Introducing the Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality – audio available
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Introducing the Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality
September 16, 2012
A cab driver from Ghana took a fare to Montgomery County, Maryland, and then decided to attend a service at a Baptist church. After he walked in, the congregation phoned the police, describing him as a trespasser. He said, “No, I am a Baptist, from Ghana.” They insisted he was trespassing.
In the same way, when a Cameroonian immigrant visited a Disciples of Christ church in Lubbock, Texas, congregational leaders refused to serve him communion, even though the pastor had just intoned the words, “This is Jesus Christ’s table, people shall come from everywhere to it.”
These are examples of Christian inhospitality, instead of Christian hospitality. When I was on sabbatical in 2009, I attended worship at an Episcopal church in Washington, DC, renowned for the welcome that they extend to the homeless of their community. But not a single person spoke to me in the coffee hour that followed the service.
Sadly, the same thing happens here at FPC. Some visitors to the church recently told me how much they enjoyed our worship service. But after the service, not a single person spoke to them in the narthex.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (56:7). This is our signature verse here at FPC. It’s the line from Scripture that is posted in our Sanctuary, and that we focus on each week. But how can we live out this message of inclusion and become a truly welcoming congregation?
Today begins a six-week sermon series on Christian hospitality, one that I offer with the hope that we can learn how to do a better job of welcoming and including people. Hospitality is not just a good idea — it is a core Christian practice, and one that our divided world needs now more than ever.
Today I’ll be introducing you to the Roots and Fruits of Christian hospitality, which are also outlined in my book The Welcoming Congregation. We’ll spend two weeks on the roots of hospitality, which will be a review for some of you, followed by three full weeks on the wonderful fruits of hospitality, which we have never explored before.
I would also invite you to attend a discussion of these sermons each Sunday at 10 a.m. in the multipurpose room.
So why should this be a focus for us over the next six weeks? Our country is growing increasingly diverse, with the Census Bureau predicting that minorities will be in the majority by the year 2050. The number of Hispanics will grow to 30 percent of the population, blacks will increase to 15 percent, and Asians will climb to 9 percent. We have elected our first African-American president, and most of us now view the growth of America’s minority populations as advantageous to the economy and society.
Many of us say that we like to live in diverse communities, but the reality is that we tend to cluster with people who are like ourselves — especially those who share our political affiliation. Our country has become increasingly polarized, and today large numbers of Americans fail to have significant contact with people belonging to the other party.
This trend toward a fractured and polarized community is the exact opposite of the challenge God lays before us in the book of Isaiah. The Lord does not want us to be a common community in which Republicans worship with Republicans, Democrats pray with Democrats, liberals study the Bible with liberals, and conservatives go on mission trips with other conservatives. Instead, God wants us to be an uncommon community that is truly countercultural in our shattered society — what Isaiah calls “a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7).
You might wonder where this unusual vision comes from. Before the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were considered to be God’s chosen ones, and the purity code of Deuteronomy excluded two particular categories of people: eunuchs and foreigners. Deuteronomy says that no one who has been castrated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” And “no Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (23:1, 3). In short, the common community that existed in Israel was made up of like-minded Israelites — it was a comfortable congregation of people who shared the same ideas of what was pure and what was not.
But then God came along with a new vision of community, one in which all people who honor the Lord in their actions are to be included. Speaking through Isaiah, God said, “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, . . . I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (56:4-5). The tragedy of the eunuch was that he was cut off, literally — no chance of having children to carry on his name. But suddenly God said that if the eunuch was faithful, God would give him an everlasting name.
What a radical shift this was. Suddenly, the community of faith was not limited to people of the same nationality or political party. Being admitted to the assembly of the Lord did not require being a man or woman in a traditional family. Through the prophet Isaiah, God called for barriers to fall in the religious community, which began a movement of inclusiveness that only accelerated when Jesus began his gracious and loving ministry.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, talking with women, and healing those who were considered unclean and estranged from the community of faith. Jesus practiced a ministry of hospitality that truly welcomed strangers into the community of faith.
This is Christian hospitality, a form of welcome is far more nourishing than cookies and coffee after Sunday worship. Unfortunately, it is not being practiced very well today, despite the desire of many congregations to be welcoming. Because church members often have the desire to receive strangers but not the skills or techniques, I am offering this sermon series as a practical guide to Christian hospitality. I’m going to tell stories of inclusion, give you examples of the best practices of truly welcoming congregations, and offer suggestions about hospitable practices that can be used by us right here in Fairfax.
I believe that hospitality is the key to becoming an uncommon Christian community — one that embraces all people with God’s love and grace. The need is greater now than ever, since all of us are living in a highly polarized society, in an era negatively affected by religious extremists of all faiths. Just look at what happened in Libya this past week. In a violent and polarized world, I am convinced that God wants — and the world needs — churches that are truly welcoming.
The place to begin is with the roots of hospitality: Sites, Worship, Meals, and Small Groups. Next week, we’ll explore the importance of sites — both physical sites and Web sites— in building inviting and accessible bridges between the outside world and the inside of the church. We’ll also look at worship, an aspect of congregational life that must be warm and welcoming in a hospitable congregation.
On September 30, we’ll focus on the importance of meals, since the practice of hospitality almost always involves eating together. Shared meals help not only to nourish us individually, but to strengthen the identity of the community. We’ll finish our focus on the roots of hospitality with an exploration of small groups, since Christian hospitality becomes deeply rooted in a congregation when personal connections are cultivated in intimate and honest gatherings.
In October, we’ll move from roots to fruits, and see how rooted congregations are able to grow in reconciliation, outreach, and ever-broadening perceptions of God. On World Communion Sunday, October 7, we’ll discover how a shared meal and an honest small-group discussion can do the work of reconciliation, and build relationships across social, economic, and political divides.
The next fruit of hospitality is outreach to the community. Welcoming congregations have Bible studies and small-group meetings in the homes of church members, and they open their church buildings to English classes, twelve-step programs, and interdenominational programs that feed and house the homeless.
Then, in my last sermon, we’ll explore how hospitality can inspire new perceptions of God’s inclusive love, and help strangers to become friends. Our perceptions of each other change when we discover that Christ is present with us in the breaking of the bread, and that together we are nothing less than the body of Christ in the world today.
I’m convinced that Christian hospitality as the key to becoming a house of prayer that embraces all people. It is the central practice that will enable us to follow the Scripture verse that is on the wall behind me. The promise of hospitality is that every time people sit down to eat and drink together, there is the possibility that community will grow and people will be reconciled to one another.
Hospitality matters deeply to God, and it is found throughout the whole of Scripture. Sometimes it sneaks up and surprises us, as it did 11 years ago to a rabbi named Jonathan Sacks, soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rabbi Sacks said that he used to think that the greatest command in the Bible was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But then he realized that this command appears in only one place in the Hebrew Bible. More significantly, he said, “in more than thirty places it commands us to love the stranger.”
Love the stranger. That’s tough. Love the person who is not like us, who has a different skin color, sexual orientation, or cultural background. The only way we’ll be able to do it is through the practice of hospitality, as we work together to welcome people to this house of prayer for all peoples.
I invite you to join me on this journey over the next six weeks. Together, we’ll discover some good news for a fractured world, and refine the skills we need to embrace all people with God’s love and grace. Amen.