Strangers Getting Stranger

Mutual Aid as Hospitality

Being a part of a church – in a town of 4000 people – has been a very different experience for me, compared to the other contexts I have lived in. A town of 4000 does not have the capacity for a variety of social services to exist right here in town. So it was a surprise to me when individuals from the Bluffton area made their way into the church office, seeking help. In other churches I have attended in cities, most social services were outsourced to community organizations. But because there are fewer of those resources available, we get to help folks right from our church.

Our mutual aid fund has supported many different individuals who are in a pinch. It does not solve the systemic issues that are at play in their lives. It does not get people out of poverty, it does not sustain any individuals who are struggling long term. But it has been the occasional band aid, helping people who are struggling to make it through particularly difficult months. It has been a privilege, as a church staff and with the Deacons, to represent the mutual aid fund. It has been a privilege to be able to say yes to so many people who have come seeking help.

Out of all of these needs, the most common request is from unhoused folks that need to stay at a hotel for a week. The Fairway Inn, which is just on the other side of 70 on 103, is run by Manny – the hotel owner who has a particular knack for hospitality. First of all, Manny’s hotel rates make it possible for our church to support a week for someone at the hotel. But Manny himself has also created arrangements for folks that cannot afford a place to stay at night through letting people help out around the hotel. Manny has helped make it possible for many people who are in a pinch to have a place to sleep at night, in an America where housing costs are all time highs.

What is striking to me about Manny’s hospitality is that it is nonincriminating – even folks that are out of money can find a place to stay . Manny could say that he doesn’t want to deal with people in tough situations – but he doesn’t. He creates more and more rooms for them. It is hospitality at its finest.

The Shunammite Woman

Our story today comes from the book of 2 Kings. Just a few chapters earlier, one will read Elisha’s origin story – which starts with the prophet Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind, and Elijah’s spirit being given to Elisha. Then Elisha begins performing many miracles: Classics such as, “Sending bears to maw 40 boys that made fun of his baldness,” and, “Miraculously filling jars with oil so that a woman is able to pay her debts to keep her sons from slavery.” Some vain, some emancipating. Both Life changing.

That leads us to the story that was read by Gloria today.

This is quite the story. To be honest, the level of hospitality that the Shunammite woman offers to Elisha itself is almost as unreasonable to my modern ears as Elisha’s previous miracles. Who builds an additional room in their house for a stranger?

Elisha is passing through her town, and the Shunammite woman invites him for a meal. She invites a stranger in for a meal.

How many of you remember a time when your family might have done something like this. I am guessing that there are people who have, especially those who grew up in a small town like Bluffton.

Welcoming a stranger into your home is a radical act today. Can you imagine knocking on someone’s door that you don’t know, asking for a place to stay.

If someone knocked on my door at 8pm, who I have never met before, asking to stay at my house, I would be aghast. Perhaps I am a terrible human being. It would be more likely that I would pay hundreds of dollars by offering to pay for a night at the hotel for them.

But not only did Shunammite woman offer him a meal, she said to her husband, “Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. Let us make a small roof chamber with walls and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.” The Shunammite woman decides to set up a permanent place for Elisha whenever he passes by.

Is something like this even possible in our wild 21st century where it feels like strangers are getting stranger and stranger and stranger. Where we hear stories of all kinds of violence done to people. Guns everywhere. It is this same type of fear of the stranger that fuels political movements keen on keeping immigrants or refugees out of our country. The cost of hospitality seems too high. It is too risky.

Women, Boundaries, and Hospitality

The Shunammite woman shows no fear. She invites Elisha to stay whenever he wants to, and she asks nothing of Elisha in return. Hospitality at its purist.

Elisha, who is really grateful, finds out from the king that the Shunammite woman is experiencing infertility. So to repay her for her hospitality, Elisha performs a miracle: He tells her that she will be pregnant in a year.

My first thoughts when I get to this part of the story, is that this whole story feels very patriarchal. Women have been historically, and continue to today, to be asked to be hospitable for the people around them. It’s part of the patriarchal gig. They have been asked to forgo what might be their personal boundaries so that the space is hospitable for the men- making sure that the men are well taken care of. At its worst, the demand for hospitality has pressured women to withstand abuse and suffering for the sake of others in their communities.

This is the painful side of hospitality.

The Shunammite woman, in her patriarchal context, was praised for being hospitable, and because she failed to have children, the most obvious miracle that Elisha could produce out of the kindness of his miraculous patriarchal heart was to make it possible for her to have a son. Hospitality and children were what gave women worth. And so, Elisha’s miracle gave her worth in that culture.

Stories like the Shunammite woman have historically been used to reinforce the necessity of women acting in hospitable ways, and the necessity for women to be able to have kids. These roles continue to be given to women in churches, while simultaneously they are explicitly barred from roles of leadership. These patriarchal realities are ironically not hospitable to women. It was a space that centered the lives of men.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that women acting hospitable or having children are bad things in themselves. However, when one’s personhood is based on being successful at childbirth and hospitality, we run into major issues.

In fact there is still incredible pressure within progressive communities for women to take on these roles. If a woman is not hospitable, they are quickly named plenty of slurs. If she is not able to have kids, or get married, there are never ending painful comments that come their way no matter how well intended. We have too often failed as churches to celebrate the lives of folks who are not married. When these roles are the only roles that women are given access to in their community, then the community is not hospitable to women.

In a community where hospitality is valued, what is at the center of the community is not simply the men, but the women, and the children, and the list goes on. Is our worship service hospitable to those with hearing difficulties? Is it hospitable for those who use wheelchairs or walkers? Is it hospitable for the child with the wiggles? Is it hospitable for someone without a college education? For someone who cannot read music? Someone who doesn’t speak or read English. Pick any of the justice issues that we have spent Sundays reflecting on. A hospitable community seeks to care not just for a particular group but care for us all. Is it possible to keep on expanding our space? Like the Shunammite woman adding room for Elisha? To care for us all, we must be intentional about centering those who have not historically experienced hospitality. This. is not. Easy. work. In fact is is also scary. There is potential loss. Will our worship services be the same?

A great example of hospitality right now in our worship, is our communion bread. Our Vegan, gluten free, soy free – the one that can feel so absurd that when I describe it when I introduce communion, that the congregation tends to laugh. Universal hospitality in communion bread is an attempt to meet all the dietary needs of the community, in one loaf of bread. It is possible for everyone to receive bread, a symbol of God’s grace, in the form of bread. May we laugh with joy that that is possible.

And I am not going to lie, trying to accommodate everyone is exhausting. It’s exhausting for everyone at the center. It can be exhausting trying to be hospitable. It’s exhausting to be hospitable in a world with so many different people. And from what I hear, it’s even more exhausting to always be on the edge and never receiving hospitality.

Examples of Hospitality

How does Manny do it at the Fairway Inn?

How does everyone who works in social services act hospitable all day long. Anyone who works with people in general?

What inspires a community to welcome a Congolese family, from the other side of the world, with different culture, language, practices.

What inspires a church to keep their doors unlocked 24/7, in the name of hospitality. An incredible risk – there are thousands of dollars of equipment here that someone wouldn’t have to think that hard to steal. Maybe even placing its own church members at risk when they come into the building in the evenings, not knowing who is here and what their motives might be.

Hospitality goes against the grain. Perhaps this is why Hospitality in the US feels so foreign. Hospitality is exhausting. Hospitality is risky. Hospitality is scary stuff.

Finishing the Story

To finish our story today, After many years after giving birth to her miracle child, the Shunammite woman’s son suddenly has a headache that leads to his death. How could this have happened? She was so hospitable! Can bad things happen to hospitable people?

So she hops on her donkey and speeds off to find Elisha, who greets her with concern. In her grief she asks Elisha why he put her through this. Why did he raise her hopes with this son, who then died so young.

Elisha eventually goes back to the house where the boy laid dead, and prays. Then Elisha makes a bizarre set of decisions that we won’t take time to overthink right now. He placed himself on top of the dead boy, and stared at him eye to eye, hand to hand, and breathed new life into him – mouth to mouth. And the boy came alive. Super old school CPR.

This is not a story of prosperity. This story is not a vending machine. Like – You do something hospitable, and so God rewards you.

We do not know what will happen when we are hospitable. We could be given the gift of life. We could have a child die. Welcoming the stranger is a huge risk.

The Shunammite woman, in her hospitality was given both life and death.. She took a risk. She created the space of hospitality. She struggled with its outcomes of beauty, pain and loss. Hospitality is not hospitality without taking the risk of welcoming the stranger and all of the unknowns that come with it. Hospitality does not happen without a level of uncertainty. And lastly, Hospitality does not happen when fear dominates a community which keeps them from taking steps towards strangers who keep getting stranger

Like the Shunammite Woman’s faith, we are called to trust that there is a resurrection on the other side of the pain and beauty of hospitality. That God will breathe life and courage into the spaces of deepest fears. Our fears that keep us dead and disconnected to the diverse and strange world out there.

The hope of resurrection gives us the strength and courage that God is with us as we keep our arms wide open to the other.

Hospitality is a job for the whole community – not a job not just for women. We are not called to lose all our boundaries, which has been historically demanded from women. And it is not an individual’s responsibility to maintain the hospitality for everyone. Its not anyone’s responsibility to tend to these systems. We need each other, and we need to take this risk together.

To close, Can we follow the way of the Shunammite woman. Can our capacity to be hospitable be resurrected? Can we allow God to hold our fears? Can we listen to the feeling that tells us that “this world isn’t right” whenever we choose to not be hospitable. That pit in our stomach, that is an aching reminder that there are people who desperately need the hospitality of the church.

Maybe at the very least, we are called to be in touch with those feelings. We are called to remember as Christian we are called to be radically hospitable and to live into that struggle. A struggle that might just have us crack the door open a bit more to the other.

These Bible stories challenge us in a way that reminds us that at one time, our bearers of the faith invited strangers into their homes. Even created whole rooms for them.

Go, taking risks as a community, setting boundaries, opening doors, and building more and more rooms.