By Sean Gladding
The “hospitality industry” is in full swing in D.C. this week, as we prepare to witness the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, a man who sought and secured the presidency with a platform heavy on the fear of strangers. No sonnet of “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” for this man: his one-note drone was “You can keep your terrorized refugees, your hard-working field laborers and dishwashers, your undocumented university students, we’re gonna Build That Wall and Do Extreme Vetting.” And millions of bible-reading evangelicals checked his box on the ballot and opted for this inhospitable, xenophobic vision for our country. Which profoundly saddens me, not least because hospitality is not one biblical value among many: it is front and center from beginning to end of the biblical narrative. “Hospitality” may initially conjure up images of gleaming glassware on a crisp tablecloth, but the hospitality found throughout scripture is that of protective care of the vulnerable, embodied frequently in the image of the shepherd. Providing care for strangers was a qualification for leadership in the early Christian communities. In the sixteenth century John Calvin described the increasing reliance on inns (rather than on personal hospitality) as an expression of human depravity! Let us be clear: welcoming the stranger lies at the heart of God’s vision for our shared life.
Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, engraved inside the Statue of Liberty, carries the faint echoes of a much, much older poem, a poem which provides the foundation for a hospitable shared life together: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” The first account of creation we find in scripture is a beautiful poem, rich in form and language, which provides the fertile soil for understanding hospitality as welcome and protection.
The rhythm of creation in Genesis 1 is expressed in the parallelism of the six days: first, God creates a place for life, and then God creates the life that will inhabit that place. For instance, on the second day, God creates the seas and the skies, and on the fifth day God creates the fish and the birds. On the sixth day, God created humankind in God’s own image – the image of this hospitable God. God gave us our life’s work, our calling – to be the agents of God’s sovereign reign over the world that God created and that God loves, ensuring that it remains a hospitable place, where all the life that God has created can flourish. The image suggested by the language of the poem is that of a shepherd in the midst of a flock of sheep, charged with their care. (1)
But at this very moment, the poet chooses to interrupt the rhythm of creation. During each of the five previous days, God declares what God is about to do, and then the poet remarks, “…and it was so.” But after God declares, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth…” the poet does not conclude, “and it was so.” It is almost as if the question of whether we will fulfill our calling is to be left open:
- Will we act out of the image of the hospitable God in which we were created, or will we act inhospitably?
- Will we care for the community of creatures, or will we use and abuse them?
- Will we work together so that the world remains a place where all of life can flourish, or will we use it up for our own ends?
- Will we create a place where the stranger is welcome, or will we build walls to keep people out?
I fear that those who will see their candidate become president on January 20th have voted against their divine calling as humans created in the image of a hospitable God. While Genesis 1 may not have been the text that many of us turned to for guidance when choosing our candidate for president, I believe that those of us who claim that the bible has some degree of authority over how we live must now resist any attempt to enact or embody this man’s inhospitable vision for our shared life as a nation.
So, what is to be done? Reflection on the rhythm of the six days of creation, to learn from the order in which God creates, has been a helpful starting place for me this week. God does not make birds and fish and then look around, asking, ‘Now, where can I put these?’ No, it seems God anticipates birds and fish, and then creates a place in which they can flourish. We, too, must anticipate the needs of those who both feel and have been made vulnerable by this election, and prepare to provide a safe, hospitable place in which they are welcome.
Jesus’ words in John 10.10-11 prompt these two questions that we must ask ourselves this week – and beyond – if we are to fulfill our human calling, and practice divine hospitality:
- If the image of human vocation in Genesis 1 is that of a shepherd in the midst of a flock, and Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep, how might we embody Jesus’ protection and care of the vulnerable in our homes, churches, workplaces and schools?
- When the thief comes to steal and destroy, how will we have already prepared to protect those in our midst, so that they might have life – life in all the abundance we want for ourselves?
Let us determine to answer these questions as individuals, families, churches and communities as we seek to more faithfully apprentice ourselves to the Good Shepherd.
1. See Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture p.55
Accompanying Image Title/Credit: Palestinian shepherd looks after his sheep walking from one pasture to the next through the streets of Bethlehem, Palestine. Steve Pavey (March 2016) #HopeInFocus
Sean Gladding is a storyteller, pastor, backyard chicken keeper, community gardener, and YMCA soccer coach. He is married to Rebecca, is father to Maggie and Seth, and they live, love, work and play in the MLK neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky. He is the author of The Story of God, the Story of Us (IVP: 2010) and TEN: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-out Culture (IVP: 2014). He also writes at http://seangladding.com.