A New Practice of UCC Hospitality, Sermon 10.24.10

A New Practice of UCC Hospitality, Sermon 10.24.10

Genesis 18:1-15 & Luke 24: 13-32. Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, Oct. 24, 2010 by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A folksy bit of popular cynicism coined in 1977 by Burt Lance,  Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Office of Budget and Finance, who believed Uncle Sam could save billions by adopting the practice of leaving well enough alone.

We all know the situations this bit of non-interventionist sentiment comes from: particularly with hands-on projects, when you are sure that just a little more effort– a bit more whittling away or building up– will move your creation close to perfection.

And then you’re final touch turns out to be chipping away or adding to one time too many. That pang of regret: you’ve ruined what you were working on. There’s no going back.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Needing to say so, I guess, acknowledges some cause for concern, even as it counsels that it’s a mistake to try to improve what is working at least adequately. A falsely humble motto for reconciling ourselves to the status quo. It’s an anti-activist’s creed.

For me, it’s almost akin to the hopelessness of “the total depravity of humankind,” rejecting any capacity for making good… implying that human efforts are inevitably detrimental, actually cause further damage.

A colleague lobbed the colloquialism at me last week after I suggested the mainline church had better get busy, figure out how to re-present the Gospel in ways people today find compelling and meaningful. “We got to get going, make some significant changes,” I said, “…not just talking, but actually letting the rubber hit the road, trying  something new…”

Ain’t broke? How much empty space was there in his pews last Sunday?  More importantly, how many people in the neighborhood around his congregation could be helped if they had some sense church could add to their lives? (Yes, you can see, his response really got under my skin!)

Since 1965, mainline church rolls have shrunk by more than 25%, down over 6 million people. Just a few Sunday morning visits to empty sanctuaries leave me worried even those numbers are doctored:

~Pastor’s habitually round attendance numbers upwards, and

~people, when interviewed by pollsters, over-report how often they go to church.

The bleeding of church membership and participation be much more dire? And the indirect influence that church has exerted in our society, often by the affects church-folks have on others, could it have shrunk even more?

Ain’t broke? Are we going to go on pretending that what worked in the past still works? Is continuing decline good enough? Year after year fewer people hearing of, much less getting to practice a grace that teaches the inherent sacredness of every last person…

Beloved, as one of you said, and I quoted in last week’s e-pistle: “I have to get over myself, and thinking church exists only for me. Rather, it exists for mission and for the needs of those who (who have been gathered) are called to serve.”

Oh, sure, I like much of the way things are at church. That’s probably why I stayed. I even sing hymns like “A Mighty Fortress“ while I clean my house.

But, though I can be served by the way things are, apparently many of our neighbors and most of my peers are not!

Do we leave it at that, as if we have nothing to offer them?

Or, recognizing our call to service, do are we willing to change, to fix this disconnect, so the doors open wider, the invitations go further and our articulation of what this community is about, why it makes a difference– so the message we send is more compelling.

At Old First, we are trying to make those changes.

With the response after the assurance today, we’re introducing a new praise song collection put out by the UCC.

We’ve drafted Cody, Reena and Renaldo to get a Youth Group started.

Re-created a Sunday School Superintendent position to beef up Sunday School.

Added a Spiritual Formation Class at 10 am, alongside the Adult Forum.

Making the New Members’ Classes accessibly one, long session (rather than spreading it out over 5 weeks).

Gotten our message at least as far as the fence out front, and installed a bulletin board out there to let passersby see better into the life of this community.

We’re upgrading our website so it serves our information-sharing needs better AND is a wider entryway for newcomers wishing to check us out before they ever dare to show up.

And we’ve got almost the whole congregation involved in Sunday morning Hospitality.

Not such radical changes as to threaten the character of Old First, but deliberate attempts to reach further, to touch more people– incremental innovations that, we pray, together will  create a significant difference.

But, lest we make a tragic mistake: our changing is not only for the needs of people outside our church. That’s not how spiritual economics work. The blessings never just flow one way.

Certainly, there is a great blessing in being welcomed well. But both our lessons this morning challenge us– the greater blessing may belong to the host, go to the one extending the welcome.

Abraham and Sarah roll out the welcome rug. Offer fresh water for washing. Even whip up a feast. In the desert cultures of the Near East, in the wilderness where there was no one else around, welcoming strangers who showed up at the edge of your encampment, on the flap of your tent, it wasn’t without its risks, but it was also life-bringing.

But who really received the greater blessing? Sure the guests get a royal welcome. But the ancient couple who dared open their home, they ended up with nothing less than God’s promise. Opening themselves to what they could not foresee the strangers could offer… the barren elderly couple learn that God would provide not only a child, but they would become parents to a nation.

A similar thing happens in the Gospel lesson: who received the greater blessing: the stranger on the road welcomed by Cleopas and his companion, or the latter two who serve as host to the unknown One?

It’s right after the crucifixion. Jesus’ followers want to lay low; maybe that’s the reason their on the road out of Jerusalem.

There they are approached by a stranger. On the best of days, the highways and byways of biblical times, those passages between here and there, like all transitions, were not the safest places. The attack on the traveler in the Parable of the Good Samaritan was a real threat.

But these days are even worse. Their leader has been killed publicly by the government. Who knows what’s next? Will they come after his followers too?

And who’s this stranger on the road anyway… who seems to be asking about all that has happened in Jerusalem? Is he really that naive? And should Cleopas and his companion let on they have any knowledge? Will their accents betray them too? Is this possibly some undercover homeland security agent?

Cleopas and his companion invite the stranger to walk with them awhile. They speak openly of what they know, even share all they don’t understand. The stranger, it turns out, has much to share with them too. They listen, accept what he offers. When, at nightfall, the stranger means to go further, they bid him to stay, to abide with them. They share the loaf they’ve brought as sustenance for their own journey…

Who benefits and who receives the greater blessing? Welcoming the stranger– “Othering” I hear a colleague calls it– is sharing what we have and extending our welcome to those who show up. But finally, hospitality is not so much God’s plan for resource sharing, but an alternative where in God benefits the host.

Church, do you seek the newcomer? Are you going out to meet the strangers? Do you look up to see if they are coming? Or do you mind our own business? And when we do get all knotted up in our own business, as happens around here sometimes, are we open to be surprised by an interruption?

Are we acting or reacting? Are we ready for guests– with something to offer them? More importantly– do we appreciate what they can bring to us?

Yes, church, we have spiritual riches to share with others. But maybe more importantly, the other, strangers, those who are to come to us, God uses them to bring blessings to us.

The UCC published just yesterday a sort of Top Ten List of ways to invite others into your life:

  1. Our spirituality can only exist in our relationships– the eternal among the temporal, the lasting among the passing.
  2. Always make room for new people at the table and in your life.
  3. We can only welcome others because God first welcomed us.
  4. Make the most of even the fleeting time you are given.
  5. Respect boundaries: rather than barriers, they allow you to be you, and others to be themselves.
  6. Expect to be surprised.
  7. Be attentive: every encounter happens just once.
  8. You don’t have to fix everyone else’s problems: companionship on the journey is often all that is needed.
  9. The reason angels can fly (some say) is they practice a light touch.
  10. Hospitality is always two-way street.

Let me close today by lifting up one more innovation. Relax, it’s nothing new that’s going to happen next at Old First. It’s not even one Old First is working on. It’s bigger than that. It’s a new practice of hospitality that my friend and colleague, Peter Dennebaum and I would like to see the whole UCC adopt.

Peter’s the pastor at 1st Cong’l. in Washington, D.C. Back in the summer, when I planned my fall preaching schedule, Peter and I were going to do a pulpit exchange today: to introduce our great new idea. Peter was going to be here; and I there.

Our great idea? We came up with our inspiration pedallng with 12 other UCCers  from New York to the last General Synod in Grand Rapids, Michigan…to prove that there are alternatives to U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

Each night we were put up night by UCC congregations along the way. Well, except for 1 night when a church in Ohio was so mad at the denomination about gay marriage that they decided we weren’t welcome. No UCCers were going to sleep in their church basement. I tried to make the case:  none of US were gay-married (though I confess I sort of left out that some of us were gay-single.) But it didn’t work anyway. No tired bikers that had anything to do with the UCC were welcome on their church floor.

But every other night, all the way from central New York to the western side of Michigan, local congregations opened their doors to us– with enthusiasm, energetic welcome, meals, arrangements for us to get showers, wash clothes, get bikes repaired, see doctors… Massages at one place; signs along the road into town at another; a cocktalil party that last way too late at a third. It was incredible.

All this hospitality, for folks they’d never met and would probably never see again this side of heaven! And it didn’t seem like a burden, something onerous, too much trouble on their part. One person outside of Buffalo, when I thanked her for all the congregation’s effort, corrected me, “your visit had not been more work to do; it’s been  joy to be shared.”

Peter and I thought: what if in the UCC, there was more of this? What if we organized a hospitality exchange so that UCCers away from home could seek shelter in a sister congregation?

But we didn’t stop there. Our dream grew bigger: what if we were just asking churches to make floor space available? What if we asked UCC families to offer occasional home hospitality to UCC travelers, just a night or two?

With the recommendation or oversight of pastors, we could invite one another into our homes, as one big church family…

Youth visiting the colleges and universities here might stay with us. We might spend a night or two with someone in Phoenix or Seattle for our cousin’s grandchild’s second wedding, or with a UCC family in Wyoming on our way to Yellowstone.

Ok, maybe we were delirious from too many days and miles of bikes. Sure, there were still details to be worked out. But we had fun dreaming it up, and envisioning the difference such experiences could make for the whole church.

Then I arrived here, at Old First, where this sort of thing didn’t seem so preposterous, or even all that unusual. We invite work camps and homeless men and volunteers to stay with us. In just my first month here, finding Old First still listed in some foreign language guidebooks as a hostel site, a Russian teenager and two French sisters in their 30‘s showed up seeking accommodation. My apartment wasn’t even set up yet, so I invited them to stay in my office.

So Peter and I cooked up our plan. Envisioned the requirements. Modeled it on an international program called “couch surfing.” Dreamed up a whole, high-tech internet site that would enable this without too much work. Got it all written up in a smart proposal.

Then we went to the national church with our idea.

Geoffrey Black, the UCC’s General Minister and President, loved the idea, but maybe that’s because he’s our friend.

Everyone else in Cleveland sort of thought we were crazy. Aiding and abetting strangers into church people’s houses, what were we thinking?

Then they forwarded our proposals to the lawyers. I’m still hearing from the national church’s legal counsels. I guess from an attorney’s point of view, liability issues loom larger than for local church pastors!

More liability than an old desert couple welcoming 3 strangers? More liability than two disciples on the lamb talking with a stranger who claims he doesn’t know anything about what’s happened in Jerusalem?

Crazier than a 100 year old women and equally aged husband having a baby? Crazier starting out with 3 guests that by the end of the story are only 1?  Crazier than not recognizing Jesus, but then seeing him in a loaf of bread? Crazier than poof, he’s disappeared?

What really is crazy?

All the surprising ways God shows up, unexpected, in our lives? Or locking our doors against one another?

The fear of what we might lose, or missing what we could gain?

God first welcoming us, or refusing to draw close and working together to share the love God’s already showed us?

All right, Peter and I are a bit crazy.

But, beloved, how else do we welcome the Lord?

How else can we really begin to hear, believe, give thanks and live lives full of God’s promise and presence?