Five Degrees of Comfort

Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 1 Peter 4:9-10

In my mind's eye, I shook the dust off my feet at the man in seat 34A (See Matt. 10:14). Or, rather, I shook off whatever it is that adheres to your shoes at crowded airports.

A couple weeks ago, Julie and I, along with our three kids and Julie's mom, boarded a plane in LAX, L.A.'s massive airport. We enjoyed our time in California, but were eager to get home. Shortly after boarding we were informed that the plane was broken and we would not be flying anywhere anytime soon. Ten hours later, we boarded a different plane.

Unfortunately, our new flight came with new seating arrangements that isolated all six of us, including our children. I felt confident, however, that anyone who saw these young children sitting by themselves would quickly and compassionately give up their seat to accommodate our predicament. The flight attendants seemed to think the same thing, but the man in 34A proved us all wrong.

"It doesn't recline." That's all he said. The helpful flight attendant politely asked him if he would trade seats with Amos. A window for a window. But Amos' seat rested against a wall and didn't recline. So, no, he wouldn't trade.

Of course, "recline" is a generous term for the 5 degrees or so that the seat adjusts. One could just as well slouch a few inches and achieve the same result. The recline button offers the illusion of comfort; it is a placebo for the traveling masses, marketed as a luxurious amenity.

Of course, there were others who were kind, and due to their hospitality, all our children were eventually seated next to one of us. Amos actually ended up seated between Julie's mom and the man in 34A. As he slept through the flight with his head on Grandma's lap, stretched perpendicular to his seat, I secretly hoped he was kicking 34A.

In the church, hospitality is not optional. It is a term we use infrequently, but it is firmly embedded in the gospel we proclaim. We are recipients of divine hospitality (See Phil. 2, John 13), and we are invited into a kingdom in which hospitality is a prevailing expectation. Israel's stories demonstrate a rich tradition of hospitality which Jesus emphasizes. Jesus compares the divine kingdom to a great feast in which the invitation is extended to everyone. The table is long, the meal is delectable, the company is diverse, and the welcome is unsurpassed (Matt. 22).

Authentic hospitality welcomes both friends and strangers. It is not deterred by fear and it is not rendered out of convenience. Hospitality necessitates sacrifice. Until we give to the other, we cannot receive from the other. Hospitality celebrates vulnerability and cultivates intimacy. When we are inhospitable, we perpetuate a culture that keeps others at a distance; this is the opposite of community. The call of the church is to cultivate intimate and meaningful community in the context of divine love; this requires hospitality.

The word Peter uses in 1 Pet. 4 for hospitality literally means "love of strangers." Even those in our midst may be strangers. Even if we know their name or where they live, or we sit behind them in church, they may still be strangers. The church should not be a community of strangers. We are siblings in the household of God. Hospitality invites the stranger into the family, and embraces a vulnerability that deconstructs walls of separation. Hospitality turns strangers into friends, friends into community, and community into family.

When we were in California, one of my classmates and his wife took great care of us. They compiled for us a list of family-friendly outings. They picked us up at the airport. They let us borrow their vehicle for a week. They found us car seats for the kids. They took us to the beach and fed us. They loaned us beach towels. They bought gifts for our children. They invited us to their house and cooked for us. They celebrated with us. In extending their table to us, they extended the table of Christ himself, and we experienced the grace of God through their spirit of hospitality.

I want to be a good steward of grace. I want to be hospitable. Yet I wonder how many times I have neglected to show hospitality simply because I wanted my 5 degrees of comfort. I wonder how many strangers have remained strangers because I held on to my illusion of wellbeing at the expense of feasting with family at the table of the King.

I am grateful to be a part of a congregation that celebrates and practices hospitality. May we continue to extend the table of grace without hesitation and with unprecedented generosity.

Incidentally, the man in seat 34A never did recline his seat.

With hope,

Pastor Jonathan