Open Hearts, Open Minds,
Open Doors
(Genesis 18:1-15; Mark 6:30-44)

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Our community is watching us.
Other churches are watching us.
Our critics are watching us.
The whole world is watching us.
God is watching us.
They're keeping a close eye on what we do or don't do.

Lets face it perceptions and impressions are developed on what people hear, see, and experience for themselves. And as you know it takes a great deal of effort to develop a reputation for being credible and genuine; while it only takes one big gaff to advance the wrong impression.

Folks today have many reasons they don't attend church, and for the most part they are selfish reasons. But if we're not careful and remain aware of how we the church are perceived we can provide another reason for people not coming to church. And the truth is sometimes we the church can be our own worse enemies. Our mission is to help our family, friends, and neighbors move through what I call the attending church continuum "don't want to go, maybe I'll go, have to go, need to go, gotta go, want to go." And I believe this process begins with not only the nudging of the Holy Spirit, but also with how hospitable the church is.

In the ancient Near East hospitality was part of the culture, and being hospitable to strangers, meaning showing friendship to a stranger was required. Hospitality was tightly bound up in the customs and daily practices, and all those living in the community we expected to observe them.

Hospitality in the Near East was the process of "receiving" outsiders and changing them from strangers to guests. In Abraham and Sarah's day, a person's reputation was largely connected to his or her hospitality. Even strangers were to be treated as honored guests.

Meeting another's need for food or shelter was and still is one of the most immediate and practical ways to obey God and to be hospitable. And it's also a time honored relationship builder.

So as you can see hospitality is very different from entertaining family and friends. Today we tend to lump any event dealing with guests, known and unknown, under the rubric of "hospitality" when in fact hospitality is so much more and so different from "entertaining."

Christian hospitality is very different from entertaining. Entertainment tends to focus on the host - the home must be spotless; the food must be well prepared and abundant; the host must appear relaxed and good-natured.

Hospitality by contrast focuses on the guests. Their needs - whether for a place to stay, nourishing food, a listening ear, or acceptance - are the primary concern.

Hospitality can happen in a messy home, it can happen around a picnic table where the main dish is a can of soup and a piece of bread. It can even happen with the guest and host doing chores together.

Hospitality happens around the Lord's Table when all Christian's, known and unknown, gather to share in a special holy meal.

So how hospitable are we? Hospitality to the stranger is critical in the life of worship, and in our lives together as a community of faith. One of the great concerns a person visiting a church feels is "will anyone notice I'm here and welcome me."

The advertising campaign of The United Methodist Church "Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors," suggests we are willing to offer hospitality from deep within us to anyone who visits our worship service, or gets involved in one of our ministry events.

How many churches have you been to that proclaim to be the "friendly church," or "the welcoming church?" Yet when you enter there's no one to greet you, no one to tell you where the rest rooms are, no one to point you to the nursery, no one to give you a bulletin, and so on. It's not that the folks aren't nice people; they're just not being hospitable to the visitor, the stranger among them.

You see hospitality is more than a welcoming smile and a friendly hello, although these are important. True hospitality is anticipating the needs of someone we don't know and then providing for those needs before they're asked for.

For example, if you were visiting a church what are the chances you would return if your needs for the Sunday morning worship were anticipated, before you even knew what your needs might be, and before you had to ask.

Now I'm not suggesting we anticipate when someone might need to use the restroom and then take it upon ourselves to quickly usher him or her through the sanctuary and fellowship hall to the rest room. That could get kind of embarrassing, and I'm not sure we would see them again. They might just keep on going out the back door.

But I am suggesting that we anticipate the need for the simple things like a bulletin, a hymnal, or special insert. I'm suggesting we go beyond the basic hello to finding out where the person might live, if he or she is new to the community, if they're seeking a church to call home, and so on. In other words I'm suggesting we begin to develop a relationship with the person. Perhaps if we listen to them and just observe a little we can anticipate a greater more personal need like prayer, friendship, healing, companionship, or a helping hand.

The hotel industry has made hospitality a big issue as they try to sway us to stay at their hotels. They anticipate we'll forget something, like a toiletry item and offer to provide it free of charge.

Wal-Mart greeters say hello and give you a smiley face, and if you've ever been in a Waffle House they greet you loudly as you enter their front door. The secular world has realized how important hospitality is to attracting and retaining customers, and the church must do the same.

Now certainly our focus is not attracting customers or consumers, but rather reaching out to those who want more from life, who want to be followers of Jesus. And even though our goals and mission are different the same principles of hospitality apply.

The secular world didn't invent hospitality. Jesus anticipated the need of the five thousand who followed him to Bethsadia by providing them with a meal of bread and fish. He didn't send them off to find their own food as the disciples suggested. He anticipated the group's need and then provided for it, before anyone asked him for food. In like manner we are to do the same, this is what it means to be hospitable, this is a part of Christian discipleship.

In reality hospitality is a spiritual matter - we are called to be open to God and open to the stranger.

Hospitality is also a response of our whole selves in "ordinary time, " when there is no great excitement about anything. No big party or event to celebrate.

It's also truthful to say hospitality cannot only be a blessing; it can at the same time be risky as well. Anyone who has ever offered hospitality at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen knows both the risk and the blessing involved with approaching strangers who are uncertain about our motives.

So like many of the tasks God asks us to be involved in there is some risk, perhaps some testing from God, to determine if we will remain faithful to the task even when there is some discomfort or risk to be taken. You know many of us take risks everyday in going about our jobs and everyday tasks, so why should serving God be any different.

For us to be a more hospitable church, so that our visitors want to return to become part of our worshiping community, there is one behavior that we must exhibit genuinely and that's love.

Just as plants need the right climate to grow so does our church, and the right climate for church growth is an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Growing churches love, and loving churches grow. So it's important that we cultivate an environment of genuine love and acceptance.

This point seems obvious doesn't it, but if we're not intentional and remain aware about the need to express love and acceptance to our visitors, they will not return and growth will not occur.

Did you know that long before I get up to preach during our Sunday morning worship a visitor has pretty much made up their mind whether or not they'll return. For many the decision to return is in how comfortable they feel among us, and how open and friendly we are to their participation. Some of you in the congregation today have told me that the reason you became a member of Trinity was because of how accepted you felt when you visited. Love and acceptance cannot be understated.

Now to make a genuine impact on a visitor, love must be expressed in a practical way. Even if we genuinely have compassion for our visitors, unless we express that compassion in a way the visitor understands, we're not connecting. Therefore we must act in ways that demonstrate our Christian love for our visitors and for those who don't know Christ. Love is more than a feeling; it's a behavior. It means being sensitive to someone else's needs and putting them ahead of our own.

In both our scripture readings this morning, we heard that Abraham and Sarah met the needs of the three strangers moving by their tent, and Jesus met the needs of the large crowd who gathered around him. All three placed the needs of others ahead of their own.

Theologically speaking, hospitality is vital. Not because of the food -- how much there is and what is served is inconsequential. A little unleavened bread and a cup of wine will do in most cases, because what truly brings us together is God's word.

During the eating and the drinking at Sarah and Abraham's tent God's word is shared. The strangers come to dinner to deliver a message: God promises Abraham and Sarah that the barren will rejoice. At dinner near the lake near Bethsadia Jesus shares the promises of God with all those present and the hopeless are given hope.

Theologically speaking, the purpose of hospitality is to prepare a welcoming space for encounters with God's word. It's not that God's word can't be heard in barren, inhospitable places or circumstances. God is not so limited, but we are.

God can speak in any situation, but we, the imperfect creatures we are, can't always hear. The Bible witnesses to the struggle of the Hebrews in the wilderness where they were so preoccupied with the lack of creature comforts that they constantly complained against God and Moses.

To keep their attention, to keep them moving, to keep them faithful, God often found himself preparing dinners of manna and quail. Only then, when fed, could they hear the word. So it is with us.

Faith communities are rediscovering the theology of hospitality. And as congregations change, many have been forced to reclaim this wisdom as old as Abraham and Sarah.

The image on the lips of evangelists (and successful evangelists, I might add) is one of the local congregation as a mission outpost instead of a family chapel. These congregations no longer lukewarmly welcome visitors, but enthusiastically expect them. Instead of simply trying to fit them in, these congregations plan for and welcome the stranger with "Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors."

If the theology of hospitality is to create a welcome environment where the word of God is more easily heard and understood, then we must always be attentive to what people need so that their eyes, ears, hearts and minds are open to the Spirit of God.

Sometimes this is a hard sell to Christians who are resistant to the connections between welcome and word. They must address practical hospitality issues such as building accessibility, visitor-friendly bulletins, a fully staffed nursery, or parking.

Gospel hospitality will not allow people to starve physically or spiritually. True welcoming is more interested in the needs of the guest than the preferences of the host.

Another aspect of hospitality is follow-through. Once we've welcomed folks and have demonstrated our love and acceptance there is one more step, and that involves inviting folks to be members of our family. This is more than having a desire to join the church. This means allowing our new family members to be fully involved in the life of the family.

Those new to Trinity need to feel that their gifts, presence, and time are welcome in all aspects of the ministry and administration taking place within this congregation. It's only when we become involved that we become fully vested in the church and feel we have moved from stranger to family member.

As members of Trinity we need to welcome folks into the full life of the body and encourage their participation, their new ideas, and their questions. For we are all a part of one body, and all parts of the body are of equal importance.

So as we strive to do the will of God know it's only when we practice the ministry of hospitality that we can demonstrate faithfully, open hearts, open minds, and open doors.


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