Dusting Off Radical Hospitality

Sermon Preached on Advent 2A at
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” These words from Paul’s letter to the Romans seem so simple, so straightforward, so obvious, that it may seem odd that I want to focus on them this morning. And yet, there are many ways in which we can show welcome or lack of welcome to another and some of them more subtle than others. Welcome involves more than just greeting a newcomer at the door, for example – though, to be sure, that is important. Welcome is about more than inviting a new person to join us for an upcoming dinner, Bible study, or other event – though, again, this is important. Showing welcome is about a way of being in the world and in our church. A few years ago, I kept encountering the phrase “radical hospitality” and it was used to express the type of welcoming that Christian congregations are called to share. I haven’t heard that phrase in a while, but I am more and more convinced that we need to dig it out, dust it off, and try it on again.

The word ‘radical’ suggests an action that is extreme or revolutionary, a bold step that goes well beyond the ordinary and expected. And ‘hospitality,’ – well, we all know what that means; it is simply another way of saying ‘welcoming.’ But note that in the word ‘hospitality’ there is no qualification. We are not being invited to welcome only those who are like us or those with whom we agree. We are not being invited to welcome only those who are the same age as we are or those who have the same amount of information and knowledge as we do. No, there is no qualifier on the word hospitality. Now Paul uses the word “welcome” and he does qualify that word. The early Christians in Rome was being invited by Paul to “welcome one another . . . just as Christ has welcomed you.” There’s the qualifier: to welcome as Christ welcomes. Talk about radical hospitality! Because who are some of the people that Christ welcomes? Sinners, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the lame, the paralyzed, the lepers, and the list goes on and on. All are welcomed by Christ “for the glory of God” and that is the kind of welcome – the kind of hospitality which we are invited to extend.

Consider John the Baptist. In the reading from Matthew he is described as one who “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” This description is that of a vagrant – a wild man. Even the food he ate – locusts and wild honey – are the foods of the poorest people – of the vagabonds wandering in the desert. That remains true even today. In parts of Nigeria, for example, where local crops have been devastated for the past several years by the locusts, the locusts themselves have become a major part of the daily diet. They are typically fried in oil and served up with a side of hot chili powder as a dish called, “desert shrimp”.[1] So John the Baptist, a poor man in the wilderness, is the one God chooses to announce the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, the man whose very ministry will involve showing hospitality to all people, but especially to social outcasts – those who had experienced the least hospitality – the coming of Jesus is first proclaimed by such an outcast, John the Baptist.

This is no coincidence. Scripture – both the Old and the New Testaments – are filled with descriptions of hospitality and its importance. In Deuteronomy we read, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[2] In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” and “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[3] And, in the book of Hebrews, we find, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[4] Time and again, Scripture reminds us of our responsibility to show hospitality and gives us story after story of Jesus stretching the boundaries of acceptable behavior by persistently inviting into his circle those that have been cast aside by others in society.[5] “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Now at this point I feel a need to emphasize that last bit of that command from Paul’s letter to the Romans: this is done “for the glory of God.” We are not interested in being welcoming so that we can get more people in the pews. We are not interested in being welcoming so that we can get more money in the offering plate. We are not interested in being welcoming so that we can be the most popular church in town. No, welcoming is core to who we are as Christians. The church is the Body of Christ and each of us are members of that Body. And the mission of the Church – and this comes right out of the catechism at the back of the prayer books – “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[6] As a church, as the Body of Christ in the world, we have a mission to bring people into relationship with God through Christ. Welcoming and hospitality are about God, not about us. And welcoming and hospitality are our responsibility, our calling, from God.

So, what might our own efforts at radical hospitality look like? First, we need to continue doing those things that we already do – welcoming new comers when they come to worship with us and inviting them to join in upcoming events and activities of the church. But this is not extraordinary hospitality; this is not radical hospitality. For our hospitality, our welcoming, to be radical, we have to do more. Robert Schnase, a bishop in the United Methodist Church includes a chapter on radical hospitality in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. After reading it this week, here are just a couple of suggestions that I think we can implement at St. Barnabas without a great deal of difficulty – but it will only work if we all work together:
  • Don’t wait for people to come to us; instead, go out and invite them to join us. Oftentimes, church folks like to think this is the primary responsibility of the priest. But I’m here to tell you that I don’t know nearly the number of people outside of the church as you all do . Why? Because I spend the majority of my time inside the church. You, on the other hand, interact with people all the time who are outside the church – they are your neighbors, your colleagues at work, your friends at the community center. When is the last time you told them about your church? You’ve told them about great movies, about books you’ve enjoyed, about stores you like to shop at, and restaurants you like to eat at. Now, just go a step further and tell them about the church you like to pray at. At this fall’s convocation, Bishop Councell and his staff gave us four simple words to use to start those conversations: “I love my church.” Imagine who could be served if each one of us, this week, used those four words on one person – “I love my church.” If they look at you cross-eyed, move on. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll ask you why and then you’ll have an opportunity to tell them about the way in which God is working through you and the other members at St. Barnabas to do a new thing in the world.
  • Here’s another one: when someone new comes into the church, make a point to find out their name and then, if you see that they haven’t had a chance to meet a vestry member or myself, walk them over to one of us and introduce them by name. While you’re at it, try to see our church through their eyes. What questions are they asking? What things are so obvious to us as “insiders” that it never occurs to us that it might make no sense at all to someone new. The BCP, the ECW, narthex, the what? Let’s all work together to avoid using jargon when we talk about our church. The prayer book – its black, the women’s group, the back of the church – now doesn’t that make a lot more sense to someone who is new?

Two simple ideas: first, tell one person this week that you love your church and second, look at the church and everything about it through the eyes of a newcomer. To be sure, this is only a beginning, but it’s a very good place to start. Radical hospitality – “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

[1] Senan Murray, “In Pictures: Desert Shrimps,” BBC News accessed online on December 6, 2007.
[2] Deuteronomy 10:19.
[3] Matthew 25:35, 40.
[4] Hebrews 13:2.
[5] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, (Abingdon Press, 2007), p. 13.
[6] BCP, 855.


liz said…
I love this, especially the part about John the Baptist being a homeless person!
Anonymous said…
Great insights. I hope the book, Five Practices, proved helpful. Blessings to you in your ministry.
Robert Schnase