on Facebook, or when we write emails, or when we talk about someone else? Are we behaving as Paul wanted Christ’s followers to behave? Are we living as if we have a Spirit of Hospitality?
Being a hospitable community seems really difficult these days in a world of potshots and polarization. It seems that maybe a spirit of kindness is what we really need as we seek to be hospitable to one another. Professor Eleazar S. Fernandez, an expert in liberation theology, finds that we indeed need a spirit of hospitality, a spirit that will bring collaboration and creative community into the world. He says, “What is this life that is lived differently through the power of the Spirit? Broadly, a life lived differently is not different from this life here; rather, it is the power that makes our life here different. A life that is lived in the spirit of the crucified and risen Christ does not abolish bodiliness; it is a life renewed for eternal living. Eternal living does not happen in a place of seclusion but in a world constantly threatened not only by the brazen destructive machineries of death, but also by the routine indifference and acquiescence of the many.”
He goes on to say that those living in the spirit of Christ “embody genuine love, mutual regard, humility, solidarity, peace, and harmony. It is a way of being and acting that cares not only for members of the faith community, but also for the wider society, particularly the strangers in our midst. The Christian tradition has called this the practice of hospitality.”
Hospitality is a characteristic mark of the church. The church was birthed and formed because of hospitality. We remember scripture after scripture of Jesus sending the disciples out into villages and communities to receive hospitality and then, in return, to pronounce healing and love to those who were hospitable. Having a Spirit of Hospitality created Christ’s church and spread the loving message of the church into a hurting world. And according to many who work in liberation theology and social justice right now, hospitality will make or break the modern-day church. And I think that is what Paul was communicating to these early Roman Christians. Their very survival was dependent upon helping to transform an inhospitable and oppressive land into one that reflected eternal life and mutual love. That was what Paul hoped the early church would gain from the law of the spirit, a Spirit of Hospitality.
And we can’t miss Professor Fernandez’s call to action for the modern-day church. He says, “Hospitality does not mean simply welcoming newcomers into our congregations and doing charitable acts, important as they are. We must move beyond hospitality as charity to hospitality as an act of justice. Hospitality as charity offers crumbs from our tables; hospitality as justice offers a place at the table. In the context of our predatory global market, hospitality involves transformation of the system that is inhospitable to many.”
And in my research for this part of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, I found that the early church, which were house churches, were probably not as hospitable as Paul wanted them to be. One commentator said that “while Christians of both Hellenistic and Jewish cultural heritage had undoubtedly been represented in Roman house churches since the beginnings of the Christian movement there, Jews had been expelled from the city in 49 CE by the emperor Claudius. When the ban was lifted in 54 CE and they began to return, it could well be that a more decisively Hellenistic church culture had developed, creating tension.” A lot of what Paul is saying here in Romans 12 possesses the language that both Roman and Jewish readers could understand. Paul hoped for a spiritual community that was both Hellenistic and Jewish, a place for Jews and Gentiles alike. A place hospitable to all people.
This was the hospitable church that Paul wanted to see, that Paul was trying to create. When one group of people, one type of individual, someone who doesn’t act, think, or live like us is excluded from the table, then the law of the spirit is broken. The table, the fellowship, the community of Christ is not one of hospitality and, as Paul says, genuine love, when we do not extend that love to another and care about others above ourselves. Maybe it is time to find ways to show genuine love in our world right now. Perhaps the weary or angry or frightened or lonely stranger that needs community is none other than Christ among us.
Church, we are called out to do something amazing in this world. We are called to weave moments of hospitality together. What will we do to spread a Spirit of Hospitality during this time of pandemic, social and economic unrest, and polarization? How might we make room for more people at the table of Christ, the table where we remember that all of God’s people can taste and see that the Lord is good? Maybe we should lean into the law of the Spirit and listen to Paul’s words to overcome evil with good, to persevere in prayer, to be patient in suffering, and to extend hospitality, not only to the strangers, but to all people. And when we can gather together again, let’s go grab that cup of coffee.