Sermon: Sunday, January 18, 2009: 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Text: John 1:43-51


In the name of Jesus, Amen.

By now you can tell that I have very little by way of a speaking voice. I’ve caught the thing that’s been making the rounds. My doctor has diagnosed it as viral bronchitis, which means there’s very little to be done other than treat the symptoms and wait for the virus to clear my system. This illness has had many side-effects, and you can add today’s short sermon to the list. I’m not sure I have enough juice to last very long up here today.

I’d like to share with you a little bit from the conference I attended last weekend in Minneapolis. The topic was liturgy and hospitality. The conference began with an amazing hymn festival featuring the National Lutheran Choir, and featured a keynote lecture by Thomas Schattauer, the Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel at Wartburg Seminary. The weekend was a meditation not only on how to make our worship more hospitable, but how worship itself is an instance of God’s hospitality to us, an occasion in which we find the stranger welcomed – whether that stranger be the unexpected visitor, the unknown neighbor or our own mysterious selves.

Worship is, among other things, an instance of God’s hospitality toward us. All of us.

Hospitality, the way I usually use the word, is concerned with welcoming guests into my home and attending to their needs. Writer Henri Nouwen speaks of the movement from hostility to hospitality as one of the central tasks of the spiritual life, which is to say that it is one of the journeys each of us undertakes as a part of being human.

“Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.[1]

Nouwen defines hospitality as “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy[2],” and calls this task obligatory for Christians. It is our job, our calling, to be about the work of creating a world in which our anxiety about the strangeness of the foreigner, the oddities of our neighbors, the quirks of our community, the idiosyncrasies of our selves can be seen and accepted and loved into the warmth of friendship. Where the distance between stranger and sibling can be crossed.

In times past we often thought of worship as being like the meal that strengthened us here to go “out there” to do our mission work – whether that mission work was raising a family, or teaching a class, or practicing law, or whatever vocation God has called us into in our everyday lives. Worship is for “us,” mission is for “them.” But by now many are suspicious of “us and them” language. We see too much of ourselves in each other to think the dividing lines can be drawn all that easily. We know as well that we are hungry for God’s mission. We are in need of community, of education and formation, of healing and reconciliation. We need some of that mission for ourselves!

Do you remember how you came to end up in the pew? Some of you have been coming to St. Luke’s your whole lives. Some of you have worshipped with Christian assemblies all your lives in different cities, or different denominations. Some of you only recently found yourself walking through the doors of a church building, perhaps not even sure why you got out of bed so early on a Sunday morning, but knowing that there was a space in your life, a curiosity, perhaps a hunger or a pain. A hope that there might be something here to address you in all your human complexity.

Philip and Nathaniel were like that. Jesus found Philip and called him into community. Philip immediately found Nathaniel and said to him, “we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” or “we found what we have been looking for. We have been met by the one who can see us and address us as we are.” This is underscored when Nathaniel asks Jesus how he knows him. Jesus responds, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” A simple response that still persuades Nathaniel that when Jesus sees you, you are known inside and out, because he responds by declaring Jesus the Son of God and King of Israel.

I think we long to be seen that clearly. I think the inherent loneliness of life is one of the main reasons many of us find ourselves here on Sunday mornings. Not that our lives are tragic, but that they are difficult and lonely. We can be newly married and still feel terribly lonely and unknown. We can be surrounded by children and grandchildren, acquaintances and co-workers, and still feel totally invisible and anonymous. Day in and day out we are trained to answer the question, “how are you” with the answer “I’m good, thanks.” We are told to smile when we are not happy.

Worship can be like that too, but it shouldn’t. The pattern of our worship is in its very structure designed to slow us down and give us the breathing room to become real.

  • We gather, we confess our pains and failings, we remember the promises of our baptism – our claim on an identity large enough to make us all family to one another,
  • We listen – to words from scripture, to prayers lifted up on our behalf, and hopefully to each other. When we can, we brave the sound of our own voices lifting up the cares and concerns of our own lives. We make ourselves vulnerable to each other by telling the truth about ourselves, and in our vulnerability we make it possible for others, perhaps newcomers, to trust that here there is also room for them to be real, to be messy and complicated and in need.
  • We share a meal, the way families do. We come to the meal together, and we say all are welcome. We make sure there’s enough for everybody as a reminder of the way it’s supposed to be every time we sit down to eat.
  • Then we are sent – not simply sent “out there” carried by the strength of this worship to carry out good works, but actually also to share an invitation with others that there is a good work being done here. We are sent out more like those guys who get dressed up as giant life-size chickens to stand outside the fried chicken shack and direct traffic in. The good deed being done is God’s: God is making families, God is shaping and forming us, God is healing us. That is happening right here, and we are sent out in peace to “share the good news.”

How does this really happen? It’s a fair question. How does this ancient ritual, this holy liturgy, these words and songs and standing and sitting and kneeling and call and response – how – how does it accomplish all of this?

It is Nathaniel’s question, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A place I’ve never heard of, an inconsequential place, hardly worth mentioning? Can the divinity of God be wrapped up in a human life? Can an assembly of people really claim to be the body of Christ, a sign of God’s powerful presence in the world right now? Can anything powerful come out of something as weak as a weekly ritual of words and wine and water?

Well, I have a whole workshop on that topic. It was pretty good, or so I’m told, but it’s not as good as the transformation that takes place over time as we gather here, as we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, as we come to care for one another in our joys and in our griefs, as we teach each other’s children and form each other’s faith, as we heal and forgive and are reconci
led to each other. Perhaps it is best for you to simply come and see.


[1] Nouwen, Henri. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. p.65. New York:Image.

[2] Ibid, p.71.

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