“First Impressions and The Holiness of Hospitality”
Genesis 18: 1-15; 21: 1-7
Matthew 10: 40-42
They say that first impressions are lasting. I certainly hope not. For many, their first impression of me featured my flatbed moving-truck barreling through Glenville at two a.m., only to jack-knife and get stuck in the mire and the muck and the mud of a once-green field, just precious feet from the parsonage. Hopefully that first impression won’t be lasting.
They also say that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Everything I just told you about Kelly and my move-in day is absolutely true, just in case you hadn’t heard about it. I have to joke about embarrassing matters—it’s one of my coping mechanisms. All joking aside, our first impressions of you, Trinity UMC, are very positive, and warm. You, and your former pastor, Rev. Mark James, couldn’t have been more warm, welcoming, and loving to us as we made our way to Glenville. Thank you. We look forward to many years of loving, faithful ministry, together.
No matter what your first impressions were of me, you have responded lovingly. I believe this is what Jesus talks about in Matthew chapter ten. As he sends the twelve disciples out for a little trial run, a little student-pastor exercise, he tells them that those who are hospitable, generous, loving to them, the disciples, are hospitable, generous, and loving to him, the master. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus says to them, and to us.
It seems far too self-aggrandizing for me to be comfortable for this scripture to apply to me, but despite my discomfort, it does. Through our Methodist appointment system, God has sent me to pastor you. As you welcome me, you welcome Jesus the Son, God the Father, and the sweet Holy Spirit. I think it helps my comfort level to realize that this applies to each and every faithful church everywhere, and each and every faithful pastor everywhere, too. When we welcome Jesus’ servant, we welcome God.
Not too many years ago—this story only dates back to the 1990s, I knew of a church who initially did not welcome their new pastor because their new pastor was black. The bishop and cabinet asked an all-white, southern West Virginia congregation to accept an African American pastor, and some in the congregation balked. A few wrote letters. Many talked amongst themselves. A couple here and there threatened to leave the church. More than a few predicted that pastor’s quick, and sure, failure.
That pastor loved those people. That pastor loved even those people the rumor mill—or his own intuition—informed him hadn’t wanted him. That pastor loved those people. Those people came to love that pastor, too. They didn’t just love him. They fell in love with him. When he left that church nearly a decade later, the congregation mourned the loss of the pastor many considered the best pastor they ever had—the pastor who sang “Blessed Assurance” at the bedside of a grandma as she died; the pastor who baptized their babies and confirmed their teenagers; the pastor who lead their church in its period of greatest health and life.
When the church welcomed the pastor, the church welcomed—and received anew—the spirit and the love of Jesus.
Pastors like me, or Mark James, or Mike Ford, or Patricia Jarvis, are not the only people who come in the name of Jesus Christ. Pastors like me are not the only servants Jesus has on this earth today—or in this church today! You too, are servants of Jesus Christ. You too, are called to love as Jesus loved; to serve as Jesus served; to give as Jesus gave. All Christians are called to be ministers, and at our baptism, we make that promise, and receive that Spirit, to do that work, the sacred work, of God.
As a Christian, my friend, you come to someone today in the name of Jesus Christ. You might not even know that you do, but you do. If a co-worker, a neighbor, a stranger on the sidewalk or at the store, or even a family member, knows you attended church today, when you are with that person, when you interact with that person, you come to them in the light of Christ. That’s a heavy burden, isn’t it? It’s a heavy burden which should be lightened by two facts: a) none of us are perfect, and we embody Jesus for each other only because the grace and Spirit of God lets it be so, and b) when those people welcome you, they welcome Jesus. If they reject you, they reject Jesus. In short, this is all bigger than you, and it’s bigger than me. It’s as big as the God of all creation, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s about the savior of all humanity, the Lord of love, Jesus Christ. When we remember that this is all about God, and not us, our own individual burdens become light, indeed.
So you welcome Jesus by welcoming me.
I welcome Jesus by welcoming you.
We welcome Jesus by welcoming any new person to our community, any stranger who might soon walk through our doors.
I believe that Jesus is here. I believe that Jesus is here, among us and within us, here at Trinity UMC. And I believe that Jesus will keep on coming here, in unexpected ways, and in unexpected faces.
That is where the Genesis passage comes into play. In Genesis chapter twenty-two, God comes to Abraham through the presence of the three men, the three strangers. Does Abraham recognize the presence of God in the three strangers? I believe he does. Even if Abraham doesn’t implicitly recognize the presence of God in the three strangers, Abraham does recognize explicitly the ancient, and Jewish belief that God manifests God-self to humanity through the strangers, the aliens, the injured, the hurting ones, in their midst. Abraham, as an ancient man, believed that hospitality is next to godliness. Therefore he and Sarah prepared the best meat, the best bread, the coolest water, for the three strangers.
In the presence of the strangers, Abraham knows he is in the presence of God. In serving the three strangers, Abraham knows he is serving God.
God had already reached out in covenant-love to Abraham long before. God had already called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home, and God had already promised them that the lifeless, barren, dead place within them would blossom up with new life, human life, a little baby, a family. God had made the promise, but the promise had not yet been fulfilled. The promise was not fulfilled until this story happened, and Abraham and Sarah greeted the three strangers—God– with love, humanity, and hospitality.
Please do not misinterpret. I am not saying that when we do the will of God, God will bless us the way we human beings so often think of blessing—physical health, material wellbeing. We are saying that when the human heart can open itself up to others—with welcome, with hospitality, with love—then that human heart opens itself up to God, God-self. When a human heart opens up to God, that heart, that life, that person, can begin to know, explore, and grow into the love, the grace, the peace, God in Jesus Christ pours forth to all the world. From God’s heart, to our heart, through welcoming, hospitality, and love, life goes blessedly on.
What a first impression the love of God makes!
Let us pray.