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A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian on 
January 19, 2020.

THE PRACTICE OF HOSPITALITY

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.    Hebrews 13:2

        On the Church calendar, today is the second Sunday in Ordinary Time.  For me it is nice to return to Ordinary Time.  The last month and a half have been full of special Sundays.  We have enjoyed many exceptional services - music, pageants, Christmas Eve, stars and last Sunday’s reflection of Baptism.   Ann Marie Crego helped make the Sanctuary both beautiful and reflected our Advent/Christmas focus on Joseph.  Sue Zografos arranged the chancel last week to remind us of various aspects of the water used in baptism.

        Today we return to Ordinary time, no special decorations or liturgies.  For me there is some comfort in the normal pattern of worship.  In like manner we return to our two yearlong series called “A New Apologetics.”  In the fall of 2018 we look at obstacles to faith.  Last spring we explored those things that attract us to faith.  Last fall, we started a series on practices that help us grow into the men and women God is calling us to be.

This week we focus on a Christian practice called Hospitality.  If you had told me when I graduated from Seminary that I would ever preach a sermon on the importance of hospitality I would have thought you were crazy.  The idea that hospitality was an important Christian value or practice was not something I had ever been taught.

Yet over the last thirty years through Biblical Study and theological reflection, Christians have a growing appreciation of the importance of hospitality being a core Christian practice.  In fact during much of Christian history hospitality was the first step in the process of evangelism.  So often in more recent Christian history people were told the story of Jesus and asked to make a confession of faith and then invited into the Christian community.  In the early Church we learn they showed hospitality and invited people into the community first.  Then they shared they faith. 

The dictionary tells us that hospitality is the friendly reception and treatment of guests and strangers.  One of the ways that you and I can obey Christ's command to love our neighbors as ourselves is by practicing hospitality.
 
Why is hospitality something that is to be valued by followers of Jesus?  

First of all it is the right thing to do. It is important for us to treat others with dignity and respect.  Most of us have at one time or another experienced being a stranger.  We may have started going to a new school. We may have joined the military. We may have taken a job in a new city.  We may have joined a new club.  There are a whole host of times that we are strangers.  

We know that how people treat us really makes a difference to us.  When the new neighbor brings over a pie when the moving van leaves, when a fellow student invites us to eat lunch with them, it makes us feel wanted, loved and more comfortable.

People involved in learning how churches grow have made intensive studies of the reactions of new comers to congregations.  One of the most interesting findings is that a stranger’s perception of a church is largely shaped before the prelude even begins.  The image of a Church is not overwhelmingly shaped by the music, or the preacher.  

        The first impression a church makes derives from many small things-
             How attractive is the website?
How easy is it to enter the building? 
Are there signs that make it clear where to go?
How clean and modern are the bathrooms? 
Do the greeters make you feel welcome?  
Do the ushers smile and help you find a seat?

It is not just the official people who can make a difference.  Do the members of the church reach out to others?  Are you invited to coffee hour? Do the members go out of their way to talk to them?  Do people give up some time with friends during coffee hour to get to know a new person?

Hospitality is an act of love and care.  We know it is the right thing to do for we have been strangers and received the care of others ourselves and we know how important it is.

The Bible tells us that we all were once strangers; we all have needed to experience hospitality.  To share hospitality is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Hospitality is not only the right thing to do; it also can help God speak to us.   Paul tells us Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware. The word angel does not mean some kind of winged figure who plays the harp.  The word angel means messenger.  If you send your child to the neighbors with a message, he or she is your angel.  Thus in this verse Paul is telling us that God often speaks to us through strangers.

I was reminded of the truth of this event many years ago when I was in New York City with a youth group.  Part of this mission trip involved being part of a program developed by Churches in that areas called the Mid-night run. On Thursday night the group made almost 100 sandwiches and then packed them up with fruit and cookies.  We loaded up two vans with the food, some clothes and blankets and headed into the city.  We arrived around 11:00 P.M. in the heart of midtown Manhattan.  We parked at designated spots in front of various Churches in the city.  There were people lying on the steps or in cardboard boxes.  We would announce that we were the midnight run and invite them to come over for food and coffee.  During the evening we fed about 50 men and women.

This was a good thing for us to do.  It is right to help feed those who are less fortunate than we are.  Yet the most interesting part of the evening was talking to the men and women.  I was surprised at how readily the young people interacted with these homeless people.  The homeless people shared a little of their life stories and interests with us.  

It was a beautiful clear night, so when I went up to one fellow with a bag lunch I said, "It's a great night."  He replied, "It sure is, the Yankees won again."  I couldn't have agreed more.  Again this interaction reminded each of us that we were not dealing with homeless people, but rather with people who happened to be homeless.

The same was true when we took our youth on a mission trip to Staten Island.  Part of the work was helping out in a soup kitchen.  We helped in the preparation of food. One of the men who ran the kitchen was named Tony. He was a man full of energy and fun who bonded with our youth.

Later in the week we had a talk about the experience of being homeless.  There were three people who told of their personal experiences of being without a home.  One of those people was Tony.   This impressed on all of us that homeless people are not statistics but real people.

Often God uses strangers to teach us lessons, to give us messages, to give us insight into our own lives.  The act of kindness to strangers not only helps them but can give us a great reward as well. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.

Finally you and I are to practice hospitality because it is one of the ways that we serve Jesus. One of Leo Tolstoy’s short stories is called “Where Love Is, God Is” In this story Tolstoy introduces us to a cobbler named Martin.  Martin has had a difficult life much like Job.  He lost his wife and children and he is left a bitter man cut off from God.  A holy man visits him and leads him back to God. 

One night he falls asleep while reading his Bible.  He is awoken by a voice that says, “Martin, Martin!  Look out into the street to-morrow, for I shall come.”  The next morning he rose early to eat and prepare.  He sat by the window waiting for Christ to come.   He saw an old impoverished man who began to clear the snow from in front of his place.  Martin called him in and gave him some tea.  After the old man left, Martin saw a young woman in summer clothes holding her baby outside his window.  He invited her in.  She had not eaten for some time.  Martin fed her and the baby.  After she left, Martin saw an old woman carrying some apples on her back.   A young boy took an apple out of her basket, she grabed him and was threatening to call the police.  Martin rushed out and separated the two.  He asked the woman not to press charges and made the boy ask for forgiveness.

He went back into the house knowing that Christ was not going to come.  He sits down and opens up his copy of the Gospels.  The story ends with this passage from Tolstoy:

As Martin opened it, his yesterday’s dream came back to mind, and no sooner had he thought of it than he seemed to hear footsteps, as though someone were moving behind him.  Martin turned round, and it seemed to him as if people were standing in the dark corner, but he could not make out who they were.  And a voice whispered in his ear:  “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”

“Who is it?” muttered Martin.

“It is I,” said the voice, and out of the dark corner stepped Stepanicth who smiled and vanishing like a cloud and was seen no more.

“It is I,” said the voice again. And out of the darkness stepped the woman with the baby in her arms and the woman smiled and the baby laughed, and they too vanished.

“It is I,” said the voice once more.  And the old woman and the boy with the apple stepped out and both smiled, and then they too vanished.

And Martin’s soul grew glad.  He crossed himself, put on his spectacles, and began reading the Gospel just where it had opened; and at the top of the page he read:

“I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.”

And at the bottom of the page he read:

“Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren even these least, ye did it unto me.”  And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Savior had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him. 
 
When you and I learn to welcome strangers, 
when we incarnate the virtues of hospitality,
we are serving Jesus himself.

The challenge I would lay before you today is to value hospitality.  If you are a student and this winter a new person has come to your school go out of your way to welcome them. If a person comes to your place of employment help them to adjust.  If a family moves in next door take some dessert as an act of welcome to the neighborhood.  If you see an unfamiliar face here at Clarence Presbyterian introduce yourself and make them feel at home.  The list is endless of the ways that you and I can learn to practice hospitality.  Each one of us has gifts that can be used to make strangers into friends.

I would like to close with an ancient saying from the Celtic Church, which was the church in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which talks about hospitality:

I saw a stranger yesterday, 
I put food in the eating-place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place,
And in the sacred name of the Triune 
He blessed myself and my house,
My cattle and my dear ones.
And the lark said in her song
Often, often, often
Goes the Christ in the stranger guise
Often, often, often
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.

May we learn the practice of hospitality. 

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.