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.

More than Welcome

The Pharisees and scribes are mad as heck and they aren’t going to take it anymore.  For years now, they’ve watched as Jesus drew crowds numbering in the thousands to hear him speak.  They paid attention as he entered the homes of all sorts of people for dinner.  They noticed the types of folks who had close access to Jesus, and they couldn’t wrap their minds around just how these people could be welcomed by Jesus.  In the NRSV, their reaction is “grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,'” but it seems as though there is something even more sinister going on.

The Greek words that gets translated as “welcomes” is probably better translated with an older word, “receives.”  Whereas welcome carries with it images of the multi-billion dollar hospitality industry, with its fake plants and even faker smiles, the idea of receiving someone seems to carry a deeper meaning.  There was a time, not too long ago, when receiving lines were still a part of the social norm in this country.  Now mostly relegated to State Dinners, the receiving line is a chance not just to allow someone access to your home, but to invite them into a relationship.

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President Ford and Queen Elizabeth receive guests at the White House

Jesus received sinners and tax collectors.  He gave them access to himself.  He touched them, hugged them, shared meals with them, and cared for them.  The verb tense tells us that Jesus was in the habit of this sort of behavior.  He risked his own purity in order to receive into himself all sort of people; including you and me.

One of the big topics in the Church today is the ministry of hospitality.  My friend Mary Parmer has almost singlehandedly brought this to the fore through Invite, Welcome, Connect.  You should totally check it out, but I can’t help but wonder if we are selling ourselves short by settling to be a welcoming congregation, when, to follow the example of Jesus would be as a receiving church.  Welcoming a stranger doesn’t run the same level of risk of being changed by them as does receiving one.  Are we willing to be changed?  Will we risk contamination, open our doors, and receive into our lives the sort of people that Jesus spent time with?  Can we move past the gloss of welcome into the depth of reception?

The Invitation to Table Fellowship

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The most oft ignored rubric in the Book of Common Prayer might also be the most important.  Unfortunately, it is mired deep in the “Additional Directions” of the Holy Eucharist portion of the Prayer Book, near the bottom of page 407.  “While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the sacrament in both kinds.  The bishops, priests, and deacons at the Holy Table then communicate, and after them the people.” (emphasis mine).  Whether I am in a seminary chapel, Diocesan liturgy, or Sunday morning worship, it is clear that neither celebrant nor the people know this particular rubric and the power of its intended imagery.

In order for the reception of the Eucharist to be a communal act, it must all be done together.  When the congregations watches as a single person, who has already spoken more than 90% of the words of our common prayer, receives a choice piece of bread and an unsullied sip of wine, something about the communal aspect of the Eucharist is lost.  the Holy Table is the place where we all gather as sinners redeemed to be nourished and blessed by the Body and Blood of our Savior.  We come to the Table whether we are 6 months or 106 years.  We commune next to this with whom we disagree politically and theologically.  We receive from those whom we have hurt and from those who have hurt us. We come, all of us, desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and blessing.  The act of Holy Communion is the living out of Jesus’ message to both guests and hosts in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

And it all starts with an invitation.  For all the liturgical variety now available to us in as a people of Common Prayer, there is but one singular authorized invitation to the Lord’s Table.  The words are the same in Rite I and Rite II, and there is no provision for anything different in Enriching our Worship.  Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, the Prayer Book directs the following action: “Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation The Gifts of God for the People of God. and may add Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

This is not to say that this is the only invitation you might hear in an Episcopal Church, the Iona Invitation is growing in popularity, and might actually do a better job acting as an invitation, motivating people to live out the rubric on page 407 by coming forward, making the reception of the Eucharist a communal act for all four orders of ministry.  It is a true invitation because it actually invites people to do something rather than to simply stare at the now consecrated elements of bread and wine.

This is the table, not of the Church but of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

It isn’t Prayer Book authorized, so I can’t suggest you use it this Sunday, but my Bishop uses it, so I’m thinking we can try it here.  A true invitation to the Lord’s banquet, where we gather as one to receive what we all need.  Y’all come.

The Life of Faith is Proactive

Last Sunday, we heard the story of the Good Samaritan.  If you’ll recall, after a man was beaten and robbed, he was left naked and half dead in a ditch.  As fate would have it, two guys (they were all guys back then) who were among the religious elite came by, saw the man bleeding in the ditch, and passed by on the other side.  As I posited last week, they engaged in active jerkery.

Contrast that story with the Genesis lesson in Track 2 of the Lectionary (which you won’t hear read at Saint Paul’s because we’re doing Track 1 this summer and TKT is preaching on Amos on Sunday) in which Abraham, while sitting at the entrance of his tent, enjoying the warm summer breeze, looked up and saw three complete strangers nearby and went out of his way to welcome them.

When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on– since you have come to your servant.”

Well, he actually went out of Sarah and one of their slave’s way, but the family certain did their best to welcome the strangers.

Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

I can’t help but wonder how “out of our way” we go to welcome guests into our midst.  I’m not talking used car salesman, hot boxing of these people, but do we make them feel welcome?  Do we help them navigate the bulletin and hymn books?  Do we help them understand the flow to the altar rail?  Do we walk with them to the coffee pot after the service is over and introduce them to someone else?  Are we proactive in our welcome?

I’d like to think that most congregations aren’t actively jerky to guests, but I suspect most are at best passive.  They assume everyone knows what H82 or LEVASII or 79BCP means.  They assume that everyone knows how to get communion (or a blessing), how to get signed up for more information, or that a coffee hour even exists.  SHW grew up in a Presbyterian Church where a post-worship fellowship event happened monthly, not weekly.  Coffee hour isn’t as ubiquitously Christian as we might like to believe.

At Saint Paul’s, we probably get a B- in active welcome.  We’ve slipped back into some old habits of post-worship welcome that we should do away with, but we’re trying.  The life of faith is proactive, and as Abraham can attest, it is certainly worth the effort.