August 25, 2019
Luke 14:1-6, 12-15
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely. A man suffering from an abnormal swelling of the body was there. Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Does the Law allow healing on the Sabbath or not?” But they said nothing. Jesus took hold of the sick man, cured him, and then let him go. He said to them, “Suppose your child or ox fell into a ditch on the Sabbath day. Wouldn’t you immediately pull it out?” But they had no response.
Then he turned to his host. “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”
Then Jesus said, “A certain man hosted a large dinner and invited many people. When it was time for the dinner to begin, he sent his servant to tell the invited guests, ‘Come! The dinner is now ready.’ One by one, they all began to make excuses. The first one told him, ‘I bought a farm and must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I bought five teams of oxen, and I’m going to check on them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ When he returned, the servant reported these excuses to his master. The master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go quickly to the city’s streets, the busy ones and the side streets, and bring the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.’ The servant said, ‘Master, your instructions have been followed and there is still room.’ The master said to the servant, ‘Go to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that my house will be filled. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
* * * * *
Church has changed a lot since I first started going as a child. Not so much what happens in church, but who’s in Church. Back then, everybody I knew went to church. The only question was which one. Most of my friends were Presbyterian, but some were Lutheran, some belonged to the Baptist Church, and a few were Catholic. Later on, in High School, I knew one family who was Jewish, but that was pretty exotic in our WASP-y little enclave of suburbia.
I didn’t know where everybody went, but I just assumed they went to church somewhere. In retrospect, I’m sure that wasn’t true. But going to church was pretty much the norm. The only pass was to all the guys like my dad who played golf on Sunday mornings in the summer – which my mom was none too pleased about, but that’s the way it was. Otherwise, church was where you were on Sunday mornings.
A lot has changed, hasn’t it? It sure has changed. It used to be easy to fill up the pews, and churches kept popping up everywhere. Now we’re in an era of churches closing – the old mainline churches, especially – and aging congregations desperately hope not to be next.
The Session and Staff are reading a book that addresses this trend. It’s called Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations[i] – and we’ll be referencing this book a lot over the next few months. From now through December we’ll be building worship around these five practices –
Intentional Faith Formation
Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and
If those adjectives all sound intense, it’s because they are. Like this month’s focus - Radical Hospitality – it’s radical because plain old vanilla hospitality just isn’t enough anymore.
As the author, Robert Schnase, observes,
An ever-increasing number of people in our communities will never step through a church door. “Nones” and “dones” outnumber people in any other religious category. “Nones” are people who check the none box on surveys about religious affiliation, and “dones” are those who are finished with all things related to the institutional church because of the scandals, exclusionary practices, or irrelevance of the church in their lives.[ii]
In other words, not being part of church is now the norm. It’s the polar opposite of when I was growing up.
Some of the difference is generational. These days, as one researcher discovered, “most young adults believe the church is…judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch, anti-homosexual, insensitive, old-fashioned, and boring.” [iii] Ouch, right? I may have been bored sometimes when I was young, and as I discovered, the church was deeply flawed - but it never occurred to me to leave. The blessings far outweighed the flaws. For me, it was home. There was nothing that could replace it, and if I left, I would be bereft.
Volumes have been written about why things have changed so much, and we can debate the causes till we’re blue in the face. We can point to any number of reasons, or causes, or vices, or villains. Like the master of the house in Jesus’ story, we can get angry at all the excuses people have for not coming. Heaven knows I’ve done plenty of hand-wringing over the years. Most pastors go through phases of feeling personally responsible – which, trust me, is not helpful.
But Schnase’s point is well-taken. “If we merely wait for people to visit us,” he says, “we surrender any hope of sharing the love of Christ with the majority of the people around us.”
These days it’s not enough to be welcoming. It’s not even enough to practice good old-fashioned hospitality to those who walk in the door. Now our call is a much more radical hospitality – being intentional about how we carry Christian “hospitality into our neighborhoods, work life, and affinity networks.” [iv]
‘Go quickly to the city’s streets,’ Jesus’ story goes. ‘Go to the busy ones and the side streets, and bring the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.’ Go out into the world around you.
It’s a profound shift. The focus shifts from welcoming people in to going out.
And it’s on us to go do it. To act as the hosts who actively seek out others, people we may not even yet know.
And the very first step we need to take is to see ourselves as hosts.
We need to see ourselves as hosts.
See, I think for a lot of us who have been part of a church for a while, we really don’t see ourselves that way. We see ourselves as belonging to a church, as being part of a community of faith, as being part of a church family. Which is all good; it’s the reason a lot of us are here. It’s all part of being church.
But seeing ourselves as family - that’s really different than seeing ourselves as hosts. Dare I say it’s a role not everybody wants?
When I was young, my parents would occasionally give dinner parties. It was rare; honestly, my mom really hated hosting those parties. For one thing, she was extremely introverted, and the sheer energy for all those interactions was exhausting. For another, it made her highly anxious; she didn’t see herself as good at it. And, of course, it was a heck of a lot of work, on top of raising five children; the sheer amount of cooking and housework and laundry about did her in. So they didn’t entertain much.
But Dad loved those parties. He loved playing host. He loved the interactions, welcoming people, making them feel at home, tending to their needs. He loved creating a space where people would enjoy themselves and feel special. He wanted to show people how much he cared about them, valued their friendship, how much they mattered. He loved being a host.
It took a lot of extra effort, but the love it created was worth it. To him, it was worth it. Building community, extending love, sharing laughter – it was worth it.
Isn’t that what hospitality really means? Being a church ‘family’ is awesome, but we’re called to something beyond that. We’re called to offer holy hospitality.
Robert Schnase issues the call this way. “Every church exists in a wider community,” he says.
People who live and work and go to school near our faith communities hunger for honest, healthy places to be and to belong. They yearn for others to respectfully demonstrate genuine interest and care. They long to welcome us into their lives and communities, and want us to graciously invite them into ours. They desire to experience God through authentic relationships, to find a place where it’s safe to explore faith on their own terms and in their own language, and to be part of a community where they can make a difference through service and generosity.[v]
Do you believe that? Do you believe that it’s true?
Then it’s on you to help make that happen.
Because you, my friend, are the host.
This is a feast of goodness we have here – genuine care and concern, work in the world that matters, a place to grow deeply in faith, a space where we set aside everything else to experience the power and presence of God.
And if the people we thought were supposed to be here have other things to do – well, God bless them. Maybe it’s better this way. Long gone are the days of the “Country Club Church” where you go to see and be seen, where you want to be sure to join the “right” church to increase your social contacts. The point, Jesus says, is not to rub elbows with our rich neighbors. That’s just a transaction, and that will be your only reward.
Instead, he says, invite those who cannot repay you. Go to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that God’s house will be filled. Not for our sake, but for theirs.
As Schnase puts it, even if people have negative associations of church, they still need the things good church has to offer.
People need to know God loves them, that they are of value. They want to live a life that matters, and to belong to a community that makes a difference.
People need to know that they are not alone; that when they face difficulties, they are surrounded by a community of grace; and that they do not have to figure out entirely for themselves how to cope with family tensions, self-doubts, periods of despair, economic reversal, and the behaviors that hurt themselves or others.
People need to know the peace that runs deeper than an absence of conflict, the hope that sustains them even through painful periods of grief, the sense of belonging that blesses them and stretches them and lifts them out of their own preoccupations.
People need to learn how to offer and accept forgiveness, how to serve and be served, how to love and be loved. They need relationships that remind them that life is not having something to live on but something to live for, that life comes not from taking for oneself but by giving of oneself. People need a sustaining sense of purpose.[vi]
And, I would add, people need to know they matter; that they’re not invisible; that they’re not just being used or having more demands placed on them; that someone sees them for who they are, and cares. Someone like you.
The ‘ask’ really isn’t that hard. It just takes keeping your eyes open for the new neighbor, the new family at school, the person you get to know through a club or your kid’s sports or a book group or work.
“And if you’re looking for a church home, we’d love to have you join us sometime.”
“We’ve got a great Families in Faith class/Adult Discussion group/Concert series/service project – I’d love to have you come as my guest.”
“I heard you were having a rough time. Talking with my pastor really helped me. Maybe you’d like to talk with her, too?”
It’s like Don Haven, when a new neighbor showed up at his door asking about the neighborhood, invited them to church.
It’s like Beth Hall, when a friend was going through a difficult time, invited her to church.
It’s like Joy Hire, when she gets to know a voice student, invites them to join the Angel Choir.
That’s not to say everyone will take you up on the offer. No judgment if someone says no. It’s like the couple who invited their neighbors to come to worship with them, and, Schnase says,
The neighbors had zero interest in going to church and had nothing positive to say about institutional religion. And yet, those same neighbors showed an eagerness to join with the couple and other neighbors for dinner conversations about faith, the spiritual life, and serving others. Their dinners became an expression of Christ’s community in their home, among people who would never think to show up for a Sunday morning worship service in a sanctuary. [vii]
That is radical hospitality.
So where do you start?
Here’s a suggestion.
Start by asking why people need the church, and specifically this church. Start with yourself - why you do.
Why do you need this faith community?
This is my answer:
I need this faith community because I can’t do it alone. I can’t keep my thinking clear on my own; I can’t exorcise my own demons of fear or doubt; I can’t maintain courage all by myself. I can’t hear God’s voice above the noise of all the other voices clamoring for my attention. That’s why I need this community of faith.
That’s why I need you.
And there’s somebody you know who needs this, too.
[i] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Radical hospitality, Passionate worship, Intentional faith development, Risk-taking mission and service, Extravagant generosity. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 2018)
[ii] Schnase, 5.
[iii] Schnase, 7.
[iv] Schnase, 13.
[v] Schnase, xii.
[vi] Schnase, 27.
[vii] Schnase, 5.