“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” – Hebrews 13:2
For the last two months, I have written on the precipitous decline of religious life in America. While I neither despair, despite the overwhelming data displaying this reality, nor regard the current situation as necessarily prescriptive for our future, I do regard it as a wake-up call to congregations that might otherwise be neglectful about living out the mission of the Gospel in their contexts. In last month’s column, I emphasized the urgent need to work toward excellence in our ministries with children and youth. This month, I want to talk about one of the other priorities I have for our parish: offering deeper community for those who come into our church.
One of the great stories from Genesis is the story of the hospitality of Abraham (18:1-15). Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent one day, unaware of anything special on the horizon, when suddenly he sees three strangers in the distance. Given his cultural imperative to care for all travelers, he invites them to rest, eat, and find sanctuary with him. Yet surprisingly, Abraham goes extravagantly over and above what is simply required to be a good host. He runs around making sure everything is perfect. He offers his stranger-guests not just enough, but an abundance; not just scraps, but the best he has to give. It is only at the end of the story that Abraham makes a startling discovery about these strangers. As the travelers reassure Abraham that God has not forgotten his promises and insist that Abraham will be the father of many nations, Abraham discerns that his guests are angels. They are divine emissaries sent from God to encourage and uphold, to act as midwives to the new world being born in Abraham and Sarah’s midst. Therefore, although he had no initial idea about the true identity of his visitors, Abraham’s natural generosity to those who came his way proved absolutely appropriate as his guests were sent from God.
ALL VISITORS TO ST. JOHN’S ARE GUESTS SENT FROM GOD. If I could emblazon that statement on every wall of our church, I would. If I could sink this into every member’s heart, I would. Faithful churches receive those God sends through their doors as guests sent from God. It is therefore essential that we see and treat them in this special way. Any person who feels compelled to wake up, venture out to a strange place (our church), meet strange new people (you and me), and risk engagement with the living God, is a guest sent by God, deserving of our absolute best.
We must be a church of radical hospitality. This entails not simply being cordial to newcomers, but giving them the prize places in our community’s life. Too often as churches grow up, they turn inward. People come to love one another and thus look for their friends each Sunday in order to catch up on life. On the one hand, such love is a gift. But it has a very dangerous underside to it: it can foster forgetfulness. It can cause us to forget that the Church was established by God for mission, that the Church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of those who are not yet members, and thus, that our primary activity on Sunday is not simply attending to one another, but serving those whom God has sent our way. When this tragic amnesia occurs, people hungering for a place in God’s Church look at us and marvel at a great, loving community, while having no idea how to get invited inside because a path has not been intentionally opened for them.
Several months ago, I invited a woman who is acting as a consultant in our search for our next Associate Rector to come to St. John’s and attend all of our services. I asked her to anonymously walk through an entire Sunday in our parish as a newcomer and let me know about her experience. Although she went to every service, every social hour, the Gathering meal and education following, she was largely overlooked and ignored throughout her time with us. Other than the initial welcome she received from kind ushers and greeters, most of her day was spent standing, and even eating, alone. While I wish this were an isolated event, I, unfortunately, know it is not.
I also know this is in no way indicative of the character of our parish. It is the result of simply not paying good enough attention. To remedy this, I want our church to perpetually be looking at ways to reshape our community life in order to honor and attend to those God sends us. New endeavors will be aimed at creating fresh opportunities to reach out to our newcomers such as fellowship time after every service, year round. Also, you will increasingly notice planned events that exist to intentionally build community and offer chances for us to welcome those newest to our church. Yet most of the work to be done is not new programming, but a change of focus from those of us who currently call St. John’s “home.” All of our membership needs to commit to a vision of our community as a place of hospitality and welcome, with eyes to see every person who walks through our doors as a guest sent from God.
I am exuberant over what God plans to do through this church, as St. John’s is so clearly full of people who yearn to serve God. Yet I do believe God is calling us to pay better attention and serve him in the faces of brothers and sisters who have dared to step out in faith and find a new spiritual home. These people have come for a host of reasons, no two being exactly the same. Yet there is a common foundational motivation: all were beckoned by God to come close and discover his life through the life of his Church.
You and I are emissaries of Christ. We are hosts in Jesus’ Church. Let us be hosts like Abraham, giving our very best, receiving a rich blessing in the giving, all the while discovering the strange mystery that those who are outsiders come with a message we must hear, a message from the very lips of God.
Eric Long, Rector