Our sermons are available as audio files to listen at your convenience.
Our sermons are available as audio files to listen at your convenience.
Sermon Series: “Being a Welcoming Congregation”
“Welcoming Christ in the Stranger”
Luke 24: 13-35
May 8, 2022
Although some would argue that Northern Virginia is not really part of the South, we do value the practice of Southern Hospitality here. According to the magazine Southern Living, there are five qualities that define Southern Hospitality: Kindness, Politeness, Helpfulness, Charity, and----last but not least---Good Home Cooking!1
As Christians, we may agree that these five characteristics are also central to Christian hospitality, and they all are found in our scripture passages this morning---even the practice of good home cooking!
As I shared during the Greeting time this morning, today we are beginning a four-week sermon series on “Being a Welcoming Congregation,” drawing from the book by Henry Brinton, The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality. Henry Brinton says that the roots of Christian hospitality involve making sure that we infuse a sense of welcome into our church’s worship, meals, small groups and sites---that is, our buildings and grounds. When we do that, he says, “From those roots will come the fruits of hospitality—reconciliation, outreach, and new perceptions.”2
Being welcoming is central to our identity as Christian people, and yet, for some reason, many churches struggle with being welcoming, especially to those who are strangers. Henry Brinton told a story about a cab driver from Ghana who dropped off a customer in Maryland and then decided to attend a service at a Baptist church in the area. Brinton shared, “After he walked in, the congregation phoned the police, describing him as a trespasser. He said, ‘No, I am a Baptist, from Ghana!’ They insisted he was trespassing.”
“Similarly, when a Cameroonian immigrant visited a Disciples of Christ church in Lubbock, Texas, congregational leaders refused to serve him Communion, even though the pastor had just intoned the words, ‘This is Jesus Christ’s table, people shall come from everywhere to it.’”3
I am thankful that our church family is diverse, composed of people from all over the country and all over the world, who are an important and vital part of our church family. Thanks be to God for that! And yet we, like every church, can grow in our practice of being welcoming. Studies have shown that in congregational surveys, most churches describe themselves as “friendly churches.” But the question that should be asked is, “Is the church truly a friendly church, or is it a church of friends?” Is it truly a friendly church, or is it a church of friends? Are newcomers, outsiders, people who are different, welcomed as warmly as those who are longtime members? How do we welcome Christ in the stranger?
Our scripture passages this morning tell us that often it is in the stranger that we meet the Lord.
I have always loved this intriguing account from Luke 24 of Jesus’ appearance on the Emmaus road. It was later on the same day the women had found the empty tomb, and two of those who had been there when the women came and shared their news were now returning to their home in Emmaus. Who were these people? Sometimes we think of “the disciples” as just the twelve, but we should remember that Jesus had many other disciples—women as well as men--in addition to the twelve chosen for his inner circle. Cleopas and his companion were part of the group that remained together in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death, as we see from the personal pronouns in this passage: “Some women of OUR group astounded US.… they told US they had seen angels.”
The interesting thing is that in the entire New Testament, Cleopas is mentioned only in this passage. There was evidently nothing remarkable about him at all—except that the Lord appeared to him.
And what about his unnamed companion? Some scholars believe that the unnamed companion was Cleopas’ wife. It would have been natural for a husband and wife to be in Jerusalem together for the Passover, and then to return together to their home they obviously shared.
Of all the people who followed Jesus, when there were others who figured so prominently in the gospels---why would Jesus appear to these two insignificant folks? And why did he appear on the Emmaus road? Emmaus was such an out-of-the-way place that today, scholars have only a general idea of where it was located. Why, of all the places Jesus could have appeared, did he appear there?
When we think about it, this post-resurrection appearance is consistent with Jesus’ life on earth! Think of his birth to humble parents in a humble place. His choice of ordinary people to be his disciples. His work---not in places of great power, but in small towns and villages. And his associating with those on the margins, those shunned by the religious authorities.
Jesus’ appearance in this passage is congruous with the way he lived his life on earth: he chose to appear on a country road, leading to a small village, to two ordinary people. And he chose to come in the guise of a stranger.
This visitation is closely linked with the Old Testament passage from Genesis. When the Lord appeared to Abraham, the Lord also chose to appear in the form of the stranger. While the cultures of both times---the time of Abraham and Sarah and the time of Jesus---emphasized hospitality, the culture also involved wariness of strangers. We talk today about “stranger danger;” that is not a modern concept. In ancient times, the stranger could be hostile, could be an enemy, could be attempting to take what you had, rob you and leave you on the side of the road.
That is why the Biblical practice of welcoming the stranger stands out. Think of all the times the Old Testament commands, “Welcome the stranger”---more than 30 times, according to Henry Brinton.4 And of course in the New Testament parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said to one group, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” And to the other, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Do you think that God included this command so forcefully because God knew people would struggle with it?
Fred Craddock told about the first church he served out of seminary, in the Tennessee hills near Oak Ridge. When the power plant was built nearby, all kinds of people flooded into the area around the church. A lot of them were living in RVs or trailer parks, and Craddock suggested to the church leaders that they come up with a plan to reach out to those folks and welcome them to church. The church leaders did not think this was such a good idea. “Those people wouldn’t fit in,” they said. In fact, rather than following Craddock’s recommendation, they voted that in order to be a member of that church, you had to own property in the county.
Many years later, Craddock and his wife were visiting that part of Tennessee and he told her about that church he had served. They decided to drive out and see it. As they approached, they realized the parking lot was full! All kinds of vehicles were parked there: cars and trucks and motorcycles. They were amazed! Then they saw the sign: “Barbecue—All You Can Eat.” The church had closed, and someone had turned it into a restaurant. Since they were there, they decided to go inside. Craddock said, “The pews were against the wall. Aluminum tables and plastic chairs were all over the place. People were in them eating pork and chicken and ribs. All kinds of people.
“I said to my wife, ‘It’s a good thing this is not still [that] church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.’”5
From Old Testament times to today, we who are God’s people must be intentional about our commitment to be welcoming. It is not something that comes naturally to us as human beings. Henry Brinton says, we are much more inclined to xenophobia—fear of the stranger---than to philoxenia—love of the stranger.6
Again and again the Old Testament tells us, “Remember that once you were strangers. So you must welcome the stranger.” Our practice of welcome is rooted in the welcome we have received from God---being welcomed as God’s beloved children, not because we have done anything to earn it, but because God is loving, merciful and gracious.
And when we do, we may find that we are welcoming the Lord. When the strangers appeared to Abraham, Henry Brinton said, “He looks up and sees three men standing near him. Is he surprised? No doubt. A bit frightened? Probably. After all, they are strangers, they outnumber him, and he has no way of knowing if they are friends or foes. But Abraham does not dash inside to get a weapon. Instead, Abraham decides to play the role of host. He runs to meet them and begs them to stay.” He offers them rest and food, and provides the best meal he possibly can make.
And in the end, he realizes he has been in the presence of the Holy.
In the same way, it was in their act of hospitality that the disciples on the Emmaus Road realized that their guest was none other than Jesus. As they came near their village, verse 28 tells us, they strongly urged the stranger to stay with them, because it was evening and the day was almost over. They entered the home, prepared the meal, and at the table, the guest became host: in the blessing and breaking of bread, Jesus became known to them. Their eyes were opened; they realized it was the Lord! So great was their excitement that when Jesus had gone, they left the house at that very hour, even though it was dark, and journeyed back down the road they had just traveled, to share the good news with the other disciples.
Would they ever have known that Jesus had been with them if they had not welcomed the stranger? If they had been suspicious, or hostile, or simply apathetic, the man on the road would have remained a stranger. Instead, through their act of hospitality, in the stranger they met Jesus.
Throughout this month, we are going to consider many different ways we practice hospitality and ask ourselves, How can we intentionally be more welcoming? What habits do we need to change? Think about Sunday mornings. What do you do when you arrive for worship? To whom do you speak? Where do you sit? What do you do after worship? Are there certain people you gravitate towards and others you miss speaking to? Every Sunday we have new people attending our worship services. How do you greet the people who are there for the first time? Do you speak to them? Do you notice them? If we want to cultivate a culture of hospitality, we cannot think that being welcoming is someone else’s job. Everyone must be welcoming. Look for the people in the parking lot who may be trying to figure out where to go. Look for the people in the sanctuary who may be sitting alone. Look for the people after worship who seem a little lost or uncertain. Go over and talk to them. Give them a cup of coffee. Get to know them.
There is a story about a once-famous monastery that had fallen on hard times. In the past, visitors flocked there for spiritual retreat and prayer, but now, no one came; no new members were added to their order, and so the monks dwindled in number and in spirit.
One night, the abbot had a dream. A heavenly voice addressed him, saying, “I have a message for you that you must share with the others, but you must say it only once. Then you must never speak of it again. The message is this: The Messiah is among you.”
The abbot awoke with a sense of awe, and the next morning, he called the monks together and told them about the heavenly vision. “The message is that the Messiah is among us,” he said.
The monks were astonished! They wondered, “What could this mean? Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Thomas? Or Father Matthew? What does this mean?
As they had been instructed, no one ever mentioned it again, but as they pondered the words, the monks began to treat one another with greater respect and reverence. There was a new quality to their life together, a spirit of generosity, kindness, charity and gladness.
Visitors began to return to the monastery, moved by the life of the monks. Young people were once again asking to become part of the community. Their fellowship was permeated with a sense of love that was almost tangible.
The abbot erected a sign at the entrance to the monastery: “All who come here are treated as Christ himself.” Truly, the Messiah was among them.7
My friends, what would it look like if we welcome everyone who comes to this church as if we were welcoming Christ himself? May that become our practice: for when we welcome the stranger, we meet the Lord. In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church