“Jesus Christ, Would you do something about her!”

The first time I told you this story[1], I promised that you’d one day get tired of hearing it, but it’s been two years, so you’ve probably forgotten it by now anyway.  It comes from a book called Dakota, the spiritual memoir of American poet, Kathleen Norris.  At one point, Norris begins to reflect on the tradition of hospitality that Christian monasticism has inherited from our ancient Jewish siblings.  It is seemingly written into the DNA of the monastic tradition that a wayward traveler can always find safe lodging and a meal with monks who are trained to welcome every stranger as if it were Jesus himself knocking on the gate.  Even in the monastery, however, true hospitality is challenging to maintain.  Norris tells the story of an older monk sharing with a younger monk how difficult it is to always be ready to welcome a stranger as if they were Jesus.  “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk said.  “Whatever they are in the world – a prostitute or 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?”

Offering hospitality is difficult, no matter who it is we are welcoming.  Whether it is a new faculty member from up the hill, a new employee at one of our may industrial plants here in town, or a neighbor experiencing homelessness, at Christ Episcopal Church we believe that we too are called to welcome each new person who enters our midst as if they were Jesus, but in our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that actually welcoming Jesus can be challenging.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, offering hospitality to travelers was a given for people in the ancient world.  Life was still very nomadic in those days and the Hyatt hotel chain had yet to be created.  Whether you were travelling for religious, economic, or political reasons, travelers were often dependent upon the kindness of strangers for a place to rest and find nourishment.  It was just a few verses ago when Jesus sent seventy disciples ahead of him to prepare the way with instruction to take nothing extra with them, and to rely on the hospitality of others everywhere they went.  As his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem unfolded, Jesus practiced what he preached; spending a couple of days in many small villages along the way, eating what was served to him, and sleeping where he could find a place to lie down for the night.

On this particular day, Jesus arrived at the home of Martha who welcomed him and his disciples with open arms and a flurry of activity.  Luke doesn’t tell us what all her many tasks were, but we can take some educated guesses.  First, she likely prepared a bowl of clean water, in which the travelers could wash their feet from the dusty road.  Next, she stoked the fire in order to bake fresh bread and prepare the evening meal.  She likely got to work grinding up the chickpeas for hummus, while maybe a servant went to the market to get fresh olives.  Following the Law, the rituals for hand and vessel washing while preparing dinner kept Martha busy enough as she also refreshed the wine and made sure her guests were comfortable.  As the rare single woman who owned her own home in first century Palestine, Martha was most likely used to doing things all on her own, but given the celebrity of her guest this day, surely, she was working harder than usual to make everything extra special.  As she worked, occasionally she glanced at the crowd gathered around Jesus, which was probably a bad idea.  Could nobody see how hard she was working?  Did nobody care?  Who did Mary thinks she was, just sitting there, listening to Jesus as he taught?  As Martha’s resentment grew, she became increasingly distracted, literally in the Greek, dragged about, by her many tasks.

Eventually, Martha became so frustrated with being pulled around by her chores that she lashed out at both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work?  Tell her then to help me.”  Her spirit of hospitality had long-since faded, but it is in this moment that any remaining façade of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home disappeared.  It’s not very hospitable to blame your guest for your sibling’s bad behavior.  It might be even worse to try to drag your guest into the middle of a family dispute.  “Jesus Christ, would you do something about her,” is not the sort of hospitality the Son of God would expect.

It is worth noting that what happens next is not Jesus rebuking Martha for her work.  As I’ve already mentioned, hospitality was an ethical cornerstone in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this story has long been used to pit women in the church against each other.  If we read Jesus’ words to Martha as an admonition against her busyness, we tend to hear it as Jesus lifting up “the Marys,” those who quietly listen and obey.  While Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part, what the issue really seems to be about isn’t pitting those who work against those who pray, as both are required in the Kingdom of God.  Rather, the issue is about where our hearts are focused.

Do you remember back when this journey to Jerusalem first started?  Three different disciples tried to follow Jesus and were sent away.  “There was no time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back.”[2]  This journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death and resurrection, isn’t a trip that can be taken half-heartedly.  It isn’t a journey that can be put on hold.  Jesus requires full commitment from his disciples, and where Martha falls short isn’t in her wanting to serve, but in how her servanthood ultimately distracted her from the bigger mission.  She had originally welcomed Jesus into her home in the hopes that the Good News would be proclaimed in her community, but she lost focus, got dragged about by her many chores, and ended up breaking relationship with her sister and with Jesus.  Mary’s better choice wasn’t that she lived into the role of the silent woman or that she chose to listen to Jesus, but rather, that she decided to focus on the relationship that God had put right in front of her face.  The one thing that Mary found was love, and she lived it out at the feet of Jesus.  Martha may have started out her service in love, but resentment and frustration took over somewhere down line.  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Martha.  I know that I’ve begun many a project based in the love of God or the love of my neighbor, but at some point, lost focus and ended up frustrated by a lack of help, a lack of affirmation and accolades, or a lack of other people doing what I hadn’t told them I wanted them to do.

Martha is not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do.  She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social constructs, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number.  Like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ.  It isn’t for our own lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we end up being pulled away from him, sometimes literally dragged here and there, by our many tasks.  As the hecticness of the fall looms large, as we fill our calendars to overflowing, I pray that God might gift us with the space to slow down, to let our minds rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we might focus solely on the Kingdom of God and its mission of hospitality, reconciliation, grace, and love.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/true-hospitality-a-sermon/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625

Active Hospitality

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I have been known to be critical of some things in my beloved Episcopal Church.  Yes, Virginia, it is true that one can love something and wish it to be better.  I’ve lamented our adoption of Moral Therapeutic Deism.  I’ve pondered our fear of the name Jesus. I’ve asked a lot of questions about our commitment to evangelism given our slogan “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”  It seems we welcome those who a) can read English, b) can read music, c) can navigate our labyrinthine Prayer Book (and, often, buildings), and d) seek us out in the first place.

Given the ubiquity of The Episcopal Church Welcomes You signage, my disdain for it as an ideal often stays forefront in my mind, and influences the way I engage in the Scriptures.  This was true this morning as I read the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors.  The first thing I noticed is that this story is about Abraham and Saran, not Abram and Sarai.  This means that God has already established the covenant with Abraham.  In fact, God and Abraham have already interacted on a few different occasions.  Beginning in Genesis 12, the story of the deepening relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah teaches us an important lesson about true welcome – hospitality is an active noun.

By the time we get to the Oaks of Mamre, Abraham and God already know each other.  Relationships require work.  One cannot simply sit inside their tent with the flaps closed and expect relationships to grow.  Abraham is out and about, scanning the horizon, looking for guests to welcome, for friends to greet, for relationships to foster.  A sign on the corner that says the Episcopal Church Welcomes You that points to a set of closed red doors on what appears to be a building that hasn’t been occupied in years is not an evangelism tool.  It cannot be a marker of hospitality.  As inheritors of the Abrahamic faith, we are called to be out in our communities acting as signs of the Kingdom, meeting our neighbors, who are know to us because we’ve been out there for a long time, meeting them where they are and inviting them into the feast that has been prepared for them from the beginning.

What makes the Oaks of Mamre story so powerful is that Abraham can recognize God in the three strangers because they are in relationship with one another.  This is why at Christ Church, we’ve made a commitment to getting out into our neighborhood and learning more about it.  Whether it is through meeting our neighbors experiencing homelessness face-to-face, engaging in neighborhood prayer walks, volunteering in our community, serving on local non-profit boards, or some other means, we are making the commitment to be the signs of Christ’s love and light here in Bowling Green such that, when someone new shows up on Sunday morning, maybe we can meet them with a hospitality that is a little more active because there is a relationship already established and a trust already built.

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.

Don’t Feel Holy, Be Holy – a homily

UPDATE: This sermon can be heard over on the Christ Church website.


One of the outreach ministries that I was most proud of during my time in Foley was the role Saint Paul’s played in Family Promise of Baldwin County.  Family Promise is a part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a national network that began in New York and seeks to help homeless families get back on the path to stable living conditions.  In Baldwin County, we were one of fourteen churches that opened our doors four weeks out of the year to host homeless families over night while their children attended school and parents worked or found jobs and learned how to make a budget, plan for the future, and save up enough for the deposits required to restart the housing search.  For two weeks at a time, we would provide safe and private sleeping quarters, a hot dinner, and the makings for breakfast and lunch to as many as twenty people spread across four families.  They would arrive on campus at about 5pm and leave often before the sun came up so that their kids could get to school on time.

Somewhere during the many years I made announcements to drum up volunteers and let people know that we had guests on campus, I realized a problem with my language.  I would stand up on the Sunday Family Promise was scheduled to arrive and say something like, “when you see our guests on campus, please be sure to make them feel welcomed.”  I realized at some point that making them feel welcomed really wasn’t what I was hoping for.  No, what I really meant to say was “make sure you welcome them.”  Notice the difference?  Making someone feel welcomed is easily done superficially.  A smile and a “hello” is enough to make someone “feel welcomed,” but to actually welcome a stranger takes a lot more work.  It requires a change within ourselves.  In order to welcome someone else into my space and my life means that I have to make room for them, for all of them, the good and the bad, and the many ways in which welcoming them will change me.  More than making them simply feel welcomed, I hoped that they were welcomed fully into the life and ministry of Saint Paul’s.

I think that difference is what Jesus is trying to make clear in this difficult passage appointed for Ash Wednesday.  As we prepare to put on an outward symbol of our piety, we hear Jesus clearly asking us to check our motivations.  Do we put on the cross of ashes in order to feel like we have done the work of repentance?  Do we keep these ashes on when we leave this holy place so that we can look like we are holy?  Or, do the ashes mean something more?  Jesus didn’t have Ash Wednesday to use as an example, but in his age, as in ours, there were plenty of religious practices that people could bend to their own devices.

“When you give alms,” Jesus says, “don’t give alms so that others can see how much you give and how generous you are.  Don’t give alms so you can feel holy or seem compassionate.  Give alms because God wants to bless the poor through your generosity.  If you are giving in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you are giving in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you pray,” Jesus says, “don’t make it look like you are praying by standing in the marketplace wearing long, fancy robes and saying beautiful and flowery words, but pray as if your life depended on it.  If you pray in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you pray in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you fast,” Jesus says, “don’t just make it look like you are fasting so that you can gain the respect of the crowd.[1]  Don’t fast so you can feel like you’ve done what you are supposed to do.  Instead, actually fast, so that you can gain a deeper relationship with God.  If you fast in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you fast in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you attend an Ash Wednesday service,” we might add, “don’t wear your ashes so others can see that you went to church and are therefore that much holier than they are.  Wear your ashes as a reminder of your mortality, your sinfulness, and your total dependence on God.   If you wear your ashes in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you wear these ashes in order to make a difference in yourself and a difference in the world; If you wear these ashes as a reminder that this Lent, and every day of your life, is a chance to join with God in the up-building of the Kingdom, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is too easy to make someone feel welcome or to make yourself feel holy.  The harder work comes when we risk change by actually welcoming the stranger and engaging in the hard work of discipleship.  As we begin this Lenten season of intentionality, don’t just look like you are fasting, but really fast, don’t just look penitential, but really repent, don’t just look like you are praying or reading the Bible, but really do it.  It’s risky, scary even, to really take on these discipleship practices.  They will change you.  They will change how you see the world, but in taking that risk, you will find yourself closer to God, and I can assure you, there is no greater reward than that.  This Lent, don’t settle for feeling holy, but rather, be holy.  Amen.

[1] Nurya Love Parish, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century weekly email, 2/27/2017.

The Power of Baptism

John the Baptist, as has been well document, is a popular character in the Revised Common Lectionary.  So popular, in fact, that in Year A, we get to hear the same story about his encounter with Jesus two weeks in a row.  Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, gave us Matthew’s version.  This week, we get John the Evangelist’s take on the events.  Usually, I would begrudge this situation, and that will likely come as the week wears on and a sermon feels out of reach, but this morning, I’m still basking in the glow of the power of a baptism.

See, a funny thing happened on my way to my first service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  As these things happen, the Senior Warden and I negotiated a start date that allowed me some time to move and settle, while not crushing either my savings account or the church’s willingness to wait for me.  The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord seemed appropriate, given that it too marked the beginning of something new.  Immediately, I decided that we would follow the rubric on 312 of the Book of Common Prayer and substitute the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for the Nicene Creed at both services.  Ah, but wait, there was a young child whose parents were desirous of baptism, and so it was scheduled at the 8 am service.  But wait again, the godparents were unavailable on the 8th, so we would wait.

At about 7:45 on Sunday morning, a godparent arrived, gift bag in hand, certain that the baptism was happening.  Roughly 5 minutes later, mom, dad, and baby arrived.  Grandparents were there too, but none of us really thought a baptism was happening.  It had been postponed.  Then, at 7:57, as the altar party gathered for prayer, one of the chalice bearers, who was facing the family, spoke up.  “They are putting a baptismal gown on that baby,” she said.  So guess what?  We baptized a baby at 8am.  Thanks to a great team of altar guild members, an awesome deacon, and others who were willing to simply go with the flow, we pulled off baptismal prep in 3 minutes.

As we reached the point in the service when the baptism happens, I took baby Ryder into my arms, and something powerful happened.  There wasn’t a dove descending from heaven.  No voice spoke from above.  Instead, as I held that unfamiliar child in the middle of an unfamiliar space, I saw the face of Jesus.  Just like John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I realized that God shows up in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  It was, as I told friends later, glorious and hectic and maddening and all the stuff the church is supposed to be, and it was so because God arrived, in the person of a little baby, and invited us to show him hospitality.  Thanks be to God for a wonderful start, even if it was a little harried, and for the opportunity to see Christ in the face of one of his most precious children.

There Came a Traveler

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Tom Bodett is one of the voices of my childhood.  His promise, on behalf of the Motel 6 chain, “We’ll leave the light on for you” is imprinted on my mind.  So it is that as I open up the lessons for Proper 6c and read anew Nathan’s prophecy to King David I hear Nathan in the voice of Tom Bodett.  It is a story about power and privilege, but it revolves around a very mundane line, “There came a traveler…”

Living in a Motel 6 world, the average modern Americans can’t really understand this story.  We read it assuming that the traveler who came to the rich man was a relative or a friend who’s visit would have been known to the rich man, but this is probably highly unlikely.  Instead, in a culture that wasn’t too far removed from the nomadic life of tribal Hebrews, this is a story of a stranger who came to town unannounced.  Upon meeting a stranger, it was the duty of any faithful Jew to welcome them into their home as a guest, to provide water that they might wash their feet, to offer them a meal, and even a place to stay (See Genesis 24:29-32).

The rich man in Nathan’s story follows the protocol with the key exception that he is too stingy to use his own animal for the feast, and instead steals the only, beloved lamb of his poor neighbor.  While Nathan’s intent is to use this story to open David’s eyes to his sin in stealing Bathsheba from Uriah, we also see in it the deep roots of hospitality in ancient near-eastern culture; a long lost art for many 21st century Americans.  David’s sin is as much a failure to offer hospitality to Uriah, a man who in many ways was a stranger in need of welcome.  Uriah was a Hittite, not an ethnic Hebrew.  He was a minority, though his family had probably been resident in the Land of Canaan since well before Abraham’s arrival.  He was also a solider, a man under the authority of King David, who had no power in and of himself and instead relied on the wisdom of the good King to lead his army into battle.

Just as the sin of Sodom was a lack of hospitality, so too did David find his failure not so much in sleeping with Uriah’s wife, but by failing to be hospitable to a stranger under his authority.  David failed to show Uriah hospitality on both fronts, and it cost Uriah his 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.

#BecauseHospitality

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?

Welcoming People In

Tomorrow afternoon, SHW and I will close on our new house.  It is only four miles from our old house, still within the Foley city limits, but this house has the potential to change the way we live.  Quite frankly, the house to probably too big for us, but isn’t that the American way.  Certainly, the house is a gift, we couldn’t afford it without help offered, unsolicited (I add to make myself feel better) from family.  Because it is such a gift, hopefully it will be easy to remember that we are merely stewards of a great home and that its true purpose is to be a place of hospitality.  See, what sold me on the house was the vision our Real Estate Agent gave of a dinner party for young adults in our parish.  Drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen, the Alabama game on in the living room, and dinner on the sprawling back porch.

As we prepare to move into this big (not) ol’ house this weekend, Jesus admonition to the dinner guests is front an center in my mind.  How can we set up our new home so it is truly a place where we can welcome people in?  How do we make it a place of hospitality, not for those who we hope will see our house and be impressed, but especially to those who often aren’t invited in to other places?  How do we order our lives in order to be considered righteous at the day of resurrection?

Of course, these questions can and should be expanded to our common life and ministry at Saint Paul’s.  In what ways are we open for the business of welcoming people in?  In what ways to be appear to close the door on those who come seeking to meet the risen Lord?  How are we doing at inviting those who often go uninvited into our midst?  Who do we routinely ignore?

Jesus was big on hospitality, which means we probably should be too.  How can you order your house or your church in order to be more open to the stranger?