Giving all glory and honour to God.
I hadn’t thought of a title for the sermon or reflection time today when I sent in the slides for the worship service, but it’s called ‘A Heaping Helping of Our Hospitality.’ If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s from The Beverly Hillbillies – you may remember the closing song, ‘you’re all invited back next week to this locality, to have a heaping helping of our hospitality.’
The Bible has a lot to say about hospitality, and welcoming, because it was written in a culture that placed a great value on hospitality, and a lot of honour came from how you welcomed visitors. In the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah receive a visit from three strangers. Abraham and Sarah don’t know that at first, but they offer their hospitality. And it turns out that the three strangers are divine visitors, for the Bible says that God appeared to Abraham in the visit. In the New Testament the Letter to the Hebrews says, do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it. Another word for ‘angel’ is ‘messenger’, so this could say that some have welcomed God’s messengers without recognizing them.
Jesus is talking about this hospitality in our reading from the Good News According to Matthew. This is part of a talk as he sends out his followers and instructs them on where to go and what to do. And he tells them, his followers who are going out as his messengers, those who welcome you are also welcoming me, and those who welcome me are welcoming the one who sent me.
So let’s think about that: When we welcome someone, a stranger, a messenger, we are also welcoming Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus we are welcoming God. This reminds me of an old Gaelic poem, which goes:
I saw a stranger yesterday;
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place,
And, in the sacred name of the Trinity,
He blessed myself and my house,
My cattle and my dear ones.
And the lark sang in her song,
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
There’s a story about hospitality, and it’s also a Celtic one, from the Iona Community in Scotland.
The guests were starting to arrive for the church’s big anniversary celebration, and the minister was standing at the door waiting to greet the new mayor. She wondered how she would recognize him.
When a chauffeur-driven car arrived at the specially cordoned-off area, she came forward and greeted the impressive-looking gentleman who emerged, and led him into the building. But after being introduced to one or two people, he tactfully informed her that he was not the new mayor! She apologized profusely, only grateful that she had not already ushered him to a VIP seat.
Meanwhile, however, she had missed the real mayor. He had passed her in the corridor, but how could she have known? Not only did he not have his chain of office around his neck, he looked so ordinary! Furthermore, he had walked to the church, and come in at the back door.
Jesus was speaking 20 centuries ago to his followers, but he is speaking to us today: in welcoming someone, we are welcoming Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus we are welcoming God. We have to believe that, just as Jesus sent his messengers out then, he is sending messengers to us now, so we can welcome him in them. The people we welcome may not look like how we think Jesus would look. Like the mayor in the story, they may be ordinary, they may come in the back way. They may be tall or short, old or young, well-dressed or casual, male or female, single or with a family, able-bodied or with a disability, white or black or Asian or aboriginal, speaking any language. They may have ideas about church that are different from ours. Often, often, often, goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
You know, I go to conferences on the missional church, the emergent church, the renewed church, and clergy say how much they wish their church was cooler, more hip, was in an old brick warehouse and a twenty-something congregation dressed casually with black-rimmed glasses and drinking fair trade cappuccinos and an awesome worship experience with praise and worship music performed by a band with guitars and a drum set. Rachel Held Evans, who is a blogger I follow pretty avidly, wrote about this longing for a ‘cool church.’
But there’s a story, which was in the news, about a church in North Carolina that promises that worship will be an explosive, phenomenal movement of God. That sounds like a pretty cool church. I don’t know if they have cappuccinos, but I do know that on Easter Sunday a family went to the service with their 12 year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, and when he tried to say ‘amen’ after the opening prayer a church volunteer abruptly escorted him and his mother out of the sanctuary. The church later said that their goal is to provide an environment free of distractions for their guests. The mother offered to start a ministry for special needs children, but the church staff say they offer worship, not ministries.
As Rachel points out, this cool congregation got so wrapped up in the performance part of worship that they forgot to actually be the church. They were looking for a phenomenal movement of God – and got so distracted that they failed to notice God at work - they failed to welcome God’s messenger – they failed to welcome Jesus, who was sitting there among them. In fact, they ushered him out. Jesus is a big distraction when you want a church free of distractions.
This church in North Carolina says it offers worship and not ministries. On Tuesday I was at a meeting of the executive of Montreal and Ottawa Conference of our United Church. There we talked about how, in the old days, 50 years ago, when the church had more power and influence, when attendance was higher, when you could assume that most people were Christians, we thought to a considerable extent of coming to church, being in the church, as us doing something for God. We came to worship and give God praise and honour. And that’s still important today, it’s how we express gratitude to God for all the blessings showered on us. But thinking about church has shifted quite a bit. Many people come now, come for the first time or return after a long time, not to do something for God, but to join what God is doing.
Here at Knox-St. Paul’s, brothers and sisters, and across the Seaway Valley, we are not about offering worship and not ministries. That cannot be us as the United Church. We worship and we do ministry – and in both we seek to join what God is doing. We are participants; we aren’t guests. And part of what God is doing is welcoming and accepting, showing wonderfully generous hospitality to all of God’s children. And if we try to do that, if we try to welcome as Jesus says we should, welcome extravagantly, welcome unconditionally, welcome radically and inclusively, welcome in big ways and little ways as Jesus says, if we set aside our judgments and our knee-jerk reactions and make people feel genuinely at home and delight in the new ideas brought by these folks, whether they are brand new or attend once in a while or have come back after years away from the church or have been here their whole lives – if we welcome like that, well, then I have bad news and good news.
The bad news is, we won’t have a cool church. And we won’t have a comfortable church. Everyone here won’t dress alike and like the same music and talk about the same things. Church will be messy. There will be chaos. There will be distractions. People will disagree on issues. When a diverse group of people come together, there will be preferences expressed for music I don’t listen to and TV shows I don’t watch and political parties I wouldn’t vote for and clothing I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. But that’s what happens in God’s hospitality for everyone.
And the good news is, if we welcome as Jesus tells us to, if we live out hospitality that fosters this kind of untidy, unpredictable diversity, then we are indeed welcoming God’s messengers, we are welcoming Jesus. And Jesus will show up, unexpectedly, surprisingly.
You know, there will be a lot of disagreements in this congregation, and in this Presbytery, in the coming year. But we need to remember the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, in practicing hospitality some have been unaware that they are entertaining God’s messengers. When someone says something that we think is wrong, it may just be God’s message to us. Are we listening? Are we welcoming? Are we extending our hospitality to all of God’s children? For in doing so, we are receiving Jesus, and in receiving him, we are receiving God. And, sisters and brothers, all will be invited back next week to this locality, to have a heaping helping of our hospitality.