You have probably seen how some churches display the topic of the Sunday sermon in a sign that sits out on their lawn. Some years back this posting caught my eye: “Under new management.” My guess is that they had a new minister. It got me to thinking. Does God ever wish that the church was under new management? Not just a change in pastor but a complete reversal from how a church has been doing business to the way Jesus expects it to operate—how Jesus intends for us to be a church.
Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, and Jesus in the Gospel, have some important things to say about the core of what church is all about: radical hospitality. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of how Abraham once entertained strangers who were actually emissaries from God. Sometimes, when we think we’re just being nice to people who show up on a Sunday, sometimes we might be welcoming Jesus in disguise or even angels.
Sit down at the table, Jesus says, with those whom you regard as outside of God’s favor. Invite those who cannot repay you. Stories like the one Luke relates are important. Meals are symbolic of the anticipated coming of God’s Kingdom—a preview of the Messianic banquet. In the time of Jesus, feasts were arranged so that guests reclined in groups of three. The position in the middle was the most coveted place and reserved for
the one with the most wealth, power, or social status.
If a more eminent guest arrived late, the one who occupied the middle place would be asked to move to a lesser place. The people in the parable are vying for the best seats in the house, engaging in an endless game of musical chairs. And the hosts of the affair limit their guests to the elite, the cream of the crop, all “A” list invitees.
It was always very dangerous to invite Jesus for dinner. In all four Gospels we find that Jesus included some of the most unlikely people in his earthly life, especially those who were deemed undeserving by the religious leaders. Make no mistake about it. His hosts in this Gospel narrative did not extend the invitation to him out of friendship or admiration. Their intention was to discredit him in the presence of other influential people. Luke puts it this way: “They were watching him closely.”
This business about taking the least place at the banquet table so that one can be elevated by their host is a teaching about humility, a word that is not very popular in our modern society. People tend to confuse humility with humiliation. Humiliation is the result of some one making us feel of lesser value or not worthy because of something about us.
Humility is acting in ways that are authentic to our unique experience—to the person we are—not in ways that reflect our wealth or the advantages we may have, but an authenticity to what is true about ourselves rather than an expression of the status we think is due to us. Jesus wants us to know that we are all God’s guests—no matter what or whose list we may be on. His management style is radical welcome for all—no exceptions.
This is not a new idea. It’s embedded in the Gospels and there is an early Christian treatise call the Dasdacalia that says if a stranger enters your worship, and the Eucharist had been spread out before the congregation, and there is nowhere for the stranger to sit, the Bishop presiding at the Eucharist is to sit on the floor so that the stranger may be welcomed in the name of Christ. Fortunately, we have plenty of seats here, so I won’t have to sit on the floor and from what I’ve known about this community and experienced myself is that welcoming the stranger is something you do with ease, authenticity, and grace.
That was not the case in the congregation that I went to serve in 1993, a place where “new management” was sorely needed and where welcome was reserved for the “A” list. We worked hard to change that and by God’s grace and nothing short of a miracle it became a place that embraced radical welcome and lived it. The kind of theme song we adopted is one we will hear today during the time of Communion and I’d love us to learn as part of our repertoire. Listen to the words of the first verse:
Let us build a house Where love can dwell,
And all can safely live A place where Saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
Rock of faith and vault of grace Here the love of Christ shall end divisions
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
What we do here on Sunday is meant to set an example for how each of us lives out in the world and how we receive and welcome the stranger there. Sister Joan Chittister, a contemporary writer whom I greatly admire, says that hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves.
Though we may never know whom we might have “entertained” –mortal or angel —perhaps the mystery of it all is a lesson in itself. Sometimes, when we think we’re just being nice to people and practice welcome and offer hospitality to those who show up at our door, we may actually be receiving God in disguise.
Madeleine L'Engle was an American writer whose works reflect both her Christian faith and interest in science. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, she writes:
"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."
I think there are no better words to describe the mission of the church. Our mission. That’s why we must listen carefully to Paul’s words about radical hospitality. That’s why I talk so much about “radical welcome.” Because Jesus is watching us closely.