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Transforming Hospitality

Sermon - 11/02/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Thessalonians 2:5-8

We started last Sunday a reflection on Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians [Note:  last Sunday's sermon is linked above, and contains several pictures from Dan's sabbatical to Greece and Rome].

Continuing now -- I'm not going to read every single verse, even though it's a short letter, over these 4 Sundays in this little mini-series, so I encourage you to read it on you own.  Reading the Bible at home is OK, a good thing to do once in awhile J.  That might add to your own understanding and reflection, you might come up with some different ideas, that's OK too.

So reading then, from chapter 2, verses five through eight:

As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.


I lift up these particular verses this morning because I think they contain a key principle that is fundamental to Paul's message and to the entire gospel.  That principle we might call the nature of Christian love, is articulated very well here in verse 8:  "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you no only the gospel. . . .but also our own selves".

Paul says later, in chapter 4, that there's no need for anyone to write to the Thessalonica community about loving their brothers and sisters because they "have been taught by God" to love one another.

So how is it that this community has been taught by God?

I think we see a possibility of an answer to that question in the way that Paul uses this very evocative image that describes how he, Silvanus, and Timothy (his co-authors of this letter) worked among that community when he says:  "we were as gentle as a nurse tenderly caring for her own children".

The Contemporary English Version translates that particular verse, I think better, and says:  "We were like a mother nursing her own baby".

It's a very powerful image.  Of course it's one that Jesus himself uses -- you remember in his lament over Jerusalem when he says:  "How I have desired to gather your children like a hen gathering her brood under her wings".

And the prophet Hosea, describing the feelings of God for her people, when she says:  "I was like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them".  And I use "her" there quite intentionally, not to be cute, because the image is a very feminine one -- that image of a mother bending over to nurse her baby.

And indeed, later on in that same passage, God says:  "My compassion grows warm and tender".  And the Hebrew word for 'compassion' has as its root the word for "womb".  You can't say 'God has a womb', so we say 'compassion'.  But think about it -- what grows warm and tender?  The womb of God.

James Weldon Johnson I think got it precisely right in his Creation Poem, in that climactic moment of the poem, when God creates the first human being and he tells us that God kneels down by the banks of the river and takes a lump of clay, and then, the almighty God, who lit the sun and set is blazing in the sky, who flung the stars to the far corner of the night, who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand, this great God, is like a mammy bending over her baby, breathes into that lump of clay, the breath of life.

What a powerful image that is, of the mother nursing her child. 

Ultimately, the love that we are called to share is derived from the love that we receive from birth, in which we are nurtured.  And when we share such love with one another, we share the love of God.  And so Paul uses this image of a mother with her children, her infants, to describe the depth of his love and care for that community in Thessalonica.

And so it is, then, through that kind of example, that the community learns to love God.  It extends beyond the family.  Love like that, hopefully that we experience within our families, goes beyond those boundaries of family.

Last Sunday I cited the example of the woman who described her experience of coming into a church for the first time as being "conquered by its love".  And from my own experience of seeing people who come and go in the church, I'd say that there is a difference between those who join a church because they like what they hear (make the connection of mind), and those who like what they feel (make the connection of the heart).

Ideally, of course, we would do both in the church.  But when our connection is more from the heart, rather than from the mind, it is a deeper, stronger, connection.  And we are much more apt to make a life-long commitment that's not going to change when you hear the preacher say something you disagree with.  I know, it so seldom happens here, right?  Or, somebody does something that offends you, like the experience I had in calling on a member in Fresno.  She had dropped out of the church, and I learned from her that another woman of the church had committed the unpardonable sin of telling her that she filled the communion cups too full J.  Talk about your shallow faith (something about that).

And so when you have that deep, heart-to-heart connection, like a mother to her children, then you work through those kinds of challenges.  Because your love for each other is greater than any kind of difference or disagreement.  That's the kind of love we are called to model and to share with one another.  It's the kid of love I think people are looking for when they come into church -- they want to know if we are going to be like that which Paul describes.  Loving one another as a mother, a father, loves their children.

That kind of love begins with a deeper understanding of Christian hospitality.  We tend to think of hospitality as something we do to make the church more inviting, more welcoming.  And that's a good thing.  I learned from one of our new couples in church that they had a little test (they've been church shopping), they said they'd go back to that church where they were greeted by 10% of those who were present in worship.  And, turning around and shaking hands when the pastor tells you to doesn't count!  Think about that -- do we do that, do we meet that standard?  Well, as it turned out we did, and they've come back and become a regular part.  That's a good thing.

When I was in Greece, I stopped in a church outside of Philippi.  Came a little bit late, obviously I was a visitor -- I don't dress like them, don't speak the language, couldn't follow the liturgy, very fascinating worship experience (orthodox church).  Fellowship time afterward, coffee and goodies, people milling around.  I waited. . . I waited. . . I waited.  Not one person spoke to me that entire time.

Earlier this year, I was in Bethlehem, when I took a tour of Israel, and I visited 3 families, on my own, in their homes.  Each one of those families welcomed me in as if I was a long-lost relative.  People I didn't know (we had a common connection).  Served me wonderful food, drink, just made me feel at home.  And each of those families are Muslim.  You see, there's nothing uniquely Christian about hospitality.

Hospitality in that Middle-Eastern tradition is about offering space to a guest, who is often a stranger.  Be it a space at the table, a space in the home, a space in the inn, and when the inn is full, even the barn out back. 

The great spiritual director Henri Nouwen says "The hospitality we are called to create is that kind that offers space where change can occur.  Space for God to work in the life of the other person".

Diana Butler-Bass says "For Christians, hospitality holds special significance.  Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love of Jesus Christ".

And such hospitality -- welcoming strangers -- is transformative for the giver and the receiver alike, because it creates that kind of sacred space where God can be at work.

In that book by Diana Butler-Bass that our prayer triads used this summer, "Christianity for the Rest of Us", she tells the story of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Washington D.C., and how their ministry of hospitality changed them.  The church is not a whole lot bigger than ours, just a few blocks from the White House, has 2 services (farther apart than ours are), and so in-between the services one morning they had a breakfast for church leaders.  Typical for church people, they prepared too much food.  They didn't want to waste it, and there were several homeless people in their early service, so what are you going to do?  They welcomed them in and said "Would you come in and share with us, we don't want to waste any of this food?".  They did.

Lo and behold, those homeless folks came back the next Sunday, with friends J.  Well, now what are you going to do?  They scrambled, found some food in the kitchen, quickly put together another breakfast.  And a ministry was born.

They came back, with more friends.  That church has about 200 people in their 8:00 a.m. service on Sunday mornings, mostly people off the street.  And then they serve them breakfast.  Not on paper plates, but with china and fine silverware.  And members of the church all dressed up who serve them.  It's become a very powerful experience. 

They decided, well, in this early service most of our folk now are homeless, it's not appropriate for us to ask us for something, for an offering.  So they thought they'd just go without an offering.  But those members -- they call them members who don't have a street address -- said 'Wait a second, we're members the same as everybody else, we don't want to be treated differently'.  So they took an offering.

One of their life-long members, Daniel, recalled how he felt the first time he served as a Deacon in the service.  He told Diana Butler-Bass:  "As the plate passed down the rows, I watched poor people turn their pockets inside out and throw loose change and crumpled dollars in the offering.  I almost cried.  I learned more about giving that morning than in a thousand sermons".

You see, that's the power of hospitality.  When we welcome others, regardless of who they are, what they look like, what language they speak. . . . . . and I have to stop here and go 'off-script':

A number of years ago, 12 years ago, I was preaching on the Sermon on the Mount -- "Blessed are the poor".  And just as I got to that part, this homeless gentleman who had come into our service in the middle of our prayer, and made a lot of noise, and sat in the front row, decided he heard the gospel.  One of those sermon illustrations stronger than a thousand sermons, he stood up and said: "I want Jesus".  And I said:  "Now?!" J.  What a time, you know, to be moved by the spirit in the middle of a sermon, for heaven sakes J.  So we accepted him into the fellowship of the church, right there in the middle of that sermon, and afterward people greeted him and welcomed him.  I think he came maybe 1 more Sunday after that, bless him wherever he may be.

Well, this morning, I never thought that would be outdone, just as I started my sermon, 3 people came walking in the door, it appeared that they had forgotten that Halloween was over, not quite sure what they were wearing, or weren't wearing J.  I noticed at one point when I glanced over there a woman with a vest, open, with nothing underneath.  Another woman with chaps on, not sure what she had underneath, I just saw more than I wanted to see as she was walking away J.  And I noticed as I was preaching, everybody is looking over there.  And I get to this line in the sermon, that says:  "that's the power of hospitality, we welcome others regardless of who they are, what they look like, what language they speak or how they dress".  And I thought, my God, what am I saying?! J.  And people accuse me of paying them to test me, and it was quite a test, you know.  What an incredible, powerful illustration about the ministry of hospitality.

To do that, to welcome people regardless, that's what creates the sacred space where the power of God's transforming love can be at work.

I was struck in that book by Diana Butler-Bass of the story she tells of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, that had a tent city on their front lawn.  In part to the response of the needs of the homeless and to be a welcoming church as they felt welcomed, and also to be a public witness in much the same way as we have our Trailer Ministry in our parking lot, to provide housing to those that are homeless.  But what struck me in reading that again was that she tells the story twice in her book.  She tells the story in her chapter on spiritual practice of hospitality, and in her chapter on the spiritual practice of justice.

And I got to thinking (it's a shame she doesn't have the 2 chapters back-to-back) in many ways acts of hospitality are acts of justice, and vice-versa.  Think again about the story Jesus tells about the judgment day in Matthew 25:  'I was hungry and you fed me.  I was naked, and you clothed me.  I was in prison, and you visited me'.   Are those acts of hospitality, or are they acts of justice?  Or both?

John Dominic-Crossan says to claim that God has already begun to transform this earth into a place of divine justice and peace, as he says Paul does later on in this letter to the Thessalonians (as we'll see later) and also in his second letter to the Corinthians, to do that, demands that you can show something of that transformative activity here and now.  To which Paul would have replied, unabashedly, to see God's transformation in process 'Come and see how we live'. 

Can we say that?  To see God's transformation in process, come and see how we live as a Christian community.  And I think that's what made Paul's preaching so powerful.  Speaking to the Gentiles, that he could say to them:  'You want to see how God is at work in our world, transforming our world?'  Not how God is at work through Caesar (believed to be the son of God), but how God is at work through Jesus Christ.  If you want to see how that transformation is taking place here and now, 'Come and see how we live'.

Christian hospitality is about creating that kind of community, that sacred space where all are welcome, and where, therefore, God can be at work.  To make change -- not change we can believe in, but change we can see God in.

Creating such community where all are welcome, where divisions are broken down, where it does not matter if you are rich or poor, conservative or liberal, Mexican or North American, Asian or African, socialist or capitalist, gay or straight, and dare we even say on the eve of this election all about dividing the nation into red or blue states, that it does not matter if you are a Republican or Democrat.  All are one in Christ Jesus here, and treated equally.

Creating such welcoming community is all about making the love of God visible, the justice of God tangible, and to create that space where the transformation of God is possible.

Jesus calls that the "Kingdom of God".  Paul calls it the "family of God".

We call it "church".


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