Hospitality in Many Forms – Kris Litman-Koon explores how hospitality is displayed in our lectionary readings, and how ecological hospitality today connects us to these biblical concepts.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 17-23, Year C (2022, 2025)
As we venture into the assigned texts for this Sunday, a clear theme emerges from at least three of the texts: hospitality. This commentary will explore that theme of hospitality and its various dynamics in the assigned texts, including how it can be found in the fourth text. Ultimately, we will discuss how the concept of hospitality is at work in our care for God’s creation.
The first reading is from Genesis 18:1-10a, a story that Christians throughout the centuries have interpreted through a trinitarian lens in both word and art. However, this is an important reminder of how scripture should be read: we should always seek to know the original meaning of the text. Passages like this one bore great meaning to generations of people before Jesus ever came along; it is not as if stories like this one make no sense to anyone until they have been read through a Christian lens. So who were these visitors? Based on the context, it was God and two angels, and Abraham initially believes all of them are human visitors. In the next chapter, the same two angels are the ones who receive an inhospitable welcome in Sodom (Genesis 19:1). It should be noted that hospitality (and the lack of it) is the connection between our reading today and what unfolds in chapter 19.
It would be difficult to over-emphasize how important hospitality has been to the peoples of the Middle East throughout the centuries and to this day. The theory is that long ago when the people of the region were mostly nomadic – and many remain nomadic to this day – the source of the next meal or drink was constantly in question. If a traveler approached someone’s lodging and they were denied food or water, that might be the traveler’s death sentence. Ancient sources of the region – not only Hebrew scriptures – thoroughly emphasize the ethic of hospitality.
Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality it rewarded with the promise of a son. Their hospitality goes beyond a verbal welcome, though, because hospitality is supposed to be tangible. In this story, there is water to wash their feet, rest offered under the shade of the tree, bread prepared for nourishment, and a meal of curds, milk, and a calf is presented. God finds this to be favorable. The application of this story in our day can be personal or corporate – in our homes or in our congregations – yet the takeaway is the same: true hospitality is revealed mostly in the tangible things we offer, and not just the words we say. Congregations commonly offer words of welcome to both God and visitors, yet congregations would do well to ask themselves how is this welcome tangibly displayed? Ecological examples will be shared later, but for now imagine how congregations can tangibly be hospitable or inhospitable: matters of accessibility, decisions that allow new individuals to easily find their place (in-person or online), and the frequently overlooked indicators that reveal who is truly valued in this place and who is judged.
The appointed psalm for each Sunday tends to serve as a response to the first reading. Psalm 15 certainly follows that tendency by beginning with the verse, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” The psalm is, however, flipping the script of the Genesis reading by asking who is God hospitable toward. The final four verses of the psalm are not exactly heartwarming for those who question their ability to come into God’s presence. The clear intention of the psalm is to say that only the most upright can abide or dwell with God. We should be cautious with where we go from here, or at least admit what influences our response. Christians tend to point to theories of depravity and conclude “no one” is the answer, but that would be a later lens applied to this psalm. The psalm clearly indicates that there are people who may abide or dwell with God, which brings us to its original meaning. This psalm likely was used liturgically by the priestly order. Before performing a priestly role, the first verse would be asked, and the final four verses were the answer. How then do we connect this psalm to the Genesis reading? (Asking such a question is, admittedly, placing a lens on the psalm that was not originally intended.) An honest reading of Abraham’s full story reveals that he was not a blameless individual nor did he always do what was right, as is the expectation in Psalm 15:2. Yet Abraham and Sarah were blessed by God for their hospitality. When we think about it, it is doubtful that even the priests perfectly met the criteria listed in the final verses of Psalm 15. So maybe a faithful reading of the psalm is that it is not as hardline as we might suppose, and perhaps that is an indicator of God’s desire to be hospitable toward us.
The Colossians reading is the one assigned text for today that is difficult to see hospitality at first glance. I would like to start by inviting you to read my commentary on last week’s prescribed texts to see my thoughts on Colossians 1:1-14. That reading emphasized the growth (“fruit”) of the gospel, but it didn’t state what exactly that gospel is. That answer is found in today’s pericope, Colossians 1:15-28. Verses 15-20 were originally a hymn, and this hymn is the heart of the author’s argument throughout the epistle. What the author means by “the gospel” is that there is a cosmic scope to the good news of Jesus. Epistles that predate Colossians didn’t discuss the cosmic nature of the good news, which is one reason why scholars argue that a disciple of Paul (and not Paul himself) wrote this epistle; the people’s Christology was expanding as time progressed.
As you read the hymn, note the number of times it emphasizes that the good news of Jesus is for all creation, not just humans. I’ve italicized the ones that I note, which number seven.
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
The cosmic nature of the good news certainly is something an ecologically-minded preacher or teacher can highlight today. Yet there is more good news in this assigned pericope. The “mystery” (Colossians 1:26) that had previously been hidden but now is revealed is this: that the God who established a unique relationship with the Jews has now also opened the hope of glory to the Gentiles through “Christ in you (plural),” meaning the church. Allow me to highlight a part of next week’s lectionary reading; the writing of this letter was instigated because a philosophy had been taking root (Colossians 2:8) that says a connection with God is obtained through asceticism, observing certain festivals, worshiping celestial beings, and adhering to certain regulations (Colossians 2:16-23). Such a pagan philosophy views a connection with God as an elaborate scheme. Last week’s Deuteronomy reading indicated that God’s commandment is already in the mouth and in the heart of the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 30:14), the author of Colossians says today that the mystery of the Gentiles’ connection to God is actually very simple as well: Christ in you. That is where I find hospitality in this text: God shows Gentiles hospitality by welcoming them into a special relationship, and the tangible way this is done is by Christ dwelling in them.
The gospel reading comes from Luke 10:38-42, where we find Martha meeting Jesus and offering hospitality to him and presumably to others with him. Martha is busy with the tasks of being a good hostess, while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching. Having a seat at the feet of a teacher was the common position for someone who was a disciple (see Luke 8:35 and Acts 22:3), and today’s gospel reading is a rare depiction of a woman being allowed to take such a place. That breaking of that social decorum may be a reason why Martha requested that Mary begin to assist her with the housework. Jesus replies to Martha’s request by saying that Martha is worried and distracted when there is only one thing important in this moment: listening to Jesus’ teaching. Hospitality – as we normally would define it – seems to take a back seat in this lesson. That isn’t a dismissal of the ethic of hospitality, of course; it just needs to have its place in comparison. Remember how important the ethic of hospitality is in the Middle East. It remains so even in this story of Martha and Mary, but the point of the story is that abiding in Jesus’ teachings is of utmost importance.
How does all of this inform our lives today, especially as congregations? First of all, hospitality should go beyond a vocal welcome, because true hospitality is enacted through tangible means: washing feet, offering a place to rest, and providing sustenance are the examples displayed in the Genesis reading. In Colossians we find the God of Israel showing hospitality to the Gentiles by offering Christ to dwell in them. Finally, as important as hospitality is, the gospel lesson tells us that listening to and applying Jesus’ teachings is of utmost importance. That means being a community that lives into God’s kingdom by being loving and merciful in all things. I mentioned earlier that matters of accessibility and indicators of who is valued are a few ways that visitors can determine a congregation’s hospitality. The truth is, our hospitality toward others is how we bear hospitality toward God. Recall how the apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25:31-46 equates our tangible welcome of others with our welcome of Jesus.
There is also an ecological lens to all of this. (Although I speak of congregations, this can be applied to property that is entrusted to our individual care.) Every congregation is different in terms of geography, demographics, social setting (e.g. urban/rural), monetary freedom, and a surprising number of other factors. I am about to share some ideas, and I hope you will keep this piece of pastoral advice in mind as you read them: we are called to celebrate the ministries we can do, and we do not lament the ministries we can’t do. It all comes down to your setting, so you will have to think creatively and discern what is feasible for your congregation. Can you incorporate more native plants into your congregation’s landscape to benefit the local ecosystem? Can you develop a community garden that provides produce for a local hunger program or for hungry travelers who come your way? Can you explore local public lands to have times of rest, perhaps asking another congregation (of any faith) to join you in appreciating them with you? Can you provide a meeting space for green groups or for people who need to talk with others about their climate anxiety? Can you work with local Master Naturalists to see if there is a plant you could cultivate as a congregation, in order to aid the recovery of a bird or insect species? All of these are examples of ecological hospitality that I’ve seen congregations do. What I find most interesting about ecological hospitality like these examples is how multidirectional it is: such actions often tangibly benefit people, other species, and – by the fact that God delights in abundant life – the divine.
In the book The Living Landscape, authors Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy share a story of how the people of South Florida accidentally showed ecological hospitality.
“South Florida was once home to a thriving population of coontie (Zamia pumila), a slow-growing cycad that the Seminole Indians used as a starchy food. When Florida was occupied, first by the Spanish and then by newly minted Americans, the Seminoles showed the newcomers how to pound coontie roots into a powder that could be used to enhance a number of dishes. The colonists loved coontie roots so much that soon all the coontie, except for a few plants in private gardens, was gone.
What the colonists didn’t know was that coontie was the sole host plant for the atala (Eumaeus atala), a gorgeous lycaenid butterfly whose only foothold in North America was southern Florida. Not surprisingly, when the coontie disappeared so did the atala butterfly. Last minute efforts in 1974 to put the atala on the endangered species list failed because there was no evidence that the butterfly still existed.
About that time, landscape engineers discovered the ornamental value of coontie in residential plantings. … Homeowners agreed and in short order coontie was restored to Florida landscapes – not in the wild, but in formal landscape plantings. Soon after coontie became widespread once again, the atala butterfly reappeared. Apparently, some remnant atala population had survived, perhaps on undetected coontie deep in the Everglades, and is now colonizing residential coontie plantings throughout South Florida.” (Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2014, pp. 110-111)
As you can see, Florida residents showed hospitality to the thought-extinct atala butterfly, even though it was by accident. Ponder and discuss with others how your congregation might incorporate some ecological hospitality into its collective work. In my experience, people are itching to make a positive impact on this world. Having an avenue to benefit the world through the congregation is life-giving to the ecosystem, to other people, and to the participants themselves.
Originally written by Kris Litman-Koon in 2022.
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