September 3, 2013, 5:55 PM
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Radical hospitality is a phrase that United Methodist Bishop, Robert Schnase, uses to describe one characteristic of fruitful congregations. His genius in developing his curriculum to help congregations become more fruitful is in his adjectives. Christian love takes us beyond good. Christian loves takes us even beyond excellent—to grace filled. When what we do is grace filled, our work is imbued with power that changes lives, including our own. Because it begins with God’s grace. God has created a world that not only supports and sustains our life, but also intrigues and delights us. Radical hospitality starts with God.
You’ve had a few minutes to think about it. What are some of the signs that you have been welcomed with grace?
Radical hospitality is an attitude of the heart that reflects a genuine concern for the other person. Years ago, I caught an episode of Martha Stewart in which she was preparing for guests in her home. She placed bouquets of fresh flowers in every room, including the guest bath. She found delicate flower scented soaps. She let us watch her create an elegant dessert. And then she concluded her show by saying, “I can’t wait for my guest to arrive to see all of these things I’ve prepared.” Poor guests. I hope they came prepared to ooh and aah so that they didn’t disappoint their hostess. Martha invited guests to be an audience. Right here, let me admit that it’s easy for me to be more concerned with looking like I know what I’m doing as a hostess that I forget that my intent is to build a relationship. Standards build up in a community. Even in a church. I have never been part of a group, church included, where the expectations didn’t continually go up. I read a book a long time ago by a pastor in Oregon who said that if you want to maintain hospitality, keep it simple. We all want to offer our best when we are in charge of coffee hour, and that’s great. But if one person bakes great cookies, and the next host adds fruit, and the next host adds cheese, coffee hour can become intimidating and expensive. Sometimes the courage to offer a very simple snack like popcorn relieves the pressure and becomes an act of genuine hospitality so that everyone feels free to share their gifts again. It’s a situation of both/and. Sometimes we honor wanting to offer our best, and sometimes what’s best for the whole congregation calls us to lower expectations. Both have their place.
But I digress. Radical hospitality involves more than a good welcome. It needs to attend to the real needs of the guest or newcomer. It is all about the other person’s needs. One of our sons tried the big church near campus and, like Goldilocks, found it too big. So he visited the small church just a little further from campus. He could hardly wait to tell us how they had fussed over him in rushing to make him feel welcome, with a look on their faces that said, “Fresh meat!” He didn’t do back. Sometimes that’s what drives the welcome in churches—a desire to fill the pews with people who can take over the jobs we’ve done forever. Someone else to add to the volunteer list, someone new to teach Sunday school, make coffee, iron the communion linens. Debi Nixon tells the story of being invited to be on the altar guild by an older woman in her congregation. Debi was a young mother and altar guild had never crossed her mind. So she asked the woman why they thought of her. The woman replied, “Because somebody’s got to do this and I’ve been doing it for thirty years and I’m tired of it!” Unbelievably, Debi did take the job and later wrote that she wished the older woman had told her how humble it made her feel to polish the brass candle sticks until they gleamed because they symbolized the light of Christ, and how ironing the communion cloths sometimes made her feel as if she were preparing the meal for Jesus and his disciples—she could feel herself in the upper room. The sense of awe and holiness she experienced preparing for the congregation’s worship fed her soul in ways she could never have imagined. Why had that woman never told her that?
Radical hospitality cares more about the soul of the new person than the job they can take over. It also makes room for each new person and the gifts that he or she brings. I’ve been a member of a number of churches over the years, in several states. After I joined one church, a member of the welcoming committee came to visit in my home and asked about what kinds of things I liked to do and where I thought I might fit in. I told her about my recent degree in theater arts, but she waved her hand in the air and said, “Oh, we already have someone who does that. Maybe you could help her with makeup sometime. What else do you do?” I wish she had asked me how that church could help me grow in my faith. Or how it could support me in raising my children. I did find some other moms and we developed our own support group. In spite of the rocky start, that church made room for me to grow and use my gifts. Think about how this or another church made room for you. How then do we expand our horizons and the scope and depth of our ministry by making room for friends we haven’t met yet? Not just handing over jobs we’ve grown tired of, but allowing new ministries to take shape and new life to grow?
Radical hospitality is at the heart of the Beloved Community. All are welcomed; all are accepted; all are loved. This church is pretty good at radical hospitality, but we can always take it to the next level. In the second half of the gospel lesson for today, Jesus calls us to extend that radical hospitality to people who are outside our social circles, to people for whom our community may be a life-saving ministry. Ordinary hospitality is reciprocal: invitations are proffered with corresponding invitations in a back and forth or circular rhythm. Radical hospitality invites with no expectation of return. Radical hospitality takes the risk of saying to the guest, “My house is your house. Make yourself at home.”
Maybe I’ve told you about my friends who decided that their home belonged to God. Therefore, if anyone needed a place to stay, they would open their home—no questions asked. One of their guests did steal some of their stuff on his way out of town, but their response was that the results were not up to them. Their job was to extend hospitality. They had some great stories to tell as well of single moms who needed a place to make a new start and earn first and last month’s rent before moving into their own apartment and travelers who just needed a safe place for a night. I may be preaching to the choir here—in fact I know that I am. But is worth remembering that when someone new makes their home in our home, we are all changed. We learn new ways of living in our space when we invite others to make the space theirs as well. It’s like a good marriage—never easy, but so worth any tension or conflict that arises, if we find in the tension ways to grow in grace so that we may fully receive the gift of the other.
Radical hospitality can change the lives of those we welcome. And it changes us—all of us together.