Mi Casa es Su Casa

May 29, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13; Mt 10: 40-42


Memorial Day is a holiday that has evolved to incorporate a number of celebrations The holiday, originated as Decoration Day in 1868, after the American Civil War, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in military service. And though Memorial Day continues as a day that on which we pay special tribute to our war dead, the holiday has evolved as a day to remember all of our loved ones who have died.  Many people take time this week-end to visit the final resting place of family members; often cleaning the graves and bringing flowers.

In addition, regardless of the weather, or that the summer solstice is its true beginning, for us here in Maine, especially on the Maine coast, memorial week-end is the start of the summer season.  Viewers of shows such as Upstairs Downstairs, or Downton Abbey are familiar with the term “the season”. The London Season was the time of year when society families left their country estates and headed to London to stay in grand houses and squares in Mayfair.  Of course, the unspoken purpose for “The Season” was to bring together people of status and wealth in an endless whirlwind of festivities and pleasure, while providing the setting for the largest “marriage market” in the world.

The London Season usually began after Easter and continued through the end of August.  For us, the season begins this week-end, lasts till Labor Day week-end and involves welcoming scores of family and friends, hosting lots of barbeques, ensuring that our guests eat lobster and clams, endlessly stripping and remaking beds, washing tons of towels and making frequent trips to the grocery store, for just a few more things.  In short, the summer season on the coast of Maine is an opportunity to practice hospitality. And though very enjoyable, the summer season for Maine home-owners involves lots of work.

A family was having guests to dinner. At the table the mother turned to her six-year old daughter and said, “Dear, would you like to say the blessing?”

The six-year old replied, “I don’t know what to say.”

The mother responded, “Just say what you hear mommy say, sweetie.”

To which the little girl bowed her head and said, “Dear Lord, I don’t know why I ever invited these people to dinner!”

My dad died two years after Tom and I were married and Tom just hated it when my mom visited.  It’s not that he didn’t like her.  Actually the two of them got along better than did my mom and I.  What Tom didn’t like was the way I was before she visited.  My mom was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart.  You had to see it to believe it!  She was a magnificent knitter and seamstress.  She had even taken tailoring lessons and had made my dad a sport coat. She was a gourmet cook and charming hostess. At any holiday her dining room looked like a magazine cover.  The meals always included multiple courses with the right wines served with each. (She had taken wine courses too). At the end of the meal she offered a minimum of three kinds of desserts, several kinds of home-made candy and a myriad of liqueurs. On Easter she even made her own beautifully decorated, filled chocolate eggs. Despite all of the cooking, her house, including the kitchen was always immaculate and attractively decorated.

Our house, on the other hand, though clean, had what is euphemistically referred to as “the lived in look”.  Tom feels comfortable around stacks of books, placed in several rooms, all of which he is reading. It always amazed me how far and wide he could spread the Sunday New York Times; Several little piles in the den, some in the dining room, others in the kitchen and at least the book review section on his bedside table. My mom often visited on Sunday. So in addition to trying to emulate her cooking prowess while keeping the kitchen mess to a minimum, I scurried around the house getting smeared with newsprint as I tried to gather the piles of Sunday papers, scooping up Legos and Star Wars action figures along the way, in hopes that I’d have time to vacuum up the dog and cat fur that had amassed just since the previous day. I’m sure you can picture it.  I was a wild woman, running around and asking for help, in a less than pleasant tone, of family members who absolutely didn’t see that anything needed doing. I’m embarrassed to say that more than once this scuttling led me to tears and by the time my mother arrived that I was in the bathroom washing the mascara that had run down my face.

I hadn’t read Robert Brault’s quote, “We labor to make a house a home, and then every time we’re expecting visitors, we rush to turn it back into a house.  Nor had I learned from Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my favorite mentors, who said, “The only advantage of not being too good a housekeeper is that your guests are so pleased to feel how very much better they are.”

Eventually, none too soon for all involved, I discovered the difference between entertaining and hospitality. It seems to me that entertaining focuses on us as hosts. We clean and cook and serve. We provide food and lodging.  How is it? How am I doing?

Hospitality, on the other hand seems to centers on the other. Now there are some cynical comments about hospitality. The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911 defines hospitality as, “The virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.” And then there’s Ambrose Bierce’s definition; “Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even if you wish they were.”

But a deeper meaning of the word “hospitality” emerges when we realize that it comes from the same source as the words, “hospice” and “hospital.” The word “hospice” means “shelter” and “hospital” refers to “a place of healing.” Life can be difficult and we  don’t always know the pain, and struggles those who visit with us are experiencing.

Keeping this in mind, we can be guided in our behavior towards guests who come to our home and those who attend our Sunday services. Do our words and actions welcome and provide a shelter for other persons when they are around us? Do they promote a sense of healing?  In this light we can ask ourselves, how is it?  How are they doing? To the degree that we focus on the other, we don’t have time or attention to evaluate ourselves or become anxious. In this context, hospitality is a spiritual discipline

The Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a shoemaker who was making his way home one night when he found a poor man shivering and poorly clad. Moved by pity, the shoemaker took the man home. His wife was not pleased. She complained about the cost of feeding another mouth. As she continued to complain, the stranger grew smaller and smaller, shriveled and wrinkled with every unkind word. But when she spoke kindly to the stranger and gave him food, he grew and became more beautiful. The reason was that the stranger was an angel from heaven in human form and could live only in an atmosphere of kindness and love.

Isn’t that so with all of us?  Oh sure, we can survive for a while pretty much anywhere, but when Jesus said, “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full”, wasn’t he talking about and environment of kindness and love? Isn’t this the environment that we need to live, and thrive and grow?

Both the Old and New Testaments are full of stories and counsel about hospitality.  I counted one hundred and eight passages.

Hospitality customs in the biblical world focusses on two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien. Both were usually referred to as “Strangers”. We have a similar custom here in Maine. Rather than call them strangers, however, we just say, “They’re from away”. As you all know, a Mainer needs to have been born here. Tom and I are Mainers, although he has dual citizenship with Canada.  Our older son, Christopher was born in Chicago and came to Maine with us when he was 2 ½. He is not a Mainer.  Andrew was born at Maine Medical, but he was started in Chicago, so we’re not sure if he’s considered a true Mainer.

In Israel, the law protected the resident alien, a foreigner who had settled permanently in the land. He could not own land, but he could participate in communal activities. The traveler, however, was extremely vulnerable. Only the customs of hospitality protected him.

The environment of the desert and arid land in most of the Middle East is harsh. For a traveler, access to water and food was a matter of life and death. Most settlements were built near available water or wells. The traveler needed that water. Yet, it was also important for the settled community to have protection from the “stranger who could at times cause harm.  As a result, strict codes of conduct developed to govern such encounters. These conventions of hospitality also applied equally to the desert dwellers who lived in tents as they followed their grazing herds. They were obligated to provide for travelers that stopped at their tents, and under these customs could expect some protection from hostile actions from the “stranger.”

The host was obliged to provide the traveler with food, water, and shelter. Last week’s bulletin cover had a picture of the famous icon of Abraham welcoming three such “strangers” into his tent. He eagerly ran to meet them and lavishly welcomed them. He provided them with water to wash their dusty feet and a place to rest. Abraham’s elaborate preparations for the meal indicate the importance of providing for the travelers. When they left, Abraham traveled with them a short distance “to start them on their way”.

Our guests this summer will have different needs but our opportunities to meet them will be just as real and compelling.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Angels are often the personification of blessing.  By providing true hospitality by focusing on the needs of the other and trying to meet those needs we may become more caring, grow in compassion, consideration, sensitivity, or courtesy. We may become more gentle, helpful, tactful, tolerant or generous.

We are so fortunate to be living in this beautiful area and able to enjoy with family and friends all that the summer here has to offer. As we welcome our guests with reverence and warmth, as we bless them, may we experience blessings through them that we never imagined.