True Hospitality – a sermon

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.

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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.

What does hospitality look like?

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How true is this slogan?

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.

The Commissioning Part III

As we enter our third week of Gospel lessons from Jesus’ commissioning of the twelve with its concurrent warning of the persecution to come, the astute preacher will note that the tenor of the conversation has changed dramatically.  From rejection by family and being dragged into court, Jesus turns his focus back on what sort of welcome his disciples can hope to receive as they enter various towns and villages.  You’ll recall from two weeks ago (in the optional portion of a lesson that we rarely hear in the Season after Pentecost therefore effectively castrating this three-part lesson, but I digress, as is my wont, in ranting about the failures of the RCL) that early on, Jesus imagined for his disciples what hospitality might look like.

“Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

In Sunday’s lesson, he circles back around to the topic of hospitality, perhaps to end this commissioning on a positive note, but more likely, given the growing number of travelling missionaries by Matthew’s time, to encourage the wider audience to not give up on the several Hebrew Bible injunctions on hospitality.  To welcome a messenger of the Gospel, like one of the twelve, and later Paul, Barnabas, and Priscilla, to name a few, was to welcome Jesus himself into one’s home, and to welcome Jesus was to welcome God almighty under one’s roof.

As I’ve talked about over the past few weeks, being a disciples of Jesus was dangerous for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity.  Being an Apostle of Jesus, one who is sent to proclaim the Good News, was even more so.  The call to martyrdom was answered by thousands in those early years, and yet, those who went and those who welcomed them remained faithful.  While we focus on the great evangelists of the day, the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that without people like Lydia and Mary the Mother of John Mark the Gospel of Jesus would not have been able to spread like it did.  As we reflect on our own call to go and tell, it would behoove us also to think about how we might open our homes to welcome prophets, apostles, and even Jesus himself.

Romans’ Road

“For the Wages of Sin is Death.”

After the youth group in my Episcopal Church blew up when I was in 8th grade and our youth group leader took the $2k we had raised selling calendars or some such none sense, I figured it was time to try something different.  I spent most of my high school years bouncing between my friend T.J.’s youth group at the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA) Church and everybody’s favorite para-church punching bag, Young Life.  By the time I headed off to college, I had the time and date that I “accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior” written on the inside front cover of my Bible, despite the fact that I had been raised in the Church since I was three.  I settled into a nice pseudo-para-church-but-mostly-Presbyterian college ministry and did my best to avoid the awkwardness at Campus Crusade.

All of that to say this, I’ve walked the Romans’ Road a time or too, and so when this Sunday’s Epistle includes that famous line, “For the wages of sin is death,” I can’t help but go back to my days in conservative evangelical Christianity, not to condemn it, but to be thankful that at least they were willing to talk about what difference Jesus makes in your life.  We could squabble about how the impact of Jesus is more about today than it is about the day we die, and that is a good and noble conversation, but first, we need to get to the point where we recognize that Jesus makes a difference, and Romans’ Road does that.

So tell me, what difference does Jesus make in your life?

The Trouble with Hospitality

“Whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

Hospitality is a buzz word in The Episcopal Church these days.  It gets invoked when all theological rationale for a subject has failed.  So, for instance, when clergy argue that Baptism should not be a barrier to the Eucharistic Feast, they cite hospitality as the man reason why.

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It gets even messier when Jesus tell us that if we welcome those who come in his name, we welcome Jesus himself.  The alternative of that is also read into this statement is that if you don’t welcome someone to everything, you have locked Jesus out.  This is the trouble with hospitality: that it is the trump card against which no one can argue.

So let’s reevaluate our doctrine of hospitality.  The Greek word that Matthew uses for “welcome” has at its first definition “to receive.”  What if we re-imagined our job as being people who receive others into our midst?  Instead of changing who we are to make the other feel welcome, what if we received them into the fullness of who we are and then invited to come into deeper relationship wherein we both learn more about each other and ourselves?