You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons Episcopalians are so hesitant to engage in evangelism isn’t the fear of hearing “no,” but rather the fear of hearing “yes.” I know that has been true for me at times. I’m always on edge when I know a friend is coming to church. “Will they feel welcomed?” “Can they find a parking space?” “Will they know which door to enter?” I’ve been thinking a lot about this as recently we welcomed Mark Richard as a Ministry Intern, and today we welcome our new Associate Rector and Chaplain to WKU, the Reverend Becca Kello. Will they see the church as the loving and beloved place that I do, or will they instead notice the stained concrete near Moore Hall, the weirdly hidden in plain sight coffee pots in Surface Hall, or, as Mark already has, that the State Street doors are inaccessible 97% of the time? (That’s the actual percentage – I did the math.) It can be nerve wracking to welcome a friend into one’s church, which is why I’ve spent a good chunk of time during my first six months here talking about evangelism, but thinking about hospitality.
There are more church hospitality gurus out there than K-Cup options at Kroger, but one thing they agree on is that you have very little time to make a first impression on a guest. Usually, within 10 minutes after the service has ended, a visitor has already decided if they will ever return. You might not have noticed it, but during our three-Sunday journey with Jesus as he commissioned the twelve to preach the Good News on his behalf, we have heard Jesus lay the foundation for quick first impressions in the church, though the context is, admittedly, a bit different. Two weeks ago, as Jesus began this teaching, he told the disciples that as they enter a house, they should offer greetings, and “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.” Jesus didn’t invite his disciples to be patient or to give a place a second chance at making a first impression, but rather, he was clear that they would know in an instant whether the Spirit was present and a place was ready to welcome a stranger.
In this morning’s lesson, Jesus circles back around to the topic of hospitality, and although he is speaking to those who will be welcomed, as we hear it today, Jesus offers a lesson on hospitality for Episcopalians who repeatedly affirm that we will seek and serve Christ in every person, especially those who walk through our doors. God sends every guest that we receive. Our task, if we are taking Jesus’ words seriously this morning, is to realize that when we welcome a guest, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus, we welcome God into our midst. This isn’t always easy. I get that. Sometimes guests look and smell more like Jesus the first century Galilean than we would like. Sometimes guests have different ideas than we do. Sometimes, they might even sit in the pew that your family has sat in for the last fifty years. Every guest we welcome will change us, and to be truly hospitable is to be willing to allow that change to happen.
Truth be told, the Church has been struggling with how to welcome strangers since the very beginning. Outlined in Acts chapter fifteen, the First Council of Jerusalem was called because the Apostles couldn’t agree on how to welcome Gentiles into the faith. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds his audience of the fundamental call of the church to welcome guests, admonishing them to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Even those whose lives are dedicated to hospitality can find it difficult. One of my favorite church stories, one that you will tired of hearing someday, comes from Kathleen Norris’ spiritual memoir, Dakota. Norris reflects on the tradition of hospitality that has been a part of monastic life for hundreds of years, noting that a wayward traveler has always been able to find safety, rest, and a meal with the monks who welcomed them as they would welcome Jesus into their dwelling. Yet even in the monastery, true hospitality can be difficult to maintain. Norris recalls a story of an older monk talking to a younger monk about the challenge of welcoming every guest as he would welcome Jesus at the gate: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk says. “Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is that you again?’”
To welcome a stranger as we would welcome Jesus is a hard standard to live up to. Every congregation struggles with it to some degree. I know that in the search process that brought me here, Christ Church did some work coming to terms with the reality that this wasn’t as hospitable a community as you thought you were. Like many Episcopal congregations, y’all tended to be more friendly than welcoming. That is to say, you were really good at making sure each other felt welcomed on Sunday, but often, a newcomer ended up as nothing more than a blip on the radar as she passed by the closed conversation circles in Surface Hall and slipped out the back door. The good news is that you’ve taken it to heart and your Hospitality Team is hard at work looking for ways to help the entire Christ Church community be more welcoming.
One of the fundamental questions we have to ask in this process is “what does hospitality look like?” Specifically, how does hospitality differ from simply being friendly? While it may seem like Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with in this morning’s lesson, he shares a basic feature of true 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, though I do hope we’ll have an honest to goodness coffee hour after the 10 o’clock service someday soon. Hospitality doesn’t require a Starbucks, a glitzy Welcome Center with a credit card reader for first time givers, or even highly trained volunteers. The key aspect of hospitality that Jesus highlights in our lesson this morning is the ability and the willingness to notice the other.
I cannot offer a cup of cold water to someone if they remain invisible. To know that a person is in need of water, coffee, or a simple handshake requires first and foremost that I see them. Seeing them not as an interloper, a pew stealer, or simply as 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 our eyes open and our heads on a swivel to see the family searching for the nursery, the man wondering where the closest 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 we speak the King’s English at 8 o’clock, or why there is an S in front of the next hymn at 10, or where to kneel at the communion rail. Being hospitable means that before you catch up with that good friend after church, you spend three minutes seeking out and talking to someone you have never met before.
Being hospitable means seeing the other, discerning their need, and, in the model of Jesus, showing compassion by doing something to alleviate that 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 for so many of us. In so doing, we invite our guests to experience the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the refreshment of the Holy Spirit. And maybe, just maybe, if we are all doing our part to make Christ Church a welcoming community, we will be more inclined to invite a friend to join us, knowing that when they walk in, they will be welcomed as an honored guest, even as Jesus Christ himself. Amen.