I looked up the definition of “hospitality” in the dictionary and this is what I found: “The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” There are several things about this definition I find quite interesting, especially as it applies to churches.
“Friendly” is a no-brainer. There is not a church out there who doesn’t want to be known as a friendly church. But I’d like to argue that being “friendly” is relatively easy. All it takes is a smile or a handshake of welcome. It involves having someone hand out bulletins as people enter the door of the church. It involves people sharing the peace of Christ in an enthusiastic manner. There are lots of “friendly” churches out there. They even print in their bulletins “All Are Welcome.”
But if you hang around long enough you’ll discover that “all” means “Everyone who looks like us and thinks like us.” “Friendly” has invisible “exceptions clauses” such as all are welcome except those who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, or who are LGBT, or those whose skin color is different from ours. If you hang around long enough, you’ll discover what these exceptions clauses are. Once they discover that YOU are one of these exceptions, their friendliness toward you will disappear rapidly.
So “friendly” definitely has its challenges. But the definition of hospitality also includes the word “generous.” Generosity means we go out of our way. We make an extra special effort in being hospitable. “Generous” means we stop talking to our friends in church and spend time getting to know the visitor who just walked through the door. “Generous” means noticing someone came in late and doesn’t have a bulletin, so we hand them ours and go get a new one. It can also mean helping them to navigate the Lutheran worship service, including where to find that hymn with ELW#425 next to it, or how in the world you get to and from your seat during communion. “Generous” means anticipating their need before they even know they have one!
Moving further along the definition, we discover that hospitality is extended to “guests, visitors, or strangers.” “Guests” are those we know are coming. They are our “regulars,” the faces we see week after week. They are the people we call our “church family.” We know them pretty well. It’s easy to be hospitable to them.
Next come “visitors” who are people attending for the first time. Or maybe they are attending for second time but they’re new to us because we missed their first visit. I’ve already outlined the ways we can be more hospitable to these new friends. It takes a little more effort on our part to get to know them.
Finally, we have a category that makes us a little bit nervous: “strangers.” Somewhere in the back of our minds we hear the voices of our Mamas who told us not to talk to strangers. The stranger is the person who shows up after worship is finished and asks for money or to speak to the pastor. The stranger is the person who just doesn’t look like they’re going to be “our kind of people.” This is a judgment call on our part. It’s usually based on their outward appearance, but this happens in churches all the time. Yet hospitality calls us to be both friendly and generous to the guest, visitor and stranger alike! I guess hospitality may be a little more challenging than we first thought it was going to be.
I have some bad news for you because when it comes Jesus’ understanding of hospitality the challenge is even greater. We begin with our gospel lesson, where Jesus is sending the disciples to be the living Church in the world. He is calling them to embody the love, grace, and hospitable welcome they have received from him. From his “to-do” list I think we learn several things about the nature of hospitality.
First of all, we’re not only called to be hospitable IN Church, we’re called to be hospitable OUT in the world as well. Mark tells us that Jesus “called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority.” What this tells us is that everyone is called to be the Church out in the world. He gave them the authority to be his emissaries, his ambassadors of good will. They were even instructed to interact with “unclean spirits,” which in modern language means the crazies we usually cross the street in order to avoid!
Notice, Jesus didn’t say “I’m only sending out eleven of the twelve of you, because Judas is already our volunteer treasurer and he does enough work in the Church already.” Notice, Jesus didn’t say “Hey Peter, don’t we have a Hospitality Committee or an Outreach Committee to do that?”
Jesus sent out all twelve, which, of course, means he sends out all of us as well, including your pastor! No one is exempt from being the Living Church out in the world. No one is exempt from embodying the love, grace, and hospitable welcome we have received from Jesus.
The second thing we learn from Jesus “to-do” list is that we’re supposed to travel lightly. Jesus told them, “Take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts; but wear your sandals and don’t put on two tunics.” Now Jesus travel tips are a bit outdated for today’s modern Christian. I’ve only worn a tunic once in my life while vacationing in Egypt. I suspect most of you have never worn a tunic at all!
The gist of what Jesus is saying is that we really don’t need much to be the Living Church out in the world. We don’t need an evangelism plan that was approved by our Church Council. We don’t need clever gimmicks or “hip” marketing strategies. We simply need to embody LOVE, and HAVE THE FAITH that Jesus will take care of the rest.
This is really hard for us to do. Most Christians are afraid to share their faith except for the crazy conservative ones we hear from them ALL THE TIME. But we need to trust that we have something to offer that people need to hear. We, who have received Christ’s love, grace, and hospitable welcome, simply need to share this same love, grace, and hospitable welcome with others. It’s that simple. It’s that profound!
We saw this put into action in Houston this week as 31,000 Lutheran youth invaded the city. They worshiped and studied. They did service projects and some attended the immigration rally that was held this past Saturday. Since I know a lot of pastors, my Facebook newsfeed was loaded with pictures of Lutheran youth being the Living Church out in the world. It was a refreshing change from what I usually see on a daily basis.
Finally, Jesus has a word of advice on his “to-do” list for the situations when our love, grace and hospitality, are neither appreciated nor accepted. “If any place will not welcome you, and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” To quote an old 70’s song from Kenny Rogers: “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run!”
Being the Living Church out in the world is not always easy. Sometimes we will be received warmly. Other times we will encounter hostility. But even when this happens, we are not supposed to return hate for hate. We are call to walk way knowing that we tried to embody Christ’s love, grace and hospitality to the best of our abilities. The hope we have is that a seed of this love, grace and hospitality was left behind. Maybe, some day, it will find good soil and will grow into a mighty tree. These are some of the things I think Jesus is trying to tell us about the nature of hospitality in our gospel lesson for today.
A second place I would like to turn in order to see how Jesus understood hospitality, is the parable of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke. A man was traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This man was attacked by robbers “Who striped him, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.” A priest came walking by and didn’t want to get involved. He passed by on the other side of the road. A Levite, who is an assistant to the priests in the temple, also came walking by and didn’t want to get involved. He, too, passed by on the other side of the road. To put it in modern terms the “church going folks” didn’t want to get involved in the situation. Their hospitality to the stranger was non-existent.
Finally, a Samaritan came walking by. According to John Shelby Spong in his book “Jesus For the Non-Religious” Samaritans were “the unclean, rejectable scum of the first century Jewish world. They were half-breeds whose blood lines had been corrupted by their Jewish ancestor’s marrying Gentiles. They were also largely viewed by the religious establishment as heretics since the true worship of God had been compromised by the Gentile side of their ancestry.”
This Samaritan, who would have been seen as unworthy of God’s love, grace and hospitable welcome, embodies the true definition of hospitality. He was not only friendly to this stranger. He was extravagantly generous to him. The Samaritan bandaged the injured man’s wounds. He poured oil and wine on them which was their version of Neosporin and antibiotics! Then the Samaritan took him to the nearest inn and made sure he was cared for until he was well.
“Which one of these,” Jesus asked, “Do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” In other words “Which one of these embodied the love, grace and hospitable welcome of God?” The one whose question prompted the telling of this story responded, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise!”
Friends in Christ, our calling is clear. We are called to be the Living Church out in the world. We are called to embody the love, grace and hospitable welcome We have received from Jesus. This is not always easy work. But it may be the most life-changing and transformational work we will ever do as followers of Jesus. AMEN.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck