On October 16, the Crafton Heights Church began to explore “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” – five behaviors which, if enacted consistently, will allow us to grow into the church that God intends for us to be. The concept is based in the writing and teaching of United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase, and you can learn more about this material from his blog.
Our first practice is that of Radical Hospitality, and we considered Genesis 18:1-8 as well as the familiar teaching of Jesus regarding the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46
In November of 1965, poet Allan Ginsburg wrote an essay encouraging those who were against the war in Vietnam to make their protests witnesses to beauty and life. In particular, said Ginsburg, protesters should carry flowers and offer affirmations of what is good, not just point out what is bad. Ginsburg’s suggestion caught on with a number of people in the hippie culture, and some of the most memorable photos of that era involve protesters standing against weaponry with daisies and daffodils.
In fact, “Flower Power” became a rallying cry of the hippie movement. When the mainstream culture referred to someone as a “flower child”, that was another way of saying that this individual was into psychedelic drugs, or social permissiveness, or some other countercultural behavior. “Flower Power” became the recognized and durable image of a generation of Americans in the 1960’s and 70’s.
But you know, I trust, that Allan Ginsburg and Abby Hoffman weren’t the first to experiment with this rhyme. You, or your mom, or your granddad might remember the flower power of the 1960’s, and that’s great. But this morning I would like to talk with you about your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great….grandmother, Sarah, whose experiments with Flour Power more than three thousand years ago changed the world.
The desert of Wadi Rum in Southern Jordan
The story takes place in the Middle Eastern desert. More than twenty years prior to the reading that you heard this morning, Sarah and her husband, Abraham, had been called by God and had heard great promises of amazing things. Even though they were elderly, God said, they would have a son. Even though they were few, they would have many descendants. Even though they had no heritage to speak of, they would receive a blessing that would enable them to become a blessing to millions of other people. God’s promise was that great things would happen.
Except for about two dozen years, nothing happened. Oh, they had some ups and downs. They went on a few nice trips. They encountered the neighbors in all sorts of ways. But the bedrock promise – the son for Sarah – was not fulfilled.
In the reading you heard a few moments ago, we hear that three visitors show up on Abraham and Sarah’s doorstep. Now we know that one of these visitors was “the Lord”, but there’s no indication from the reading that either Sarah or Abraham had any idea who the visitor was. What we do know was that during the heat of the day – at the absolute least-convenient time – three people arrive at their home.
Ariel breakfasting with the Sheikh in the desert at Wadi Rum, Jordan in September 2010
And when that happens, Abraham does what desert-dwellers (then and now) do – he offers hospitality. The extending of a meal and a place to stay is not simply a courtesy that is offered by someone trying to be nice. In inviting the men in, he is quite possibly saving their lives. The desert is a wilderness that is full of danger and short on opportunity. This was really impressed on me last year as our daughter Ariel and I camped with the Bedouin people in southern Jordan and northern Egypt. Nobody knows what is coming next, and when you meet a fellow-traveler in this situation, you share what you have. You share because you know that one day you’ll be the traveler and therefore you’ll be relying on someone else.
And in this case, Abraham and Sarah respond to the need with lavish generosity. Abraham tells Sarah to go ahead and fix up “three measures of flour”. That’s about the direct opposite of me setting out a couple of twinkies and a can of pop. Three measures of flour is the equivalent of 128 cups of flour. That’s sixteen five-pound bags – a bushel – of flour. When you add the water to prepare the bread for baking, it comes to more than a hundred pounds of dough! That’s more bread than you could eat in a week. And just to make sure that the guests feel welcome, there’s an entire calf and some cottage cheese on the side. For three visitors!
In the context of this meal that is shared, Abraham and Sarah come to learn of the identity of the three guests. The promise of a son is renewed, and in fact a timetable is given – it will be within the year. In addition, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family are saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As Abraham and Sarah extend this gift of hospitality, they come to know God’s will and intentions in deeper and more powerful ways.
This is truly “flour power.” This is a great example of God’s people responding to the needs of other people – or at least the opportunities that surround them – with grace and generosity. All week, many of us have been reading about the practice of Radical Hospitality as one dimension of a healthy and fruitful faith community. And surely Abraham and Sarah could be the poster children for this practice in the way that they offered themselves to these guests. We can learn a lot from them.
If I stopped here, though, it would be tempting to view the practice of hospitality from some sort of a cost/benefit analysis. After all, we could reason, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents Abraham and Sarah shared hospitality and they got richly blessed. Maybe if you or I follow suit, then we’ll be blessed, too. After all, you’ve got to give it to get it, right?
And to be honest, that’s how hospitality is viewed in our culture today, isn’t it? We speak of the “hospitality industry”, which includes lodging, dining, travel, and amusement parks, among other businesses. Because our culture, unlike that of Abraham and Sarah, does not expect that people will house or feed strangers who find themselves on the road, Hyatt or Econolodge or King’s or McDonald’s will take care of that. And the goal of the hospitality industry is to maximize profit by creating repeat customers who are loyal to a particular brand. So it’s in the best interest of, say, the Hilton Hotel to treat you right so that you will not only sign up for their frequent traveler plan, but you’ll also recommend the Hilton to your friends. Most of the “hospitality industry” stays afloat because they take care of their customers for less than their customers pay them – and the profits are returned to the shareholders. You run a nice hotel, you get nice clients, you make money – everybody wins.
That model is present in the church, too. Churches do analyses of their communities and discover who is there and then they come up with a plan to lure those folks in so that they can become members so that they will contribute so that the church won’t lose money and the church can stay open. In fact, I got some grief about this a number of years ago when this church began to operate the Open Door Youth Outreach. Another local pastor asked about our children and youth ministry and said, “But aren’t most of those kids in families that aren’t likely to come to your church?” Maybe, I said. “And a lot of the kids who come to your programs…are they low income?” Quite a few, I said. “Well, I just don’t get your strategy,” he said. “You might be able to get a few of those kids to join, but they’re going to be lousy members and probably end up costing you money in the long run.” I explained that we weren’t looking at the Open Door as a revenue generator or a member producer, but more as a chance to share the love of God with kids who might need to know about it, but I’m not sure he was convinced. Oh well.
This idea of offering hospitality because it’s a smart way to plan on getting some sort of payback is pretty common in our homes, too. We have a gathering and we invite “our kind” of people. Folks who we want to like us, or to help us. So far too often we screen our friends carefully and make sure that when we invite people in, they will be people who won’t mess up our stuff or stain the carpets.
The problem is that in every one of these cases, we don’t really know who is coming to the door. According to Jesus, God is still in the business of making surprise visits to unsuspecting hosts.
Did you hear what he said in Matthew? “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was sick, or lonely, and you cared enough to show me some kindness.”
The righteous, of course, reply by saying, “There must be some mistake, Lord. We never helped you at all.”
“Maybe not,” says Jesus – but when you extended yourself to the least of your neighbors, you were reaching out and welcoming me.”
Hospitality is a Kingdom value. Those of us who claim to follow Jesus are bound to consider it in all the areas of our lives. I wonder: what are the implications of the Biblical commands to welcome the stranger and shelter the traveler when viewed in light of a particular nation’s immigration policies? Do the things that Jesus says about caring for others find any traction when we make decisions about humanitarian assistance in other parts of the globe? We are not going to explore those questions today, but it seems to me that it is foolish to think that there are no connections between the scriptural imperative to care for “the least of these” and the policies Christians around the world instruct our various governments to implement in our names.
But, as I say, we don’t have time (and, I suspect, you don’t have much interest in) to discuss all of those ramifications and viewpoints. A little closer to home, we could ask how we as a region or a community welcome the stranger. One of the reasons that I am excited about The Pittsburgh Promise is because I believe that it’s one means by which people in our city can say, “If you live here, we will help you do well by your children.” But even county and city policies are a little adventurous for a morning sermon.
What about our own congregation? What can we at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights do to be faithful to the command to practice hospitality?
You might say, “Well, Pastor Dave, we’ve made some great strides. Look at the building! People who were unable to be here two or three years ago can get into the room now. The plumbing is accessible! The ramp is working!” And you’d be right. The building is easier than ever to use.
But are we any better at caring for and with each other? When I was a student in ministry, I served a large congregation. I know it seems a little shocking to you, but in this congregation, people had gotten accustomed to sitting in their own pews – the very same pews week after week! Can you imagine that? One Sunday we welcomed a new minister to the church, and before he preached his first sermon, he made everyone in the room stand up. He said, “I’ve only been here a week, but I want you to know, friends, that I’ve met a lot of people who sit over on the left side of the church. And they are nice people. And the folks on the right hand side seem pretty impressive, too. You’ve all introduced yourselves to me – but I’m not sure you know each other.” And so for the first two weeks, he made people get up out of their seats and cross the aisle and sit with someone else.
No, as a matter of fact, he didn’t last too long at that church.
But here’s the deal – we are a friendly congregation. You show up to worship here, and I bet someone will shake your hand and maybe even offer you a cup of coffee. That’s not shabby. But there’s a difference between being friendly and being hospitable. Friendly is saying hello after worship, and hospitable is asking if there is anything that you’d like us to pray about. Friendliness is mentioning that there is childcare available in the back, and hospitality is offering to help with your crying baby or asking if you need some babysitting later in the week.
One of the best ideas you all have had in recent years is the afterschool program that Jessica Simcox is leading in this building four days a week. Under her leadership, we are able to involve concerned and capable volunteers in the lives of young people who need safe places and trusted relationships. Can we do that in other areas of our life together, too?
And finally, what about our own lives? Forget about national policy, or local government, or even the Crafton Heights church. What about the way I spend my time and energy? At the end of the day, am I a welcoming person? Not only in the sense of “sure, I’ll fix you a cup of coffee” but in the larger and more important sense of making my life a safe place? When you talk, am I hearing you? Or are you just background noise in my head?
When our ancestors Abraham and Sarah made room in their lives for some strangers, they used a hundred pounds of bread dough and a calf. My hunch is that probably isn’t going to work in your neighborhood. What is the 21st century equivalent to that kind of radical hospitality? I have a hunch it’s more than being “facebook friends”.
What would that kind of hospitality look like in your life? Is it volunteering for the carpool? Cutting your neighbor’s lawn? Taking dinner to a friend’s family?
Flour Power. Abraham and Sarah used it, and it changed the world. I dare you to spend an hour this week thinking about what you can do in your world to demonstrate the concrete love and welcome of Jesus Christ in the world around you. And then I double dare you to go ahead and try. God bless you as you do. Amen.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdman’s/Zondervan 1985, p. 118)