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A Ministry of Hospitality

Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Today we welcome new members into our community. We open our hearts to a Ryder in the sacrament of baptism….the ritual by which we welcome a person into the body of Christ which is the church. We promise as a community to support and to encourage this couple and their child; and indeed all families who bring children into our community. Baptism is a ministry of hospitality.

But hospitality must go beyond the words we say during service. Hospitality must extend to getting to know people; to finding out who they are; what brings them to this place; Hospitality invites people into the life of our community, creating space for newcomers to grow, and become part of the life and ministry of this community.

There are not many places in our secular western world where one can experience hospitality, and community of shared values. It’s a harsh, cold world out there in many ways.

Christianity was born in the harsh cold world of the Roman Empire. Jesus did his teaching in an occupied land, against the backdrop of imperial religion which worshipped Caesar as Son of God. Jesus clearly addresses those issues in his ministry. But Jesus also speaks a lot about what it means to be community in the midst of this kind of world. Over and over again, we see that he takes hospitality to strangers very seriously.

In our focus scripture, Jesus is clearly speaking to people who feel that the social order is in their favour. They are inheritors of privilege; and they know it. He challenges those kind of people to humility; to not overvaluing themselves.

If Jesus had been talking to a group of outsiders, he would have been challenging them to recognize that they mattered; that they are precious, beloved children of God, heirs of God’s promise; known by name from the day of their birth. So it’s really important to know who Jesus is speaking to when we try to understand what he might have been trying to teach.

Jesus is dining at a Pharisee’s home. In Luke Jesus is shown as friendly with the Pharisees and supporting their view of Resurrection of the Righteous. But Jesus takes the notion of hospitality even deeper. Don’t just welcome those who are like you. Don’t just invite your friends and people who can continue the social circuit of inviting you back. Invite in those who do not belong to the club…invite in the poor, the sick, those who are on the margins.

And we all nod and say, yes isn’t that just like the Jesus we know. Always on the side of the underdog. And in our hearts, we think that we are like him too.

We don’t always see the invisible walls that we sometimes put up that exclude. It’s as simple as only talking to people you know at coffee. Not noticing new people standing alone feeling awkward and unsure of where to break into conversation.

I remember saying to a man who came back to my church a second time how good it was to see him. He said “IT’s good to be seen. None of the other churches I’ve tried has SEEN me.” He’d been going to churches and he said it was as if he were invisible. He’d go to coffee and no one would speak to him. He said it was clear that no one was interested in him. No one cared about who he was, and what had brought him to church. This man had been a theological student, and during his theological training had come to terms with the reality that he was gay. He felt he had to be honest with his congregation and his presbytery. He told them. They supported him, but wanted to be honest with conference and national office and as a result he was one of the reasons for the church dealing with issues of ministry and sexual orientation. He was, and is a deeply spiritual man; a faithful follower of Jesus. He is now a member of parliament and remains a good friend. No one in those other churches he had visited would ever discover his incredible gifts, or ever experience the gift of having this person in their community. As he was welcomed in my last church, and able to be received for who he was, he offered his many gifts and his transforming story to us. We were richly blessed. An angel unaware?

Rev, Lise Kusminska, the Presbytery’s transformational minister, told me a story about going into a church where she had a meeting after service. It was snowing heavily so she had a cloak over her coat. She’d arrived late because of the weather. She has a cane and walks a bit awkardly as she need knee surgery. There were no seats at the back of the church so she moved up the aisle. Two women at the end of one pew said, “Who’s that? We should have locked the door!” This is a congregation that has a sign on the front of their property saying “All welcome!”

Hospitality means seeing; noticing the other; and caring about who they are; wanting to know them and to recognize that God is coming to us through them….with gifts we might not even be able to imagine. Hospitality; an ancient, but also a very modern ministry. Why would the bible care so much about hospitality?

In the arid, rugged areas where Judaism and Christianity have their roots, hospitality to the stranger was not simply “a nice thing to do”. It was a matter of life and death. One of the core codes of nomadic people is hospitality to the stranger. It was how you survived in a hostile land. You see it throughout the ancient biblical story…Elijah is welcomed as a stranger by the widow of Zaraphath, and his life, and the life of herself and her son is saved and God’s prophet is able to continue his work. Abraham and Sarah welcome a stranger and this messenger of God gives them the promise of land and the birth of a people that is a core story of the ancient covenant of God with the people. So no wonder the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says to the early church that they must not neglect showing hospitality to strangers because by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

His advice to the church living under terrible persecution is simple and very profound. “Let mutual love grow among you. That is what will speak volumes to those around us and those who come through our doors. It’s palpable when you come into a community. You can feel whether people genuinely love one another or whether they’re tearing one another apart; Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them. Remember those being tortured as if you were being tortured. “In those days it took nothing to get yourself thrown into prison except disagreeing with the government, or suspicion of belonging to certain groups.

At one point it was illegal to be a Christian, so remembering those in prison, was not simply remembering convicted murderers and felons, but remembering those who were unjustly imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs, much as we still do in Amnesty International; much as the Civil Liberties Union and other folk concerned with justice are doing as they remember those imprisoned and tortured by the fear-based power unleashed by the so-called War on Terror. Remembering people like Mayer Arar….But many others whose names we do not know.

And do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.I’m told that one of the ways that Christianity grew so powerfully in the early days of the Roman Empire, was their practise of deep and radical hospitality. They cared about those who were oppressed. They visited those in prison, they fed those who were hungry, they welcomed those who struggled in the empire….newly released slaves, women, widows particularly who were being forced into marriages they did not want. In the Empire, there was a hideous practice of exposing baby girls at birth since boy babies were considered more desirable. Christian communities would go out at night and gather these babies and raise them as their own. And when they became young women eligible for marriage, their suitors would become Christian and raise families that would grow the church. Some historians think this is one of the reasons for rapid expansion of Christianity in the early years.

This advice given centuries ago to the early church is still very timely and faithful advice for being church . Growing our love for one another in our own community; caring about those who are oppressed; and practising a deep ministry of hospitality; welcoming strangers for in so doing we too may welcome angels without knowing it.

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