The Hospitality Ethic

Passage: Romans 12:9-21
Date: September 10, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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We had some friends over for dinner on Monday night, and we sat down and I lifted my fork and took a bite. Our friends, who are not churchgoers, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “Aren’t we going to say grace?” they asked. So Gregg said one of his wonderful Gregg prayers, and then we ate food that had actually been blessed.

These are pretty good friends of ours but I was still surprised that they wanted to say grace. Of course, this was at the end of a hard weekend as we watched the gorge burn, even while we saw images of horrific floods near and far and watched the path of yet another hurricane. Maybe grace was something they could hold fast to.

Ever since moving to Portland, I’ve thought a lot about what the church has to offer the world, or the neighborhood, that no one else or nothing else can. There are some things that leap to mind – a true intergenerational community; the opportunity to gather every week and be reminded that we are loved and that we are to go out and love; some inspiration in the form of music and prayer; opportunities to volunteer and serve here and throughout the world.

If tomorrow we woke up and there were no churches anywhere anymore (or synagogues or mosques or temples) our society would be bereft of food banks and clothing closets, of places for twelve-step groups to meet, void of preschools and daycares and adult day cares, missing day shelters and overnight shelters for those without a home. If we woke up tomorrow and there were no churches (or synagogues or mosques or temples) there would be so much less music and much less beauty.

But I want to go deeper than that, although all those things are important and true. So we have to go back a few thousand years, to those first few decades of this new thing called church, and Paul helps us a little as we gather some understanding of this church in Rome that he wrote to.

When Paul wrote this letter to the Christian community in Rome, he wrote to a community that had somehow heard about Jesus – though not from Paul himself. It was a community made up of both Jews, who had been tolerated in Rome, and Gentiles, that is, non-Jews who were intrigued or inspired by the message of Jesus. These people gathered in each other’s homes, not in one sanctuary. And they still weren’t in agreement about who could be a Christian, whether you had to be a Jew or whether you didn’t have to.

So Paul writes this letter to people he’s never met, to people who meet in each other’s homes, to people who come from all walks of life, to people who aren’t sure if Caesar and those in power will tolerate them. The Letter to the Romans is a reminder of the grounding the new church has in the ethics and stories of Judaism, as well as instruction about how to live together in a community that gathers around Jesus.

By the time we get to chapter 12, Paul is dispensing very practical advice and doing that quite succinctly. As we continue a little sermon series on this passage, today we focus on two more phrases: contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. For Paul, the saints would mean the Christian community; strangers were everyone else.

What do we think “the church” is today? Is it all Christians? Is it all Presbyterians? Is it the folks who are a part of our Westminster community? If we going to understand who the saints are, and then who the strangers are, we need to understand who the church is.

Let me make things simple. For today, for this one sermon, let’s say that the church is the Westminster community, folks who have membership numbers and folks who don’t, folks who show up for worship and folks who show up for other things, folks who believe in the full humanity and divinity of Jesus and folks who aren’t sure they believe in God.

If that’s the church, then we are the saints. Look around at each other. You are sitting among the holy. The person who forgot to turn off their phone? A saint. The child who is bored out of her mind? A saint. The person behind you who sings in harmony on the hymns? A saint. The usher who handed you a bulletin, the person up in the balcony running the sound system, the volunteer who stuffed the bulletins, the van drivers and the Street Roots vendor and the coffee-hour hosts – saints, all of them.

And we are invited to contribute to their needs. Now I will admit to you that sometimes need feels like a bottomless bucket, and contributing to someone’s needs makes me a bit hesitant. That doesn’t let me off the hook.

What are our needs? What are the needs of the community? After this week, after fire and flood and earthquake, I think we need some hope. I think we need to thank firefighters and first responders and brave and selfless generous people. I think we need to encourage and confront each other to be really, really generous. I think we need to check our desire for vengeance for that teenager who allegedly started the Eagle Creek fire.

But more tangibly, some of our saints need friendship. Some of our saints need to find a more affordable place to live. Some of our saints need to be invited over for dinner. Some of our saints need a babysitter and a night out. Some of our saints need a job. Some of our saints need to be prayed with and for. Some of our saints need to be thanked. Some of our saints need to be reminded that they are saints and beloved and valued children of God.

But I’m not sure that the strangers need to be reminded they are strangers. They know. They get treated differently, often treated as though they are lesser human beings, not beloved or valued.

I wish the world were not divided into saints and strangers but I think that’s part of the human condition. Something I found pretty interesting in studying verse 13 in today’s scripture passage is its translation. The second phrase, translated “extend hospitality to strangers” is actually only three Greek words: ton philozenian diokontes, which translated literally is “the hospitality pursuing” or “the hospitality practicing.” There’s no word for “stranger” in the phrase. I’ve been mulling over that for days now. I think I have an answer, though it may be the wrong one.

The recipient of hospitality is always the stranger; that’s how people of faith are called to deal with the stranger, by pursuing hospitality. Does that make sense? To use grammatical terms, there is always an object to giving hospitality, and the object of the verb is always the stranger. But maybe by pursuing hospitality to strangers, we make them saints. What a cool, holy calling that is, saint-making.

But if you think about it for even more than a minute, it gets overwhelming because the stranger is everyone who isn’t a part of us, and that’s a lot of hospitality to practice. And what exactly does Paul mean by hospitality?

I will get to that in a minute, but I have a hunch that Paul knew that this fledgling church he was working so hard to get off the ground would shrink into oblivion if it didn’t practice hospitality to strangers. Without knowing all the biology we know today, Paul knew that any community would become ingrown and stale if it wasn’t constantly inviting fresh ideas and new and different people into its midst.

That’s one of the great themes in literature – the stranger came to town; the stranger came to church; the stranger moved next door; the stranger came to our country. If you’ve ever been that stranger, you know how hard it can be, or how exciting it can be when someone is truly glad you have come.

For the rest of us, for us saints, for us insiders, we have choices about how we will practice hospitality to those who aren’t us. Dorothy Day reminds us of how this used to be done. “A custom existed among the first generations of Christians, when faith was a bright fire that warmed more than those who kept it burning. In every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called “the stranger’s room.” Not because these people thought they could trace something of someone they loved in the stranger who used it, not because the man or woman to whom they gave shelter reminded them of Christ, but because—plain and simple and stupendous fact—he or she was Christ.”

Where is Christ appearing in the disguise of a stranger today? Is it the person who is worshiping with us for the first time? Is it the person sitting at the intersection with a sign asking for money? Is it that DREAMER young adult, terrified of being sent back to a country they do not call home? Is it the special-needs kid at school, overwhelmed by so much? Is it the man in the turban or yarmulke, or the woman wearing the hijab?

As I said earlier, Paul is pretty direct in this passage about how we are supposed to live. And I have no idea what will happen if we don’t follow his suggestions, or Jesus’ commandment or the beatitudes. I don’t know if at the end, we’ll stand at the proverbial pearly gates and be told that we failed miserably, or that we completely misunderstood the message, or that we didn’t do anything we were supposed to and that’s okay, or if we’ll have to go to some kind of hell or some kind of purgatory or if we’ll all go to heaven, literally or figuratively.

I don’t know what the long-term consequences might be of paying no attention to these words of Paul. But short-term, and in this life, I think living apart from these encouragements will lessen life a little, our life and the lives of others. We’ll be less rich, and less interesting, less beautiful.

At the beginning of the sermon I said I was wondering what unique thing the church had to offer the world. Maybe it’s this: the continual encouragement to be our best, most gracious, most hospitable and most generous selves. The continual encouragement to see Christ everywhere. The continual encouragement to be Christ’s hands and feet.

Let us live well.