At Home

By Andrew Nunn

One of the differences between being up north to being down south, and there are many of them, is that you’re less likely down here to just drop by someone, to knock on their door unannounced, unprepared. Up north it’s not seen as odd or rude just to drop by on the off chance that they’ll be in, to knock on the door, to be invited in and settle down for a chat. And inevitably the kettle will be put on and a plate of biscuits will emerge and there’s something resembling hospitality going on.

This whole idea of hospitality is such an important one in the Gospels. Jesus is often being invited to a meal. He had nowhere to lay his head, but it seemed that he had plenty of people who were willing to receive him into their homes, sit him down, and feed him. He’d turn up in a village or a town, and whether it was Zacchaeus from up in his tree, or one of the leaders of the community, whether an outsider like a tax collector or someone else of rather dubious reputation, Jesus was willing to accept their invitation and sit down and eat with them.

The story of the hospitality of Abraham is an important one and not least because of the powerful icon by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev, an image that has made this story so well-known. The icon shows the three visitors, three angels sitting around a table, an image that’s taken to point to that deep trinitarian relationship that we understand as being the nature of God but also of the hospitality that’s extended to the visitor, the traveler, and to us. In Rublev’s icon there’s a place for us at the table, a space for us to fill on the fourth side of the gathering, a chair at the meal as yet untaken, a place meant for us.

The Gospel doesn’t tell us that Jesus was pre-booked in the home of Mary and Martha, that they were really expecting him. From the account of the fuss that’s going on in the kitchen, it would look like Jesus was, like those three angels, the unexpected guest, that hospitality and a welcome was extended when the sisters heard that Jesus was in town.

The wonderful thing about this encounter — in addition to that element of the story that makes us all wonder if we are too practical and not spiritual enough, whether by inclination we’re happier in the kitchen doing the preparation or being the one who would sit at the master’s feet being fed by his words and presence — the wonderful thing is that after this first visit by Jesus, this place became, almost, his home.

If this is the same Mary and Martha who had a brother named Lazarus, and let’s suppose that they are, then this family would become Jesus’ adoptive family. Their home is his home, in the little town of Bethany just over the hills from Jerusalem, the place to which Jesus would return each day after his arrival in the city until his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane just a short distance away. Their hospitality enabled Jesus to find a home.

This generous, ungrudging, sacrificial, loving hospitality that we see exhibited by Abraham and Sarah, by Mary and Martha, each playing their part in the care of their guests, this hospitality contrasts so sharply with what we’re seeing developing in so many countries. What we do not hear from these who are suddenly asked to open their doors is the response “Go home,” and yet that seems to be something that’s being said to more and more people, even to those who are actually at home, or have no other home to go to.

One of the great sights in the whole of the world is seeing the Statue of Liberty standing proud on her island on that final approach into New York. It’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like to the thousands and millions who fled war and persecution and poverty and found their way across the Atlantic to a place of safety and freedom and opportunity and liberty. Liberty stands there as a sign of welcome, as a sign of hospitality: expected or unexpected, you are welcome, you are safe, you are wanted.

The response of God is never “Go home.” It’s always “You are home,” you are home and you are welcome and I will prepare food for you. As George Herbert so beautifully puts it in his poem, “Love”:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

This is the divine imperative of hospitality that we see in this Eucharist today and that contrasts so sharply with what’s going on not just in the United States but closer to home, wherever the politics of populism has found a voice and an audience. I wonder whether you, if you are a person of color, at home here, have been told by someone else that you are not welcome, that you should go back to where you came from? Too many people are having to face this.

Andrea Levy, in her wonderful book Small Island, tells the story of Hortense, a proud woman of color arriving here from the Caribbean to build a new life. Those were the days when those with a room to let would put a sign up in their windows: “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” It was the antithesis of hospitality. You are not welcome, go home.

St. Paul in the beginning of his Letter to the Colossians enters into the nature of Christ and the nature of the church. The two are of course interwoven, and in these verses we heard in the second reading, Paul says this: “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed.”

The mystery was the true nature of God, the longed for yet unexpected, the planned for yet unprepared for, the one who would rely upon the generosity of an overworked innkeeper on the busiest night of the year to find a warm place for a homeless family from out of town, the one who would be welcomed and embraced by some, rejected and abused by others, the one who would be fed by others and would feed others with himself. The hospitable God seeks our hospitality and models it for us.

One of the things we like to think about ourselves here is that we’re open and hospitable, that that is how we live out our commitment to be an inclusive church. We like to think that we say to everyone, you are welcome, sit down and eat. But we can always be better at it, we must always be and do it, be the place of hospitality, do the business of hospitality, however busy we are, however inconvenient it is, however challenging the guest.

Because, in a world in which we will hear “Go home, you are not welcome” being said more and more, we need to give another message, the divine message: “You are at home, come to my table, eat my bread, drink my wine, and I will eat and drink with you.” As Herbert concludes his poem:

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Whoever you are, wherever you are from, you are most welcome. Stay, for you are at home.

The Very Rev. Andrew Nunn is dean of Southwark Cathedral in London.


Online Archives