Hospitable Community

Luke 14 1, 7-24

This is the third and final in our mini sermon series for Advent on the theme of hospitality.

In week one I talked about our ‘Hospitable God’ - how God is hospitable in his very being and calls us to ‘dwell in him’ and to ‘be at home in him’ so that he can come and be at home in us.

And last week I talked about ‘Hospitable church’ and encouraged us to spend more time eating together, and introduced the idea of ‘Open Table’ - which I hope will mean that every few weeks, someone, somewhere in the church community will offer spaces at their table to people from church. And to kick that off, I mentioned that there are families in church who have places at their table on Christmas Day, and if you, or someone you know, would like to join them, please come and speak to me.

Today I want to look at what it might mean for us to be a ‘Hospitable community’. If the first week was about God, and the second about us, today I want to talk about being hospitable to those who aren’t part of the church community. Because everything in the gospels says - all that you have received from Jesus; the welcome, the love, the forgiveness, the place at his table - all of this is to be shared with others.

And I’m going to look at that through the lens of the story from Luke’s gospel that we have just heard, and I want to ask 2 questions in particular; what does that mean for us when we gather together here in church on Sunday? And what does it mean for us when we are being church from Monday to Saturday?

So, let’s have a look at the story Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel. He’s sitting at a meal table and he tells two stories about meals. These are parables - and parables are meant to challenge the way we see the world; they are meant to shake us up and to unsettle us. To fully understand the force of these stories we need to remember that this isn’t an English culture that Jesus is speaking to. This isn’t a story that commends that peculiarly English kind of humility - Jesus isn’t saying, be be ever so ‘umble, and keep on apologising and telling people you’re not worthy, because then they’ll reward you.

Jesus’ parable is a warning. This parable warns us that the things we think give status or value; the things we think give us a place at the table, might just be wrong. It’s a warning to check your assumptions about how things work. And it’s a particular warning given to those who are religious - those who are part of the faithful community. Check your assumptions about who you think is welcome at God’s table. God’s way of working might be different to the world’s way of working. God’s way of working might even be different from religious peoples way of working. 

And then he tells a second story. In it various people are invited to a party and one by one they make their excuses. These are the excuses of people who think the invite beneath them. Who buys land and only then goes to look at it? Someone so rich that another piece of land is of no great consequence. And 5 yoke of oxen - that’s enough to plough more than 100 acres, when the size of a standard plot was 1.5 acres. These are wealthy, high status people who make up excuses about why they can't go to a party organised by someone they are embarrassed to associate themselves with.  

The twist in this parable is that we know who the host of this party really is. It’s Jesus, and the invitation is to the Kingdom of God. The irony is that the rich and powerful have rejected the invitation because they thought it came from the gutter, when in fact it’s an invite to the stars. Watch out for the excuses you make, says Jesus. It may be that the people who are least in your eyes, are in fact, the first in God’s eyes. 

Two stories. Two warnings. Check your assumptions; What excuses are you making to justify those assumptions?

So what does that have to say to us, here in church? Two things.

First, to us when we gather Sunday by Sunday like this. 

We’re pretty clear about the kind of church we want to be. And you can read more about that vision here.

First of all, we have said we want to be a church that has Jesus at the centre - that means we aim to be a community that is built on Jesus, that’s growing closer to Jesus and that welcomes Jesus as Lord.

And second we have said that, because Jesus is at the centre, we want there to be a striking quality of welcome to everyone who comes in. Everyone who comes in. And thinking about hospitality, and hearing the warnings from Jesus, encourages us to check in on that - especially as they are warnings given to religious people. What are our assumptions about church, and about who is welcome? What excuses do we make to justify those assumptions? Because if this is Jesus’ church, then it’s not ours. If it’s Jesus’ church then it belongs to anyone and everyone who belongs to Jesus, and to anyone and everyone who wants to belong to Jesus. And to anyone and everyone who wants to want to belong to Jesus

I read a story recently about a man who found himself speaking to a woman. Her life was a complete mess and she was desperate. And this man - a Christian - was trying to be helpful, and he said ‘have you ever thought of going to church for help?’. ‘Church!’, the woman exclaimed, ‘why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’

Would she feel welcome here? Would someone who isn’t middle class? Would a gay couple feel welcome here if they arrived together? Would someone with a complicated life, noisy children or a dodgy reputation?

And would they feel welcome beyond the door? Would they be invited round to someone’s house? Would they be welcomed into the community, not just the service? 

What are our assumptions about who belongs here, and who doesn’t, and if there are some who are not so welcome as others, what excuses are we making that allow that to be true?

This is Jesus’ church and everything we do here should reflect his Kingdom. Every page of the gospels tells us that, in the Kingdom, it is those who the world sees as second class who will be seated in the places of honour. Is that true amongst us? 

But church isn’t just an hour on Sunday - we are also church when we leave this place; we’re church at home, in the school playground, in our workplaces and when we’re out and about in our communities. We’ve said that in our vision as well - we want an everyday faith which is lived out on our frontlines, a faith which influences the way we bring up our children and the way we use our money; a faith which gives us courage to invite a neighbour to Alpha, a faith that encourages us to pause and pray before we make decisions at work. 

So what place does hospitality have in our everyday lives? What are our assumptions about who’s welcome at our tables and what excuses do we make to keep people out?

I want to tell you a story I heard a few weeks ago. It was about a couple called Frank and Nellie. They were Christians who lived and worked on a University campus. And every single Sunday for 35 years they invited students to come round on Sundays for lunch and badminton. I don’t don’t why it was badminton, but that’s what they did. Over the years they had welcomed thousands of young people and given them a home from home.

Frank and Nellie retired, and continued opening up their house, but the day came when age caught up and it became too difficult, and then it became clear that Frank had dementia. 

One of those who had been made welcome many years earlier, went back to see Frank and Nellie. Frank didn’t recognise him at all - in fact by this time he couldn’t even recognise his own wife. You can imagine how awful it was to see him in that state. The time came for their visitor to leave, and as he got to the door he turned to say goodbye and Frank said, in a clear voice, ‘Dear friend, please help yourself to anything on the stove or in the fridge, and feel free to drop in for a meal any time you need.’.

When everything else had gone, hospitality was his most deeply laid down characteristic. Even when he couldn’t remember his wife’s name, he could still invite people to a meal. 

What place does hospitality play in our lives, and in the lives of our families?

What are our assumptions about who’s welcome at our tables and what excuses do we make to keep people out?

It is very nearly Christmas. We will soon remember how our hospitable God came into a deeply inhospitable world to dwell with us, to be at home in us. And he planted a hospitable community which would model and live out his divine hospitality. 

Hospitable God, hospitable church, hospitable community.

Do we dare let that be our call this Christmas?


Hugh Nelson