Congregational Hospitality: The Welcoming Church

August 10, 2014 (Proper 14/ Ordinary 19)

Isaiah 56:1-8
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22,45b
Matthew 14:22-33

 

56:1Thus says the Lord:

Maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come,

and my deliverance be revealed.

2 Happy is the mortal who does this,

the one who holds it fast,

who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,

and refrains from doing any evil.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off.

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

8 Thus says the Lord God,

who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them

besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:1-8, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Eternal God, you have called us to be members of one body. Join us with those who in all times and places have praised your name, that, with one heart and mind, we may show the unity of your church, and bring honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

This is my second sermon in a series on Christian hospitality, one that I hope will inspire us all as a church reflect on the task of welcoming and including visitors.  Hospitality is not just a good idea — it is a core Christian practice, and one that our divided world needs now more than ever.  Our scripture passage from Isaiah speaks of the act of welcoming and the deep significance that such an act has.  The extension of welcome to another person is one of the primary understandings of hospitality.  God wants the church to be a house of prayer for all people.  So when we welcome a person to our church, we are in a sense welcoming Christ himself.

 

Those are the standards of hospitality for the church: welcoming in the same manner as Christ has welcomed us.  But as we all know it is not easy to do.  Especially today, in our fractured and polarized world.  Where we divide up along race, religion, politics and economics. So, it is a real challenge that is set before us from the book of Isaiah.  The Lord does not want us to divide up into segregated communities in which Republicans worship with Republicans, Democrats pray with Democrats, liberals study the Bible with liberals, and conservatives go on mission trips with other conservatives. Instead, as the prophet Isaiah states “a house of prayer for all peoples” that gather together and overcome boundaries to worship God.

 

You might wonder why the prophet Isaiah shares this vision from God with the people. Before the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were considered to be God’s chosen ones, and the purity code of Deuteronomy was very clear about who was in and who was out and it was especially excluded two particular categories of people: eunuchs and foreigners.  Deuteronomy 23: 1-3 says that no one who has been castrated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  And “no Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  In short, the common community that existed in Israel was made up of like-minded Israelites — it was a congregation of people who shared the same ideas of what was pure and what was not.

 

Then the prophet Isaiah shares a new vision of community, one in which all people who honor the Lord in their actions are to be included.  Speaking through Isaiah, God said, the community of faith was not limited to people of the same nationality or political party.

 

Throughout the Gospels, we read that see Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners, he welcomed children, he spoke with women, and he healed those who were considered unclean and outcasts. Jesus practiced a ministry of hospitality that truly welcomed strangers into the community of faith. He embodied hospitality.

 

My definition of biblical Hospitality: is a life of openness to the presence of God and, unconditional openness to every human life.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God is in the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  To be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human life.

 

Most congregations want to welcome and hospitable — unfortunately, it takes more than just a willingness and aspiration to be welcome visitors. It actually is a skill and it takes practice to accept visitors.  It is more than just inviting them to have coffee and cookies after worship.   So, as a first step let’s take a look at our hospitality here at Indian Hill Church.

 

Do you remember the last time you felt particularly uncomfortable somewhere?  Maybe it was the office party where your spouse works.  Or at your child’s back-to-school night.  Or the first day on a new job.  Or your first visit to a new dentist?  Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we don’t know many of the people around us or when we’re not sure of our role, our place, or what is expected of us.  We’ve all been there – feeling left out, alone, out of place, unsure of the way things go, just plain unwelcome. It’s not an enjoyable feeling. So unenjoyable that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it.  We come up with lots of reasons not to go or get involved. So it is much easier to just stay home.

 

Now, imagine for a moment feeling that way at church.[i]

 

Each and every week, there are people sitting in our pews, who feel unwelcome or left out or lost.  Maybe they are listening attentively to the sermon, maybe they just mouth the words of the hymns, going through the motions of the prayers and liturgy, and they don’t feel at home here or at any church for that matter.  What is really sad is they feel like outsiders.

 

This fact may be hard for some of us to imagine, but it’s true: a whole lot of people don’t feel particularly welcome or comfortable at church.

 

Now, I am not beating us up, the Indian Hill Church.  It is any church, it is every church.  But because this is our church, where God has called us, you and me, to worship I am particularly interested in the ways in which we are and are not practicing hospitality.

 

No one is to blame because it is not any one’s fault.  Nobody in our congregation sets out to make people feel unwelcome. Much in the same way the co-workers at your spouse’s office party, or the parents of our children’s classmates, or the date we just met, or the new dentist we go to and the colleagues at our new job – they don’t get up in the morning and plan to make us feel unwelcome. It just happens. Instead of trying to place blame let’s see what we can do about it.

 

Who knows why people feel unwelcome.  Maybe they’re here because they have to be – people who would much rather spend their Sunday mornings another way if they weren’t made to come to church.  Or maybe they feel unwelcome because they don’t understand the language and liturgy or why we do what we do at church.  Or maybe they had some bad experiences at church in the past and it’s hard to ever feel comfortable. Or maybe they just don’t believe in this whole biblical-story thing and just wish the pastor would talk about something they are interested in.   Or maybe they’re intimidated because all the “regulars” seem to know what they’re doing and they don’t know the “secrets”.  Or maybe they have a hard time believing that we would really accept them here if we really knew them and the problems they have. Or maybe….it is something else?

 

But that’s the point.

We don’t know.

And we won’t….

…Unless we ask.

So, I am asking!

 

I invite you to take a moment and fill out the questionnaire that you will find as an insert in your bulletin – it can be anonymous or you can sign your name, then I invite you to put them in the offering plate when they come around.  The questions are:

 

1.         Do you feel welcome at this church?

2.         What in particular helps you to feel welcome?

3.         What in particular has been a hindrance to your feeling welcome?

4.         What do you most love about being here?

5.         What do you like least about being here?

6.         How can Indian Hill Church improve on being a more welcoming congregation?

 

One quick example of a small thing that one congregation did to meet the needs of a visitor. A small rural church of about 100 people in attendance at worship.  This church is primarily an older congregation and all of the sudden a young single mother started to attend with her baby. The folks of the church could tell that the young mom felt very self-conscious whenever her baby started to fuss during worship, like any infant will do.

 

So, some of the leaders in the church realized how uncomfortable she was and they decided they had to do something. To show support for her, they bought a comfortable, well-padded rocking chair and placed it behind the last pew of the small sanctuary so she could rock the baby and still participate in the worship service. Their solution is not all that radical.  But what they did is they paid attention to the needs of a visitor in order to welcome her in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

It makes me wonder what are the barriers or issues that keep people away from joining us in worship or participating in Sunday school or other educational programs, ministries and mission of our congregation.  Is it the stairs to the Sunday school classrooms?  Is it the closed sense of the congregation that makes it difficult for visitors to “break in” and feel included?  Is it economic or racial or employment differences?

 

I believe the issue of hospitality is one of the great opportunities that you the Indian Hill Church are already doing — because you are a welcoming people — I know, because I have experienced it myself.   But we often miss things that are right in front of us.

 

So, the challenge for us is to practice hospitality and welcome so intentionally that every person walking through our doors experiences it. I challenge every church member and every leader here at Indian Hill Church to give it a try and to practice welcoming others and offering hospitality, even more than you already do. So that we may be a house of prayer for all people.

 

Let us pray:

 

 

[i] This section of the sermon comes directly from David Lose and his blog post, “All Are Welcome,”

Sunday, August 07, 2011  http://www.davidlose.net

 

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