*This sermon is the last in a series on Common Worship: Themes for Zion's Worship Life
We have all probably had the experience of visiting a new church at one time or another where we were not welcomed. There were no signs to direct you to the sanctuary, the restrooms, or anywhere. If you had a crying child, you wouldn’t know where to go. You found your way to the sanctuary by following everyone else. A greeter handed you a bulletin while talking to a friend. It was assumed that you could easily follow the order of worship, understand when to stand and sit without a verbal cue, and all the cryptic denominational acronyms that were freely flung about. Following the service everyone was talking to one another, but no one greeted you as you headed for your car. It was like you had just entered an exclusive club where you were not a member and in subtle and unintentional ways they let you know it.
I would probably not be as deeply involved or not involved at all in church without the welcome I received from some youth and college age young people in my home congregation. I had just gotten out of the army and went back to my home congregation, where I hadn’t attended for years and knew no one, except the pastor. It was 1971 and I was the only person in that Baptist worship service with long hair and beard; a shy, introverted, Rock drummer. I sat alone in the back pews and spoke to no one. My wife, Iris, and her friend, Kathy, were among the first people to warmly welcome me into the congregation (although she may have had ulterior motives!). I was invited to college gatherings, where I was welcomed and met new friends. I was invited to play drums in the combined youth/college age band formed to play for several church musicals. Eventually I was invited to teach a youth Sunday school class and to preach my first sermon. It didn’t matter that I was an introvert, looked different, or that I was a newcomer. The welcome and invitations just kept coming. It was within that welcoming congregation that I encountered God’s call to Christian ministry. From my personal experience, I’m convinced that welcoming the stranger into our congregations, and particularly our worship space, can be one of the most important acts of worship we perform.
Biblical Hospitality. Hospitality was a significant practice in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. In arid lands with sparse water, food, and shelter, hospitality was often a life or death issue. Hospitality is still a most important practice in many countries throughout the world. People in some countries will bend over backwards, give up their own food, and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Hospitality is the norm. And a breach of hospitality is a serious matter.
Hospitality was a practice through which one could encounter the divine. The story of Abraham, Sarah, and three visitors is a model story of hospitality, but also reminds us that in welcoming the stranger, we may be welcoming God. As a nomadic people, Abraham and Sarah pitched their tents by the oaks of Mamre, where a Canaanite cultic shrine was located. Abraham spotted three travelers nearby and ran from his tent to meet them. In respect for the strangers he bowed to the ground and 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.” All this for strangers! Abraham goes out of his way to share hospitality with wayfaring strangers. The hearers of the story are privy to the fact that the Lord is present in cognito in the three visitors or angels. In showing hospitality to strangers Abraham and Sarah welcomed God.
The hospitality story of Abraham is immediately followed by a contrast story of the inhospitality of the people of Sodom. We have often interpreted the story of Sodom as God’s judgment upon homosexuality. Rather, it is a story that stands in contrast to Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to the strangers and thus to God. Instead of welcoming the strangers, the three angels, the males of Sodom seek to gang rape them. These types of acts are similar to when enemies are raped in war or prisoners rape one another. They are acts of domination and humiliation and not loving acts from same-sex attraction. The prophet Ezekiel names the sins of Sodom and homosexuality is not one of them. Pride, excess of food, prosperous ease, not aiding the poor and needy are named. Jesus himself identifies the sin of Sodom with inhospitality when he said that the judgment on those who do not show hospitality toward his missionary disciples will be greater than that of Sodom (Luke 10:12) The sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, but rather inhospitality. Abraham and Sarah expressed hospitality. Sodom expressed inhospitality.
A breach of hospitality was serious business. The Torah contained laws not only to protect, but to prosper the stranger, alien, and traveler. Hospitality was not just a quaint custom for the people of Israel, it was a divine mandate. You shall not oppress a resident alien (Exodus 23:9) Yes, Lord, but what about an “illegal alien”? When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of America….I mean, Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Yes, I heard you Lord, but maybe you didn’t hear me. I said, “What if he or she is an “illegal alien” Lord, don’t you get it? Can you spell “un-doc-u-mented”? They are breaking the law!! You shall have one law for the alien and the citizen: For I am the Lord your God (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22) Come on, Lord, “treat them like citizens,” “love the alien,” what’s next? When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien (Leviticus 23:22). Gheeez, Lord, your only encouraging them to remain in our land! What’s next, offer them licenses? If aliens among you prosper…or your kin…sell themselves to an alien…as a laborer hired by the year they shall be under the alien’s authority (Leviticus 25:53) Whoa, whoa…Lord, Lord, wait a minute….not only are you offering them jobs, allowing them to prosper, but making aliens our bosses? That’s reverse discrimination! I think I’m gonna go back to Egypt, where I was the alien! Bye! Enjoy the leeks and onions! I am the Lord your God.
If you want to extend this conversation, I recommend you read Iris and my friend, Ched Myer’s book, Our God is Undocumented.
Remember the Emmaus Road story from my sermon a couple of week’s ago? Not only do we see the importance of Communion and Scripture in that story, but also hospitality. The Emmaus story is like an everyday illustration of Jesus parable of the sheep and goats and the final judgment, where Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The Final Judgment is not based upon our beliefs, but whether or not we were hospitable toward the stranger. For Jesus is present in the stranger, as God was present in the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus see that it will soon be turning dark, so they invite the travelling stranger to their home for food and lodging. They practice hospitality. It is in their sharing hospitality around the table that their eyes are opened and they see the Lord. As with Abraham and Sarah and the three strangers, Jesus parable about sheep and goats, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, hospitality becomes a means of encountering God.
The ethic of hospitality is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus told parables of a Good Samaritan who showed hospitality to a stranger (Luke 10) and a great banquet to which are to invited the stranger and vulnerable; the poor, lame, and blind (Luke 14:15-24). He made the welcome of children a matter of welcoming him unaware (Matthew 18:1-5). Jesus, his disciples, and Paul depended on the hospitality of strangers in their missionary travels. Paul said to the Romans, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13). 1 Peter said to the Christian exiles, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (4:9). The author of Hebrews applies the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to the early church. Hospitality is an ethical mandate with fringe benefits: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” What a wondrous thought. Showing hospitality may turn out to be entertaining angels, dining with the divine, supping with the Savior.
Not only was hospitality and ethical mandate, it was a necessity for the early house churches. The early church met in wealthier believers’ houses, usually those with larger homes, like the earliest surviving Christian meeting place at Dura-Europas from the 3rd century. Worship, breaking the bread with a meal, preaching, baptism all occurred in a home. The worship, nurturing, survival, and growth of the early church depended upon Christian hospitality. Church leaders needed to be hospitable, a requirement that shows up in list of qualifications of a bishop in 1 Timothy. And hospitality extended beyond their worship spaces to include caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger wherever they were encountered.
Hospitality is the Church’s Wide Welcome. So, as we see, hospitality permeated the whole life of the church. Hospitality is about the wide welcome of the church. I’ve seen a lot signs outside church buildings that read Everyone is Welcome. When I read those signs I wonder to myself, “Do they really mean it?” Or is it just a nice gesture to their neighbors. Or does it really mean People like us are welcome.
I was pastor of a congregation that had on its sign Everyone welcome. I took that sign literally and presented to our church leaders with the possibility of sharing our building, our worship space, with another Christian church, a United Church of Christ congregation. I was good friends with their female pastor. They would worship at another time on Sunday, clean up after themselves, and pay a rental fee. We didn’t even have to interact with the other congregation, although I would have liked to share some ministry projects together. All the proposal meant was that we would share the same building. There was just one problem. It was not that they were UCC or had a woman pastor. They were a welcoming congregation, if you know what I mean. The Church Council was brave enough to present the proposal of sharing our building with a welcoming congregation at a church business meeting. The majority vote was…. not to welcome the welcoming congregation. Everyone welcome? A lot of congregations need to tear that sign down!
I appreciate it when congregations extend their welcome to strangers, newcomers and the community. Hospitality can be shown through directional signs in the church, handicap accessibility, greeting and following-up on visitors, audio aids for the elderly, and any number of ways of expressing care for members and visitors. I think Zion does a pretty good job of extending our welcome. I have seen friends of members and people from the foundry next door at Soup’s On sharing a meal. Our Quilting workshop brings in hundreds from the community. This summer VBS welcomed a hundred children from our community. Bridging Cultures recently had a beach trip of around 200 people sharing hospitality with one another. We welcome people into new homes and the community through Habitat for Humanity. Participation in the Canby Center provides for the needs of strangers and the poor. And I am aware of numerous extensions of hospitality members have personally shown toward friends and strangers in the community.
Of course, we can always improve on invitations to new people to participate in the life of our congregation. And someday the extent of our hospitality may be tested by someone different who shows up at our doors or who wants to share our building, but hospitality is one of Zion’s strengths. The many ways we welcome the stranger, the newcomer, and people from our communities is practicing hospitality. Remember, we could be entertaining angels unaware.
Hospitality in worship. If we understand the prophetic tradition, which emphasizes the need to make our ethics or life styles fit with our worship life, then all I have said about practicing hospitality relates to worship. According to the prophets, our worship is worthless if we don’t practice mercy and justice. The same could be said of hospitality to the stranger. Our worship loses its meaning if we are not practicing hospitality. In welcoming the stranger we are welcoming God, which is our primary act of worship.
Hospitality in worship is more than a smile and handshake before, during, or after the worship service. It involves the whole atmosphere of our worship. Henri Nouwen describes hospitality in a way that it applies to worship:
Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.... The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.
Applied to worship this means creating the space in our worship where the visitor and newcomer feels welcome and can become a friend. In worship they can join together with us and not feel alienated, pressured to conform to a particular life style, or appreciate only one form of worship music, but can find their own unique place amid the diversity of our people and feel at home.
When it comes to hospitality in worship, I like to think about it in terms of whether we practice private or public worship? I was invited to write an article on public preaching for the Clergy Journal, which got me to thinking about how our worship can be either private or public. Private worship focuses upon making the elements of the worship experience communicate to our people. A Wal-Mart greeting may or may not be extended to visitors. Members speak in their own in group Mennonite language with its AMBS, MCC, MMN, EMS, or throw around personal and family names as if everyone in worship knows who we are talking about. Worship leaders assume everyone knows what to do at every moment of the service. Song leaders expect everyone to be familiar with our music. The prayers don’t make it beyond family and those who have their names on the church membership roll. According to the God language used, God is a male who relates to only half the congregation. The preacher speaks in “churcheze” just oozing with obscure theological language he learned in seminary. The service feels like entering a time warp that transports worshippers a hundred years into the past. Members connect with their small circle of friends following the service. In private worship it takes a concerted effort on the part of the visitor or newcomer to get to know the people. So, it may not happen at all. Private worship feels like family….an exclusive family.
Public worship creates an atmosphere of inclusion and welcome to those who are new. People are not scrutinized because of the personal grooming or habits of dress. People can come as they are. Mothers with small children have all the assistance they need. The elderly don’t feel left out. The mentally and physically challenged are a welcome part of the community. Everyone is a greeter, not just the official greeters. Visitors can easily find their way around or are graciously directed through the building. They are delighted to get a letter thanking them for their visit and in invitation to return. There is a rainbow of colors in the pews. The preaching offers welcome and grace and good news to everyone. The sanctuary is filled with joyful song and everyone feels like they can join in. Invitations to the potluck or church meal following the service are warmly extended to one and all.
Public worship feels like family….an inclusive family.
There was once a church not unlike Zion Mennonite church and its people. A stranger came to visit the worship service one Sunday. He had dark black disheveled hair and bristly chin hair. His hands were leathery and he was missing one tooth. He looked like he came to worship in his work clothes. He was greeted warmly at the door of the sanctuary and more times before he left. As the quiet stranger sat in the pew his head hung down as if he was in constant prayer or bore an unseen burden. The elderly couple next to him in the pew helped guide him through the worship service. The song leader led a familiar hymn that made the stranger fold his hands. The preacher spoke of welcoming the stranger and being an inclusive fellowship that welcomes everyone. The worship leader prayed for the sick and the poor and churches around the world and immigrants and gays and straights and enemies and opposing political leaders and new mothers and the elderly. Tears ran down the stranger’s cheeks. A young woman next to him handed him a tissue and patted his shoulder. She stood next to him as they received communion. The young woman invited the stranger to a potluck meal after the service. They talked as they waited in the potluck line.
When the stranger finally walked out of the church building into the warmth of the afternoon sun and off to who knows where, he felt like he was a stranger no more, but part of a new family, part of one humanity. He turned to those at his dining table and said something so soft most didn’t hear. Everyone at his table asked the young woman, “What did he say?” She choked on the words: “I was a stranger….and you welcomed me.”