This sermon is not a precis of the chapter in Bishop Schnase's book although it draws from Schnase's work. This is a thematic sermon and I chose the following texts: Deuteronomy 10:17-21 and Matthew 25:31-40.
Good morning everyone and thank you for your hospitality this morning in inviting me to join in your worship and share Scripture with you today.
And I guess it’s appropriate to thank you for your hospitality this morning because “Radical Hospitality” is the subject that I’ve been asked to speak on this morning. As I understand it, today is the second in a series of sermons on the subject of “the five practices of faithful congregations”.
But I expect that some of you may be wondering “What has hospitality got to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ?” It might seem somewhat obvious how being a hospitable congregation could help a congregation to grow and thrive, but you might not see a direct connection between hospitality and the message of the gospel.
God & Hospitality
So the first question I want to think about this morning is “What has hospitality to do with the good news that we proclaim as Christians?”
I don’t know what sort of images the word “hospitality” conjures up for you, but I expect that for most people, it conjures up images of dinner parties or maybe weekends away at a friend’s house.
But stop and think for a minute what hospitality meant to the people of the ancient near East. For a person from a nomadic desert culture, traveling from nomad settlement to nomad settlement, a question of hospitality might very well mean the difference between life and death.
It was usually the custom to allow a passing stranger to spend a night in your town or settlement, but then the expectation was that the person would move on. However, permission to camp overnight was by no means assured.
It was the normal social custom to view strangers with suspicion and as a potential threat to the community. (I wonder if that sounds familiar to us today?)
But remember our passage that we heard from Deuteronomy this morning: The reader is told that God himself loves the stranger and provides the stranger with food and clothing. And then God’s people are commanded to love the stranger because they themselves were strangers in Egypt.
“Loving” the stranger certainly goes beyond what we normally think of as hospitality in our society. The biblical concept of “loving” someone, as you probably know, is not just about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you; it’s about going further than that and actually putting their needs and welfare before your own.
And this is actually what the ancient custom of hospitality was all about. In the ancient near East, “hospitality” was an elaborate custom that included both testing and obligations on the part of the host and guest. Once the tests had been passed, the host and the guest were bound in a formal and permanent relationship that required both to look after each other in the same way that they would look after a member of their own family.
The guest was required to offer hospitality to the host if the need arose in the future and the host was always responsible for the safety of the guest. The host was required to do anything to secure the safety of the guest, even giving up his life in defense of the guest, if necessary.
I wonder if you hear an echo of any kind of familiar themes here?
I think that there is a very real sense in which we can say that God invites us as strangers and sinners into his Kingdom. In order to fully benefit from this Kingdom, we are invited to repent, just as the stranger is tested. And, as the host who is responsible for the welfare of his guest even if it means dying, God died in order to save us from the ravages of sin, death and the power of evil.
So, rather than having nothing to do with the message of the Gospel, I think that hospitality has much to do with it. God gives us undeserved and unimaginable hospitality and we are called as his children to give hospitality to others.
God welcomes the sinner and the stranger and calls us also to welcome the sinner and the stranger in response to his welcome.
In fact, we are called to love the stranger. We are called to extend a welcome that is not only friendly and hospitable but also to give a welcome that is risky, possibly dangerous, and which puts the needs of the visitor before our own needs.
I wonder how many church congregations actually manage to do this?
I said earlier, that the title of this sermon is radical hospitality.
Why radical hospitality? Why not friendly hospitality? Or pleasant hospitality? Or nice hospitality?
I hope you are beginning to see that the nature of true biblical hospitality is radical; extreme, even. God’s hospitality in welcoming us into his Kingdom and offering salvation to us was costly. It wasn’t easy or “nice” and it wasn’t just friendly and pleasant.
And if we are going to communicate the height and depth and breadth of God’s love to other people in our own congregations, we too will have to engage in some costly hospitality.
A story is told of a Lutheran pastor in the former East Germany named Uwe Holmer.
Now, those of you who remember the East German regime know that to be a Christian in Eastern Germany was a risky business, let alone to be a Christian pastor. The regime discriminated against Christians and one of its policies was to make it impossible for the children of Christian parents to attend university or enter any of the professions which required a university degree.
Pastor Holmer and his wife had ten children, all of whom were denied university places and who had to make a living through manual labor. The person who was responsible for East Germany’s educational policy for 26 years was Margot Honecker the wife of East Germany's premier, Erich Honecker.
And then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the East German regime was toppled. Erich and Margot Honecker were seen by many people in East Germany as their enemies. They were indicted for criminal activities and evicted from their home. The Honeckers suddenly found themselves friendless, without resources, and with no place to go. No one wanted to have anything to do with the Honeckers.
It was at that point that Pastor Holmer’s family invited the Honeckers to live with them.
However, their fellow citizens were not terribly pleased with the Holmers’ hospitality. The pastor’s family received hate mail from the German public and many members of his church threatened to leave in protest.
The hospitality offered by Pastor Holmer was not just nice or even just noble. This was a radical hospitality. A risky hospitality. A dangerous hospitality that put him and his family at risk. This is an example of truly radical hospitality.
Wat on earth could cause a person to give shelter to people whose life’s work and ideals had directly hurt his children's futures? And what on earth could cause someone to continue to give shelter to them in the face of threats and abuse from fellow citizens? Nothing on earth. Only the peace and love of God that passes all human understanding could cause someone to do such a thing.
Radically Hospitable Churches
Are we capable of this kind of radical hospitality?
I’ve got to be honest with you. Part of me hopes that I could behave this way in the same circumstances and part of me hopes that I will never be tested in such a way. But yet, I am inspired by Pastor Holmer. His actions draw from me the highest form of admiration.
And I believe that if we think about this story as a sort of benchmark for “radical hospitality” then some ideas that we regularly throw around about “being a hospitable congregation” begin to pale in comparison.
In his book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”, UMC Bishop Robert Schnase defines radical hospitality like this:
“An active desire to invite, welcome, receive and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.”Hospitality isn’t just about smiling at visitors who walk into the doors of our church. It’s about an active desire to welcome and care for new people.
I wonder how many congregations consider themselves to be friendly churches but whose caring and friendship is based on the fact that the members of the congregation have known each other for many years?
Sometimes being a new person in such a group can be like going out to dinner with a newly-married couple as they sit there staring into each other’s all evening. They may be friendly between themselves and they probably genuinely want to be friendly with other people, but they are too wrapped up in each other to think that their friends might be feeling excluded.
As a cradle Christian who has spent most of my life going to church, my bet is that many if not most congregations are like this. We feel certain that we are prepared to be friendly to new people but, really, we want them to fit in with what we’re already doing and conform to the established group behavior.
In the UK, a poll was taken recently which – among other things – determined that it took the average person about two years after beginning to attend a new congregation to feel that they really belonged. Two years! That means the new people have to make an incredible commitment. They have to attend church for two years feeling like they are strangers before they can begin to feel comfortable.
That’s certainly not radical hospitality. I’ll leave you to decide whether you think its “hospitality” at all. If it takes someone two years to feel that they belong in a congregation then that congregation is not living out any kind of active desire to welcome and care for new people.
So what does it take to be a radically hospitable church? In his book, Bishop Schnase lists some practical ideas that I will mention briefly this morning since I want this to remain and sermon rather than a lecture on strategic change management.
But there is one thing that the Bishop’s suggestions all have in common and that is that every single suggestion is about looking outside of the congregation to the needs of those who are not members of the congregation.
And when we focus on people outside our group, we are focusing on serving others rather than on being served ourselves. Or, to put it another way, we are focusing on the biblical concept of love. We are focusing on what is good for other people rather than on what is good for ourselves.
So very briefly, what are some practical suggestions?
Bishop Schnase suggests that every group that meets in church, every committee, and every activity should be constantly thinking “How can we reach out to those outside our church? How can we make our activities more welcoming?” Even those individuals concerned with maintaining the building can reach out.
Are there facilities for young families to feel comfortable? Is the building accessible to those with mobility problems? A really simple thing like are all the rooms correctly labeled? Are Vacation Bible School or Sunday School classes run for the benefit of church members or for the benefit of children whose parents don’t come to church? Can the choir put on an activity that makes young families feel welcome? Does the congregation keep in touch with families who visit the church at Christmas and Easter and invite them to other events? At the most basic level, will people from outside the church be able to understand your bulletin if they read it?
The Bishop suggests that every group in church should think about one thing that they can do that focuses on reaching people outside the current members. And this attitude of reaching out should become an on-going habit. He notes that “Institutions produce what they are designed to produce.” And he is challenging us as Christians – because I don’t think that this is just a problem of the UMC – to design our “institutions” to be places where change and outreach are built into the fabric of how we do things.
Before I conclude this morning, I want to briefly tell you a story about a part of my training for the ministry. I was required by the British Methodist Church to attend weekend seminars on a monthly basis. These seminars were designed to teach us by example how to nurture the spiritual lives of our congregations.
Most participants attended for two years but every six months a group of people would leave the group and a new group of people would arrive. The whole system was designed to accommodate this change.
And I promise you that we didn’t really do anything differently than many good prayer groups or Sunday School or bible study groups do. We didn’t really do any strange activities that you might imagine when you hear the word “radical”. All we did was expect the group to change. We expected new people to arrive and we expected to make room for new people in the group and to offer them genuine hospitality. We expected that people we’d come to know and trust would leave and we expected to “let them go”.
We didn’t spend a lot of emotional energy resisting change and we didn’t invoke the silent mantra of many a congregation “Because God doesn’t change, the church must not change either.” All we did was look outward and welcome the new people instead of seeing them as threats or as individuals who upset our existing group dynamics.
Bishop Schnase suggests a relatively “simple” solution that each individual in a church and each group simply think about how they can welcome new-comers and my experience would suggest that it really is as simple as that. When we really begin to live lives that genuinely seek the welfare of others, our lives begin to bubble over with joy and freedom and we become very effective witnesses to the Good News of the Gospel.
The good news of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us, is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Or, to look at it another way, God offered us hospitality when we were still strangers.
In sending Jesus to die and rise again for our salvation, God was looking outside of himself to our needs. God said “These people need saving and I’m the only one who can rescue them.” He didn’t say “Oy! These people are messing up the beautiful order of my good creation! What is a Creator God to do?”
God doesn’t ask us to become holy before he invites us into his Kingdom. He doesn’t demand that we cease to be strangers and sinners before he offers us hospitality. Rather, he goes out into the highways and byways and invites strangers and sinners into his Kingdom and then he invites us to repent so that we can grow in holiness.
The good news is that God is eternally looking outside of himself to the welfare of others; we learn this when we practice the love of God in exuberant worship. The good news is that God gives us an exciting purpose to our lives: to look outside ourselves to the welfare of others; we learn this as we practice the love of our neighbor.
My prayer is that the reality of God’s hospitality for us will fill our hearts anew this morning. And I also pray that, filled with joy at the salvation we have been given and filled with thanksgiving at God’s hospitality we will go from this place determined to spread Christian hospitality to everyone we meet.
May God bless this congregation as you continue on your journey to be an evermore fruitful congregation. Amen