Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many years ago, while studying at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, I took a break from academia, returned home to Springfield, and sought a job to replenish my depleted financial resources. In retrospect, I also needed to recharge my spiritual and intellectual batteries.
A friend of mine, former Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary, Bill Cellini, offered me a position, as a transportation legislative liaison, working with the Illinois General Assembly. Our office wrote bills submitted to the legislature by the Governor’s office and, then, provided analysis on legislation pending before the assembly.
Not long after my new job commenced, I received a call from Jerry Johnson, Bishop of the LCA’s Illinois Synod. He had a two-point congregation near Meredosia, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Springfield, without a pastor. Johnson asked, if I would fill the pulpit on Sunday and lead worship, while the congregation completed the call process. I was happy to help.
Thereafter, on Sunday mornings, my wife and I and later our daughter, Ann, packed ourselves into a little yellow Volkswagon Beetle and took off for the hills and bluffs along the Illinois River, where the two Meredosia congregations are located.
Often, as we traveled to and from the congregations, we listened to the car radio. Back then, the late John Denver sang his hit song, Country Roads. The refrain went like this: “Country roads, take me home/To the place I belong,/West Virginia,/Mountain mamma, take me home country roads.” We often sang the refrain, as we drove our country roads to Meredosia.
Those two congregation, one beside the Illinois River and the other perched in the river bluffs, became like home for us. Most of the people, attending the two churches, were descendants of German farmers who settled the land after the civil war. They lived happily in a tight knit community all of their lives. Many were related to each other one way or another.
Now you might assume we would be treated like outsiders. We were from Springfield, a big city down there, and not kindred to anyone. But that was not the case. The moment we walked in the church doors, the members welcomed and swept us up like long lost children returned home. Often on Sunday someone invited us over to their home for a noon meal.
One couple, in particular, Fred and Hazel Heitbrink, took us under their wing. They were a farming couple who moved into town. Long after my service to the churches ended, they still invited us to their home for a visit and a meal, often at Christmas And, oh, what a feast those meals turned out to be. Everything was homemade, even the fried chicken. We had homemade noodles, homemade pickled beets, homemade chocolate cream pie. It was a feast I have never forgotten and long for to this very day. That meal was their loving gift of hospitality.
Fred and Hazel Heitbrink passed away years ago, as have Edwin and Doris Ommen and virtually everyone else we knew. The last time my wife stopped by the little church only three elderly women worshiped there on Sunday mornings. The other members are all still there, but outside the church tucked into the little cemetery on the property. As happens in rural congregations, members are baptized in the church, as a child, then buried outside the church upon death. What a powerful symbol of Christian life. They never leave the church and the church never leaves them.
I tell you the story of these two small congregation in the Illinois River Valley for a good reason. They serve to perfectly introduction our Gospel for this Sunday. Here we read Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and sent them on a mission. He describes the trials they will encounter, the demands placed upon them and the necessity of hospitality. Today we focus on the necessity of hospitality.
Recall again what Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me….whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell, none of these will lose their reward.” The hospitality we offer others serves God’s greater purpose for us.
When Gwen and I packed our car and drove off for Meredosia on Sunday mornings, we never thought of ourselves as disciples sent in mission. But in retrospect, we were, indeed, disciples given a mission every bit as much as the twelve apostles received two thousand years ago. I am sure Fred and Hazel Heitbrink, Edwin and Doris Ommen, Dave and Corinne Orchard and Bob and Vilma Williams and the others who offered us hospitality never considered themselves doing anything extraordinary. Their welcoming, hospitality, served God’s purpose.
Let me share with you something I learned from this experience. Before returning from seminary to Springfield, I had been locked in a cerebral, intellectual environment with some of the most well-known theologians in the world. But the Christian faith often remained stuck between the pages of a book. It was an intellectual exercise. The Christianity we seminarians experienced, had little connection to everyday life and ordinary people.
I went to those congregations, thinking I needed to instruct them based about what I learned at our school of theology. Later I discovered these farm families taught me Christian truth rooted deeply in their lives. I pass on to you now a lesson from my experience. I learned hospitality is the necessary precondition of mission and discipleship.
Every Sunday people come to this congregation expecting to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. But the preaching of the Gospel does not begin and end with a sermon from the pulpit. Frequently people comment on the fact I usually stand at the door of the church on Sunday morning to welcome visitors and members alike. I do that as an act of welcoming and hospitality.
Why do we have fellowship time after worship services each Sunday. Fellowship time serves the purpose of a welcoming act of hospitality.
Hospitality, the welcoming act, remains the necessary precondition of discipleship, mission, and teaching. Each Sunday members of our congregation have the responsibility of hospitality. We welcome the stranger who comes to our door. Do not become content saying hello to the person who sits next to you in the pew. Our hospitality requires us to welcome others, whoever they may be or wherever they may be from, as a reflection of our mission and discipleship.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.