St. Paul’s Congregational Church
June 28, 2020 – Proper 8A
Matthew 10: 40 - 42
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When you hear the word “Hospitality” what comes to your mind? Maybe you think of a relative who had this gift – or some friends who, when you walk into their house, make you feel so at home. There are people who make everyone feel so welcome – whose dinner table always has an extra space, who would never let you leave the table without an extra piece of that wonderful apple pie. It’s a little hard to define hospitality, but it’s one of those things that we know immediately when it’s there and when it’s not.
I came across a newspaper article that helps with this: speaking biblically, hospitality is treating strangers and friends alike. It is welcoming one another into our homes and lives. Hospitality is a sacred duty.
Seems to me that many Christians are waking up to the fact that we cannot do church today the same way we’ve done it in the past. Declining church populations have waked some of us up to the reality that our churches aren’t as welcoming as we thought they were. We’re realizing that we who are called by Christ to build communities of radical grace and extravagant welcome have too often been exclusive communities. Every church wants to “grow” – more people in the pews, more in the offering plates – but there’s often an unspoken “but” – and that’s as long as nothing changes. That’s not hospitality, is it.
Doesn’t this sound even a little familiar as we reflect on what’s going on in our country these days? Treating strangers and friends alike – I’m coming to realize we can’t say “all lives matter” until we are able to say – and believe – that black lives matter, that brown lives matter, that native American lives matter – that’s our challenge these days, isn’t it. Has been for centuries – now, how will we live out our sacred duty to hospitality – loving strangers and friends alike.
Hospitality in the ancient world focused on the alien or stranger in need. The plight of aliens was desperate. They lacked membership in the community, be it tribe, city-state, or nation. As an alienated person, the traveler often needed immediate food and lodging. Widows, orphans, the poor, or sojourners from other lands lacked the familial or community status that provided a landed inheritance, the means of making a living, and protection. In the ancient world the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one's land, home, or community and providing directly for that person's needs.
Hospitality is not optional. It’s a commandment – a matter of justice. A sacred duty.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus commands hospitality four times – normally a rabbi would argue “from the lesser to the greatest” but Jesus reverses the usual order and argues from the greater to the lesser. Whoever receives you, receives me; whoever receives a prophet, will receive a prophet’s reward; whoever receives a righteous person, will receive the reward of the righteous, and whoever “gives even a cup of cold water” to a “little one” will be rewarded.
I truly believe we need to hear the Bible’s message about hospitality, now more than ever, because we live in a remarkably inhospitable world – a world of gated communities, exclusive country clubs, poverty right around the corner, an isolation from each other, a time of violence, of COVID 19 surges, strained relations between black, brown, white, native American, religious traditions. And even though we yearn for human contact as we begin to come out of our quarantine, to see and touch each other again – there is a real me-first attitude that’s all too prevalent.
We live in a world that needs hospitality: we live in a world where there are too many vulnerable and marginalized today. The biblical command to show hospitality to strangers is part of the imperative of justice – we are called to behave toward others as we expect others to behave toward us. Why is this so hard? Because to be hospitable makes us vulnerable – to open our homes, our churches to others, to open our very selves to others, especially strangers but even friends, might open us to criticism and judgment from others, may put us at risk, and maybe hardest of all – to make us face and recognize our own fears – and we all have them – our fears about change and how that change will affect me, how it will affect us as a gathered community.
What will become of St. Paul’s? That’s a question that weighs on us, isn’t it. Well, maybe we have to get back to the basic call of hospitality: how welcoming are we really to strangers in our midst? How welcoming are we really to each other? How do we reach out to the community, the wider church? Are we willing to make ourselves vulnerable? To recognize the fear we all have about change? Are we trusting God who demands of us hospitality to all? The question is about embracing new folks, strangers, giving and receiving the gifts we all have for ministry – not just expecting that new people do things our way – and, friends, it’s not just the task of the minister to do this – we are partners in this ministry – all of us have parts to play. We’re all called to offer that cup of cool water. All of us.
Hospitality is about opening ourselves to conversations about our ministry here – how do we define it? How do we expand it? How will we respond to our call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? These conversations are about listening, sharing opinions, about loving each other through what can be difficult topics – it’s about trusting that God will be with us as we go through our process that’s not easy, not quick, maybe painful for some, maybe invigorating for others – perhaps all of the above for others. But let’s not isolate ourselves.
It’s a question of being open to the movement of the Spirit in our midst – a minister I know prays before worship, Gracious God, let me be surprised during worship today. It’s about keeping our eyes and ears and hearts open to those surprises and rejoicing at the Spirit’s work in our midst.
This is tough stuff, isn’t it. I must confess that as I thought about this passage and my reflections on it during the week, I found myself feeling a bit cranky, frustrated, and exhausted! Being pulled out of myself is not always an especially warm and fuzzy feeling. But that’s what God calls us to do; that’s what Jesus models for each of us: and if we call ourselves Christians and are seriously trying to be disciples and follow Christ, well, sometimes we need to be disrupted out of our comfort zones in order to grow. I think of the poor oyster – that grain of sand must be awfully uncomfortable in his shell but look at the thing of beauty that is created. What beauty is waiting to be created in us, as individuals, and as church!
What would happen if we heard and heeded the Biblical message of hospitality? It would certainly be good news for the hungry. Look at the empty shelves at the NFSB Food Pantry!
It would certainly be good news to those who feel marginalized in our church, in our town, in our world if we really looked at our own assumptions, really looked for and at our own blindspots, our own privilege. We have an opportunity every day to do just this – and you know, when we show hospitality to our neighbors, it does bring us out of our cocoons into the light and fresh air. It frees us to show compassion and mercy. And most of all, it opens us to God. “Whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me….” And, after all, who really needs, yearns for hospitality? The bag lady rooting through a dumpster? The hungry child living in a steamy hot apartment in the city or in our own town? Sure.
But so do we. Every single one of us.
When some of you offered to write notes or make phone calls to our homebound folks during these hard times, when I thanked you, you’ve said, no big deal. It’s something I can do.
Well, it is a big deal! That small cup of water you offer is a very big deal to one who is thirsty. That compliment you offer when a piece of music touches you is a very big deal. That smile and offered hand is a very big deal to the person who has come here to worship for the first or maybe second time or to the person who has been coming here for years and years. We don’t know the struggles, the pains, the anxieties those people face, do we. Our reaching out is a big deal.
Jesus tells us to reach out – the world is frightening. Here’s the challenge to us all: go past the fear – make yourself vulnerable to another for there is no other way to show hospitality, to make peace. This is discipleship. It is done face to face, hand to hand, person to person. It’s not always easy. But this is a big deal.
Hospitality requires risk and vulnerability, courage and sacrifice. Hospitality is offered through sometimes small and seemingly unspectacular ways. Opening the door to a stranger on the street breaks down a barrier of protection in a world of walls and loneliness. A smile requires eye contact. A handshake means unclenching fists. A piece of bread breaks down hunger and offers new life. A cup of cold water to a thirsty soul is as refreshing to the giver as to the barren throat of the recipient. These are all acts of basic everyday kindness and generosity. But in the gospel logic of God’s kingdom, these are acts that form us into the Body of Christ. And we receive the overflowing hospitality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And now I ask you to share a cup of water with everyone you meet. Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Listen carefully. Speak kindly. And leave the rest to God.
May God give us the courage and the wisdom to do just that, now and always. Amen.