Friday, September 7, 2007

Sermon for Year C Pentecost 14 Proper 17


This is a story
that was shared with those of us
who attended a session titled Strengthening the Small Church at the recent Mission and Ministry Conference.

It is a true story,
about a man named John
who found himself at a transition point in his life.

He had never worshipped in a church before.
He was a successful international businessman
and had just returned to the United States
to care for his very ill elderly mother.

He found himself interested in Christianity
so he decides to visit an Episcopal Church.
Here is his story:

I looked in the phone book and found two Episcopal churches listed.
I went by the first one but there was no sign and I thought it was abandoned.
I wondered, “Can a church go out of business?
I didn’t think they could.”
I then went on to a larger church a little further on.
I sat in the parking lot for a long time with my knees shaking,
Watching as people got out of their cars,
And wanting to go in a little late
To just sneak in to the back.

However, when I finally mustered the nerve
and entered the courtyard where I had seen people enter,
I was faced with two closed doors.

Not knowing which to choose,
I opened one and entered.
Unfortunately I had selected incorrectly
and entered the front of the church.
Trapped with everyone staring,
I quickly found my way to the front row.

I was unable to follow anything anyone was doing,
And no one brought me a program
that they all seemed to be using.
I was kind of freaked out--everyone stands, then they sit.
They say prayers and words.
They cross themselves, they change books.
I didn’t know what on earth they were doing
or what was going to happen next.
Increasingly intimidated,
as I sat in the front row,
the preacher suddenly decided to preach
from the center aisle,
right next to where I was sitting.

He mostly talked about something called a diocese
(I wondered what a diocese is?).
As he was preaching
he then said something
that made everyone start mumbling some phrase again,
and the preacher, still in the center aisle,
totally freaked me out and grabbed my hand.

I thought I was being singled out,
but then realized that everyone was getting up
and moving all around the church hugging and shaking hands with each other (the peace).

Next, something happened at the table up front,
and then everyone got up to leave.
But they all headed for the front door where I’d entered.

As I followed them up I realized that they weren’t leaving;
Instead they all kneeled and someone brought around some bread.
Then we all went back to our seats.

Finally after it was all over, someone came up to me with a card
and asked me to write my contact information and answer a question
on the card.
The question asked what my interest at St. Swithens was.
As I really didn’t know what to put,
I remembered that I’d often heard Christians
talk about baptism,
so I wrote baptism.
All the people disappeared into another building.
I watched and then left in my car.

That is John’s story.

Some of us are old enough to remember an old Andy Griffith recording,
titled “What it was was football.”
John’s story could be titled,
“What it was was the Episcopal Church.”

How important it is for us to remember
what it is like to do something for the first time,
how it feels to want to be part of something, to be included.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that
some have entertained angels without knowing it.

welcoming the stranger--
is one of the key values of the Christian faith.
Of many faith traditions, really.

Hospitality requires that we make ourselves
both available
and, in some ways, vulnerable.
This is not necessarily comfortable for many of us.

Hospitality is about having a big heart--
a heart big enough to believe there is always room for one more,
regardless of whom that one more might be.

Hospitality is not about having room--
Hospitality is about making room.
About giving up some of our space, our resources,
our ownership
and offering it to someone with love--
with no strings attached.

Jesus was an incredible model of hospitality.
Jesus welcomed everyone,
children and women,
tax collectors and sinners.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus bids us
to welcome to our table
the poor, the lame, the blind.
All were welcome.
Jesus’ radical hospitality shocked and offended many in his society.
But he did it anyway.

God’s hospitality--and we do act as God’s hands and heart in the world--
God’s hospitality is to welcome everyone with joy--
especially those who seldom find welcome and joy
present in their lives.

There is tremendous joy in being included.
There is tremendous pain in being excluded.
in feeling we are not welcome,
in feeling we are invisible.

God wants us to know otherwise.
God wants us to know that each one of us is loved.
God calls us to share that message--
not just by words but by our actions,
by our hospitality to others.

What does hospitality here at St. John’s look like?
Certainly hospitality is welcoming people to worship with us.
Hospitality is calling a new rector--a stranger--
and welcoming her to come and be among you.
Hospitality is allowing others to use our parish hall for meetings.
Hospitality is building habitat houses for complete strangers.
Hospitality is collecting canned goods for Manna Food Bank.
Hospitality is serving--on altar guild, as an usher,
as an acolyte, in the choir,
cleaning the church, sprucing up the grounds.

Welcoming people to St. John’s--
for worship or Fall Festival,
for a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous or ECW,
Coming together with other Episcopalians to build a Habitat house.
Taking time to listen to someone who is hurting.
Being patient with someone who is driving us crazy.

Hospitality is anything we do
to open our hearts more widely to God’s love
and to share that love with those around us.

A number of years ago,
when our daughter was still in high school
I made plans to attend a child advocacy conference
in Washington, DC.
I thought it might be interesting for our daughter to come with me.
Her school let her do a special project related to the conference
so she could have an excused absence and off we went.

We could not afford the conference hotel,
so we stayed at a hotel quite a distance away.
But the walk each morning was a wonderful time for us to talk
and to people-watch on the busy streets of the city.
Every evening, after the conference,
as we walked back to the hotel where we were staying,
we passed the same man in the same spot,
sitting on the sidewalk, asking for money.
He was scruffy looking--dirty, really--probably homeless.
My protective mother instinct surfaced quickly
and I instructed my daughter to just keep walking,
to quickly pass by,
to not look at the man or speak to him.

For a few days we did just that.
Then one day, after we passed the man,
my daughter began to cry.
And she said,
“I cannot stand to treat that man like he is invisible.
Can’t we at least say hello?

There are times when our children are our most profound teachers.

The next day we did just that--we stopped and spoke to the man.
We didn’t give him money.
We just stopped and said hello
and told him we hoped he had a good evening.

We spoke to him each day.
He began to wave at us when he saw us approaching on the sidewalk.

One evening we stopped and bought him a sandwich and a drink.
I’m sure he appreciated that (we all like to eat!)
but what he seemed to enjoy most
was just the few minutes of conversation we had each evening.

When I think back on that experience
I hear those words that Paul speaks to the Hebrews…
Let mutual love continue.

For it wasn’t just my daughter and I offering hospitality.
The man sitting on the sidewalk offered us hospitality in return.

Because we are all broken and poor in different ways.
Life is not always kind or gentle.

The good news is that God never leaves us or forsakes us.
However, the truth is
it sometimes feels that way.

That is where hospitality comes in--and where we come in.
To reach out to one another, with respect, with mutual love,
and to remind each other that we are all God’s beloved children.

There are always those who seem to offer little to us, to the world,
other than their need.
But each and every person brings something that is irreplaceable--
a unique way to see the face of Jesus in this world.

Throughout time,
painters and sculptors and film makers
and even greeting card makers,
have given us visual images of what Jesus looks like.

The truth is
we don’t know.
Cameras had not yet been invented
and there is no written physical description of Jesus anywhere.

Hospitality calls us to see the face of Jesus
in everyone we meet.
And to act accordingly with love.

Let mutual love continue.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that
some have entertained angels without knowing it.

1 comment:

Danby said...

Hi Jeanne, So glad you have started doing this. I'm really enjoying reading it. Also love the pictures. Maybe this will make keeping in touch a bit easier.
Love, Danby