Matthew 17:1-9 ?Hebrews 13:1-2; Genesis 18:1-15

March 16, 2014 by Rev. David Ray

Get ready. In the next few minutes I?ll show you where our world?s greatest need intersects with the church?s greatest gift.

Our sermon has two contrasting stories from my ministry?one ominous, one hopeful. Five years before the Rwanda genocide in 1994 when 800,000 Rwandans were massacred, I led a mission work trip from the UCC church in Shrewsbury, VT to help the Gahularie Baptist Church in a Rwandan village build the new school we?d raised the money for. At the end of the week I was invited by the host missionary to preach at the church?s Sunday worship. He said he?d translate my English message into their native language. My plan with the sermon was to help the listeners grasp and experience that together we were all part of the one universal Body of Christ. I explained that every Sunday during our Vermont church worship we greeted each other with the Peace of Christ. Then, I invited all the worshipers?a dozen Vermonters and a couple dozen Rwandans?to stand up, move around, and exchange the Peace of Christ with each other. The Rwandans responded by milling about in utter confusion. Finally, we determined that the missionary had used the Rwandan word p-i-e-c-e instead of the Rwandan word p-e-a-c-e in his translation. They didn?t know how to pass pieces of Christ to one another. Just a few years later, Rwandans used machetes to hack thousands upon thousands of other Rwandans to pieces.

For years I?ve had a hobby of visiting churches and measuring the amount and nature of their welcoming hospitality. When my mother was sick in California I visited both her Baptist church and the local UCC church. Except for the pastor, no one in either church welcomed me in any way. I went to their coffee hours and finally I fled when I was left standing alone. A couple years ago I was on a speaking tour in Oklahoma. On Sunday morning I attended the large, well known UCC church in Oklahoma City. Not one person welcomed me in any way. Since ending my Bristol Mills ministry in June, my wife and I have attended churches from Brunswick to Camden. We?ve experienced warm greetings, but more often we?ve gone unwelcomed. Every church says they?re a friendly church. But most are not or not very.

Hospitality is far more than nodding hello, being nice to others, and following rules of etiquette. It?s much more than a church growth strategy. Hospitality is how we reach out to one another as well as how we reach out to the new among us. Hospitality is an endangered species in the world of human interaction. It?s less common in our culture than in other cultures. Hospitality is fundamental to healthy spirituality and essential to being a healthy church. Hospitality is both the catalyst for and a characteristic of real Christian community. Universal hospitality is our only hope for saving the world so that we don?t end up in pieces?literally or figuratively. For the Church of Jesus Christ and for you, Second Congregational Church of Newcastle, my thesis statement is this: genuine hospitality is the most fundamental need of the world around us and it?s the greatest hope for reversing decline in our churches.

Our world is increasingly inhospitable. Syria, Israel and Palestine, Egypt, the Ukraine, and many other places on earth are being torn to pieces by inhospitality. Our government is divided into hostile camps. Increasingly, strangers don?t talk to strangers and neighbors ignore their neighbors. New technologies and ?social media? are more a shield from real relationships than a conduit for relationship. Therapists have called our society the lonely society and the alienated society and research supports these conclusions.

Henri Nouwen, one of the wisest and most prophetic voices of our time, wrote words which have guided my four decades of ministry: In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbors, friends, and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. . . . Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. That?s our world. What can we do about it?

From Genesis to Hebrews, hospitality is a continuing theme in scripture. In the Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy it wasn?t enough to love your family and your neighbor. The Law required offering hospitality even to the stranger. The law book of Leviticus goes further, saying we?re not only to love the stranger, but we?re to love even the alien among us as we love ourselves. This is really interesting in light of today?s controversy about the place of aliens and immigrants in our land. The gospels offer example after example of Jesus practicing hospitality toward the young, poor, female, outcast, and enemy. For the earliest Christian churches, hospitality was a fundamental requirement.

The book of Hebrews offers one of the Bible?s exquisite jewels: It says that we in the church are to love each other and we must not neglect to show hospitality to strangers [WHY?] because in so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it. Think about it. Almost everything in our lives that is good, beautiful, and holy came to us as a surprising stranger?the people who love us and the things we most value were once foreign to us. Whenever we shut out or are hostile to that which is unknown or different or uncomfortable, we risk missing out on a good, beautiful, divine gift to us from God. To live in fear of the strange and stranger is to live in lonely, deprived exile.

Take old Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of all Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people. The Genesis story we dramatized is one of the most important Biblical lessons for every person and church. Abe and Sarah, old and childless, were living out their remaining days in the desert. One day Abraham made a life-changing, even a culture-changing decision. He chose to offer hospitality to three total strangers passing his tent in the desert. He didn?t know them but he welcomed them to his home. He washed their feet, prepared a special feast for them, and served them himself. Only after old Abe and Sarah extended gracious hospitality to the strangers, the strangers?who were actually God?gave Abe and Sarah the promise of new life?the promise of their first child. Scripture promises to both individuals like you and churches like yours that when radical or extravagant hospitality to the stranger becomes second nature, part of your DNA, they or you will receive the gift of new life. This is still God?s life-giving promise, even today.

My library is full of books about congregational life and many talk of hospitality. In one, a Methodist bishop names the five practices that are characteristic of any alive, vital, growing congregation. The first practice is ?radical hospitality? which is far more than a fleeting smile and shaking a hand. The bishop says real, radical hospitality stretches us, challenges us, and pulls out of us our utmost creativity and hard work. Anything less may be niceness, but it?s not genuine hospitality.

When I became pastor of the Congregational Church of Bristol I watched visitors come in, be greeted by the pastor and ignored by most others. Most never returned. Eventually I persuaded our leadership and Deacons to enact a serious hospitality strategy. We trained teams of greeters whose only job was to greet visitors. We equipped them with 11 hospitality strategies for helping visitors feel thoroughly at home. And then a strange thing happened. After years of standing still, our church experienced dramatic growth in numbers and congregational vitality. New people brought wonderful gifts and other new people to our congregation. And ours became a happier, healthier, more faithful church. The same could happen in any church.

I was taught in seminary that a good sermon should have three main points, so here they are. First, hospitality is the cure to the world?s greatest sickness. The poor, the disabled, the minority, the left out, the refugee, the out of luck languish in our competitive world. Millions and millions hide behind their computer, I Pad, or TV screen, and behind dead-bolted doors. There are fewer and fewer places and environments where people socialize and really feel at home. The practice of universal, contagious hospitality would heal more sickness and pathology than miracle cures for cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer?s combined.

My second truth is that hospitality is basic and essential to spiritual health. Faith communities are in the business of two things?nurturing spiritual health and working to bring about the universal Community of God which would make the world safe and hospitable for all. We?re no more spiritually healthy than the level of hospitality we practice. The one who prays fervently while shutting out the world is praying in a suffocating vacuum. The one who religiously practices meditation in isolation is practicing a form of spiritual narcissism. The truly hospitable person will transcend divisions like between black and white, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, poor and rich.

The third truth is that hospitality is at the core of Christian community. Remember Henri Nouwen? He addressed every church when he wrote: . . .it is obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. . . . that is our vocation [he writes] to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced. T. S. Eliot said it even more profoundly: What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community, and no community that is not lived in praise of God.

My closing, second story offers a vision of how the church might lead the world in becoming more hospitable. I take you back to World Communion Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001, just four weeks after the terrorist attack on our nation. Our church in San Rafael, CA had an affordable housing project that housed 61 families from around the world. For World Communion Sunday we wanted to decorate our sanctuary with mementos from other cultures. We invited Pilgrim Park residents to loan us things from their homelands. A Muslim dental student from Afghanistan loaned us a prayer rug and said he might attend our worship. We also had a Jewish-Christian family in the congregation and Larry, the Jew, attended more often than his Christian wife. On communion Sundays Larry joined the congregation as it gathered in a large circle around the table, but he didn?t take the bread or cup.

As I drove to the church Sunday morning I had a last minute idea. I stopped at a supermarket and bought a large, beautiful cluster of red grapes which I put on the table beside the bread and chalice. When I gave the Invitation to the table that morning, I said the whole world was invited to our table. I said we had food for everyone?the communion bread and chalice for those for whom they were religiously meaningful and grapes for any person who might be uncomfortable partaking of the Christian symbols. I said everyone was invited to come eat at the Lord?s Table. You may think that?s too inclusive. But if we believe that when Jesus said, ?God so loved the world,? he meant the whole world. And if we believe that when Jesus said he came that we might have life abundant, he meant that abundant life was for the whole world, then our table hospitality and common life should include every person.

At our table, 4 weeks after 9/11, Jewish Larry was there eating holy food with his Christian wife, children, and friends. Our Muslim guest from Afghanistan was in the circle communing with Americans he?d never met. We had a Jew, a Muslim, and a potpourri of Christians happily communing around one universal table. That World Communion Sunday experience, four weeks after 9/11, brought tears to my and other eyes. An hour later, I turned on NPR on my car radio, and discovered that the United States had started bombing the homeland of our Afghani communion guest a few hours before.

In conclusion, I have bad news and really good news. The bad news is that this world is in deep trouble, growing more and more insular, narcissistic, and inhospitable, more and more hostile and dangerous. The good news is that a contagion of extravagant hospitality offers people a safe place and the antidote to that inhospitality. For us in churches like this one, genuine hospitality will reverse the decline that?s being experienced by most churches. And it will bring deeper, richer life and vitality to all. As the sermon title says, ?Welcome home.? I urge each of you to commit and work to see that every person among you feels at home and safe. When you do, you will discover God?s gift of angels among you and you will be a transformed church.