"The Gift of Hospitality"
Sermon Preached by Reverend Barbara Price-Martin
Psalm 84 and Romans 12: 9-18
September 2, 2012


Our Psalm today is so beautiful - How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, your home.  The sparrow finds a shelter and makes her home... Home. Dorothy gave us, "There's no place like home."  Maya Angelou said, "The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned."

In this way of thinking about it, home is where we are known, and loved just the same.  But what about those times when we're far from home?  Who will love you when you're a stranger?

Last month some of us from Trinity went to the New Wilmington Mission Conference.  Our job there was to run the service project, called Stop Hunger Now.   It's a big undertaking: about 300 of the 1000 youth cycle through the New Wilmington United Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall and in the ensuing chaos, they measure, weigh, bag, seal, count, package and box dried meal packets that are then shipped overseas to those who are in need.  It's great. It takes a lot of organization, it takes a lot of coordination, it takes a lot of STUFF.  Our leader, Andrew, does an incredible job and remembered everything...except hair nets.  Hard to believe but hair nets are not just fashion accessories anymore!  They're required by law when you're packaging food.  It seems like there was a little miscommunication when his truck was packed, and someone left off the hairnets.

Thus began the great Hair Net Search.  We ran over to the college dining halls. One gave us 25, the full box they had.  (That wouldn't even get us through one shift!) Little New Wilmington is a town of one stoplight, about 1000 people in town.  So one friend took off by car in one direction, found a Friendly's about 30 minutes away, and scored 50 nets.  Andrew went in the other direction, and came up blank.

That night, for supper we went to the local hangout, Pizza Joe's.  We talked over the problem and tried to figure out what to do.  Andrew tried a last-ditch effort.  "Hey," he asked the guy behind the counter, "you wouldn't have any hairnets we could buy, would you?"  Polite laughter, but the answer was no.

And then, something happened.  The guy at the counter happened to be the owner.  He wondered why a nice young guy with three church ladies wanted hair nets. He listened to that inner prompting and came over to the table and asked a couple questions.  Andrew explained the situation.  That got Pizza Joe thinking. "You know," he said, "I don't have any hairnets, but I have a delivery truck coming tomorrow morning at 8 am.  I'm can add in to the order until 7 pm.  It's only 6:30.  What if we ordered hairnets on my supply list and solve this problem?"  WOW:  You're on!

"How much are they?  Could we give you cash and you add it to your charge?"

"No," he said, "They're my contribution to this effort.  It'd be a privilege to be part of it.  I'll bring them over to the church after the delivery tomorrow morning."

Okay, now THAT's hospitality.  A man you don't know, in a town you don't belong in, in the middle of his busiest week of the year, the busiest time of his day, supper, takes 20 minutes to help you, complete strangers, in need.  He refuses to take your money, hand delivers the gift, and finds joy in his ability to give a bit of aid to strangers in his midst.

So, our first point: Christian hospitality, as given to us in the Bible, is a sacred process of 'receiving' outsiders and changing them from strangers to guests.  The Scriptures are full of stories of this.  Peter he tells God's people to 'offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.'  Paul likewise gives his audience in Rome a blanket command to 'practice hospitality.'

The act of offering welcome is basic to Christian identity and practice.  For most of the church's history, hospitality was part of a vibrant tradition in which needy strangers were welcomed, and through which people were transformed.  Hospitality addresses the physical needs of food, shelter, and protection.  But hospitality also radically affirms the high worth and common humanity of all people.

Historically, Christian hospitality was actually a kind of subversive act that obliterated social barriers around gender, race, economic condition, and citizenship status.  It directly attacked that horrible habit of devaluing the personhood of 'undesirables'.  Extending hospitality offered a dramatic and effective witness to the world and was crucial to the growth of the early church.

Jesus, God-with-us, touched and healed complete strangers, ate at table with tax collectors and prostitutes and outcasts, and showed us that this radical hospitality was the path he desired for us when he said, "Follow me."  Today we celebrate the most simple and yet the most profound act of hospitality, the Lord's Table.  Table fellowship affirms the equal value and dignity of people.  Jesus invites us to this table to share in the feast which he has prepared.

Second point: in the church, we extend hospitality to others because we have received God's hospitality to us.  Try this: Imagine not calling this place "my church." That's a little radical, isn't it?  But try and remember back, your first visit here: who welcomed you?  Who told you - in verbal or non-verbal ways - that this place could be "home" for you?  Who communicated to you that this church has people who remember what it feels like to be here for the first time?

Some places have a practice of leaving one symbolic empty chair so that everyone will remember that "The Church" always includes The Next Stranger to be welcomed as Guest.  That's how you got here.  One of our favorite songs at Trinity is a little campy, but it's pretty effective:  "Mine is the church where everybody's welcome - I know it's true 'cause I got in the door!"

How does that happen?  Let me assure it does not happen by chance.  It's not up to the person in "Pew Two."  It is so completely up to you.  Practicing hospitality at church means not just thinking about "what will I get today if I go to church?  God knows I need so much...life sure is overwhelming in the 21st century, and I'm so depleted..."  It means when you walk in one of those beautiful blue doors, let it remind you that every single person who walks in those doors has come yearning to be welcomed and embraced, hoping to find a refuge and comfort, as well as a challenge that we have been blessed IN ORDER to be a blessing.  For when you leave this place, as we ministers sometimes like to say, the worship ends and the service begins.

And so we must think about the everyday practice of hospitality, outside these walls.  The third truth is this:  when practicing hospitality, it is as much a blessing to the host as it is to the stranger.  Whether it is Abraham receiving the three strangers in Genesis 18, or Rahab allowing Joshua's spies to stay with her in Joshua 2, the Old Testament is full of examples of hospitality being extended to strangers who become valued guests.  And remember that in most of the Scripture stories, it's not the stranger who was changed by the hospitality, it was the hosts whose lives were made infinitely better by that encounter.

But it's certainly a gift when a stranger receives gracious hospitality.

So I close with this story.  Last month we went to San Diego and we went to a restaurant in a section of town that had parking meters and of course, not one quarter among the four of us.  So we walked down the street looking for a business who would sell me change.  First place, a pedicure salon who offered me change IF I got a pedicure.  No thanks.  Second place, no change.  Next place was a pretty swanky salon. Not much chance of a fancy place like that making change for us, but I was getting tired, we were now about 3 blocks in the wrong direction from the restaurant.

A middle-aged Middle Eastern man met us at the front desk; I asked for change for my bills.  "Oh," he said, "I don't have any ... in the cash drawer."  Then he proceeded to open a side drawer, pull out a baggie, and carefully counted out personal coins.  (It looked like his vending machine stash.)  There, he said, it's all I have, $1.65. I handed him the 2 dollar bills I had and thanked him.  "Oh no," he said, gently and very emphatically.  "No, thank you," he said to me.

Now I am telling you that that man was doing some spiritual practice right there. It was so clear.  I felt it.  I wanted it. He had no intention of taking my bills from the moment he started with that baggie.  He was listening to some well-recognized inner prompt; following some deeply engrained spiritual practice of hospitality to the stranger.  And we were immeasurably blessed by it.

Friends, practice hospitality.  You might have to train yourself to a new way of being.  That's okay.  That's why we call it practice.