June 18, 2017
All Saints’ Church
Welcome, everyone, to All Saints’ Church. If this is your first time with us, please know that you bless us with your presence and give us the opportunity to exercise the Christian virtue of hospitality. It does not matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you believe—you are most welcome here. This is God’s house, not ours, and presence of visitors and guests is always blessing to us.
We offer this welcome in so many words each Sunday—and not just because we are genuinely happy for newcomers and guests. This welcome is most definitely not part of a strategy or scheme to get more people to come to church. We offer welcome to friend and stranger alike because it is an essential part of our faith and religion. Christians believe that hospitality is the beginning of miracles.
If you don’t believe me, or you think this is some sort of creative interpretation of the Bible, take a look at the remarkable story we hear from the Book of Genesis this morning.
Abraham had every reason to ignore the three strange men who appeared at his tent. At the age of 99, he had just made a covenant with the Lord, who promised him and Sarah multitudes of descendants even though they were childless. Now, I often feel overwhelmed and distracted by what’s going on in my life—can you imagine how Abraham felt? Besides that, it was the heat of the day when his guests arrived. Imagine sitting in your air conditioned home on a hot Brooklyn day, seeing three strange men sweating outside—how motivated would you be to jump up and offer them food and water? But that’s exactly what Abraham and Sarah did. And it was only by offering hospitality with their whole hearts that they entertained the strange beings who would set into motion the miraculous founding of a nation.
Many lifetimes later, Jesus taught his disciples about hospitality. He sent them out among strangers, and he instructed them to spread his word and love through acts of healing, connection, and charity. He instructed them to offer these things without expectation of payment or any other kind of compensation. In other words, he was teaching them how to receive hospitality at the same time he was teaching us all how to be hospitable. And he did this because he knew that hospitality is the beginning point of the miraculous work that God sets before us.
We desperately need this message of hospitality right now. Our country is in such a deep crisis that even the shooting of a congressperson can be used as a political wedge, denying the humanity of the victims and the tragedy of the violence that has seeped so deeply into our culture. Hospitality is one of the most basic and easiest ways to heal a wounded people. By offering unconditional welcome, we not only carry out God’s mandate for welcome, but we open up the space for the Holy Spirit to do the work of healing in our midst. Hospitality is the beginning of miracles, and we have the privilege and honor of being gracious hosts, offering the light of welcome in the darkness of mistrust and division.
We are blessed at All Saints’ to enjoy a climate of hospitality. I’ve experienced this myself, all the way back to the first days that Jesse and I arrived here. Sunday mornings here are filled with hugs and kisses, kind words and handshakes. They are given out generously and freely—and if you didn’t receive one yet today, please accept our apologies and be assured there are plenty more for you.
But the thing about hospitality is that it doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes dedication, focus, and an unswerving commitment to welcoming every single person who enters God’s house. As welcoming as we are, we always have plenty of room to go further.
And the sobering reality is that hospitality doesn’t exist on its own. It has an opposite, called “exclusion.” You either offer hospitality, or you exclude new people. There can be shades of difference between hospitality and exclusion, but at the end of the day, you either welcome someone or you exclude them.
Exclusion can happen many different ways, some of them more subtle than others. Of course, there are the big barriers—the literal and metaphorical blocks to people entering in. Many churches signal as loudly as they can that a certain type of person isn’t welcome in their midst, usually in ways that only that type of person would understand. It wasn’t that long ago that people of color visiting certain Episcopal churches for the first time would be invited by the usher to go to the other church down the street that was for them. LGBT people brave enough to come to church often receive a cold greeting or a threatening message from the pulpit. Here at All Saints’, we have an unfortunate physical barrier to welcome in our building, which can only be accessed by stairs, meaning that people who cannot walk or climb up the front entrance are not welcome. This has been a source of great pain and embarrassment for the leadership of this parish for many years. Fortunately, through the hard work of dedicated parishioners, beginning this fall and in conjunction with our 150th anniversary celebrations, we will soon have the opportunity to support a building project that will open our building to people with disabilities for the first time ever. We do this as an act of faith, love, and repentance for the ways in which we have excluded people from communion with God and God’s people.
But there are other modes of exclusion in churches that are harder to spot than the obvious ones. Every community has its own way of doing things. But when those ways become so rigid and closed that new people are not invited in, the old ways become an idol. Likewise, one of the joys of community is seeing one another regularly. But when our need to catch up means we don’t introduce ourselves to a new face, we deny ourselves the blessing of expanding our circle of love.
These are just some of the reasons why living out hospitality is such a crucial element of the Christian life. We practice it here at church, but then we take the lessons from Scripture and the attitude of welcome out into our own lives. We welcome guests into our houses. We create space and opportunities for connection in our work lives. Our youth lead the way by being kind and welcoming to their peers. And we advocate for space and welcome for all in the public square.
What could be more fun? The Christian call to hospitality is hardly a burden—rather, it’s a true joy. My life is so much richer and fuller because of the countless people I have met and who have become a part of my life because I have the privilege of participating in hospitality.
As the summer begins, think for a moment about the strangers you have welcomed into your life and the blessing they have become to you. Think about Jesus’ commission to offer yourself to others without expectation of compensation. Think about how different the world would be if we all welcomed one another without condition. And then think about how we can push forward the boundaries of hospitality here at All Saints’ and in our own lives. Hospitality is the beginning of miracles. Let us welcome in the blessings. Amen.