August 19, 2018
William G. Carter
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Some years ago, my wife and I landed on the mystical island of Iona. Located off the western coast of Scotland, the small island has an abbey that traces its roots back to the sixth century. The abbey has been rebuilt over the last eighty years, and it now serves as a center for spiritual retreats.
We arrived on an August afternoon in time for the evening worship service. Taking our seats in the ancient stone sanctuary, we discovered we were in the midst of a Christian youth conference. There were people in their teens and early twenties who gathered there from across Europe, and they had planned the vespers.
“We welcome you in the name of Jesus the Christ,” said the youthful leader, announcing the theme of the worship service was hospitality. “But rather than make this a theoretical concept,” she said, “we would like you to stand up, find somebody that you do not know, and go sit with that person through the rest of the service.” To my astonishment, everybody did.
On a sparsely populated winter Sunday in my own congregation, I can’t people to move three rows forward, much less sit with people they do not know. I’ve invited, begged, cajoled, even bargained to shorten the sermon, but with no result. Folks settle back, fasten the seatbelts in their favorite pews, and fold their arms, as if to say, “You’re never going to get us to move.”
But here was the miracle on a mystical Scottish island: people got up, introduced themselves to strangers they had never met, and then moved somewhere else to sit together for the rest of a worship service. Can you possibly imagine something like that? It was a miracle, a miracle of Christian hospitality.
I wonder why this has to be a miracle, and not a regular practice. Perhaps if we go to a church on a regular basis, we begin to stake out a place we can call our own. Maybe we like the freedom of sitting near an aisle, or the comfort of dwelling within the pack. If we perceive ourselves to be outsiders or even observers, we might sit near the back. If we aren’t concerned with what anybody thinks of us, maybe we march down front where we sing as loud as we want.
Just last Thursday, I met with the leaders of a congregation where the pastor has announced his retirement. As we were getting acquainted, one of the elderly women reminded everybody that she had a favorite pew. “Not only that,” she said, “it’s my pew, because it was my mother’s pew. Even though she’s been long gone, it feels like she is still here somehow as long as I can sit in my own family pew.” Curiously enough, or perhaps not so curiously, her congregation has only about a dozen people sitting in any of the pews these days. There is no credible threat that anybody will ever steal her seat, but there is the real possibility that, unchecked, her congregation could implode and disappear.
This is a sermon about hospitality. Hospitality is the opposite of guarding your own turf. Hospitality is making room for others. As the spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen said so well, hospitality is “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” To be hospitable is to create that space, to make room for strangers. It is an intentional act of welcome, not merely a concept we think about but an act that we do.
Pause for a minute and remember the last time when somebody was hospitable to you. What happened? How did it feel?
A good friend noted many years ago, “Churches can learn a lot about hospitality if they pay attention to good restaurants.” A thriving restaurant is always expecting new people. Strangers are warmly greeted, even directed toward a good seat. Fresh drink and warm bread are offered before the newcomers even ask. Questions are answered, no matter how apparently small or trivial. There was nothing that intentionally excludes, no insider jargon, no assigned seats, no dress code nor inappropriate demand. It’s as if they are expecting you to come, and glad when you do. That’s how a restaurant does it. And if the food is tasty and nutritious, there is a good chance the visitors will return.
This is more than friendliness. Most congregations regard themselves as friendly. They say, “We are a friendly church.” To translate: some of us have been here forever, and we greet the others who have been here forever, and some of us have even gotten to be friends. That’s a very different thing than creating space for somebody you do not know.
Hospitality originates in an open heart. That is why it is difficult – if we do not know the stranger, we might grow fearful of the stranger. But to have an open heart, to welcome someone with an open heart, is to take a significant risk: that stranger might change me! The stranger may have different view on matters that seemed settled, and that pushes me to enlarge my understanding. They could have significant needs, and that challenges me to care more deeply. They may come from a set of different life experiences, which presses me beyond my assumptions and privileges.
As Henri Nouwen writes, “If we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us.” Not merely to the stranger, but to us, for all of us, in some sense, are strangers too. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus, who is also a stranger, comes to us. He comes with a challenging voice, a fierce clarity, and a grace that sounds unbelievable. His love comes with a surgical precision that can heal the hurts that we have quickly dismissed and covered over.
So, I take Father Nouwen to say if there will be salvation, redemption, healing and new life, they will come by welcoming Christ the Stranger, the unexpected one, who brings us the power of God. And one of the specific ways we welcome Christ and God is by welcoming the stranger that he sends to us.
This is a challenge. Some of us remember the voices of our parents: don’t talk to strangers, don’t make eye contact with people you don’t know, don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable in any way, for “stranger” rhymes with “danger.” To make room for a stranger can feel like a threat, and many prefer to build walls, wire up security systems, and put more police on their block. They would rather live in fear than freedom. They prefer isolation to authentic human community.
Yet sometimes, like Jesus, the Stranger comes anyway. My mother, for instance, often warned us not to talk to outsiders. But my mother also liked having a full house. Four children weren’t enough, so we found ourselves opening our home to exchange students. Over the years, there were seventeen different exchange students, living with us from two weeks to a full year. When I would go home during college breaks, there would be somebody different sleeping in my bedroom. I was exiled to a cot in the basement to make room for the mayor’s daughter from Ecuador, the shy scientist from Tokyo, the perky blonde from Stockholm, or the industrialist’s son from Berlin. When they were in our home, they were treated like sons and daughters. It was an important lesson for me to ponder on my basement cot, and in time I came to embrace it.
As I grew up and began to study the New Testament, I came to understand the profound truth at the heart of all Christian faith: that all of us are guests at God’s table. None of us own the church; it is God’s church. None of us can stake a claim on any of these pews; they are God’s pews. Since all us are guests, we are called to make room for all the other guests, to welcome them as they are, not as we prefer them to be. In the incredible hospitality of God, we are not only welcomed ourselves – we are cracked open, released from our self-defined isolation, and brought into the presence of others who could benefit from the same truth and grace that God has offered to us.
As I said, this lies at the very heart of the Gospel. The apostle Paul said as much to a congregation of people in Rome that he had never met: “Welcome one another, just as Christ as welcomed you, for the glory of God.” It’s not merely good advice for a friendly bunch of Christians. This is the clear reminder that God’s glory is revealed among a group of people who make room for one another. We are more than names on a stick-on nametag. Each of us is a living story, a breathing soul, hungry for the kind of love that takes us seriously.
It can happen, and among those who are spiritually alert, it does happen. At a recent gathering of folks who are interested in joining our congregation, one of the people had the courage to confess she didn’t know very many people in our church or our town. It took a lot of courage to say that out loud, in a room of strangers. Next thing we knew, the newcomer sitting next to her invited her to her home that afternoon, and I’m sure there were some fresh-baked cookies when she arrived!
This is how God is glorified: people make room for one another. It’s called hospitality. We may think we are offering it to somebody else, but we are the ones who will be changed. The truth is all of us are guests at God’s table. Hospitality is one guest making room for another guest.
I remember the miracle of that evening on the mystical island of Iona. There we were, my wife and I, strangers in a room of strangers. We were each invited to sit with other strangers around us. She struck up a short conversation with an engineering student from Manchester, I met a young architect from Belgium, and all of us worshiped together. We sang to a God who gathers us in, prayed to a Savior who loves us all, and gave our offerings to the Spirit who nudges us beyond our tendencies to stick to ourselves.
There is Gospel in such a moment. Jesus says to all his strangers, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Lest we think that life and faith and church are primarily about what we do, what we believe, and whom we reach out to welcome, Jesus turns it inside out. Life, faith, and church are also about who reaches us, who welcomes us, whose lives are affected because of us.
This, too, is the work of Christ extended beyond us, ever enlarging the circle, whether it’s offering a cold cup of water to those who thirst, learning the name and life story of the person in the next pew, or finding a home for an immigrant family from another country. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” he says. He means it.
In fact, near the end of his time among us, Jesus told a true story about the future. He said the day will come when all truth will be revealed, and all people will be sorted. The single question at the heart of God’s judgment is whether we have opened our hearts to the people around us. Or as Jesus will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (25:35). Everybody will be astonished, he says, and every single person will ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?”
Remember what he says? “Truly I tell you, just as you welcome one of the least of these, members of my family, you did it to me.
This is important stuff. It is so important that, very early in Christian history, a group of monks agreed that whenever a guest came to their monastery, they would open the door and say, “Welcome, Christ!” They did not want to miss the opportunity. As St. Benedict wrote in his rule of faith, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53)
One time, I checked into a monastery for a few days of prayer and study. As I signed the guest register, the guest master actually said it out loud, “Welcome, Christ!” I looked from signing my name and said, “Better safe than sorry?”
He smiled and replied, “Better to be open-hearted than shriveled up.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Henri J. M Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image Books, 1975) p. 71.
 Ibid, p. 76