Radical hospitality and worship...

NOTE: On this wild and blustery New England day of snow and freezing rain when EVERYTHING is closing down, I have finished my notes for Sunday morning, February 1st. Last week I shared some ideas about worship and sensed a need to deepen and continue this jag so... over the next month I'm going to play with a host of other worship ideas, too. Please know that if you are in the area at 10:30 am, you would ALWAYS be welcome to join us.

Welcome, beloved of God, welcome. I know we’ve already shared the peace of Christ together – and it is true that I’ve already spoken a formal greeting to you at the start of the liturgy. But if our texts for today assure us of anything it is that we cannot welcome one another with affection, respect and gratitude too often. For, you see, when we rejoice in receiving another as a true sister or brother, we are indeed celebrating and recognizing the very presence of our Lord Jesus Christ within and among us.

Jesus asked his friends, “What were you discussing as we walked along the road today?” The silence of their response was deafening because they had been arguing over who among them was the greatest. So he sat down in their midst – a sign that he was going to teach them something – and said, “If you want first place, then take last place and live as a servant to all.” Then putting a small child in the middle of the room, Jesus cuddled the little one in his arms, saying, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me – and far more than me – you embrace the Lord who sent me.”

This is not a sentimental rave about children – although little ones are essential and beloved – this is about hospitality. Religious sociologists, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, write:

Contrary to our ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting, imaginative and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentle Jesus, childhood in antiquity was a time of terror…. Children were the weakest, the most vulnerable members of society with an infant mortality rate of 30%, a death rate of another 30% by age six and over 60% of all children dead by the age of 16. (The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 33.)

So we’re talking radical hospitalitydangerous compassion – lives so constructed on generosity and welcome that they make God visible to even unbelievers. And guess what, Christian friends? Unless this radical hospitality is expressed and experienced in our worship, you can almost always guarantee that it will elude us in our daily living. Because as some of our African American preachers put it: “You gotta walk the walk, not just talk the talk… and you can’t live what is not inside you to give.”

So let me share with you three insights about hospitality and worship that can deepen our commitment to living into God’s bold welcome and bring a measure of hope and joy with the world. As we say in our mission and vision statement: In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. So let’s talk about community in worship.

The first insight about worship and welcome is so obvious that I almost hate to say it out loud but I will: our worship celebration must always point us towards God. It is from God that we receive strength to love those who are unlovable. It is from God that we experience the grace and forgiveness we need to live life exuberantly. It is from God that we are given eyes to see the light in the darkness, hope amidst despair and the eagle within the egg. And it is from God that we find a way to become our best and truest self.

That is to say, authentic worship helps us get out of our own way so that God’s healing love can be discerned. Experienced. Considered and embraced. When Jesus placed that child in the midst of his friends and disciples – when he embraced and nourished him – he was saying: the time has come for you to get over yourselves. Your vision is too narrow. Your habits are too parochial. And your hopes are too selfish. Look what I am doing: from now on the least powerful and valued people will be at the center of our life together. So if you want to be first – and there is nothing wrong in being first – but if you want to be first you will do the same as me: you will act in an upside down way by elevating those at the bottom. You will live in solidarity with the least of your sisters and brothers. Look at this child:

In ancient culture, children had no status. They were subject to the authority of their fathers, viewed as little more than property. Membership within the community of the faithful will now involve giving status to those who have none. Accepting such an unimportant member of society in Jesus' name is equivalent to accepting Jesus. And accepting Jesus is equivalent to accepting God. So hospitality, a major aspect of life in the ancient world, is to be extended to the most unlikely… indeed hospitality to the unimportant will be a hallmark of the circle of Jesus' followers, as it was in Jesus' own ministry. And this has everything to do with faithfulness to the one whose rejection and death mark the way to glory and eternal life. (Juel, Mark Augsburg Commentary.)

The first commitment we make in worship is to be grounded in God’s grace. For “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty. There’s no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven; there’s no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given. For the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” First, we’re grounded in God’s gracious presence.

Now I just came across the most fascinating illustration of how difficult and counter cultural this grounding can be for us in this tongue and cheek description of a new way to make our stewardship/ fundraising campaigns more successful. They call it the Lord’s Lottery and the bottom line thinking it advocates says that in times like these we all have to find new and better ways to get more money into the offering plates on Sunday morning. So, here’s the proposal:

When the ushers bring the offering plates forward, the pastor will place all the offering envelopes in a big round tumbler on the communion table. One of the ushers will then step forward and draw out one of the offering envelopes from the big round tumbler on the table announcing that the 'winner' (the person or family whose offering envelope has been drawn) will receive DOUBLE THEIR MONEY BACK!!

Just think of the benefits that the Lord’s Lottery offers to us:

+ More and more members will begin using offering envelopes. When you make offering envelopes available only to members you will be astounded at how quickly your membership will grow.

+ Members will naturally put in more money because they know that if their envelope is drawn they will get more money back (note: never underestimate the intelligence of your members.)

+ Worship will reach new heights of excitement. Can imagine the excitement and drama each Sunday as the winning envelope is drawn. And you will have no trouble lining up ushers because of the excitement, honor, and prestige that comes with the job.

Hmmmm… if our first worship commitment is to be grounded in a God who empowers us to become our best selves by learning to get out of our own way, then our second has something to do with bringing a childlike enthusiasm to all of life – worship included. One of the blessings I received over the Christmas holidays came from a mom and her daughter who told one of our young mom’s that Christmas Eve was the first time she had ever received communion – and it changed her heart. She felt welcomed. Loved. Important to God.

Now pay attention to this: she didn’t know all of the doctrinal truths about Eucharist. And she couldn’t say the prayers or explain what was actually taking place at that sacred supper. But she felt and encountered the love of God. Christian educators, David Ng & Virginia Thomas, have studied the way that children can teach adults about the love of God during Holy Communion.

When children partake of bread and wine the "tables are turned." Their participation in the sacrament of the Lord's Table teaches the rest of the church something very important about God and our relationship with God. We are prevented from a Gnostic practice of our religion. The essence of Gnostic religion is the right knowledge of certain secrets; thus is the path to salvation. But the Lord's Supper and baptism are meant as gifts to be received in faith. We do not claim God's gifts through our superior intellect or knowledge of certain secrets kept from others. When children have the audacity to receive God's gifts, which they could in no way deserve on the basis of their knowledge or experience, the rest of the church can learn again the meaning of trust and faith. In the matter of a "right practice" of the sacraments, it is possible that the children shall lead us.

There is an old story from the Hassidic tradition that tells of the town’s rabbi trying and trying to study and find something insightful to tell his congregation about God’s love. He looked down at the sacred words. Then he looked up and sighed. How could he study the holy texts with so much on his mind?

For one thing, there were people in his care. Was he being too strict with them or too lenient? Should he spend more time listening to those in need? Or would his time be better spent talking to the wealthy, convincing them to meet the needs of the poor? For another thing, his office was in perpetual disorder. But how could he use a precious hour like this one to straighten his office, when he might be gaining wisdom from the eternal words? And then there was the demand of time: the Sabbath would soon be upon him and he had no insights to share.

All of a sudden he heard a loud squeal outside his house. He stood and looked out his tiny window and saw two children, a boy and a girl, running after a ball. They reached it, accidentally kicked it ahead of them, then squealed with delight. They ran after it again, laughing and shrieking. Sometime later, the rabbi's wife entered the front room of their little house and noticed that the door to the outside stood ajar. She walked over to close it when she noticed that her husband was standing just outside.

She watched him. He stood there, shaking his head. Following his gaze, she noticed the children, still chasing their ball. "Are you all right, Payshe?” she asked. “Are the children disturbing your holy work?" He turned to face her. "Oh, dear woman," he said. "I am disturbed, but it is not the fault of the children. Look at them, do you see how they run so purposefully after the ball? How every muscle, every bone in their bodies moves them toward the one thing they seek at the moment?"

Then he put his arm on her shoulder, as they both gazed at the playing children. "I am disturbed because I cannot seem to do that. Can you imagine how quickly the whole world would be made holy, if we could all serve God with that much single-mindedness?" She slipped her arm around his waist and the two of them remained in their doorway a long time, reading the miraculous text before them.

Jesus regularly spoke of such wisdom and enthusiasm and even child- like abandon. And I am of the conviction that worship can help or hinder this quality in us: it can make us dour, grumpy and fearful old souls or those with the soul of a child chasing a ball. But again we have to get out of our way long enough for some of God’s grace to break through our flinty exteriors.

And you know what? I’ve seen those beautiful children in you: I’ve seen you clap and snap your fingers on the offbeat even when you feel a little silly. I’ve heard you sing like angels with gusto on some of our songs that feed your spirit. And I’ve heard you laugh in worship – and seen some of your tears, too – as you start to trust and open up.

Keep going, beloved, it is a beautiful thing to come to worship with childlike enthusiasm. There are already too many old grumps – and how did Jesus put it? “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me – and far more than me – you embrace the Lord who sent me.”

And one thing more – the third insight about worship and welcome – our words, our music, our actions and even the way we use this Sanctuary must clearly show that God’s loving grace is available to everyone: those we love and those we hate, those who think like us and those with very different visions, those who are old and those who are new, those who are traditional and those who are post-modern, those who are politically incorrect and those who are way PC! For we have been called to be servants – ministers – bearers of God’s grace to the world. One more story from our Jewish forebearers: It tells of a very wealthy merchant who comes upon a poor old man in the train and treats him with rudeness and disdain.

When they arrive at their common destination, the merchant finds the station thronged with pious Jews waiting in ecstatic joy to greet the arrival of one of the holiest rabbis in Europe, and learns to his chagrin that the old man in his compartment is that saintly rabbi. Embarrassed at his disgraceful behavior and distraught that he missed a golden opportunity to speak in privacy to a wise and holy man, the merchant pushes his way through the crowd to find the old man. When he reaches him, he begs the rabbi's forgiveness and requests his blessing. The old rabbi looks at him and replies, "I cannot forgive you. To receive forgiveness you must go out and beg it from every poor old person in the world."

Worship in our tradition is God centered: God’s grace empowers us to get over ourselves and out of our own way, it encourages us to enter and experience worship – and all of life – with a childlike exuberance and it challenges us to share grace and hospitality with all. “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me – and far more than me – you embrace the Lord who sent me.”

Let’s affirm the core of this truth by faith as we sing together:

When peace like a river upholds me each day when sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say: it is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well – with my soul – it is well, it is well with my soul


BE said…
Good stuff! Thank you as always for all your words and wisdom.
RJ said…
Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. I've been keeping track of your winter wonderland time - and the challenge of roles - and will write a longer note soon.
Thank you very much! it does help! I will give a try on that and see how things goes!
I really appreciate your time! Thanks a lot

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