28 September 2014

Gifted for the Common Good (Or, On Being Charismatic)

Exodus 4:1-17 & 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 28th September 2014

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities,
but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

“To each,” Paul wrote.  To each member of the church in Corinth.  To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit.

            These are the familiar words we use in worship whenever we ordain and install elders and deacons or trustees. They’re beautiful words, poetic, and full of affirmation.  The beauty of the sentiment, however, masks the reason Paul felt compelled to pen these words in Ephesus and send them 180 miles across the Aegean Sea to the new church in Corinth.  Here in chapter 12, Paul is addressing just one of several divisive issues tearing apart the Corinthian church.   And the concern in these verses is not really an issue, per se, but divisive people, a group of people who think they’re better than the others because they claim to possess certain spiritual gifts.  Paul calls them the pneumatikoi, the spiritualists, the spirituals, these so-called spiritual elite who think they’re better Christians because they possess certain knowledge or wisdom or skills. 

It’s easy to see how this attitude would be divisive in any church.  It’s the kind of false-superiority and arrogance practiced by some Christians that devastates a faith community, an attitude that rips the body of Christ apart, limb by limb by limb.  It’s the kind of thing that becomes a stumbling block to preaching the gospel to the world, because the world, looking at the church from the outside, sometimes has difficulty actually seeing Christ in the body—because it’s no longer a body, it’s been torn apart!—they can’t see love, they see something else.

            Paul, the consummate pastor-theologian, approaching the problems in Corinth through the lens of his life in Christ, addressing the community in love and through love, responds to everyone.  He doesn’t shame the one segment of the congregation that’s theologically immature and therefore misbehaving, he speaks to the whole church.  So, writing to the whole church, he reminds them, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  To each.  Not to some. To each.  Not just the super-spiritual elite. Not just the leaders, the pastors, the preachers, the elders, the deacons, the trustees (as it were).  To each.

The Holy Spirit of God is at work in every believer, every member of the church, every part of the body of Christ.  And what the Spirit is doing in and through each individual is necessary for the health, vitality, and mission of the entire body.  Each has been gifted by the Holy Spirit.

            In fact, Paul makes this remarkable claim and says that everyone in the church is a charismatic!  Charismatic.  Presbyterian charismatics!  Talk about an oxymoron. The thought of a Presbyterian charismatic might even make you laugh—but why?  It’s true that we don’t usually associate one with the other.  Why not?  Maybe the Presbyterian Church suffers because we don’t.  Indeed the entire Church suffers when Christians forget that to follow Christ means that we are charismatics—all Christians, not just some.  Why am I saying this?  Because Paul does.  That’s the word he uses.  That’s the Greek word he used, which most Bibles translate simply as “gifts.”  “Gifts” doesn’t do justice to the text.  Once again English fails to render the theological nuances of the New Testament. 

            Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of charismatov.”  Charismatov, meaning, “gifts.”  A charisma is a gift.  In charisma we hear the word charis, which is Greek for “grace.” To each is given a charism, a gift of grace.  This means that a Christian, by definition, is charismatic, and that a church, full of people graced by the Spirit, is a charismatic community, blessed by the Spirit in a variety of ways to be, together, a blessing for the world.   There is one Lord of the church, one Spirit, one common source for all its gifts, and all the gifts are given to us to serve one common purpose or aim—to proclaim the good news of God in Christ to the world, to extend God’s kingdom reign of justice and peace wherever we live in the world, to share, both individually and together, the love and grace of Christ. 

            And the way the church gets to do this marvelous work is varied.  Three times Paul uses the word “varieties.”   There’s supposed to be variety and difference in the church because the Spirit is working through each of us in different ways.  Different gifts.  Different ways of serving.  Different kinds of actions inspired by the Spirit.  Paul gives several examples—and the list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely suggestive.  Some are gifted with speech and speaking wisdom; some are gifted with knowledge, possessing a sharp mind. Some have more faith than others.  Some are gifted with the agency of healing—a healing word, a healing touch, a healing presence.  Some can work miracles. Some can preach.  Some are gifted with discernment.  Some can speak in tongues, have esoteric religious experiences and speak in strange “holy” tongues.  The list is long.  But it’s significant to note that chapter twelve of First Corinthians, exploring the subject of gifts, pours over into chapter thirteen, the famous “love” chapter, which is too often read on its own, unfortunately.  The two chapters are best read together.  For love is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit.  Love is the only gift that really matters.  And when love rules our lives, when we exercise this gift of God, our understanding of all of the other gifts and all the people who possess them, will come into clear focus.  “Strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way,” Paul says (1 Cor 12:31) .  “And the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).

            There are all kinds of ways the Spirit is active in the lives of God’s people. All kinds of ways the Spirit is loving us, trying to love us.  Each gift is given to serve the common good of the Church.  In fact, amazingly, Paul is lifting up and celebrating and emphasizing the importance of diversity.  There’s a fascinating article by Katherine Phillips in the recent Scientific American magazine that identifies the importance of diversity.  It’s essential for the health of a community. Diversity actually enhances our ability to be creative.[1]  This should not come as a surprise to us. The Holy Spirit creates diversity; the Spirit celebrates and fosters diversity.  Uniformity is never a sign of the Spirit’s presence.  Unity, yes; uniformity, no.  There’s a unity in God, but not uniformity.  There’s a difference.  Richard Hays, a Pauline scholar at Duke Divinity School (we’re using his commentary in our current study of 1 Corinthians on Thursday mornings), puts it beautifully, “The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds its expression in an explosion of variegated forms.”[2]  Out of one, many. The many is an expression of the one.  E pluribus unum.   And when we as Christ’s people live this way in community we will be blessed for it and we will become more of a blessing to the world beyond our doors.

* * * * *

            You and I are gifted.  We are gifted people. I don’t say this to boast or to puff us up.  I’m just telling the truth.  We have gifts, you and me.  My gifts are not yours.  Your gifts are not mine.  But all of our gifts come from a common source and lead to a common end.

            One of the most important elements of the Christian life, I believe, is discovering or discerning one’s gifts.  If Paul is correct, and I believe he is, then we’re each gifted with charismata.  To have never discovered and used your gifts is, in the end, to have wasted your life.  The Spirit is continually gifting us.  It’s always Christmas.  And the gifts are changing. In one season of our lives one set of gifts might have been used more than others, a new season of life calls for new gifts.  Sometimes our gifts are obvious to us, other times they’re not.  Sometimes they’re obvious to everyone but us, so we need others in community show us what we can’t see on our own, to show us that we possess gifts we never noticed before.  Sometimes there are gifts that lie dormant for a long time in our lives, but then the Spirit activates them and something new starts to stir in us and we wonder where those thoughts or feelings are coming from.  And sometimes, probably more often than we care to admit, there are gifts that we know we have, but we suppress them or ignore them, we deny them, like Moses before God in Exodus 34. We push our gifts down or lock them away in a dark corner of our hearts and try to forget they’re there.  But we know they’re there.  We know we locked those gifts away.  Maybe we’ve thrown away the key or think we have.  But, don’t worry; the Spirit is very good at helping us discover what we’ve lost. The Spirit will find the key.

            What are your gifts? Where do you sense the Spirit’s love? Where is the Spirit loving you, trying to love you?  Are you using your gifts? Are you sharing what you have with the common good?  Maybe you’re already in that zone, using your gifts with a strong sense of vocation or calling, making a positive difference in the world, through your marriage, through your children, through deep friendships, in your work or, maybe, you’re taking up new work, different work in retirement.  Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner famously defined vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”[3]  Where does your deep gladness meet the deep needs of the world?  That place is your calling, your vocation.

            What if you haven’t found that meeting place?  Maybe you’re still searching for it.  Or, what if the meeting place has moved?  Perhaps you’re sensing that the Spirit is stirring something new in you, activating something new within your spirit.  Perhaps there’s a gift you know you possess, but for whatever reason you doubted it, you denied it, you locked it away.  Perhaps you’re afraid to acknowledge it, because if you acknowledge it then you have to be faithful to it, then you have to do something about it.  The poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote, “You owe it to the world to get on with what you’re good at.”  You owe it to the common good to use your gifts, to honor the Spirit who loves you.  One way you and I bless the world is by paying attention to the way the Spirit is continually gifting us. 

But how do we discover our gifts?  That’s complicated.  One way we discern our gifts is through the church, in community.  Last Sunday I shared how I became a minister.  I didn’t wake up one day and say to the church, “I’m called to preach.”  That call was tested.  The Session and later the presbytery had to confirm the call.  We discover our call in community.

We discover our gifts through a process of discernment.  Discernment, itself, is also a gift.  As Quakers and people such as Parker Palmer like to say, we have to listen to our lives.[4]  If we’re quiet and silent long enough our lives will speak, so let your lives speak! 

We discern by being attentive to what’s occurring within us and around us.  Pay attention to feelings and thoughts. Where’s the energy?  What’s giving you life?  What’s sucking the life out of you?  That, probably, is not what you’re being called toward.  What’s giving you joy?  What’s drawing you, calling out to you, pulling you in, what’s trying to love you?  This isn’t easy. It requires time and patience and lots of love.  It sometimes requires another ear that can listen to what we’re experiencing.  My ears are yours; Dorothy’s ears are yours, if you need another pair of ears.  We are here for one another.  

In adult education in three weeks, October 12, we’ll help you discern what your spiritual gifts might be.  And after worship on October 12, we will host our very first Ministry Fair at CPC.  All the committees and boards and groups of the church will have displays that speak to their unique ministry within the church.  This will be a great time for you to learn more about the work of the church, perhaps discern where the Spirit is leading you, where the Spirit is calling you to use your gifts, to discover your gifts, to get involved in the life of the church. 

            Right now it’s an exciting time for folks in this congregation who are following God’s call—some for the very first time—discovering gifts, discovering what the Spirit is doing in their lives, all because of the ministry of this church.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To each.

            When Kristen Koblish learned what the sermon would be about today, she told me that when she was going through some of her mother’s papers after she died she came across a handwritten note.  It was a note her mother wrote to herself and it read: “When I die, I hope I’m all used up so I can say to God that I’ve used everything you gave me….”

            That’s my hope too. And I know, deep within your heart of hearts—even if it scares you—that’s your hope too. 

[1] Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American (September 16, 2014). 
[2] Richard Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 210. Emphasis mine.
[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 119.
[4] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

21 September 2014

Having Something to Say

Psalm 130 & 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

21st September 2014

In his letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul wrote, the “message about the cross” is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).  In other words, the cross is forever “preaching,” that is, proclaiming something. The cross has a message, a story for us, for the world. Paul, summoned by the Holy Spirit to serve that message, saw himself as a proclaimer, a preacher, a prophet. “My speech and my proclamation,” Paul explained, “were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2: 4-5). “And we speak of this things,” Paul said, these divine things, “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13). And so Paul was called to speak a word. As is true for all preachers, his words carried and contained another word, a different word. Not the Bible, but the Word, the Word heard within the words of scripture, the Message of God that can’t be confined by any text.  And so Paul became a preacher.

You might wonder, as I did as boy, how a preacher comes up with something to say week after week after week.  How does a preacher come up with all those words? It was an important question for me to answer. 

Twenty-four years ago, on 23rd September, I was ordained by Newark Presbytery at the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, New Jersey.  On that Sunday evening in 1990 I answered the ordination questions, several feet from the font where I was baptized in 1964, and then knelt for the laying on of hands.  How I got to that moment, how I continue to live from that moment, has something to do with the question, how does a preacher come up with all those words? How does one become a preacher?

When people ask me—Why did you become a minister? —I get a little anxious. Not because I’m reluctant to share my story, but because, like most things in life and most things pertaining to the Holy Spirit, it’s complicated. The last time I shared my story here at CPC was back in October 1999, right after I arrived from New Jersey. So here’s my call story. It’s not a reflection on how my theology has changed in the past twenty-four years or what I’ve discovered about the Church or myself or of God, and not what I sense God calling me toward these days. These I’ll leave for another time.  Here’s how I felt called to preach. 

I was born and raised in the Presbyterian Church.  My father, Edward, although a Protestant (his father’s family were part the Reformed Church in Hungary), rarely went to church.  My mother, Grace, on the other hand, taught Sunday school for more than forty years at First Church, North Arlington.  When she died in 1992 we calculated that she taught thousands over the years.  She was my teacher, twice. I had perfect attendance and still have the awards to prove it. My maternal grandmother was an active member of that church, as were her parents.  They arrived in Kearny and North Arlington from Dundee, Scotland, in the early 1900s. Kearny was a point of entry for thousands of Scots to the United States. Many were Presbyterian.

I loved going to church as a boy. I had a lot of friends.  I loved my teachers. I have wonderful memories. I can remember the smell of paste and glue in the Sunday school rooms, the taste of juice and cookies we enjoyed after class each week, the smell of grape juice and bread on the mornings we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, it filled the whole sanctuary.  Have you ever noticed that wonderful smell in our sanctuary on morning when Communion is served?  Every June we had our Children’s Day service and I was often asked to read scripture or offer a prayer or a given a message. There were several older women in the church, many with Scots accents, who used to say to me after these services, “Kenny, you’re going to be a minister someday! You’re going to be a minister!”  I smiled politely but said to myself, “Never. I’m going to be a history teacher.”

One Communion Sunday I remember being in worship and watching the minister—the Rev. Dr. Henry C. Kreutzer, the minister who baptized me—standing behind the Communion Table wearing his black Geneva robe and white preaching tabs and saying, “People will come from south and north, east and west to sit at table in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).  I was so awed by what he said!  What’s so special about a loaf and a cup that people would travel far and wide to receive it? What was taking place there? Where is this Kingdom of God?

It was around age eleven or twelve that I started playing with the idea—or, more correctly, the idea started playing with me—that maybe I would become a minister.  But there was one major problem:  I could never figure out how a minister came up with so much to say Sunday after Sunday.  I didn’t like to write and I couldn’t imagine myself preparing a sermon every week. The thought was agony. What should I do?

We had marvelous youth leaders at my church.  They were field education students from Princeton Theological Seminary and they left quite an impression on me. Our seminarians often brought us down to the seminary and I fell in love with the place. (Actually, I wanted to go to Princeton Seminary before I felt called to the ministry. I know. I was an odd child.)  One Saturday in Princeton I visited the University Store, which used to be on University Place, and remember buying a brown, spiral-bound notebook, which read “Princeton” on the cover.[1] It was 1979.  If I’m going to be a minister, I thought, I better figure out how to write a sermon.  This notebook would contain my first sermons.  So, after school I went home, looked through my Bible, chose a passage of scripture, took out my notebook, and began to write a sermon.  Now, of course, I didn’t know how to write a sermon!  So I set out to write a sermon a day!  (This was just lunacy.)  After several tries I gave up.  It was impossible, I thought.  Too difficult.  I had nothing to say.  So I gave up the idea of being a minister.

Several years later, when I arrived at Rutgers College, something started to stir within me again. Freshmen year was a challenge.  I registered for several history classes and an Introduction to Old Testament class—I went to Sunday School, knew my Bible, that would be my “gut class,” my easy A.  Well, that class just about killed me.  It devastated me.  It shattered my world.  It shook me to the core.  I went into a deep crisis of faith. I almost became an atheist. I didn’t realize that I was a literalist when it came to reading the Bible.  I learned in class that scholars—back in the early nineteenth century—argued that Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).  Moses could not have written these books because Deuteronomy contains an account of his death!  (See Deuteronomy 34:1-8.)  Not one, but four authors were involved in its formation, written over centuries.[2]  I thought, “If I can’t take this part of the Bible at its word, what about the rest of the Bible?  Can it be trusted?  Maybe I’m just fooling myself about this faith stuff.”  I got an A in the class and so in the spring I took Introduction to New Testament.  That class challenged me too, but then I got another A.  I started to like my religion classes. 

Then I took what I thought was a very radical class, “Religion and Politics,” taught by Dr. Hiroshi Obayashi.  I didn’t think religion had anything to do with politics.  I was obviously very naïve.  We read a lot of Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Obayashi changed my life when one day he asked, “How about taking the theology class next semester?” It was the highest-level course offered by the religion department.  I was a sophomore.  I was flattered, registered for the class, but, to be honest, I didn’t even know what theology was!  That class changed my life.  I became enthralled by the way ideas can change and transform our lives and I discovered the sheer joy that comes with serious, honest, thoughtful discussions about God.  I had to read a book written by the Swiss Reformed minister Karl Barth (1886-1968), The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928).  That book made my brain hurt—but it taught me how to think theologically. 

It was around that time that I started to read the sermons of the German theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Tillich served in the trenches of the First World War and later become one of the great theologians of the twentieth century.  His sermons were so existential and honest and real, intellectual, they wrestled with difficult questions of life and death and meaning, ultimate things, all of which spoke to me at a very deep level—depths I didn’t even know were there. 

And then, one evening, as I was reading one of Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations,” based on a text from Jeremiah that speaks to the role of the prophet/preacher—I’ll never forget that moment—I felt something give way in me.  By the time I finished reading the sermon I wanted to preach.

Why? Because I felt deep within me, for the first time, that I had something to say, that there was something that needed to be said, to be shared, and, greater still, there was something that I had to say.  I was compelled.  I didn’t have a choice.  There was this burden, this weight of responsibility within me. I had a desire to talk about God and about what God has done and is doing through Christ.  This was not a desire to say something about me, what I’ve done or experienced.  It had something to do with me, of course, it was my experience, but it had more to do with God.  What I sensed emerging within me was a voice—a voice that was mine and yet not mine. It was then that I realized I had something to say.  And I was beginning to sense how a minister came up with all those words week after week. 

It was around this time that the minister at my home church—the Rev. Daniel J. Weitner—invited me to preach on Reformation Sunday. This both frightened and excited me at the same time.  I worked on that first “real” sermon for weeks. I poured my heart into it and gave it the title “To Understand.”[3]  

I eventually graduated from Rutgers with a double major in history and religion—from Rutgers, an extremely liberal, secular school.  I’m grateful for the faith-challenges I experienced in such a context.  I left Rutgers with my mind and my heart on fire, with a definite call to preach.  Then the journey continued—after one semester at Yale Divinity School I transferred to Princeton Seminary, as a seminarian I served several churches in Connecticut and New Jersey, received a fellowship at graduation from Princeton that took me to Scotland, ordained to serve St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, as an assistant minister, studied at the University of St. Andrews, came back to the United States in 1991, I served seven years at the First Presbyterian “Hilltop” Church in Mendham, NJ, called to Catonsville in 1999, and eventually finished my PhD in 2002.  The journey continues.

Since that time back at Rutgers my voice has become stronger, more confident to say what I alone can’t say, yet must say.  This is why preaching might be called, to borrow from Barth, “the impossible possibility.” The voice is mine and yet it’s not mine. The message comes through me and picks up some of my “me-ness,” but it’s not mine.  It doesn’t belong to me, yet it comes through me.  We have this ministry “in clay jars,” as Paul said, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).  As Tillich said of the prophet, “No true prophet has ever prophesied voluntarily,” that is, preached voluntarily.  “It has been forced upon him by a Divine Voice to which he has not been able to close his ears.”[4]  There are times when I feel called to preach a sermon that I don’t necessarily want to preach, but must. Every pastor struggles with this tension. Every pastor knows what’s going to ruffle the feathers of a congregation, she knows someone is going to get ticked off about something; he knows there will be resistance and pushback. That’s what the gospel does.  Preachers are not called to say what the church wants to hear, but what we sense, by grace, the church needs to hear.  As the old saying goes, the role of the preacher is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Over the years I’ve learned two things. 

First, when we’re dealing with God, never say never. 

And, second, I now know how a minister comes up with all those words.

Truth is:  It’s a bottomless well. And the Spirit, who searches the depths of God, searches us and shows us what needs to be said.  For, “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 1:11).  To be honest, there is so much that needs to be said.  There is no way to exhaust the message of the Divine Voice. There isn’t enough time to say all that needs to be said.  This is true for all of us.  The Spirit shows all of us what needs to be said.

You, too, have a voice.  You have something to say.  This morning during adult education we heard from our youth that participated in the Youth Service Opportunities Project in New York City in June.  They closed their presentation with a group photo standing in front of a large poster with these words printed on it, words from the Quaker George Fox (1624-1691).  It read:  LET YOUR LIVES SPEAK!

Knowing that we have something to say is critically important because there are things only you can say, good news that only you can share, good news the world is literally dying to hear.  There are people out there waiting to hear a word from the Lord—and you have no right to withhold it from them.  There are people waiting to hear what only you can tell them about God’s love and grace.  They need to hear it and they need to see it, in you and me, from within your experience of God’s love. 

For “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” (2 Cor. 5:19) as Paul said. Surely of the most sublime verses of scripture and one of my favorite texts.

God comes in Christ with love, forgiveness and grace.
God comes in Christ to transform our lives with a New Creation.
God comes in Christ to reconcile and to heal our lives,
                        our families,
                        our relationships,
                        our communities.
God comes in Christ to liberate us and set us free.
That, my friends, is the good news. 
That, my friends—that’ll preach.

[1] Princeton TheologicalSeminary and Princeton University are separate institutions, although historically related. Princeton University, originally called The College of New Jersey, was charted in 1746 by Presbyterians to educate ministers, but later expanded its mission beyond training clergy.   Princeton Seminary was founded in 1812 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to educate and train ministers to serve the expanding western frontier of the new nation. Today, there is a strong bond between the two institutions. The Seminary commencement services are held at the University Chapel.
[2] The four "authors" or traditions are known as J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomist).
[3] The sermon was heavily influenced by my reading of Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978).
[4] From Paul Tillich’s sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1948), 8.

14 September 2014

Loving the Stranger

Andrei Rublev (1360-1460), the "Hospitality of Abraham,"
 also known as the "Trinity" icon.
Genesis 18:1-15 & Romans 12:2, 9-15

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14 September 2008

It’s tough to tell how many showed up that day.  The text isn’t clear whether Yahweh was alone or had three men, possibly angels, with him, for it says both. Perhaps Abraham’s sight was blurred in the heat of the sun and it looked as if three men had appeared. The first eight verses of Genesis18 move along at a clip. Abraham offers water to wash their feet and allows them to rest. He offers a little bread to provide rest for their onward journey, never presuming that he is the reason for their visit. He does everything to make his guests feel welcomed, unhurried, relaxed. These are all understated expressions of hospitality, but then Abraham throws the kitchen ovens on full heat. Behind the scenes he’s sending everyone off to mix the flour (6.5 pounds worth), to knead the bread and tells Sarah to put a cake in the oven. Abraham runs off to the herd to get a calf—tender and good—and gives it to the servants to prepare it. Then they fetch something to drink. All this flurry of activity is going on in the background so that Abraham can provide an enormous feast for his guests and make it look easy. A feast for Yahweh and friends.

We’re drawn into this text by Abraham’s generosity and welcome. In Abraham’s world hospitality was the primary act of a civilized people. Abraham and Sarah’s actions are in sharp contrast to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, as told in the next chapter in Genesis, who were not hospitable to their divine guests. This turned out to be the real sin of these cities: inhospitality.[1] Not so with Abraham and Sarah.

After eating, the guests wish to speak with Sarah, who was in the tent. Women probably did not eat with men and were kept separate. (I’ve seen this arrangement many times in both Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)  One man says to Abraham that when he returns next year Sarah will be pregnant with a son. Sarah, overhearing the conversation from the tent, begins to laugh to herself about the whole affair. I’m sure she got a really good laugh out of that. But Yahweh wasn’t laughing. Yahweh says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh? At the set time I will return to you in due season and Sarah shall have a son.” Then Sarah comes out of the tent and denies it, “I didn’t laugh.” By this time she was afraid. Then Yahweh said, “Oh yes, you did.”

This is an extremely old story, definitive for the Hebrew people and all those blessed through the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah, both Christians and Muslims. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann makes the strong case that everything in this narrative revolves around this pivotal question: “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” It might even be the fundamental question of the Bible. And it’s God’s question directed right at us: Is there anything too hard for Yahweh? 

What do you think?  Be careful how you answer.  Say, Yes, then God is not God; say, No, then be prepared for amazement.

A lot rides on our capacity to be receptive.  It always does. So much depends upon our ability to remain open. Doesn’t it? A lot depends upon our willingness to welcome, well—God, and all that that entails. In fact, there is a direct link between being hospitable to a stranger and entertaining the presence of God. There is a connection between welcoming God and welcoming a stranger. There’s a link between receiving guests and receiving God and, therefore, receiving a blessing.

Here’s why. This text provides a remarkable window into the custom of hospitality in desert cultures. But it’s about more than social etiquette. It says something about the way we make space for the other, for the stranger, whoever the stranger, the other might be.  Our ability to be hospitable is a measure of how open we are to the presence of God, to those moments when God shows up.  In other words, when God shows up, unannounced and unexpected, in surprising circumstances and people, how will you respond? Will you welcome what God has to say? Will you be ready?  Are you welcoming? 

One way the Hebrews and early Christians prepared themselves to welcome the presence of God was to make sure they were hospitable to everyone. Because God just might show up on your doorstep in the stranger—or the strange. And what is stranger than God, the Ultimate Stranger?  The ever-elusive One who is Wholly Other, whose ways are not our ways, the One known and yet always unknown and mysterious. What are you going to do when God shows us?

In a recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, Diana Butler Bass notes that one of the ten signposts of churches experiencing renewal is its approach toward hospitality. What is hospitality? It’s more than simply having “welcoming committees” or hospitality programs, “where friendliness seems little more than a phony act to get newcomers to join the church.” We’re not talking about a kind of religious Welcome Wagon, that emerged in the 1960s, which, “for all its friendliness, was essentially a way to promote certain stores and products.” And hospitality is not a code word for “promotion,” with the church as the primary product, hospitality isn’t “an instrument used for another end: to sign people up as pledging members.”[2] That’s not hospitality.

True Christian hospitality” Bass says, “is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith—something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself.”[3]  Hospitality is not instrumental; it’s not a means to an end, it’s not something you do to get something else.  It’s an end in itself.

Christian hospitality has its origins in desert, nomadic cultures where each guest was honored, given respect, cared for, fed, sheltered, so that one could continue on their journey. Hospitality was essential in a culture full of nomads, sojourners and seekers, traders in traveling caravans trying to make a living, and religious pilgrims.  We might not be caravan traders today, but all of us nomads and spiritual sojourners and pilgrims searching for home.  Every traveler who crosses the threshold of our space, every pilgrim who crosses the threshold of our lives needs to be honored, given respect, cared for, sheltered, offered food for the onward journey.

And hospitality was practiced by the first Christians because they discovered in Christ something of the welcome of God.  Knowing a similar welcome, personally, in your lives, in your hearts, will make you more welcoming—it just will, naturally. Knowing the welcome of God will free you to be hospitable to the other, to the stranger. In her spiritual classic, Dakota, Presbyterian writer Kathleen Norris wrote, “The classic sign of God’s mystery is to entertain, to make room for the other.”[4]

In fact, the first Christians loved the other, loved the stranger so much that Roman society was puzzled by it and in awe.  Many in Roman society considered Christians misanthropes, that is, inhuman, because they dared to love strangers and care for people beyond the limits of their family.[5]  In Hebrews 13:2 we read, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels unawares.”  And you can see it here in here Romans 12:13. “Extend hospitality to strangers.”  Philoxenos.  Paul is talking about Philoxenos, loving the stranger. (The Greek reads, Φιλοξενίαν.)  What Paul is talking about is the polar opposite of xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. Philoxenos—love the stranger, love the foreigner. That’s what Christians do. That’s what we do. For we all know what it’s like to be foreigners, that is, living beyond the borders of God’s Kingdom, when God’s love and grace were alien to us and we were aliens to God. 

Christians make space for the stranger because God in Christ has made a space for us.
Christians welcome the stranger because we know ourselves welcomed by God.
Christians welcome the stranger because we suspect the face of the other just might be the face of God.

You never know who’s going to show up at your tent flap!

When the Roman Empire finally collapsed amid social chaos and violence it was Saint Benedict (c. 480-c.547), in Italy, who first formed monasteries, in the sixth century. He established places of refuge, communities commissioned to “receive guests as Christ.” To this day Benedictines have to welcome every guest who arrives at the door of their monasteries or abbeys.

Hospitality is not a program or a technique. It’s a way of life that stands at the center of who we are. It shapes how we bear the name of Christ. Hospitality flows from our hearts. This is something we as a church have spent a lot of time talking about over the last couple of years. The renovations back in 2008 were done within the theological context of hospitality and they’re continuing with the reconstruction of the Beechwood steps.

Constructing a building hospitable is one thing.  Forming a hospitable community of people is something else.  This requires constant effort; it’s an ongoing journey for all of us, as our Vision study demonstrated several years ago. There’s always room for growth in this area because there are always new people coming into the church.  We must continually ask: how can we deepen our expression of hospitality? It’s a question for all of us. For, we as a church might think we are being hospitable, but is that how people think and feel when they meet us and get to know us? Do they see Christ in us, in our words, in our actions? Do we see Christ in them? Do we see Christ in one another?

Consider all the people who come through this building and the Church House. Many come as guests for worship. Are those visiting today seeing Christ in us? And there are others who cross our thresholds who are not part of this or any faith community. Do they see Christ in us? Do we welcome them as we would the Lord or are they imposing on “our” space? Consider all the groups that meet here: Al-Anon, martial arts groups, Scottish Country dancers on Monday nights in the gym, the Scouts; presbytery committees; Concert Series guests; the people who come to the counseling center in the Church House. Think about all the children in our Child Care Center and their parents dropping off and picking up their children every day. Or think of the contractors who are on site every day. Sure, we’re paying them to do a job, but who are they? What do they see in us? Do they see Christ in us? Do we see Christ in them? Back in 2008, one contractor came up to me and asked me to pray for close friends who lost a parent, a child, with a second child seriously ill. What an unbearable burden to carry. I said I would pray and that we would pray. And we did.

Love the stranger. Be hospitable. Extend welcome.  Feels risky, doesn’t it? Of course it is. The Christian life is always risky. It means we have to be vulnerable.  And this is scary.  I know.  But what if we started small?  When you find a seat at the picnic after worship today…you can sit down with people you know or you can choose to take a risk and sit by someone you’ve never met before or someone you don’t know well or a stranger who bears the image of Christ, a stranger who might become your new best friend or soul mate. What’s the worst that can happen?

It’s always easier to stay with the known, but the Holy Spirit is always pushing us elsewhere, inviting us to open our hearts, reach out, and welcome the other.  This is how community is formed; this is what the church is really supposed to be about and what it’s supposed to look like, a community full of difference and diversity forged together by the Spirit into a people by the grace of God, united in Christ. Because we’re united in Christ there is space for difference and diversity.  When we’re united in Christ, rooted and grounded in God’s love, only then can we be hospitable and graceful toward people with different viewpoints, different political and cultural values, different races and ethnicities and backgrounds, people you might consider “strange,” people who make you uncomfortable or trigger anxieties and fears or bring out the worst in you.  The psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) once said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”[6]  And, I would add, it’s precisely with this kind of self-understanding, gained in this way, that the life and health of the Church can be renewed. When we know that we have been and that we are welcomed into the church by the arms of Christ we are free to get close to people we keep at arms length.  Without this, how is true community going to take place?

The wise and generous soul, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once said, “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests…. Then…the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of unity.”[7]  In a post-9-11 world, now thirteen years out from that fateful day,  a world filled with greater hate-filled extremism, an ever widening clash between civilizations, insidious political polarization at home and abroad, and vilification of others with differing outlooks, opinions, and experiences, the practice of authentic, risky, Christian hospitality is needed all the more. Wouldn’t you agree?  

God is still calling the Church, expecting the Church—you and me—to model a different way of being in the world, a “still more excellent way,” rooted in love.  The work we’ve been given to do as the Church, invited to share in through the welcome of Christ, is essential today. And I’m grateful, that we get to be a part of this work, to be engaged in God’s work in the world—together.

[1]See James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), an outstanding presentation of contemporary academic scholarship written for non-academics. Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (Convergent Books, 2014) provides a good overview of recent scholarship and how it informs life experience, 60ff.
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2007), 77-87.
[3] Bass, 77-87.
[4] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Mariner Books, 2001), 198.
[5] Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Wipf & Stock, 2003) and Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook (Westminster John Knox Press, 1989).
[6] C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 247.
[7] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday, 1975), cited in Bass, 86.