August 20, 2012

Making Room: The Power of Biblical Hospitality


A few years ago, Lori and I visited a church in Lee’s Summit Missouri. It was a church plant that met in a local high school, and I wanted to see what they had going on. We pulled into the parking lot, and there were signs giving us direction, there were greeters at the door, the children’s ministry team was nice as we checked Bri into her classroom. But aside from the people who were assigned to welcome us...no one said, “Hello” until the official greeting time.

We were the only people sitting in the worship area, and one guy even walked by. I could see him glancing at us and you could see the internal wrestling as he asking himself, “Should I say something to them?” In the end, he just walked on by.

For awhile, I thought it must have just been that church. After visiting other churches through the years, though, I realize how often churches just aren’t welcoming places. They are extremely friendly if you manage to break through and enter the Circle of Trust...but getting there can be a hard road.

This morning we are starting a new series called Making Room. We are looking at what it means for us to Make Room for people in our church and in our lives. Today we are looking at the Biblical idea of hospitality.

We hear that word a bit nowadays. Janae, who runs our coffee bar, has a degree in Hospitality services. Hospitality services focus on casinos, hotels, resorts, and restaurants, and how they provide for their guest’s needs and help them feel welcomed.

When most of us think of hospitality we think of inviting friends over to our home, making them feel welcome, providing good food and drinks. It means having a nice, clean house that is presentable for guests. It means getting the drinks when they need more, and having enough food so no one goes home hungry. There is a lot wrapped up in our modern understanding of hospitality.

But the biblical understanding of hospitality is about far more than just having friends over for an evening or making someone feel welcomed.  

Romans 12:13, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

For the early church, hospitality was an important expression of loving your neighbor as yourself. It was a sacred process of 'receiving' people from the outside and changing them from strangers to guests. It is the root word in Hospital and Hospice, and the Church was the first organization to start hospitals and care for the dying.

One author writes, “Even a superficial review of the first seventeen centuries of church history reveals the importance of hospitality to the spread and credibility of the gospel, to transcending national and ethnic distinctions in the church, and to Christian care for the sick, strangers, and pilgrims.”

For us as Christian, this more than just a question of how we greet people when they enter the church or welcome people into our homes, though that is important to do. The real question is, Are we people who welcome the outsiders and through our expression of Christlike love change them from strangers to guests to friends? Maybe we ask the question this way, Would someone far from God want to know Jesus based on how you treat them?

True Biblical hospitality is a “taking in” of the stranger, the outsider...and that is a dangerous, messy thing. When we take someone into ourselves we risk the openness. Allowing them to get to know us and see us for who we really are. We risk getting to know them. People have some pretty dark corners in their lives, and relationships are messy.

In today’s heated church culture we risk having our demonstration of love and concern...our biblical act of hospitality...misunderstood by others. They took that person in? They are friends with a person who commits that sin? They allow that person in their home?

There are two biblical stories I want to rely on this morning. The first, from Genesis 18 may seem rather self-evident once we get started. The second from Luke 15, which we will use to close our time together, may not seem so obvious.

So turn in your phones with me to Genesis 18:1-10, and let’s read.
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant." 
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent, ” he said. 
Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Genesis 18 is considered the primary text for hospitality in the Bible. Theologians, pastors, and teachers have referred to this passage in their teaching of hospitality for centuries. This morning I want to break this scripture down and apply it to our lives with a series of questions.

The first question comes Genesis 18:2, “When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

Do we rush to meet the stranger?

This is more than an introvert vs. extrovert thing. Some people are naturally more shy than others. Some people are really good at making friends quickly. But this is about more than our ability to make friends.

The purpose of biblical hospitality is to help the stranger and outsider feel loved and accepted by us, and therefore by the God we represent. But if you are like me...there are certain kinds of people whom I would rather not be around. Sometimes it is because of how they act, things they say, the sins they commit. Sometimes I can’t even explain it, they just get on my last nerve. I find myself running away from them...not physically running away...but relationally running away and keeping my distance.

But God’s call to be a people of hospitality challenges me to submit those feelings to Him so they can be transformed...so I can truly love my neighbor as my self...not because of what they have done or not done...but because the Gospel has changed me into a person who stands with the same open arms of grace for whomever would come.

St. Benedict wrote a book of guidelines for those entering his monastery. He says, “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ...” Everyone who arrives should be treated as Christ!

God’s expectation that we love our neighbor as ourselves does not rest on the other person...it rests on us. God doesn’t say love your neighbor as long as they respect you. He doesn’t say love your neighbor as long as they don’t commit those sins. He doesn’t say love your neighbor as long as you agree with them. He says, simply, love your neighbor.

Our second question comes from Genesis 18:3-4, “He said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.’”

Do we make them feel at home?

Karen Main wrote a book about hospitality called, "Open Heart, Open Home.”

“We think in terms of entertaining as a...chance to demonstrate [the] skill and the quality of [a] home, when actually entertaining has little to do with real hospitality. Entertaining says, "I want to impress you with my beautiful home, my clever decorating, my gourmet cooking." Hospitality, however, seeks to minister. It says, "This home is not mine. It is truly a gift from my Master. I am His servant, and I use it as He desires." Hospitality does not try to impress, but to serve. 
Entertaining always puts things before people. "As soon as I get the house finished, the living room decorated, my place settings complete, my housework done - then I will start having people in." Hospitality, however, puts people before things. "We have no furniture; we'll eat on the floor." "The decorating may never get done. Please come just the same." 
Because we are afraid to allow people to see us as we really are, we welcome the false ideal of entertaining. To perpetuate the illusion we must pretend we love housework, we never put our hair in rollers, our children are so well disciplined that they always pick up their toys. We must hint broadly that we manage our busy lives without difficulty. Working hard to keep people from recognizing our weak points, we also prevent them from loving us in our weakness. 
Entertaining subtly declares, "This is mine -- these rooms, these adornments. These are an expression of my personality. It is an extension of who and what I am. Look, please and admire." Hospitality whispers, "What is mine is yours."
Hospitality is about welcoming the stranger and outsider into who we are as people...warts and all. It invites them in with all their baggage and sin and problems as well. It is so easy to get caught up in hiding our flaws and protecting ourselves that we never develop genuinely close friendships.

Jesus was attending a dinner party at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. When Martha complained that Mary was not helping, Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42

It is so easy to get distracted with all the preparations and things going on we forget what is most important. If we take biblical hospitality seriously...the most important thing is how we welcome and love the stranger and outsider.

Our third question comes from Genesis 18:6-8
“So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.’

“Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”

Do we offer them our best?

In the Bible, a person’s capacity for generosity is closely linked with their fulfillment of hospitality. Abraham gathered the finest flour and the choice calf from his herd. He recognized these guests as deserving of his very best.

This may seem to contradict the last point about welcoming people and not being focused on outward appearance. I’m certainly wasn’t saying we should not clean our houses, but we do need to keep it in perspective. Developing friendships is far more important than whether our house is clean or not.

But here, demonstrating biblical hospitality means offering our very best to the stranger and outsider. It means we have developed a generous lifestyle that recognizes all we have ultimately comes from God.

Tithing is asked of Israel and the church not because God needs our money, but as a joyous recognition that all we have has come from Him. We learn to hold it loosely, and use it for God’s purposes.

When we engage in biblical hospitality we offer our very best to others. When we serve the homeless we serve them with our best and not with the leftover cans of food no one in our household will eat. When we as a church give away bottles of water...we give away good bottles of water.

We give our very best to others because God set the example and gave his very best for us.

Our fourth question comes from Genesis 18:9-10, ““Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent, ” he said. Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Do we allow them to bless us?

In the Biblical culture, hospitality was necessary. People lived and camped near the food and water sources. A traveler was dependent upon the kindness of those living near these places. But it wasn’t just the traveler who was to benefit. In the Bedouin culture a host considered himself “blessed by the guests.”

Every year hundreds of thousands of people go on mission trips to various parts of the world. There is one thing most return saying, “I was more blessed than they were!”

Something happens when we give generously to those whom we don’t know...those who don’t deserve it...those who may even reject it. What happens is God has a chance to work in us in the doing. Hospitality addresses the physical needs of food, shelter, and protection for others. But hospitality also affirms the high worth everyone involved.

We cut that short if we don’t allow ourselves to be blessed by the other person. It is so easy as a Christian to carry an air of superiority. I have the truth, and you don’t. I am living right, and you are not. I have everything together and a job, and you don’t.

True Biblical hospitality recognizes that both the host and hosted have a blessing to give.

Conclusion
That brings us to our last Scripture Passage in Luke 15.

Jesus tells a story that many of us are familiar with. A man’s youngest son comes to him demanding his portion of the inheritance, and then runs away to a far off land where he squanders it in wild living. A few years down the road, broke and starving, the young man returns home hoping to be accepted back as a servant in the Father’s Home.

Luke 15:20-24 says,
So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

We see the same things here as we saw with Abraham. The Fathers runs to meet the wayward sun, he makes him feel at home, he offers him the best he has, and is blessed by his return.

One of the biggest lies going around the church today is that to love someone means you agree with and accept everything they do. The second biggest lie is that God’s command for us to love our neighbor is somehow dependent on what that person does or does not do.

Both of these are the sin of the Older Brother in this story who cannot imagine the lavish love of his father extending to this wayward, horrible younger brother.

And the challenge of this story is that we often find ourselves in one of these two characters...the younger brother who squandered everything the Father gives us or the older brother who does not fully understand what it means to be a son and resents the Father’s welcome of the wayward son...and that is power of hospitality.

We have experienced in God’s response to us the power of Biblical Hospitality..and our call is to share that with others.

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