17 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
For the past nine months, the Vestry, the governing body of our church, has been spending a lot of time talking about hospitality. Just last week, the subcommittee working on hospitality invited the rest of the parish into the conversation by holding the first of what will probably be several conversations about hospitality at St. Mary’s. Seventeen people showed up for that meeting on a Saturday morning. Clearly there is some good energy around here on the issue of hospitality.
When we talk about hospitality at St. Mary’s, we mean many different things. We might be referring to the hospitality to visitors who happen to be in town for a single Sunday and decided to come to St Mary’s for their weekly worship - maybe here for the game last night, or to drop their kids off at the University for the new semester, or for business, or just visiting the beautiful Willamette Valley on vacation. We might be referring to hospitality to newcomers, those folks that are looking for a church home, or perhaps they have made up their mind to start coming here, and are looking to get more connected. Hospitality to all of those folks might mean something slightly different. For instance, if you are here just for a week, you probably don’t need to know about all of the exciting ministries here at the church, you probably don’t need to start building deep friendships, and I would put good money on the fact that you probably don’t want a pledge packet to make a financial commitment to St. Mary’s for the coming year. But if you are looking to see if this is the right church home for you, or have committed to making this your church home and want to get more deeply involved, you are much more likely to want those things. When we talk about hospitality, we might also be referring to hospitality to our members. Just because someone has been going here for 2 years, 10 years, 50, 60, even 90-odd years as some of our parishioners have been, it does not mean that we should stop being hospitable to them.
And hospitality needs to look one way if we talking about someone coming from another Episcopal Church and already knows most all of our Episcopal lingo, or if we are talking about someone coming from a different denomination, or even more so for the person coming to church itself for the first time. Hospitality means one thing if we are talking about Sunday morning, and it means something completely different if we are talking about the other six days of the week, and being hospitable to the twelve-step groups that meet here, or numerous other community groups, or to the guests at our Saturday Breakfast, or the person who randomly stops by to see the place, to light a candle, or to ask for help.
Despite all of these differences in what we mean by hospitality and what the hospitality needs to look like, there is one commonality between them all: the question of why we are being hospitable in the first place. Why does hospitality even matter? We’re not trying to make money like the hospitality industry. We are not being hospitable just to be polite, though that is a good reason. No, as Christians, the answer actually goes much deeper: we need to be hospitable because in doing so, we encounter Christ. “Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” Every encounter we have, every opportunity that we have in which we welcome someone, we have the opportunity to encounter the divine by welcoming God through Jesus. This welcome cannot only be welcome in words, but welcome in acts - acts of kindness, acts of love, acts of mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
Diana Butler Bass, a contemporary religious scholar, puts it this way: Hospitality “stands at the heart of a Christian way of life, a living icon of wholeness in God.” An icon doesn’t represent the picture we see. An icon points to something larger than itself. An icon of a saint, for instance, doesn’t really show us a pretty picture of that saint, but rather points us toward God. So, the living icon of hospitality isn’t really about hospitality, but rather about pointing us toward God, toward the divine, toward the holy, and toward the healing and wholeness that we will find there.
Hospitality, therefore, is not just a business industry or a program of the church; hospitality needs to become a way of being for us in our pilgrimage through life in faith. We need to strive to have hospitality permeate our very way of being. Hospitality is a Christian practice that helps us grow in our faith - just as worship does, just as study and educational growth do, just as the sacraments do - by helping point us toward God, by helping us to encounter God. Jesus calls us time and again to grow ever deeper in our welcome, just as we have already been welcomed by him. Jesus invites us to grow ever deeper in our welcome to the stranger, so that we might just see Jesus.