A FOUNDATION FOR HOSPITALITY
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on August 11, 2013 (Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 12:1-2
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” – Matthew 7:24-27
In May, Lyonsville Church celebrated its 170th anniversary. I have been using that occasion as an opportunity to look back at some of the important events in the history of our church, and to reflect on how God was – and is – at work among us.
The original church building was built in 1858 – with no basement (not enough money at the time). A basement was dug under the church building in 1915 using horse-drawn scoops at a cost of $200.
As an interesting side note – the church steeple on top of the old building blew off in windstorm in 1916. I wonder if there was any connection?
Among other things, the basement allowed for a central heating system. I’m sure it provided some storage space.
But it also made it possible to have a simple kitchen for cooking church meals to which the community was invited. The church history mentions chicken pot-pie dinners for 100. I can’t imaging squeezing 100 people into the old basement. And can you imagine the ladies of the church butchering and cooking chickens, baking them into pies, and setting them out to cool along the ledges on the basement walls?
These dinners were the forerunners of the turkey dinners that we hold regularly to this day.
So our church was originally built without a basement. But every building needs a solid foundation (if it is going to last). And every church needs a spiritual foundation as well – that foundation is Jesus Christ. As our reading from Matthew reminds us, those who are wise will build their church – and their lives – on the teachings of Christ.
One of the key aspects of Christ’s ministry was hospitality. He had a reputation for welcoming all kinds of folks: rich and poor, Jew and Samaritan, men and women. He welcomed those who were good, religious and moral folks; and those who were people of questionable virtue – and saw that there often isn’t much difference between them!
This was not really new. Hospitality was a part of Semitic culture, and there are great stories in the Bible of people who showed hospitality to strangers, and were blessed as a result. Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers to their tent, and they brought the good by laughable news that Sarah would bear a child in her old age. A widow in Zarephath received the prophet Elijah into her home, even though there was a severe famine and she had nothing to serve him, and her meager supplies did not run out. And in perhaps the greatest story of hospitality ever, a young woman named Mary allowed God to use her own body as a place of nurture for the baby Jesus. So it may be of little surprise that Jesus practiced hospitality as well.
And I think these stories illustrate an important point. Hospitality is more than just an obligation or duty. It is more than being kind to others in need. For the strangers we welcome may be messengers from God, as our reading from Hebrews suggests. They may reveal new truths about God, expand our ideas about who God is, and bring unexpected blessings with them. Strangers may be one of the greatest ways by which God is revealed to us.
That is an important lesson for us to learn not only for our church, but in this time in our country (as many other times) when people are suspicious of strangers: immigrants, people who practice other religions, and many others.
Hospitality was a foundation for this church. When this was still very much a wilderness, church members would welcome travelers into their homes. The Potawatomi Indians, who once lived on this land, were permitted to camp for a time on Vial family land, and they would occasionally host Chief Shabbona during occasional visits to the area. As we learned a couple weeks ago, Rufus Brown used his home as a refuge for escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad system. The adjacent Lyonsville Cemetery became a final resting place for two unknown soldiers of the Civil War, and for people of the community – whether church members or not, whether Christian or not.
In more recent years:
During the 1980s, violence in the Central American country of Guatemala forced many in that country to flee to safety in Southern Mexico. Rev. Tom Neilsen, who was pastor of Lyonsville Church at the time, took several groups of volunteers to Southern Mexico to minister to the needs of those refugees. Refugees.
In 2005 we became an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation, extending a welcome to many people, including LGBT folks, who often do not feel welcome in other congregations.
We offer weddings and civil unions to non-members.
I hope that we can be a home to people who are “searching” – who aren’t sure what they believe or if they have faith of any kind. I hope we can be a place where people can express doubts and ask tough questions.
Hospitality is more than a way of attracting new members to the church, it is a spiritual discipline. Henri Nouwen, in his book “Reaching Out – the Three Movements of the Spiritual Journey”, wrote that one of the journeys of spiritual growth is the journey from hostility to hospitality. How might we continue on this journey ourselves?
– Dinners (like the turkey dinner) are more than just fund-raisers, but are opportunities for fellowship in working together, and for welcoming strangers to this place. I try to get around to meet folks and welcome them.
– Take the time to meet and welcome visitors, and perhaps find out why they came to worship with us (or came to our food pantry). We are still a small enough church that we can recognize folks who are new.
The solid foundation of the church is not only to proclaim the message of Jesus, but also to live as he taught. A foundation of hospitality is a cornerstone of the church. As we gather together for worship we long to receive a revelation of God – perhaps in scripture and preaching, in music and art and community. Remember that the best glimpse of God might be in the stranger who visits us today. We may have angels among us!
Robert J. von Trebra