When I was a young associate pastor in Winchester, Va., something happened one Sunday morning that I will never forget. There is no blame, because I absolutely understand what happened. I suspect it might happen most churches, even here.
A drunk wandered in off the pedestrian mall into the narthex. He made his way up to the balcony and there he sat, smelling of booze and talking to himself.
It frazzled the worshippers and the usher got very tense and so called the police. A very nice officer came and gently took the guest by the arm and led him out and as he left he said to the drunk: “Come on, they don’t want you here.”
You can see, I hope, why that incident left a mark on me. The next day someone said to me, “That could have been Jesus!” And she was right, as the passage in Hebrews reminds us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
In the passage from Matthews, we get down on the Pharisees but I wonder if they didn’t feel this discomfort watching Jesus eat with people “everybody” knew were not the sort of people he should be seen with. Perhaps they were being protective of Jesus as much as critical of the company.
I have to admit, I often identify with the Pharisees much more than with Jesus.
I want to be with people who are like me, who share my values, who share my politics, who look like me, who think like me. I want to welcome–but I want to vet, extremely.
And this is why Jesus is so radical – because he breaks every barrier down, there is no vetting, extreme or otherwise – everyone is welcome, especially the “other” – the one no one wants. As St. Paul writes, in Jesus Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female.”
And in Acts, there is that marvelous story of Philip sharing the gospel with the Ethiopian Eunuch – a man who was, by biblical law unclean because of his sexual disfigurement– and yet he too receives the spirit.
I think Jesus, the prophets, and other more universalistic rabbis developed this notion of radical hospitality from the doctrine of creation. Lauren Winner writes in Mudhouse Sabbath, “Christians and Jews hold in common one theological basis for hospitality: Creation. Creation is the ultimate expression of God’s hospitality to His creatures. In the words of one rabbi, everything God created is a “manifestation of His kindness. [The] world is one big hospitality inn.”
Winner continues,“In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, we find another resource for hospitality. The trinity shows God in relationships with Godself… the reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests… that… we are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives.”
It is why the church must be on the side of welcoming immigrants: turning no one away. It may be bad politics to some, and dangerous to others, but it is good Christ-centered theology.
And so I just don’t get it when certain pastors and whole congregations today identify certain groups of people as not being clean or worse “anathema,” not being worthy, or when politicians talk about “the Mexicans” or “the Muslims.”
I have to confess that this closed-mindedness includes me, and you. Because sometimes I don’t want to be hospitable to a new idea, a change that might affect my comfort. I don’t want to be stretched – I want to be entertained.
It is this amazing promise of God’s radical welcome to you and to me, to everyone, of every gender, orientation, color, creed – witnessed in the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – that shapes, gives grounding to the second of our values: Forest Hill Church Presbyterian aspires to become and holds itself accountable to being a Welcoming Community: being warm, diverse, and racially inclusive.
And truly you are one of the most welcoming, hospitable churches I can imagine.
At exploring membership classes a lot of folks share how welcomed they felt when they came to FHC.
We open our doors to multiple groups:
AA and AL Anon, now a transgendered support group.
We serve over 100 people every Tuesday at the Food Bank distribution.
We are a more racially inclusive church then we were 10 years ago;
By Session policy we are supportive of the LGBTQ community.
So hallelujah! Congratulations! Keep up the good work.
But its hard work and we can never rest on our laurels. For there are times when I receive an email that says “no one said hello to me when I visited.” Or when a person asks, “how do I know this is an LGBTQ welcoming church? There is nothing on the walls, no brochures – you sort of have to go on blind trust.” Even our “entrance” is narrow and to some foreboding – even with Dene Young standing there!
It is hard work feeling welcoming when guests don’t act appreciative. Or when the building gets dirty and it really strains our staff to keep up.
I wish this building were totally accessible to everyone. But it will cost millions to add an elevator and make sure there are dignified and discreet ways for people in wheel chairs to get around, for blind and hearing impaired people to move with freedom.
Sometimes in our hospitality we can be, unintentionally, patronizing. We help, we serve, we are polite – but with a table between us. Do we really want folks from the food pantry or Labre to worship with us? Do we really want outsiders to become insiders and one day become an Elder or Trustee and do things differently?
We want more “millennials” but are we willing to become the church that “millennials” want to come to?
What if the 25-years-or-more members who built this church become the minority and the 5-years-or-less members want to take over the future of the church? Isn’t that the appeal of Mr. Trump to many? We are losing the past – we need to restore its greatness.
I don’t want to make you feel guilty, or bad – I really meant what I said a couple of minutes ago that as an institution we do really well.
But you can see that becoming the radical welcoming church that Jesus envisioned and died for is difficult and we should always be in prayer, humbly confessing that we fall short, but darn it we are going to keep pressing so that this church becomes more like how we envision the world being.
Henry Nouwen once wrote in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life: “Hospitality means primarily the creation of 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. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
This is what is great about the passage from Matthew – Jesus eats with the outsiders, he doesn’t preach to them. He doesn’t try to convert them. He gives them free space!
And as Kathleen Norris wrote in her Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person…(it is) receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’.”
And as Norris always does, she gets to the heart of the matter. Because at our best we can be hospitable to the “other” but we can be so inhospitable to ourselves: we have not found the center of our lives in our own hearts. We do not feel worthy, we do not accept ourselves: we are too heavy, too dull, we have failed, we will not forgive ourselves, we become our own worst enemy, we are our own “other.” We are one of “those” people – knocking on our own door to be let in. Groucho Marx’s comment resonates: “I don’t want to belong to a club that will accept me as a member.”
So let me tell you some good news, some Jesus good news: In Jesus Christ, God is reconciling the whole world to Godself.
“Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou biddest me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come; I come!” So show hospitality to yourself: just as you are.
Believe it: God welcomes you – stained and imperfect. God welcomes all: no one is outside of God’s grace, no one. In fact, in God’s kingdom the “outsider” is already the “insider” and those who think they are in… well, they are inside but in an isolated, standing in the corner, kind of way; missing the fun.
One of the best definitions of church that I have ever heard is: “Here comes everybody!”
Let it be so, allow yourself to be part of the throng, “where even the sparrow finds a home!”
God bless you.
You are welcome.