Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8
I heard a humorous story about a pastor who was having difficulty with her assigned parking space in the church parking lot. Her church had a big parking lot and she had a designated parking space for herself. But people parked in her spot whenever they wanted, even though there was a sign that said, “This space reserved.” She thought the sign needed to be clearer, so she had a different sign made, which said, “Reserved for Pastor Only.” Still people ignored it and parked in her space whenever they felt like it. Maybe the sign should be more forceful, she thought. So she devised a more intimidating one, which announced, “Thou shalt not park here.” That sign did not make any difference either. Finally, she hit upon the words that worked; in fact, nobody ever took her parking space again. The sign said, “The one who parks here preaches the sermon on Sunday morning!”
Preaching is, perhaps, the pastor’s main ministry on Sunday morning. But preaching is just one part of the church’s ministry. All baptized Christians are ministers and are involved in a variety of ministries. Saint Paul once made a list of these gifts when he talked about church people being involved in such things as preaching, teaching, administering, care taking, or praying.
All Christians have different gifts and different ministries, but all of us share one common ministry in God’s church. And both of today’s Bible readings talk about that ministry. That is the ministry of hospitality or welcoming ministry. When we are together as the people of God, we should make this church a welcoming place for everyone. We ought to be hospitable. But hospitality is different from entertaining. We want to provide hospitality to all people who attend Sunday morning service regardless of their age, culture, and background. But our goal is not entertaining people. We want to have good music, good prayer, and a good sermon in our worship service, not to entertain visitors or ourselves, but to give our best gifts to God and to glorify God.
Entertainment says, “Come to our church; admire our good music; see the beautiful way everything is coordinated. Enjoy the sermon.” Entertaining is hard and stressful because, through it, we want to prove that we are perfect. Hospitality is totally different. We do not seek to give a superior or perfect image. People can love each other in their weaknesses, relax with us, and enjoy the fellowship in God’s presence.
The word “hospitality” comes from the same source as two similar sounding words, “hospice” and “hospital.” The word “hospice” means “shelter,” and the word “hospital” means “a place of healing.” We need to think, “Do my words and deeds provide a shelter for other persons when they are around me? Or, do my words and deeds promote a sense of healing for other people when they are around me? In the church we need to remember, as we deal with one another, there may be among us those who are dying on the inside. For whatever reason, life is currently treating such people harshly and they feel broken. Some are longing to feel connected. Some are longing to be affirmed. Some are longing to be acknowledged, even if only by eye contact. They need the hospitality of the church. They need a place of shelter.
Jesus himself showed us first the model of a ministry of hospitality. In the book of Romans Paul says, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Think of it, “yet sinners…” God did not withhold hospitality from us until we straightened ourselves out. While we were sinners, Christ was hospitable toward us by going to the cross and dying for us, in our place. Again Paul encourages us toward such Christ-like hospitality when he writes to the Philippian Christians in chapter two of his letter, “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…who humbled himself and took on the form of a servant and…became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
In today’s gospel reading Jesus teaches us how we should humble ourselves to practice Christ-like hospitality. He gives two examples: when we are guests at a banquet and when we are hosts of a fellowship gathering. In Jesus’ time people noticed where one ate, with whom one ate, whether one washed hands before eating, and where one sat to eat. All of these matters determined one’s social position.
Here we see how different Jesus’ teaching is from social expectations. Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.” Nowadays we don’t have a higher place or a lower place at a banquet. Rather, Jesus’ teaching implies that when we gather together as Christians we need to sit with people who are not familiar with our gatherings. That’s a way we humble ourselves. Naturally, we want to sit, eat, and talk with people we know well and feel comfortable with. That shows we are still self-centered rather than Christ-centered.
Again Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” As a church we sometimes provide meals to our neighbors through Crisis Center or the PADS program. We need to do those ministries more intentionally and more often. Also, don’t forget that people who wait for an invitation to God’s grace are not only in physical need but also in emotional and spiritual need.
The general conference of the United Methodist Church did a national survey and asked un-churched people, ages 25 to 54, what they believe the church has to offer them. Thirty percent of them replied the church should provide relationships. Twenty percent of them replied they want the church to provide biblical instruction or a place to learn. Seventeen percent of them replied they need a place to grow spiritually.
How can an un-churched new visitor find relationships if they visit us? The pastor can arrange and provide more Bible study classes or prayer meetings. But the pastor cannot provide relationships. The pastor cannot be a close friend to all of them. One day I told a joke to the Disciple class that a shepherd could not produce sheep. Only sheep produce sheep. They laughed. It’s a joke but has some truth. Open your eyes and be more sensitive to find who needs your care and friendship. Don’t be shy. You are the hosts, not guests, of this church. We can make a more welcoming community which witnesses to God’s saving grace among all people. Jesus promises that we will be blessed and honored because of our ministry and we will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. It is the promise that we can make the Kingdom of God here in this world through the hospitable and welcoming faith community and we will rejoice in the eternal Kingdom of God.