Hospitality Throughout Hotel Earth

A sermon based on John 2:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 20, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Over the years I have read a number of books and articles and even studied in seminary about ways to welcome visitors to church. The books and classes and studies show what probably will sound obvious, that visitors, like members, ought to feel welcome and that they matter, friendliness and kindness– hospitality– needs to be provided.

That needs to be a part of the church experience in general for everyone, but especially the first visit. Studies show too that many churches do not always do a good job of truly making visitors feel welcome and that they matter. Consequently churches lose the chance to help someone on their quest to find a welcoming church, a place where they matter and possibly even find a loving Way to God, that churches– including ours– talk about and try to follow.

It’s not that most churches and its members don’t want to be welcoming. It is that people already inside do not always make sure to extend the welcome, usually because they do not want to bother the visitor or seem like a pushy religious person, or think someone else in church got to it, like a greeter or usher or minister. Greeters and ushers and ministers tend to be great at trying to welcome folks at the doors, but they do not always get to everyone. Plus once folks are in, they still need hospitality throughout the visit
And hospitality is not just the ushers, greeters or ministers’ job. The truth is, Biblically, hospitality (friendliness and kindness) is everyone’s duty. Christians need to think of hospitality for strangers as being akin to hospitality we’d offer to a welcomed visitor to our home. I doubt there are many churchgoers who would not talk to a visitor in their home for any of the reasons I mentioned most especially, leaving it up to someone else. Most in our culture as a whole would make sure to check in on the comfort of a visitor to their home.

We do that sort of welcoming at home without overwhelming guests. Greetings are expected by visitors in the home. We even expect greetings in businesses. Right? Hospitality – friendliness and kindness– to new people matters in the culture at home and in businesses – and it matters in church. We can probably all appreciate that, and I would hope go out of our way to make efforts to welcome folks.
And actually providing hospitality should not just occur in our homes and churches and businesses. The truth is that, Biblically, hospitality is not just everyone’ duty, but due to everyone, everywhere we go. We are to give hospitality to everyone everywhere. In our Lectionary text today Jesus provides an excellent example of this with his first miracle. He makes wine at a wedding. It’s not Jesus’ wedding. It’s not even one of his followers getting married. He’s just one of many guests. But Jesus takes the time and energy to provide hospitality to everyone– even when he is a guest. It is quite telling that in his first miracle Jesus did not cure a physical health issue, he cured a hospitality issue. If we think about it, Jesus can be heard to do that with everyone everywhere in the Gospels. Right? He provides hospitality to those others might not welcome. He is friendly and kind to all manner of outcasts, criminals, aliens, those who are diseased, the mentally ill, those other faiths, other races, and other genders. Jesus models extravagant hospitality.

And Jesus is not supposed to be the only one who provides extravagant hospitality to everyone everywhere. Jesus’ followers are supposed to do that too! Theologically and Biblically speaking God put human’s in change of managing what we might call Hotel Earth. We are God’s agents at God’s Hotel, consequently everywhere we go we are expected to be caretakers of God’s creation. This includes treating strangers to hospitality– friendliness and kindness. Like at a wedding, getting all the guests wine when theirs runs out– and the best wine at that! Each human guest on earth we encounter is due friendliness and kindness, and a seeing to their well being while at Hotel Earth. We can hear Jesus’ mother, Mary, in the reading as symbolizing God’s call to the Christ within to provide extraordinary hospitality to all the guests. Which Jesus the Christ does.

Extraordinary hospitality IS a main theme in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The Bible is full of stories reminding God’s people to provide hospitality to others. Repeatedly we are taught the lesson that strangers are to be welcomed, not just in Sacred gatherings like this worship service, or at the homestead, but out in the community and well beyond. Their well being is to be attended to everywhere. We see this in the famous story in Genesis 18 when three strangers show up where Abraham and Sarah have pitched their tent. The strangers turn out to be angels and the hospitality Abraham and Sarah provide has ripple effects that lead to the formation of a faith that changes the world. In the New Testament, at Hebrews 13 (1-2), that Genesis moral is echoed in this instruction: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Elsewhere the Bible stretches the notion of hospitality for strangers to its fullest extent, beyond homesteads and places of worship out into the entire homeland. We are commanded to treat strangers residing throughout the homeland as if they are not strangers. And what’s more we are commanded to love them as we love our self. Leviticus 19 (33-34) long ago made this crystal clear command:

you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself . . .

Jesus himself takes it up another notch in Matthew 25 where he teaches we are to treat strangers as if they are Christ, because they are images of God. It is the you-may-be-entertaining-angels idea amped up to you ARE entertaining God incarnate (Christ) in everyone at Hotel Earth. In Matthew 25 which I will read at the end of this sermon, Jesus teaches that when we welcome a stranger we are welcoming Christ.
The Apostle Paul can be heard to continue this Christ is in everyone idea. In Colossians 3 (11) he writes:

[T]here is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (syth-ean), slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

I have chosen that quote from Colossians to read this afternoon at the Martin Luther King Service we are hopefully hosting (if the icy roads get better!). The topic is “God and Martin Luther King, Jr. on Welcoming the Stranger.” A number of people from different faith traditions will address what this means to them. Some of us were invited to pair quotes on the topic from Dr. King and our faith tradition. Jene, Robin, Sandy, Anna and I are among them. I have paired the quote from Colossians I just read with this quote from Dr. King:

Through our scientific genius we have made of a world a neighborhood: now through our moral and spiritual genius we must make of it a brotherhood . . . Centuries ago civilization acquired the certain knowledge that man has emerged from barbarity (bar-bear-ity) only to the degree that he recognized his relatedness to his fellow man.

In the male centered language of his era Rev. Dr. King is telling us everyone– male and female – is related. In the male -centered language of his day Jesus has us call God “Father” and claims God as Father makes us all brothers and sisters. Paul claims we are related too. The point of Jesus, Paul and Rev Dr. King is we are we are all family and need to act like it. Everyone has Christ within. Consequently we are called to welcome Christ in every stranger as we would welcome family– as we would welcome God incarnate – Christ. That means hospitality is due to Christ in everyone, everywhere It does not matter if the stranger is sick, poor, imprisoned, alien, Male, Female, Old, Young, Democrat, Republican, rich, of another faith, other-abled, LGBTQ, Straight, Red, Yellow, Black or White, they are all supposed to be as precious in our sight, as they are in God’s sight.

The challenge for us all – certainly including me – is to ask ourselves are we doing our best to individually and collectively offer hospitality to every stranger on Hotel Earth? If not, why not? Is it because we are sure will not encounter angels without knowing it? Is it because we do not think commands to treat resident aliens as citizens and love them, apply anymore? Is it because Paul is wrong, that there still are “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” and Christ is not all of us or not in all of us? Did Dr. King get it wrong, we are not all related and we have no duty to make a family of humankind? Or is it Jesus who has it wrong? That really, we ought not to welcome Christ in strangers? Or do we simply decide that there is not much to gain by it, so why should it matter to us to tend to others?

As I said I am closing with Jesus’ story of hospitality in Matthew which sets out what we are to do and what we gain or lose by how we do it. We hear these verses in worship a lot, because they apply to us and this age more, perhaps than ever before– because as Rev. Dr. King noted “we have made of the world a neighborhood: now . . . we must make of it a brotherhood . . .” (and we can fairly add: “a sisterhood”).

Here are Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 verses 31-46 (NRSV):

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The words of Jesus for the world. May we as Jesus’ Followers take them to heart.