Sunday's service was lightly attended, but the meditation is an important one for the Eliot community to hear. Please read on.
Susan Brecht "The Hospitality Index"
September 22, 2013 Genesis 18:1-8; Matthew 10:40-42
I love it when I decide on the theme for a service, and then unsolicited
stories start coming my way. It happened this past week through the UCC's
Stillspeaking Devotionals. Tony Robinson, a UCC pastor who is working
with the Center for Progressive Renewal, wrote about attending a
Methodist Church last summer in a small town where he and his wife have
a cabin in NE Oregon. He writes: "We were warmly welcomed. Mostly.
There was Sharon who sat down next to me one Sunday and told me I was
in the place where she had sat every Sunday for 50 years, but I was
welcome to stay if I moved over."
This story comes from 3,000 miles away, in a different denomination, but
donʼt let that fool you into thinking it canʼt happen here. Two weeks ago a
couple I hadnʼt met yet, sat down near me and said, "This has been our
pew for the past 30 years", although they admitted they hadnʼt sat in it
much in the past few years. I told them I hope that changes. And I added I
like it when people sit up front. I donʼt feel all alone.
The practice of hospitality in the ancient Mediterranean world was
recognized as a sacred duty. The practice stemmed from their nomadic life
style, when public inns were rare, and anyone who travelled very far from
home found themselves strangers depending on the kindness of others.
A traveler entering a town would come to the open place and someone
would invite them to their home, where they would be treated with respect
and honor, provided with water for their feet, rest, and a sumptuous feast.
The letter to the Hebrews reminds its readers, "Do not neglect to show
hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels
without knowing it." Hebrews 13:2
In Genesis 18:1-8 Abraham finds himself doing just that:
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the
entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men
standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to
meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ʻMy lord, if I find favor
with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and
wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little
bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on-
since you have come to your servant.ʼ So they said, ʻDo as you have said.ʼ
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ʻMake ready
quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.ʼ Abraham
ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the
servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the
calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them
under the tree while they ate.
Jesus, we know, had no home of his own. He depended on the hospitality
of others for a place to rest his head, and food to keep him going. He sent
his disciples out to do likewise. Early Christians, in their travels, would seek
out other Christians, partly for protection, but mainly to share fellowship and
worship. They met in peopleʼs homes, and ate together. Church was not a
place but a community of people.
The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. Philo is one of the four Greek
words for love, and xenia means stranger. When asked what the greatest
commandment is, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But who
is our neighbor? Do they have to live in close proximity? Do we have to
know them? Do they include the woman sitting next to us on a crowded
plane with a screaming kid on her lap? Who are our neighbors?
The Hebrew Bible gives us a clue. Love your neighbor appears once, but
36 verses command us to love the stranger, and that included, not only
friendly faces, but our enemies as well. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it
in her book An Altar in the World as "coming face to face with someone
who may be different from you, and entertaining the possibility that this is
one of the faces of God." Have you ever thought of those strangers walking
in our doors as the faces of God?
Jesus taught the practice of showing hospitality by his example, wherever
he went. And he instructed us to do likewise.
In Matthew 10: 40-42, he reminds his disciples, and us:
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me
welcomes the One who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the
name of a prophet will receive a prophetʼs reward; and whoever welcomes
a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the
reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one
of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these
will lose their reward."
And then he sent them out to teach and spread the Word.
Remember that this gospel was written for those later disciples who were
members of Matthewʼs church (whoever Matthew was). It addressed both
those who were sent and those who received the message - the wandering
missionaries and the settled Christians. I think of myself as the wandering
missionary who has been warmly welcomed by you settled Christians in the
Eliot Church. And we both reap the rewards of this new relationship. Itʼs a
reciprocal process - a giving and taking, and it changes us all. Just as our
church changes every time a new person walks through that door. (or that
door, or that door)
Strangers walk in these doors all the time, some of them church shopping
for a community to be a part of; some seeking out other Christians to
worship with during their travels away from home. How are we doing as a
church? Will we reap rewards for our hospitality? What will they be?
I want to lift up a case in point - something for us to think about. One
alarming statistic, among many, that Iʼve heard is this: 80% of 20 year olds
in this country have never stepped into a church. Thatʼs huge! Just imagine
if you were one of them coming into a typical worship service, like Emilia
and I were pretending to do this morning. "Narthex, chancel, introit,
doxology." What is that - a foreign language? And what is that strange
instrument sitting up there? Would you feel like you had walked into some
weird time warp? Are we extravagantly welcoming to the unchurched 20
year old? How many of them do you see here?
Most churches, especially the UCC, pride themselves on being
extravagantly welcoming. But are they? What does it mean to be
extravagantly welcoming? I visited at least a dozen churches this year
before coming to Eliot. They ran the gamut on the welcoming meter. Let me
share two experiences and you can rate them.
I went to a friendʼs worship service to hear him preach, something we
pastors donʼt often get a chance to do. I was greeted at the door with the
perfunctory "Good morning, welcome," and handed a bulletin. I didn't know
the woman. She didn't ask if I were visiting. There were no name tags. The
narthex was pretty empty of information and people. I took a seat about half
way up. During the service there was no mention of visitors, no passing of
the peace or greeting your neighbors, no mention of fellowship after the
There was an announcement asking those who could, to stay after and
help take down the Christmas decorations. So as my friend was saying
goodbye outside to those who weren't staying, I remained in the sanctuary
for about five minutes or so, walking up and down the aisles pausing to
watch the activity. Not one person acknowledged my presence, not even a
couple who I knew from working on association committees with. It was as
if I were invisible.
Finally I went out and asked my friend if they were having fellowship that
morning. He had forgotten to mention it. So I want over to their hall and
stood next to the refreshment table, then in the center of the room, as
people talked to each other and walked by. I felt like Casper, the friendly
ghost. Finally two people walked over and said, "We donʼt know you." I
smiled and said, "No, you donʼt and I introduced myself, and there was a
gasp. I explained what had happened, and one woman said, "I guess weʼre
not as extravagantly welcoming as we think we are." She sent out an email
to the entire congregation the next day stating just that.
This was not the first or the last time this has happened to me, and Iʼm not
an introvert. Iʼm not afraid of talking to strangers, but those who are not
strangers in their church have the responsibility to initiate.
Inside this churchʼs bulletin, I later discovered, on the announcement page
it says in bold print: OUR EXTRAVAGANT WELCOME! and reads: The
Church Council has committed to fully living into the United Church of
Christʼs concept of providing everyone with an extravagant welcome!
Regular attendees and visitors are encouraged to stay after our service for
coffee hour and fellowship. To endorse our generous outpouring of
hospitality to all, the donation basket will no longer be on the table during
So there we have it. Hospitality is all about free coffee.
Let me give you another example:
I attended a UCC church one morning with my cousinʼs husband. Neither of
us had ever visited there and knew no one. Beautiful new banners lined the
sidewalk leading up to their front door. A welcoming table and greeter met
us at the door, inquiring if we were first time visitors, inviting us to sign a
name tag. We were instructed where the restrooms were and where
fellowship would be after the service in their inner courtyard.
The narthex was filled with information about the church. It was also filled
with people, talking and enjoying themselves before worship. The
sanctuary probably holds about 200 - 250 and it was filling up. Greeters
helped us find a seat. People around us greeted us when we sat down.
The service began with a welcoming and announcements. There were a lot
of them. This was an active church. And then a time for greeting those
around you. Then they passed two microphones for their members to
introduce any visitors sitting next to them. If you didnʼt want to be
introduced, Iʼm sure you could ask not to be, but there were about a dozen
people introduced that day. They get lots of visitors.
Communion also took some time because they gathered in groups of eight
around the communion table and served each other. I had never seen this
done in a service before. It reminded me of the stories of the early
Christians sharing a meal and communion in their homes.
A visitor during prayer time gave thanks for having come that day. She said
she was one of those spiritual but not religious types, but she was so glad
to be here, and felt so welcomed.
The courtyard outside where they were having fellowship was decorated
with banners with their tag lines, and lined with tables with information
about activities going on in the church and sign up lists. People were at the
tables to answer questions. The refreshment table was quite inviting. You
could make a donation if you wanted to. But most important was the
friendliness of the people, who came up and talked to us, sincerely wanting
to know who we were and where we came from.
Which church would you go back to? Which knew the true meaning of
hospitality? Mark, in the Leadership Council the other night observed that if
just 10% of our visitors would come back and embrace Eliot as their church
home, that would be our reward - a reward for extravagant hospitality.
How do we do this? As Nancy Dick-Atkinson said to me this week, itʼs not
up to a select group, but to all of us.
One of our members said to me this summer that he hoped visitors would
see how we treat each other and want to come back. I hope they see that
too because we are a very kind and generous and friendly congregation.
But what the visitor will remember most is how we treated them. Despite all
of our friendliness, one of our frequent visitors this summer told me only
one person had spoken to her. Thatʼs not enough.
Nadja has told me that itʼs hard to find greeters. What does that say about
our hospitality? Weʼre redoing the foyer and narthex, but if there are not
smiling faces there to greet and direct people to fellowship and the nursery
and the menʼs room downstairs, what good are the banners? Martha and
Nadja are going to be inviting everyone whoʼs not singing in the choir or
teaching Sunday school to sign up for a Sunday, or two, to welcome our
church family and our guests on Sunday mornings. They will have a sign
up sheet for you to sign during fellowship today.
Next Sunday Kevin is going to be announcing a new ad hoc "Hospitality
Team" and inviting people to be a part of it - guaranteed to be the most fun
ministry team in the church!
To show real hospitality, you have to have activities, beyond worship, to
invite people to, where they can make new friends and become a part of
the church community. The Spiritual Life Commission has put together a
survey that you will find in your bulletin today. Weʼre looking for ideas, and
volunteers. Please fill them out and leave them in the baskets during
fellowship time or on the table in the narthex. We need your input!
One last story: My college roommates and I invited some of our guy friends
for dinner one night, and none of them showed up. You can imagine how
we felt. We went out to the bars and tracked them down.
Worship is our dinner party with Christ. Those of us who lead it spend a lot
of time preparing. Think of how it feels if those invited donʼt show up. Think
of how it feels if you are a visitor walking in and sitting in that pew all alone,
looking around at lots of empty pews. What does that say about us?
Letʼs put our heads together in these coming weeks and discover new
ways to reach out and show those walking in our doors just how
extravagantly welcoming we really are.
Your hospitality does not go unnoticed. We received a letter last week from
Susan Dinn, who now lives in Pennsylvania: "Dear Eliot Friends, I follow
your individual and church news with continued interest, love and prayers.
Your O&A welcome to me as a gay woman was life-changing and my years
as part of Eliot were incredibly rich years both spiritually and personally.
You will always be in my heart and prayers."
Weʼre here to change lives. Letʼs get to it.