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A big part of why I’m a pastor is because of my pastor in college. My first day moving into the dorm, he stopped by— in his black clergy shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and Teva sandals. He wanted to welcome me and invite me to worship. Soon, I found his door open to me whenever I stopped by. I’d drop in unannounced all the time—between classes, after class. He expressed curiosity about what was exciting me in school. Or what was weighing me down in life. He embodied hospitality.
It just so happened, there was a school within my university for hotel administration. The “hotelies,” we called them. They were literally studying hospitality. The kind of hospitality you have to pay big bucks to get. And even then sometimes can’t get it.
I traveled to Seattle for a church conference—with a group of church members. It was the summer and storms and our flights got all tangled up. We left from Iowa early in the day, and we didn’t arrive at our hotel in Seattle until almost two in the morning—four in the morning our time—several hours late.
It was a fancy hotel in downtown Seattle. And when we rolled our suitcases and sorry selves into the lobby, we found the hotel had sold our rooms out from under us! They thought we bailed. So they cancelled our reservations, and now they had no rooms left! We spent another 30 to 45 minutes getting our rooms back! That’s like the opposite of hospitality.
Which is a big word simply for making room. Sharing. Curiosity is free as money goes. But it does have a cost. Hospitality feeds our true selves, but starves our false self, our puffed-up sense of importance. Making room in our time and attention is really where hospitality begins—or ends.
A Costly Lack
Hospitality is a pillar of biblical faith. According to scripture, hospitality is the foundation of healthy society and true spirituality.
You’ve heard of Sodom and Gomorrah, right? God destroyed those cities. Not for being full of gay people, but because the people of those cities abused with violence even God’s angels. You can read it and see for yourself. A lack of hospitality destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. They refused to make room, to welcome outsiders—in the deepest sense of the word, both materially and spiritually.
Only once did I ever see my pastor in college get angry. That was when me and a couple of other students moved a table and some chairs from one part of the building into our newly-built but not-yet-furnished campus ministry lounge. He straight up yelled at us. He later apologized, but the point he was making was about hospitality.
The table and chairs we took for ourselves were the very same table and chairs that guests in our church used. An outside group—not church members, but a class of English Language Learners—would come early every week and sit and visit with each other in the very furniture we took. And now, they would have nowhere to sit but the floor.
That was not the kind of church he wanted to belong to. One that took from guests and outsiders to make the members and insiders more comfortable. So, we moved it all back.
Kicking Out To Include
I have a colleague—not a pastor but a woman of powerful faith. She got a call one day from a friend of hers. Her friend said, “I need you! You have to come serve on the board of this organization I lead! There’s these people on the board who dominate conversation. Don’t listen. Force out all other opinions but their own. They’re destroying the organization!” So my colleague said, “Fine. I’ll join your board.”
Within a year or so, she helped move a couple people out of leadership. And she told me how she did it—never through a direct confrontation, yelling or namecalling, but by systematically, methodically raising the bar for board members.
She said, “‘Raise this much money. Recruit this many volunteers. If you’re on this board, you have to do something.’” And guess what? Everyone was totally energized, except for the people who just wanted to be the big deals. She told me, “They got so annoyed that we actually expected something from them, they quit! Now the organization doubled in size. It’s doing great.”
Then she said, “If you really believe in democracy, and if you want true inclusion and equity, sometimes you gotta kick a few people out.”
Welcome To The Pool
My aunt had a friend down the street who would open her pool to us. Leave, and leave my aunt with the key. We had a great time. And me and my sister and our cousins all loved swimming in this pool.
There was a sign hanging on the pool house. It said, “We don’t swim in your toilet. Please don’t pee in our pool.”
You don’t have to be a pushover to do hospitality the way God intends it. In fact the most gracious hosts are the people who are the clearest and firmest about boundaries. Telling people what to expect, what will work here and won’t work here, that’s part of hospitality too.
What’s The Risk?
Then again, offering hospitality is always a risk. Because it is very deliberately lowering a boundary. Making room.
Jesus talked about welcoming a prophet, a righteous person, one of the littlest disciples. What do you think the risk would be in welcoming them? Jesus’ promise of high reward suggests a high risk is involved, right?
I guess, if we welcomed a prophet to St. Paul, we might risk hearing something we didn’t want to hear. A word from God, demanding something from us. We might also risk reputation for troublemaking if we welcomed a prophet.
And welcoming a righteous person, we might risk feeling inadequate or unworthy. In the presence of a truly righteous person, we might feel convicted. Like it’s time for us to make a change in our lives. That’s a risk.
And a little one? Well, if Jesus was talking just about kids, then we know the risks of being open to kids—as VBS leaders can tell you.
But maybe Jesus didn’t mean kids only. But all disciples who are poor, outsiders, vulnerable. Maybe the risk is, they’d be too open, too courageous. They might show us the parts of ourselves we’d rather hide. Their very being, their trust in God, might challenge us to take bigger risks, depend on God more.
Seeking A Welcome
Of course, the surprise is—Jesus was talking about Christian guests, not Christian hosts. Seeking a welcome from others, not doing the welcoming.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me,” Jesus said. You, the guest. You, putting yourself out there. You, the prophet, the righteous one, the littlest disciple. You, risking rejection.
The listeners during the listening campaign were Christian guests. Seeking a welcome, in the name of Jesus… Sending notes. Making phone calls. Asking for your time. Sometimes entering your homes. None of you hosts who welcomed them will lose your reward.
Jesus couldn’t be clearer. Ultimately, the church is a guest, not a host. The life of faith sends us to seek a welcome. And this is a double risk. Sometimes being welcomed is a bigger risk than being rejected!
What if we are welcomed by people we don’t want to welcome us? And yet, five times, Jesus said, “whoever”—as if wake us up to what God expects of guests.
Being a guest means losing control. When we are hosts, we stay in control. It’s our turf, and we act as if we get to decide who and how we welcome.
Seeking a welcome is different. As one preacher put it, “Their smells. Their food. Their music. Their bathroom” (Rolf Jacobsen, Sermon Brainwave Podcast for July 2, 2017).
One congregation I know of saw the people in its neighborhood change, over the course of decades. From working and middle class white Europeans to poor and working class brown immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador, and Guatemala. Main Street, just a block from the church,was suddenly full of shops and restaurants all with signs in Spanish only.
That congregation celebrated its 120th anniversary by going to a fancy ballroom 20-miles away. Which tells you everything you need to know. Often, we the church seek no welcome and welcome no one.
Jesus Sends Us
Jesus sends us. Just listen—“This is the body of Christ given for you and for the world” and “Go in peace. The Spirit sends us with power.”
To whom is Jesus sending St. Paul? Where can we put ourselves and this church to make more room?
Jesus was always eating, and Jesus was always the guest. It was never his own bread he was breaking, or his own wine he shared. Jesus sought a welcome, and sometimes found it. And welcomed or rejected, the bread that was not his, became his own body. The wine he borrowed, became his own blood.
Years ago, in New Jersey, Sara was in the habit each month of visiting a man who was dying and his wife. The first time she went, the wife prepared lunch and set out their best china. “Do you like shrimp salad?” she asked Sara. “Yes!” Sara lied. Sara lied with such warm enthusiasm, that the woman prepared shrimp salad sandwiches every time Sara came.
Maybe you know Brian Andreas and his StoryPeople art. When I first met her, Sara had a print hanging over her kitchen sink of those colorful, gangly stick-figures. And the caption read, “And maybe this iswhat life was always about. To eat each other’s food, and say that it was good.”
Thanks be to God.