Genesis 18:1-5, Mark 2:1-12, Romans 12:9-16
November 8, 2009
First Christian Church
While I was a student at Michigan State University, I became friends with three other people. We began a good relationship during my sophomore year and we started gathering weekly for prayer. It was a great time of sharing our lives with each other. It created a friendships that lasted long after college ended.
All of us were friends with an other person by the name of Chris. Chris was an agnostic and many of us had spiritual conversations with him. I remember one night he entered the room where we were praying. All of the sudden, the very smooth flowing nature of the group suddenly became frosty. Chris noticed how rigid we were. He could tell that he wasn’t welcomed and ended up making an excuse and leaving the room. We went back to our conversation.
A few days later, I was walking with Chris from class and Chris ended up confronting me on what had happened. “You say your are Christians,” he said, “ but then why didn’t you welcome me that night?”
I was stumped and ashamed. He had cut right to heart of the matter: here we were, supposedly loving followers of Jesus, and we had basically cut off someone who was curious about Jesus. We were not being hospitable.
That whole experience taught me about hospitality. What I learned is that as a follower of Jesus, how we treat people matters.
Today’s sermon is about hospitality. Now you are probably wonder what in the world does hospitality have to do with evangelism. As I was preparing this sermon, I decided to ask a few friends via Facebook to define hospitality. Here is what a few people said:
Inviting and accepting everyone into the group... making them feel welcome. Offering them my seat, while I stand or sit on the floor. Giving them my plate of food, while I have a cup of water instead.
Being a friend rather than being friendly. Opening the door to the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. Opening the door to all who are different from ourselves. To me it means the same outside the church as it does inside the church.
Inviting, welcoming and generously serving the needs of others. Seems to apply both inside and outside the context of a church.
I also remember a time when my pastor had to call down our congregation during worship. Seems when a visitor would appear and try to take a seat in our frequently full sanctuary, oftentimes a member would say, "That seat's saved." John had to remind us--because so many of us hadn't had the experience in years--how difficult it is for someone to come visit a strange new church, without us making it harder by keeping them from finding a place to sit. He said, "No more saving seats in church."
The story in Genesis has Abraham meeting three strangers who basically walk up to old Abe one day. Immediately, he welcomed these strangers in and the scrpiture records how trouble he went into to make these strangers welcomed. What Abraham didn’t know is that these three people were two angels and God. He did all this without knowing that God was in his midst.
Then there is the story in Mark where four men are trying to bring their friend who is paralyzed to see Jesus. But they can’t get in. You would think that would be a signal to give up, but they got up on the roof and lowered their friend down to Jesus, who forgives him of his sin and heals him.
The stories in the Bible and the answer I heard on Facebook told me that hospitality is more than being a nice to people. It’s a process of being open, open to God, and open to those that we meet in our daily walk. It’s more than making sure visitors know where the bathroom is located, but about making a space where people can be who they are and where they are welcomed to God’s Table. Hospitality is not about doing the church doing something as much as it is about the church being something in the world.
Let’s look back at that first story in Genesis. Now, if most of us saw a couple of strangers come up to us, I’m pretty sure that none of us would be as friendly to these gentlemen. We don’t know who they are and they might be out to do us harm. And sometimes in church, we tend to do that as well. We want to be welcoming, but it has to be on our terms. We don’t go out of our way in trying to please our guests.
Or it could be that we are concerned about those people. They maybe different from us, from different race or economic background. But in keeping our distance from strangers, in not making them feel at home, we missing what God as to say to us. The reason is that those strangers in one way or another is God coming in one form. God might be speaking from this person and we miss seeing what God is up in the world.
Maybe the most basic rule of hospitality is being open to God. We have to have hearts that are willing to be open to God and what God is doing in the world. Too often we get trapped in customs and traditions that might be keeping us from hearing God.
Hospitality means wondering what God is up to in the world. Because God is not just found here on a Sunday morning, but is out there in the world and we are called to join in the Misseo Dei or mission of God.
In hearing all those responses on Facebook, what I learned is that hospitality is not something we do to get more members. If we think that we need to be nice in order to get more people in the pews, well, that is not biblical hospitality. Hospitality is about being the church. Let God worry about bringing more people in the church. What people out there wonder is if the church really cares about them. They aren’t looking to join a church, but they are looking for authentic people who welcome people and love and serve others as Christ did.
So then what is hospitality in the context of First Christian Church? Well, it’s when I hear of Warren and Karen Westphal as they stand and hand out brochures to people at Gay Pride showing that followers of Jesus love gay and lesbian people. It’s when several families here go on Saturday and cook a meal for the homeless at St. Stephen’s shelter. It’s when people like the Hesanos take part in building a house for Habitat for Humanity or when Deb Murphy starts a Children’s Sunday School class making the Little Ones that Jesus talked about feel welcome. Hospitality is about showing the love of Jesus in action to our neighbors and our friends.
Now, this doesn’t get people off the hook for inviting people to church. But it does put it into context. If we are talking about Jesus, but not welcoming the poor, or those of different races and nationalities, then what we have to say means nothing.
When someone enters the door of this church, we not only see God in their eyes, but they see God in us. Or can they? Are we open to welcoming people into our lives, not simply into membership?
What Chris taught my two decades ago, is that I was not open to God’s prompting. Here was a man wondering about Jesus and we told him Jesus was not interested in him. When we meet our co-workers, and friends and families, will be willing to be like Abraham and welcome them in as if they were family?
First Christian, I don’t think you’re done yet at a community. If we are open to what God is up to out there, then we can get ready for a wonderful journey. So let us get ready to welcome the world and welcome Christ- with arms wide open.
Thanks be to God. Amen.