While being far from universally true, many Episcopal Church, and many congregations of other denominations as well, think of themselves as welcoming communities. At the very least, they have ushers who will hand you a bulletin, signs that tell you where the bathrooms are, and at least one person who is willing to take a risk by reaching out a hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Steve, are you new here?” The stark truth, however, is that most congregations that think of themselves as welcoming are actually only friendly at best. That is, they are really good at making sure longtime members feel welcomed every Sunday, but the newcomer ends up being nothing more than a blip on the radar as she passes by the closed conversation circles at coffee hour and slips out the back door.
It can be hard to hear that what you thought was welcoming is nothing more than friendliness. When one’s self-perception comes into question, it can lead to all kinds of distress, anxiety, and frustration. I hear it here at Christ Church, as their Interim Rector, the Search Committee, and the good folks at Holy Cow! were quick to realize that they weren’t nearly as welcoming as they thought they were. It can really sting to hear these words out loud, and to their credit, they’ve taken it to heart. A Hospitality Team began to work diligently on the hard task of making a cultural shift from closed off friendliness to open armed hospitality. We aren’t there yet, but progress is certainly being made.
One of the fundamental questions we have to ask in this process is “what does hospitality look like?” Specifically, how does it differ from simply being friendly? In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with, but he does offer us a quick glimpse into a core feature of hospitality when he tells the twelve that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Offering hospitality doesn’t mean a grand buffet every Sunday. It doesn’t require a Starbucks, a Welcome Center, or even trained volunteers. The key aspect of hospitality is the ability and willingness to notice the other.
One cannot offer a cup of cold water to someone that remains invisible. In order to know that a person is in need of water, coffee, or even a simple handshake requires that they first be seen, and seen not as an interloper or a passerby, but as a human being, made in the image of God, who deserves to experience God’s love in this place. Being hospitable means having one’s eyes open and one’s head on a swivel to see the family searching for the nursery, the man wondering where the restroom is, or the woman unsure of which door to use to enter the church. Being hospitable means recognizing the person in the next pew who can’t figure out why there is an S in front of the next hymn or what the heck a Sanctus is. Being hospitable means seeing another, discerning their need, and, in the model of Jesus, having compassion on them, i.e. actually doing something to alleviate the need. It doesn’t require heroics, but rather, hospitality is about inviting the other to experience fully the little things that make church a comfortable place, thereby experiencing the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the refreshment of the Holy Spirit.