Message by Pastor Pokora -June 28, 4th Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

A year ago, about this time, individuals and families were getting ready to stream back to the Quad City area for the annual Bix Biederbecke Race at the end of July.

My wife and I had already heard our children anticipated returning home that weekend. They would travel here from Boston, New York and the Chicago area with children and spouses in tow. Some would run the race, but more likely we simply enjoyed visiting with each other.

For our part, my wife and I made our home ready to receive them. Fitting 13 people comfortably into our house requires no small effort. We cleaned the house, stocked the pantry and refrigerator with food and planned daily activities that weekend. This was the one time in the year our entire family gets together again. Our grandchildren see each other once a year.

Thousands of other families in the community did their best to make family and friends feel welcome. We call this extending hospitality or making people to be welcome or at home. We want our guests to feel comfortable and well cared for.

The concept of welcome expresses itself from a Christian theological point of view. Today in our Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In other words, welcoming another is not just a sentimental gesture or matter of etiquette. We welcome God through the way we treat others. Hospitality is about our relationship with God.

We often take the word welcome for granted. We say welcome to strangers the same way we say how are you. It’s something we may express or hear without thinking. We don’t imagine God somehow defining or entering into the meaning of the word.

Welcome has two constituent syllables to it: well, which implies good health, and come, which suggests an invitation or to arrive or be close to someone. Taken together the word welcome implies the door is open; an individual has been invited into our individual personal realm with a promise of being received congenially. We may place the word on s sign at the entrance to our community on the door to an office or on a mat at our home’s front door. The word can be said casually, commercially or emphatically.

Some people are good at hospitality and others are not. My son’s three daughters are exceptional at hospitality. When we pull up to their house, they are peering out the window waiting for us. If I try to sneak away after lunch to have a quiet rest, they come into the room and tell me they want to see me. My wife and I feel welcomed. On the other hand, I recall the time I visited one of my daughters. I had just arrived and was resting on a couch after a long trip. My son-in-law walked into the room and past me. He then looked over his shoulder to see me sitting there and said, “Oh, you are here,” and continued on his way. His hospitality lacked feeling.

On the other hand, five years ago the Redeemer Lutheran Church eighth grace confirmation class and I traveled to Lake Okoboji for week. Jerry and Carol Fritsch served as camp directors for the previous thirteen years. I always enjoyed trips to camp. The staff made an effort to make us feel at home. For a week, we built a new community according to Christian principles. At the core of those principles is the concept of hospitality and inclusive. Suddenly a hundred kids and pastor descend on the camp from all sort of different places. Very quickly the camp must become a Christian community out of strangers. That does not happen easily or accidently. Welcoming is key.

For Jews and Christians, hospitality has always been a part of who we are. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Torah and was a part of the measure of the Hebrew community’s faithfulness to God. When a traveler came to town, they waited by the well, and it was incumbent upon the townspeople to house and feed the visitor for the night.

Of course, these travelers were rarely family. These were folks unknown to the community. They were aliens, often foreigners, people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, different gods. Opening one’s home was risky. Today we’d describe such a thing as out and out foolish. As Ana Maria Pineda reminds us, “Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger.” But such hospitality was central to the Hebrew identity. The risk did not define the people; their hospitality did, for they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God.

The same was true in the early Christian communities. Paul reminded the Romans to offer hospitality to the alien, and in the Letter to the Hebrews the people were reminded to show hospitality to all for in so doing some entertained angels unaware. In Acts, the early deacons practiced hospitality throughout the community, bringing welcome to those in need. And in Matthew’s community, hospitality still measured the faithfulness of the people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples (those whom Matthew called “little ones”) was a disciplined practice of the young churches.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, discipline is the key to faithful hospitality. In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells the story of a nun who, although she has Alzheimer’s, still asks to be rolled in her wheelchair to the door of her nursing home so she can greet every guest. Said one nun of her sister in ministry, “She is no longer certain who she is welcoming people…but hospitality is so deeply ingrained in her that it has become her whole life”. Norris continues, “I read somewhere, in an article on monastic spirituality, that only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality. Hospitality has a way of breaking through our insularity”.

Welcome, as a practice of hospitality, doesn’t just happen. It has to be taught. And such lessons don’t come easily in our society. A church had a sign out front proclaiming itself to be a church where everyone is welcome, even claimed to be fully accessible for people with disabilities. A ramp up to the door of the sanctuary, friendly folks waiting just inside that door; but there was a step up into the building, a step to reach those people. If you’re in a wheelchair, your welcome just ended. Hospitality means paying attention to details.

Christ calls All Saints Lutheran Church to be a welcoming community. He reminds us that by welcoming others, we welcome him. May our discipleship be expressed through hospitality and by doing so may we received Christ and through him God, the father.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.