Here’s a rhetorical question, one to which I think I already know the answer. Have any of you ever felt embarrassed by the church, or like you had to apologize for being a Christian?
I have. Plenty of times, and with good cause. Christians have a long and ignoble history of messing up and causing harm, intentionally or not. Do anything for two thousand years with billions of people across the face of the planet, and you’ll inevitably end up with a library of books on all the ways you messed up.
What I find frustrating about the public failings of Christians isn’t that we have them, but that others outside the church act so surprised. When I find myself in one of those situations in which I’m feeling apologetic for being a Christian, it’s often in the company of someone who’s pointing out the hypocrisy of the church to me as if that’s news. “I just don’t see why,” they say, “anyone would want to be part of an organization that is so bold in pronouncing its judgments on other people, and so unwilling or unable to confess its own failures.”
Well, let me take care of that right now. It’s true. We Christians fail, quite a lot, to live up to our own standards. But that’s not something we’re shy about discussing. In fact, we include those stories right in our scriptures, as if to remind ourselves that any community called to proclaim God’s good news to the world must be prepared to fearlessly examine its own conduct.
This morning the scriptures give us two examples of people of faith speaking the truth in love, and then the story of Jesus inviting people to follow him, to come and see what God is doing in the world. I want to suggest that these stories, as odd and impolite as they may come across at first, model for us the kind of hospitality we are called to as Christians – a truth-telling and direct invitation to a different kind of life.
Our first story comes from the book of First Samuel, and begins innocuously enough. It’s the kind of story that works well in Sunday School. The boy Samuel was ministering in the temple under the leadership of the priest Eli when, one night, he heard a voice calling to him. “Samuel, Samuel,” the voice called, and the boy rose and went to his mentor’s side to see what was needed only to be told that he hadn’t been summoned. This happens three times before the older priest realizes that God is trying to speak to the boy. Eli tells Samuel to return to his bed, and if he hears the voice again to reply, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
That’s where the Sunday School version of this story ends: with a tidy moral about being attentive to the voice of God in your life, trying to get your attention. It’s only when you read on that you discover that the message God is trying to get out into the world is that Eli’s house isn’t in order. That his sons, who stand in line to take Eli’s job, have failed to keep faith with God and that God is going to remove the mantle of leadership from that household forever. That’s the message God gives to the boy Samuel to deliver to his master Eli.
Now the moral is considerably less tidy. Listening for the voice of God in your everyday life is no longer simply a path to spiritual self-help, but an opening up to be called into service in ways that may place you in conflict with the values of the world that surrounds you, perhaps even with the very people closest to you.
The second reading makes this point even clearer, as the apostle Paul writes to the community of followers he established in Corinth to admonish them for the bad habits sprouting up among them. In his previous visit to Corinth, Paul had presumably preached a gospel of liberation – that, in Christ, we are set free from the old divisions that separate and oppress us. What some of the people heard was that they were free to do whatever they wished, and that freedom was being expressed in ways that dishonored the image of God in them. In one case a member of the church was carrying on with his father’s wife, while others were not only employing the prostitutes of Corinth but justifying their actions with thin theological arguments that the world would soon end and that their bodies would be left behind as their souls were joined with God.
This is what Paul takes on in his letter. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not being prudish or sex-phobic in his response to the Corinthians. Actually, he’s being pretty body-positive. These church people’s involvement with the prostitutes came out of a belief that their bodies didn’t matter, that only their souls mattered to God. Paul confronts his friends and followers, reminding them that their bodies are made in the image and likeness of God. He pleads with them to show reverence to their bodies out of reverence for the one who made them.
So, we have a story about a student called by God to rebuke his teacher, and then a story about an apostle called by God to rebuke his students, and in both cases the scriptures give us stories about people within the community of faith speaking words of truth to those they love. These aren’t stories about Christians passing judgment on the world outside them. These are stories about the early church practicing the difficult work of becoming a place of genuine hospitality, where strangers learn to speak to one another like family, and where bodies and lives are respected as sites for holy encounters with God.
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.”
Nouwen defines hospitality as “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy,” 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 other congregations 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 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.
- Every week, 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. 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?
Meditations upon those questions fill book upon book, many of them assigned to me in seminary and now sitting on the bookshelf in my office – but none of them are 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 reconciled to each other.
Perhaps it is best for you to simply come and see.
 Nouwen, Henri. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. p.65. New York:Image.
 Ibid, p.71.