Romans 12:11-13 “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
Show the “Be Our Guest” song clip from Beauty and the Beast. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KE6L7ID1kS4)
I want to talk to you this morning about the subject of hospitality. How much effort are we as a church putting in to practice hospitality? As individuals? The clip you just saw from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” went over the top to demonstrate how happy the characters were to have Belle in their house. How happy are we to welcome our guests and show hospitality as a part of our church gatherings? Are we friendly and hospitable only to a point? Do we say people are welcome but treat them differently? Do we ever give newcomers mixed messages?
That reminds me of a story. The county agent had to go to a series of farms to consult property owners to determine boundary lines. Walking up the dirt road to question one such person, he encountered signs that read: “No Trespassing,” “Beware of Dog,” and “Keep Out . . . This Means You!” Finally arriving at the door, he talked with the congenial, cooperative landowner. When the county agent was ready to leave, the man said to him, “Come and see me again sometime. I don’t get many visitors up this way.” (PreachingNow 04/27/04) Do we say one thing to our community, but then display signs that say another?
It has been said, “Some folks make you feel at home. Others make you wish you were.” (Arnold H. Glasow.) When people walk in to Teays Valley Church of God do they feel at home?
The young couple invited their elderly pastor for Sunday dinner. While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their son what they were having. “Goat,” the little boy replied. “Goat?” replied the startled man of the cloth, “Are you sure about that?” “Yep,” said the little boy. “I heard Dad say to Mom, ‘Today is just as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.'”
Listen, people know when hospitality is put on or forced. The world knows when sincerity is being faked. They know when people don’t really want them to feel at home. They know when they aren’t wanted or don’t belong. You’ve all had that feeling haven’t you? The feeling of being an outsider?
Tucked in this passage about being passionate about our service to the Lord is the command to practice hospitality. Why the command? What is God up to here? What strategy comes with showing hospitality? What message is sent to non-believers and newcomers when we practice hospitality?
Practicing something cultivates something in a person. When our kids practice their piano lesson, they are creating patterns of thinking, forging pathways into their brain about the relationship of one note to another on the keyboard. What they practice eventually becomes second nature and is something that becomes foundational and can be built upon to take them to greater things in the world of music. It’s fun to hear them sit down and play something they know well or have even memorized because what once was clumsy and labored has become second nature to them. God wants us to practice hospitality so that it just becomes who we are as His people.
I envy those people who possess a spiritual gift of hospitality. There are some people who just get so much energy from creating a special dinner or experience for someone else. We were recently at Paul and Sue Ragland’s house for dinner. It was just before Christmas. The meal was scrumptious. The home was decorated beautifully. There were some gifts given to us that just made us feel so special. The conversation flowed. We were so present in the moment. We didn’t have a care in the world while we were there, and it felt like it was effortless for them to host us.
However, for many of us hospitality is a “four letter” word! W-O-R-K. It doesn’t come natural to us. It can also feel uncomfortable to initiate hospitality with people. We can doubt our ability to offer anything that will make a significant contribution to a person’s life or experience. Yet one of the commands here in Scripture is to practice hospitality. Why? There are some reasons God wants us to practice hospitality. He wants to work hospitality into our nature. Hospitality is to be the ATTITUDE with which we approach all people, both believers and unbelievers. It becomes foundational for greater things because as we practice hospitality, it sets the stage for us to go to deeper places with people. Hospitality frees people up to receive something greater through us.
I believe we are to practice hospitality because it creates an ATMOSPHERE that becomes conducive for sharing the Gospel and an atmosphere that advances ministry.
Why do we ask you to park off site and open parking spaces here in the church lot? Because it’s not very hospitable to say to our community, “Feel free to join us for worship if you can find a spot to park your car.” Why have we requested that the choir sit in the choir loft each week? It’s not very hospitable to say to our guests, “Stand in the back or sit on each other’s laps.” Why do we give visitors a loaf of homemade banana bread? We want them to leave with the message, “Ya’ll come back now, you hear?” Why do we put greeters on the door? We want each person to know we are glad they are here and that we are available to answer questions and give assistance in whatever way is needed. Wal-mart did not invent hospitality! It is the command of Scripture and the job of every believer.
Hospitality creates an atmosphere of ACCEPTANCE. We aren’t a social club getting together to pat each other on the back, celebrate our own accomplishments or a group trying to impress one another and “one up” each other. We are a sordid bunch of misfits at best, sinners, who have been saved by the grace of God who need to authentically, relate one to another and to newcomers in a way that reinforces that God accepts all people.
The message of acceptance is so powerful and so under used by the church. One big reason people aren’t attending church today is because they have somehow received the message they don’t belong here. They have believed they aren’t good enough or would need to change before they come and those who believe they have to change aren’t sure what kinds of change would even be expected.
For example, there are churches that place great emphasis on the kind of clothes a person wears to church. If a lady isn’t in a dress or a man isn’t in a tie, the persons are made aware whether covertly or overtly that they aren’t meeting “the standard.” The last time I checked, the Bible was clear that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) Modesty and style are two different issues. The atmosphere of hospitality says, “Come as you are.”
I can tell you I have talked to several people who have told me the reason they don’t go to church is because they don’t have any clothes to wear. It’s not that they don’t have ANY clothes, but that they believe they won’t be accepted in the kind of clothes they have.
Romans 15:7 “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Showing hospitality through acceptance enables us to bring praise to God! Hasn’t Jesus unconditionally had to put up with you? Didn’t He have to get past some things in order to embrace you? He took you when you were in sin and when your life was a mess. When you could offer Him nothing and when you didn’t even embrace Him back, He took you. He loved you enough to die for you before you ever accepted His love back. That’s the kind of acceptance we can show the world through our hospitality.
Luke 22:19 is one of my new favorite verses. It says: And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given FOR YOU; do this in remembrance of me.” In the context of a meal, Jesus hosted His disciples. He not only instituted a meal of remembrance for us all to continue to observe, but He also instituted a memorial that reminds us we are accepted. We are loved. We are valued. “This is my body, given for YOU!” For YOU! “You are that special to Me,” Jesus said. “I am giving you this meal to remind you of what I wanted you to have by giving you My life. Salvation and eternity with Me!”
Just before saying these words, Jesus washed their feet. It was in the context of hospitality that He communicated to the disciples how special they were to Him. He was basically telling them ahead of time, “I love and accept you so much that I am planning on enduring the worst possible experience in order to make sure you are safe.” They were accepted, bought, valued, and loved.
Children who are not unconditionally accepted by their parents won’t thrive in their family. They won’t become as independent and confident as God desires for them to become. They won’t become contributors to the family in a growing way. A lack of acceptance will circumvent their emotional growth. In the same way, a lack of acceptance of non-believers will shut down their ability to grow in the things of God and to gain confidence in their ability to become all God’s Word says they can.
We are such an instantly gratified society that we place the same expectation on those who are pre-Christians or babes in Christ. We want them to come to church one time and be delivered from every hang up and be self-sufficient on their journey in Christ. It doesn’t work that way. Hospitality isn’t a trick or tool to get people saved. It is the ongoing promise to do life with people in order to help them grow. Changing a heart is God’s business, and it takes place on God’s timetable, not ours. Acceptance needs to be ongoing because even as people grow in Christ they will continue to make mistakes and need a fresh start which takes me to the second atmosphere of hospitality.
Hospitality creates an atmosphere of refreshing. When you are accepted, you have an opportunity to relax. You know there is a difference between entertaining and showing hospitality. When people entertain the emphasis is not on the guests, but on themselves. How can they put their best foot forward in order to impress? They like to work in to the conversation all the work they did to prepare. They have an expectation to be appreciated. They try to control the environment so that things appear or go a certain way. And if things aren’t just perfect, there is stress, strain, disappointment and tension in the air. I’ve been in some places where things are so uptight you were afraid to use a fork for fear you’d use the wrong one and someone would get upset as a result. Can anyone relate this morning?
Hosts, however, those who show hospitality put the emphasis on the guest and their needs. They may ask “What do you like to eat?” rather than fixing their favorite dish or what shows off their cooking skills the best. The conversation will include questions about the guest and how they are doing or what is going on in their life. If the guest has special needs, those will be taken into consideration when planning the space or the table arrangement. You’ll hear phrases like, “What can I get you?” “Have you had enough to eat?” “We’re so glad you came.” “We need to do this more often.” “Thanks so much for coming. We hope you come back really soon.” There is a value on experiencing one another, enjoying each other’s presence and sharing in listening and encouragement together rather than on the perfect table, the perfect manners, or the perfect responses. People leave feeling as if they have been renewed.
That is the kind of environment we try to create here in our church services. Our hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday isn’t about entertaining. We don’t sing songs and prepare sermons in order to be seen, noticed, applauded or appreciated. We prepare well, yes, but that’s because in the moments of worship, we don’t want anything to distract from the encouragement, the Body life, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the refreshing He wants to bring to God’s people. Our focus is on experiencing the presence of God and not on controlling the order of the service to the point where if things don’t go as they are planned that someone gets angry, and the experience with God is ruined. Many churches are so programmed and the expectation for perfection is so high, that God is scheduled right out of doing anything in any service. People may leave cheerful because the music was great or the jokes in the sermon were funny, but they won’t leave with fewer burdens than they had when they came in, and that is one of the by-products of meeting with God. Hosting people in the presence of God creates an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit can unpack some people’s bags and burdens and they will be lighter than they were when they came in. They will be refreshed, repositioned in Christ and repurposed to live for God’s purposes.
1 Peter 4:9-10 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. God’s grace flows to one another as we offer hospitality.
Several commentaries I looked at concerning I Peter 4:9 mentioned that during the time this was written, it wasn’t uncommon to get a knock on the door from a traveling evangelist or Christian who was passing through due to persecution back home. They needed a place to stay, and the idea was that you were to receive them. You were to take them in. Strangers. You were to let their lives and their need intersect with your life and your supplies even though you didn’t know them.
We never know who will be passing through our way on their journey through life. We are to receive people in order to show them God’s grace. Offering hospitality involves providing people with a safe place when it’s needed. When was the last time you picked up the phone to invite someone over just to talk? When was the last time you got involved with someone who was going through a hard time and you were just there to listen and be their safe place? Do you make yourself available to the point where people feel comfortable knocking on your door to ask for help? Do they see you as someone who would “receive” them?
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You don’t have to know someone in order to show them hospitality. When first century Christians had a knock on their door, they didn’t know the person who needed lodging for the night. Hospitality was just a way of life. It wasn’t about being comfortable with showing hospitality. It was about making the person in need comfortable.
Leviticus 19:34 shows us that hospitality was one method God intended the Jewish people use in order to bring people to a true knowledge of God. Leviticus 19:34 (NIV) “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
The Israelites were to hold out encouragement to strangers to settle among them, that they might be brought to the knowledge and worship of the true God; and with this in view, they were enjoined to treat them not as aliens, but as friends, on the ground that they themselves, who were strangers in Egypt, were at first kindly and hospitably received in that country. (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary)
Shirley Bird shared with me what it meant to her on her first Sunday here that Montena Perry introduced herself to her and asked if she could sit with Shirley. Shirley was already seated, but she was sitting alone. Recognizing it was her first Sunday there, Montena went beyond merely introducing herself. She joined Shirley in the worship experience. Shirley told me it was Montena’s act of hospitality that brought her back the second time!!
Newcomers Allen and Conni Caldwell have also commented on what the ministry of hospitality has meant to them and that it too became the catalyst for them coming back and choosing to make this their home church.
We spent many years cultivating hospitality at our previous church. We made it our mission to welcome visitors and make them feel at home. The tables turned and we found ourselves on the “visitor” side of the coin. We decided that in our search for a new “home” we would conduct our own hospitality experiment, wanting to feel the way we had always intended our visitors to feel. We completed a visitor card at each of the 5 churches we visited. The “visitor” could have been anyone. Someone looking for a home church, someone looking for Christ, someone trying to determine if life was worth living. Only 1 out of the 5 churches reached out to us. For us, finding hospitality was the key to finding acceptance. Driving up the hill to the church we expected to find a small congregation of maybe 100 for Morning Worship. We found a congregation of nearly 300 on that early October morning. Trying to not have preconceived ideas of what we might or might not find, we entered the building to find very warm, friendly and smiling faces. Being on the “visitor” side of the coin isn’t very comfortable in most cases. However, as we found a seat and settled in, people approached, introduced themselves, welcomed us to “their” church and it quickly became apparent that God was in the house and we were sitting down with our “family” for Sunday dinner. Important things for us in a church: a church body seeking God’s presence through prayer, song, fellowship and the icing on the cake – an anointed message! God’s people who found the key – hospitality, creating an atmosphere of acceptance – living Ambassadors for Christ. Our “visitor” experiment resulted in a Monday morning call from someone that screamed….YOU MATTER TO US – WELCOME!
The world needs us to take the initiative. They need us to open our lives up to them that together we would share the experience of living as Christians in this life.
As you continue to think about who is on your guest list for 2012, the three or four names that you will pursue with invitations into your life and into the life of the church, think about starting with hospitality. Tell someone you can pick them up for church. Tell someone you will treat them to lunch after church when they come. Invite them into your home for a meal in order to continue to build the relationship. Invest in those people by asking them how they are and how you can pray for them.
As a church, as we grow larger, we must continue to be conscious of those God is sending. Go beyond just shaking hands during the time of greeting. Get to know those who are coming in. Risk letting the lives of others intersect yours. Be the kind of Christian that practices hospitality. Help us say to our community with open arms and hearts, “Be Our Guest!”