Hospitality as Much for the Host as the Guest: Old First E-pistle 09.10.15

Hospitality as Much for the Host as the Guest: Old First E-pistle 09.10.15

Perhaps it’s the 6 people who are joining this Sunday (If you don’t already know Rich and Porsche, Amy, Lisa and Tony, April — now’s the time!). Or maybe it was the 16 guests that we had miraculously on the last Sunday of August (???). Or the 100 Catholics from Arkansas we have coming to stay at Old First for the weekend of Pope-a-palooza. And the hundreds more they will feed that weekend they are here with us.

Or that my friend, John, came to visit for Labor Day weekend. And another, David, is coming this week, with two Chinese students in tow. And there’s a long-time — not quite lost, but never “hanging-out” friend, Seth — the reference librarian at my seminary, scheduled to come later this month. And Michael S., one of Bethesda’s Jesuit Corps. volunteers who worked at our shelter a couple of years back — who will be staying at my house to see the Pope. (It occurs to me what a rich group of friends I have.)

Or maybe it was the triple play of guest preachers who gave me 3 weeks off from the pulpit!

Or maybe it’s the Pope himself coming, or the purported millions of visitors he is bringing to Philly in his wake. And the Dali Lama coming the next month. And the Dems and their entourage arriving next summer.

From some of these many reasons, I have been thinking about hospitality… hospitality as the least expected of… as well as the ground rock of… our Christian faith. Also as the currency of its practice.

Last night, as I fell asleep, I was thinking — after the opening of John‘s sermon about there always being someone we need to see and serve — about an empty apartment in the CE Building, and how if the U.S. were to accept it’s fair share of the refugees from Syria, perhaps our church should do its part?

With all this swirling in my heart and mind, I am wondering if we wouldn’t be helped to realize that we do not come to church in order to see and to catch up with our friends. Instead, it’s our obligation to come to church to welcome the those we don’t yet know: “But the stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:34)

Perhaps our Sunday morning (and the rest of the week too) spiritual discipline should be to seek out those who we do not know and to sojourn with those whom we find most difficult to be with. Counterintuitive as that might sound, in terms of our faith, it might make for a richer Sunday morning… for you as well as for the ones you’ve gone to.

I remembered a story I read once on the UCC’s website. It was about a joint UCC / Christian Church — Disciples of Christ congregation in Renton, Washington. For Lent in 2004, the pastor, Ken Colman, convinced his congregation’s Evangelism Committee to try a new community outreach.

Every Friday morning, he and a few other members of his congregation would get to church before dawn. They’d make coffee with all the accoutrements, and set up a table roadside for anyone driving by the church. And they offered communion to anyone who wished to receive it. They made a sign explaining all this because most of their passersby were drivers. And then they’d stand there and simply wave to anyone and everyone went by, whether they stopped or not.

The pastor said that he counted as many as 1,000 cars going by in a few hours. The article didn’t say exactly, but from my own experience, I guess only a few stopped for coffee. Even fewer, I suspect, for communion.

But what did happen, was folks began to stop who weren’t either coffee drinkers or communion takers. They just wanted to thank the hospitality team and let them know that their smiles and waves — and the offer of a wake-up mug and an open, prayerful Table, even if not taken advantage of — “made their Fridays.”

A regular who is active in another church says he misses the hospitality team on the Fridays they can’t serve. Others promise “we’re praying for you.” One man who works nearby stopped and asked if we would pray for him. A school bus driver also stopped and asked for prayer.

Once, the pastor had to take his son to the emergency room. As he was filling out the paperwork, and put down where he worked, the admissions clerk began to beam. At first, he didn’t understand her response, but then he just ventured, “You drive by and see me waving on Friday mornings, don’t you?” She nodded, so excited she couldn’t really speak.

Instead of the six weeks of Lent, the ministry continued on for years. The church speaking for God through a cup of coffee, a wave and smile of greeting, the promise of prayer, a communion of solidarity with early morning commuters. Taking God’s love to the streets.

The pastor didn’t say this exactly either, but I don’t think their hospitality ministry brought a crowd of people to join them in church on Sunday mornings. But it unquestionably made a difference in the world. It lifted the spirits and the hopes of those who were recipients of the hospitality. And it changed those who were able to offer hospitality.

David, who is visiting me this week, always points out that the story of Abraham and Sarah by the Oaks of Mamre and Cleopas and his Companion on the Road to Emmaus, make a crucial point: while we may bless guests with our hospitality, it is the stranger by whom we are to know the promise and the presence of God. Let’s get welcoming then…

See you in church,

Michael