Romans 12:9-21

Today’s readings are incredibly deep and the theological content is extremely dense.  Each time I’ve read through them though I’ve been drawn again to the word ‘hospitality’.  Maybe it’s just where I am at the moment, or maybe because lately everywhere I turn someone wants to organise or host a meal.

Lets take today as an example, as an integral part of our combined service over the last year or so we’ve made a deliberate effort to have a meal to share after the service.  As I’ve said many times there is something unique about sharing a meal with someone that helps you relax and get to know them better.

Earlier this week I took part in another lunch time event and I’ve got a couple of pictures that I took while I was there.  They show a few people who’ve known each other for at least a decade, they enjoy each other’s company and have just finished sharing a meal together and they’re relaxing and having a bit of a chat and sharing some stories about themselves.  I did tell them that I would be using these photos as part of the sermon and so did sort of ask their permission.

But when Paul was talking about hospitality he wasn’t talking about friends or acquaintances, he was talking literally about strangers and foreigners.  At first glance this looks like it’s a bit much to ask doesn’t it?  How do we go about showing hospitality to people we don’t know at all or even people from other countries.  Well that’s precisely what’s been happening in many Lutheran congregations around Australia.  They’ve been welcoming foreigners into their churches and homes as they arrive into this country.

We haven’t had many migrants come through our doors in the last year or two but there have been a number of people who have been searching for a new church home that have appeared.  Many of you are even still here.  When you came you were strangers to us, now I hope that many of us know your names and we are extending hospitality towards you!  Many of you have also become an important part of the running of the congregation and our worship services and have truly been a blessing to us and our community!

So what does this tell us?  I was reading again Pastor Adrian Kitson’s article in the Lutheran Theological Journal last week entitled “Welcoming the stranger: being a welcoming church” and there were several things that rang true about the way we do things here.

We are a witness to the divine community among strangers.

The Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the ultimate community, the three are one, and they know each other intimately and share everything with each other.

God calls us sinners into relationship with that divine community through faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.  This truth gives the congregation motivation for welcoming the world into its midst, into relationship with the Holy Trinity and ourselves.

Our welcoming is also about going out and getting strangers.
Not only do we invite people to come into our community and share with us in our time of worship, but in many cases without even realising it we go out and do our part in bringing others into the community as well.  We do this through our schools and in our workplaces and connections with the wider community as we go about our lives in the world.  We ‘give ourselves’ to them as we serve them and see through us the love of Jesus that goes with us.  Just as Jesus became a human being and walked among us, we too go out into the community and take him with us.

However, we run the risk becoming self-oriented and unwelcoming of strangers when we think its all about us and keeping our existing group together.  This is the risk when we start to feel that our numbers are dwindling and we start worrying about how many people are or are not in the pews on a Sunday morning, we can go into maintenance mode and try and keep everyone that is here happy instead of continuing to welcome and seek out the stranger.  We can lose our mission focus and start navel gazing, wondering what went wrong!  As Adrian points out, the catch is that, effort is required.  Being a welcoming community takes time and effort and means we might have to leave our comfort zones, but when we ask God to help us and guide us and give us the strength to continue on, he will provide.

The final part of being a welcoming congregation that I’d like to mention is the phrase, “What happens after the service is as important as what happens during it…”

This can be a risky statement.  Some would say that this shifts the importance off of what God offers us during the divine service onto human things, but the fact of the matter is that the statement is true for many people.  If we can’t get the after service stuff right, people may not turn up for the service either.  If you think about it, there’s not a lot of interaction between people before the service, we turn up, wander in, sit down and wait for the service to start.  There may be some conversations but usually just the obligatory hellos and how are you goings.  Then during the service, unless we share the peace with each other we don’t even really look at each other, let alone converse.  So what is left?  That short time after the service when we have a cup of tea or coffee or maybe cordial and maybe a biscuit or piece of cake.

Adrian compares this time to the beer after the game.  When we go to a local football match, or golf, or maybe even tennis, there is often a time of socialising after the event, where we relax and wind down and discuss the game, the highlights, lowlights or otherwise. 

Likewise the time after our service is a perfect opportunity for discussion, theological or otherwise, about the service itself or to delve into each others lives and experiences and extend hospitality toward each other, that is, show love for the stranger and to those with whom we are much better acquainted.  My personal opinion is that this time is vital to our growth as a congregation, perhaps even more than the style of worship, the quality of the sermon or the music that we sing.

I think for many of us there are still people who are perhaps regular worshippers here that we haven’t managed to get to know yet.  I’d love for us to nurture an environment where we all feel comfortable asking a name and getting to know one another without anyone becoming offended because such and such didn’t remember their name.  I’ll admit that I don’t know all of your names yet, it’s embarrassing and frustrating, but its true.  Many people shake hands at the door and then disappear without staying for a cuppa and I’ve never had another opportunity to catch up!  So please, stay today and have a hot dog, a cup of tea or coffee and get to know each other better, help us to build community and show hospitality to each other.