Summary: A sermon on the importance of practicing hospitality within the community of faith.

It’s movie trivia time. This movie is old but some of you are old, so you should know the answer. In 1974, does anybody remember the movie Young Frankenstein? That movie is 40 years old. It is a comedy about Dr. Frankenstein and his monster starring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Peter Boyle, who is also known as Frank Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. Since you all showed up today, I thought I would do you a favor and show you a movie clip from Young Frankenstein not only because I need to fill some time into my sermon, I was a little bit short today, but because it is one of my favorite movie clips and actually it gives a nice example of the dangers when you offer hospitality to a stranger. So go ahead and watch this clip. [Blind Priest Scene from Young Frankenstein]

Hopefully, you see the risk of offering hospitality to strangers, especially if you are the stranger in this case. Today, we continue to look at our core values of worship, discipleship, outreach, and community. Today, we are back focusing on this value of community. When we speak of community we are talking this community called church. When we speak about the church, we are talking about an authentic community. Today, we are talking about one of the characteristics of an authentic community is a community that is characterized by hospitality. If you have been here for a while, you will know that about seven years ago I actually preached on the value of hospitality. I actually did three sermons on the value of hospitality. One of the outcomes of that was what we call the “moments of hospitality”, which all of you just experienced where you get up and shake hands and introduce yourself and that sort of thing. But I was thinking, since Easter week is approaching very rapidly, that it would be good to revisit this idea of hospitality because we are going to experience probably a visitor or two.

When you think about the word hospitality, I imagine that a lot of different things come to mind. I imagine that some people think about maybe dinner out in a fine dining restaurant, possibly going out on a cruise or something like that, possibly dinner with friends, or maybe even a Martha Stewart type experience, you know a five-course meal, or maybe just having somebody over for pizza and watching a Penguins game. Although those are all good examples of hospitality, really they all fall short of what we call the Biblical view of hospitality. The Biblical view of hospitality is really quite simple. In its simplest definition it basically means kindness of strangers or welcoming strangers. Specifically what it means is the love of stranger. The word that we translate hospitality in the New Testament actually comes from a Greek word called Phileoxenia. I think that is the right way to pronounce it but I’m not sure, but you don’t know either so that’s fine. Anyway, Phileoxenia actually means Love of Strangers. Phileo basically means like brotherly love. It is where we get the name Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. And Xenia basically means stranger. So the word together means “love of strangers”. Again, that is what we would translate as the word hospitality.

Today, we are going to consider this idea of hospitality. I know that this idea of love of strangers may seem a bit alien to us, especially if we are used to the modern term hospitality. Although it is alien to us, it likely was not alien to the people of God. Specifically the Jewish people and even the Christian people. I don’t have time to get into all the Bible passages, especially the Old Testament, but in the Old Testament the Jewish people were expected to be welcoming, to be hospitable to strangers. The main reason is that they spent a good portion of their history as strangers, as exiles in a foreign land, specifically during the time that they were in Egypt. If we look back at Leviticus 19:34 it says “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34) The Jewish people were expected to be welcoming to strangers because they were strangers in a foreign land. Really back in that time and especially the early centuries, all civilizations, or all people that would be considered civilized, were known to practice this idea of hospitality, especially the Greek people. The Greek people were really into this idea of hospitality. They got it down to a science. But like anything else, the idea of hospitality would tend to be abused. In their mind, hospitality was kind of an even exchange. If you invited somebody over to dinner, then you expect that that person would invite you over to dinner. It was often an exchange between close family and friends and people of influence. If you could not reciprocate, if you could not pay that person back, well then you are pretty much off the list.

As we know, when Jesus enters into the picture, everything tends to be flipped upside down. Jesus begins to expand the notion of hospitality to include all people. In fact, in the Gospel of Luke He writes “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12–14) Here we have Jesus again expanding the cultural notion of hospitality to include all people. And really to include everybody. As expected, that idea of including all people, of practicing hospitality, weaved its way into first century Christianity. So much so that Christians were expected to go overboard in practicing hospitality. In many ways, they were commanded to practice hospitality. We see that in several verses, including Romans 12:13 that says “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) How clear is that? In fact, the word practice can also be interpreted pursue hospitality. So what Paul is saying here is that hospitality is not an option. In many ways, it is a spiritual and moral obligation. During that time, it was even more than that. It was really a necessity. It was necessary to ensure the survival of the early church. Again, as I have said before, that first century church was nothing like the church today. It was considered a cult of Judaism. It was something new. People were not very receptive to this idea of Christianity. People that would be converted faced all sorts of opposition. They faced a very hostile environment. You know the stories of Christians being thrown into the arena with lions and dogs and that sort of thing. They were also excluded from their families. They were excluded from their homes. They were prevented from getting jobs. In many ways, like the Jewish people, they were strangers in a foreign land. Their view of hospitality was not this Martha Stewart type experience. Their view of hospitality was something that was a life and death sort of thing. Even though it was a life and death sort of thing designed to protect them, designed to make sure that they were welcomed into a home or welcomed into a place of safety, a lot of people resisted it. A lot of people like us resisted it because the people that they were expected to open up their lives, open up their homes to protect them, to feed them, and to lodge them weren’t like them. A lot of them were from different races, from different ethnicities, from different social classes. In some cases, the people that are now supposed to be called brothers and sisters in Christ were their former enemies. People they didn’t get along with. They were expected now to take these people who needed protection because they were isolated from their community, from their family, from their jobs, they were expected to take people under their own roof and to feed them and give them lodging. They grumbled about it. In fact, we know they grumbled about it because Peter addresses that in 1 Peter 4:9 where he says “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:9–10) Do it but do it without grumbling.

As a side note, some of you know, I think it was two weeks ago, we had the choir in from Lincoln Christian University. I think there were about 38 kids and a couple teachers and a couple adults. They came in on a Monday night and needed a place to stay and they needed to be fed. We put the word out and thankfully people stepped up and basically allowed them to come underneath their own roof, took them into their homes and lodged them for the evening. We gave them a meal here and some people actually took their students up to Mount Washington for a little bit of a tour. When I thought about that, to me that is kind of a glimpse of authentic Christian hospitality. Thinking again about that first century, hospitality was really necessary to ensure the survival of people that had been isolated and separated from their family and friends. They relied on the hospitality of others to protect them.

Somewhere along the line that idea of Christian hospitality began to diminish, began to fade. I did some reading on that and there is a lot of suggestions and opinions of why Christian hospitality would have diminished but really I think it had to do with the institution of the church. The church basically became an institution. In 4th century A.D. it became basically a socially accepted institution. People weren’t being persecuted as much. They didn’t have the need to seek out other Christians to give them food and clothing and housing and that sort of thing. A lot of things that the first century church was known for such as caring for people, feeding the poor and homeless, and that sort of thing. Those things got delegated out to other institutions. We end up with what we have today. We have churches and we have parachurch organizations and non-profits. That is not all bad because it made the church, in many ways, more efficient. When the church stopped doing those things such as providing the basic necessities of life, not only did they cease to function in that role as a giver of hospitality, they began to lose their image as a community, as really an authentic community, a place of safety. A place where you could go and know that you are going to be treated with hospitality. Churches still do those types of things. Churches continue to care for visiting Christians and missionaries and they have obviously meals and potlucks, but really those things became very inward focused. It all became not about welcoming strangers, but it became about taking care of the people that are here, taking care of the existing members and all the families that would follow behind. That is a shame because one of the marks of early Christianity was the fact that they were a very authentic community that would welcome in the stranger. Although the need for Christians to find a place a lodging, to find a safe place, to get a warm meal is not as necessary as it was back then, I still think that people need a place of community. They need to have a place that they know that they can go and that they are safe and protected from really the challenges and hostilities of the outside world. The good news is I think that churches are beginning to figure that out. Churches are realizing that people stop coming to church because they really don’t sense the sense of community there anymore. You have all been to churches where you go in and you listen to a sermon, you listen to a message, you sing a few songs, and then you leave, but you never feel any connection to the people in the church. That is all changing. It is changing slowly because the bottom line is the church has a long history of not being welcoming to strangers, and now it is trying to go the other way to be welcoming to strangers, and it is difficult because really, in many ways, it’s not the strangers who are strange. It’s the church who is strange. It really is. Think about it. It is very strange to come in a church. It is. If you are a first-time visitor you have different terminology. You have new songs to learn. You have new sorts of practices. The bottom line is the church can be a very weird place if you are a visitor or if you are a stranger. Having said that, I think that we are trying to get rid of that image. We are truly trying to be a hospitable church, but it takes work. We have been trying for the last ten years or so. We have really been putting effort on making Bellevue Christian Church a friendly place to go to. A welcoming place to go to. Really, it starts with the way the person first finds us. A lot of people find us through our web page They go to it. They go there and they are looking for a church near them, so they come across and they see a bunch of friendly faces. Sometimes those faces are a little bit outdated, but they still see friendly faces. They see friendly words. They see friendly pictures of people. They feel that this place is a welcoming place. If they are brave enough, they show up at the front door. They step through those two doors, which is a scary thing for most people to do. They step in there and hopefully they are greeted by a greeter who is going to greet them with a handshake and a bulletin and just a big smile. If they are braver still, what they are going to do is find their way into the sanctuary, which is really weird because they don’t know what they are going to encounter when they come into the sanctuary. If you are a visitor here today, I bet you didn’t think you were going to encounter a clip from Young Frankenstein. You never know what to expect when you come into a church sanctuary. But people that brave coming into the sanctuary at Bellevue Christian Church are greeted by our top-notch ushers back there who wore sport coats today, and they are dressed better than me today. They are greeted by friendly ushers that hopefully will seat them into the pew and hopefully somebody in the pew will be willing to slide over a little bit and allow a visitor to come in. Then hopefully they begin to get the sense this is a friendly place. It’s confirmed by again what we call moments of hospitality. It is an opportunity to shake hands, to introduce yourself, to say hello, to give each other a smile. That is a good thing. I think we do a pretty good job of that. If they are really, really, really brave what happens is, at the end of the service, they make their way over to what we call CafĂ© Connect. The thing behind the curtain. It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz. They are not greeted by The Wizard of Oz. No, they are greeted by something better. They are greeted by food. Lots and lots of food. Really, if you have been around here for more than five years or so, you have seen that that room has gone through a lot of different transformations. It has gone through a lot of different iterations, all designed to make it a welcoming place to strangers. It really is. We are trying to make it a welcoming place. Even though the room has gone through many iterations, the food has been the main ingredient. Even the food has gone through a variety of iterations. We started quite simple with pretzels and sandwiches and things like that and then we expanded it up to a whole theme meal practically and then we have finally come to a middle-of-the-road place where basically people put together a list of 50 people and they could bring what they want as long as they don’t poison anybody, they can bring what they want. You don’t know what you are going to get when you step across there. But that is okay because the thing we realize is it’s really not about the food. The foot gets people over there. The food is the common thing that creates the environment for hospitality to happen, but it is the people that create the connection. It is the people that create real hospitality. It is the people that create the place where you do feel safe. Where you feel comfortable and a place where maybe you are going to meet a friend or two or three. It is really a place of safety, comfort, and friendship. When you have those ingredients, you have hospitality.

There is a lady named Christine Pohl, and she writes in the book Making Room. “In hospitality, the stranger is welcomed into a safe, personal, and comfortable place, a place of respect, acceptance, and friendship. Even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations.” - You thought you were getting coffee and doughnuts over there. No, you are getting a life-sustaining relationship according to that. It is really what is happening. What is happening is when you go over there, we are allowing you to pull away for a short time, for a brief time to step away from the hostilities of the world and enter into the hospitality of the church. That is a neat thing. If we do it well, which sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t, but when we do it well what happens is a transformation begins to happen. Really, in many ways, that becomes the first step towards discipleship. Christine goes on to write “When a person who is not valued by society is received by a socially respected person or group as a person with human dignity and worth, small transformations occur.” - A lot of people are looking for a sense of value. They are looking for a sense of worth. They have been isolated from their families. They have been isolated from their jobs. They have been disowned by people. They have been devalued by people. What this does is provide an opportunity to give back some of the things that the world has taken away. Specifically to give back a sense of worth, dignity, and recognition which is really what most people are just craving in this world; a sense of recognition.

It can’t stop there. We make the environment. Hopefully it happens. But really for a church that truly values this thing called hospitality, it has to go out, it has to extend into the street. It has to extend really into your homes and even your very lives. We tend to separate our lives into two compartments. We have the public self and the private self. The public self is the part where you only let people see certain things. You don’t let them too close. The public self is the self that you bring out into the workplace, into the city, into the subways and the airports. That is your public self. Then we have this private self. The private self is very restricted. It is limited to friends, families, close associations, and those sorts of people. Really, we have to learn to let more people into your private self. Hospitality means that you let more people into your private self. That is a difficult thing because ever since we are a little kid what are we told? Keep away from strangers. Don’t talk to strangers. Right? Remember that? What happens is we teach them when they are little not to talk to strangers, but when they turn into adults, they are still thinking, I can’t talk to strangers. We forget to tell them that it is okay to talk to strangers. Sure there is a risk because there are scary people out there. But if we go through life living in some sort of a bubble, at a minimum we have restricted our world view. We have restricted our exposure to different cultures. We have restricted our exposure to just different personalities and different opinions.

More than that, I think what we have done is we have blocked off our ability to experience what I would call a divine appointment. One of my favorite passages comes out of the Book of Hebrews. It says “Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1–2) Isn’t that a great passage? Really what he is referring to is a lot of those Old Testament stories. Remember Abraham walking somewhere and entertaining a couple people and later on he finds out they are angels. And Jacob obviously wrestled an angel at night. All these people were encountering these people that they thought were just normal human beings and they turned out to be divine. They turned out to be angels. That is what he is saying here. Be open to hospitality. Be open to entertaining people because you never know when an angel is going to show up. I was trying to think of an example. I have met a lot of people that in many ways were angelic, and the only one that I could think of that came right to my mind was my wife, Debbie. She didn’t know I was going to say that. But Debbie was really my divine appointment. A lot of you know my story. I don’t want to go into all the details, but we were both widowed. I was a widower and she was a widow. We met on the internet of all places. We didn’t meet in a bar. We didn’t meet in a church. We didn’t meet in a home. We met on the internet. That was before it was popular to meet on the internet. One night, we are talking on the internet and we are just chatting away. She is looking on the internet and I’m looking on the internet, and I pop up and say ‘hello’. What is your name, etc.? The bottom line is when we first came in contact we were both strangers. We were talking to each other in cyberspace of all places so we were strangers. I know that Debbie was a little leery of me. I think she thought that I was possibly a serial killer or an axe murderer posing as a seminary student. To be honest, I was a little leery of her. I thought she might have been a computer geek that was sitting in his basement having a good time talking to his friends while I was typing sweet nothings to him. At some point, we had to take the risk and go deeper in the relationship. It is where I asked her for her phone number, and she gave it to me. So we called and talked for about an hour or so that night. The rest is really history. What I ended up with is a new wife with a couple more kids and a ministry made for life. It was a divine appointment. Our story, although unique, is not that unique because everybody here, if you really were to think about it, God has placed a number of divine appointments in our life. People that you have met whether a spouse or friend or whatever, people that have so influenced you that your life began to be transformed. Your life went in a whole new direction in a positive way simply because you did this thing called practicing hospitality.

In closure, when you think about this idea of practicing hospitality, it is really not about divine appointment, although that is nice. We don’t do it because we are commanded to do it by Paul or even that we are commanded to do it by Jesus. The reason that we practice hospitality is because of the hospitality that was originally offered to us by God. We send out the welcome mat because God put out the welcome mat for us first. We all at one point have been strangers, aliens to this world. We have all been lost. We have all been wanderers. We have all been separated from our home. We have been separated from our eternal home. We have been separated from the Father for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We have separated. But as the story is told this week and will be told several times this week, while we were sinners Christ died for us. He died for us. So he gave us the opportunity to go back home to the Father. The thing that is funny about it, although God puts out the welcome mat for us, we are the ones that have to put out the welcome mat for Jesus. One of the passages in Revelations speaks of this. Jesus is saying “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:19–20) The Lord is there knocking away standing there. Are you going to open it up? Are you going to allow him to come in? It is up to you. We are clearly called to practice hospitality. We are really called to practice hospitality not just amongst our close friends, not just amongst our family members, but everyone. That is a commandment in the Bible. In order to do that, we have to be willing to first accept the hospitality of God. We have to first be able to come before God and accept that offer of hospitality and then flip it over and become the host that will allow Christ to come in to our lives. Again, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:19–20) Let us pray.