In his book, The Answer to Bad Religion Isn’t NO Religion, author Martin Thelien tells the story about Heartsong Church—a United Methodist congregation in Cordova, Tennessee (a suburb of Memphis): “A few years ago the Heartsong Church found out that a mosque was going to be built right next to its property. At first the church felt startled. Some of the members were angry, many were fearful, and almost all of them were uncomfortable. But as they discussed the situation, they asked themselves the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ In spite of their fears and prejudices, the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ was easy to answer. Jesus would love his neighbors, as he taught in the Great Commandment. In fact, Jesus even teaches us to love our enemies. So they put up a big sign in front of the church that said, ‘Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood.’” But that’s not the end of the story.
“When the church found out that the mosque construction was not going to be completed in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Heartsong invited the Muslim group to use its sanctuary for worship and prayer. That amazed the pastor. It’s one thing to let the Presbyterians use your church, maybe even the Pentecostals. But the Muslims? And they didn’t just let them use the space. They posted greeters at the church to welcome their Muslim neighbors as they walked into the church. I saw this story on the evening news. In the news story a reporter interviewed some of the members of the church. One woman said, ‘I’ve never met a Muslim in my life. But I’ve made friends with one of the women from the mosque and found out we have a lot in common.’ Several others had similar comments. The Islamic community now refers to the Heartsong Church as their ‘Christian brothers and sisters.’ When the reporter asked the pastor of the church why his congregation responded in this way, the pastor said, ‘Because Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors.’”
How could Heartsong say anything but “welcome”?
Another word for welcome is HOSPITALITY. I think about hospitality often because I see it everywhere. I notice the effort business owners put into their stores to say to the customer “I’m really, really happy YOU are here.” I ventured downtown one morning to a store called Calaya. The owner named the store for her two daughters Callie and Layla. It featured lots of pretty things young mothers would like for themselves, for the home, and for their young children. Towards the cashier counter there was a large table that featured a wooden train set on a track. This said to a young mother shopping with her child, “We want you to relax—let us take care of your energetic toddler.” That’s hospitality. That’s focusing on the needs of others.
Have you noticed how many stores train their staff to you look you in the eye and say “hello”? That’s hospitality. Everyone needs to feel valued, and when people say hello that’s one way to say to another person “you are valued.” What’s the next step? Learning their name.
If you travel, have you noticed the changes in the area of hospitality in the hotels? They are listening the needs of their guests. They have GREAT coffee (and sometimes cookies) in the lobby, and in the room there are several varieties for pillows—hard, soft, and medium. I chuckle sometimes when I try to manage all of those pillows when it’s time to sleep!
Several years ago now you brought me here to help you understand young adults. You were sad that there were so few. The point was that if we listened to young adults—what THEY needed—and met those needs, we’d have more of a variety of persons participating in Central Christian Church.
Has our need changed?
It’s been a struggle to say the least, to let go of what pleases one generation and to embrace the needs of another. Young adults are so not like the oldest adults.
Is any particular generation of persons like the generation of their parents? My grandmother wore a flapper dress when she went out, my mother wore a dress and heels, I wore blue jeans. My grandfather loved Glenn Miller, my father loved Elvis Presley, and my brother enjoys Queen and Boston.
When it comes to God, most young people I know aren’t interested in ignoring science, or the right to decide when they’ll start a family, or the wisdom of other religions in order to follow Christ. What about you?
I’ll mention coffee again. For my mom, who is eighty six years old, the thought of spending nine dollars a pound for coffee is outrageous, as is adding chocolate syrup and whipped cream. However, for my generation and others much younger, that’s the norm. That’s what we seek. Who does our coffee selection currently seek to say “welcome” too at Central Christian Church? Who have we left out?
In other words, much of what’s troubling many congregations these days -- an increase in the median age of persons participating in the church and a decline in numbers—-is directly related to hospitality. We reap who we welcome—and we lose whom we neglect.
This includes all kinds of people, not just ages. It stretches to include income, education, sexual orientation, and race.
It’s as simple as that.
The rabbis wrote, “Hospitality is one form of worship.” Hospitality IS one form of honoring God. In fact, in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being a messenger of God.” When we welcome the OTHER we welcome the Christ, and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God.”
Hospitality, then, is serious business. Who among us would say to God, “I’m not interested in you; who you are, what you need?”
Joan Chittister, author of The Rule of Benedict, Insight for the Ages, notes: “The message to the stranger is clear: Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You are the Christ for us today. St. Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our souls so that the God of the unexpected can come in. (This is) more than an open door. It is an acknowledgment of the gifts the stranger brings… Hospitality is the gift of one human being to another. (It) is not simply bed and bath; it is home and family.”
Now we understand Jesus when he says “This is LARGE work I’ve called you into.”
This passage from Matthew’s gospel is quite clear. Disciples of Christ embrace, create and include. When we feel stuck, the answer isn’t to resort to what’s familiar—it’s to welcome the unknown.
I wonder if we tried that—to refrain from the familiar and welcome the unknown—if we’d enjoy our church more—the variety of persons—perhaps numerical growth?
(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on June 22, 2014 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)