Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 16, 2011

2011.10.16 – The First Practice of Fruitful Living: Radical Hospitality

Central United Methodist Church
The First Practice of Fruitful Living:
Radical Hospitality
Pastor David L. Haley
October 16, 2011

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)

[Note: As stated, this five sermon series is based upon Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (2007), and Five Practices of Fruitful Living (2010). This is therefore my summation of Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices, a combination of Bishop Schnase’s material and my own. For a more full version, see Bishop Schase’s books. You can also learn more at Bishop’s Schnase’s Five Practices site http://fivepractices.org/, or at the Cokesbury site http://www.fivepractices.cokesbury.com/
– Pastor Haley]

Whenever we watch the best, there is an unspoken assumption. Whether it’s a cellist like Yo Yo Ma, a basketball player like Michael Jordan, a dancer like Fred Astaire, or a swimmer like Michael Phelps, they do their skill well, and make it look easy. But we know they do so only because they have practiced hard and long for so many years.

Watch Little League baseball players practice. They scoop up ground balls, catch pop-up flies, throw the ball around the bases, and practice batting. Now watch professional baseball players – elite athletes at the height of their careers, paid handsomely – practice. What do they do? They scoop up grounders, catch pop-ups, throw the ball around the bases, and practice batting. No professional baseball player says, “I don’t practice batting anymore because I learned that in high school.”

Well, what I have to tell you today is this: it is the same in the religious life. We only do it well, and are only at our best, when we commit ourselves to certain core practices, and do them regularly and well. These five practices are: Radical Hospitality. Passionate Worship. Intentional Faith Development. Risk-taking Mission and Service. Extravagant Generosity.

Five Practices of Fruitful Living is the title of a book written by United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase, Bishop of the Missouri area of the United Methodist Church. His first book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (2007) though written primarily for his Missouri congregations, took off, obviously fulfilling a need, and is now used by congregations across the country.

The need, I think, is obvious. Across the church, something has gone wrong. Church membership and worship attendance are declining, and the only thing increasing is the average age of worshipers. It’s not that people are leaving, it’s that they are dying, and no one is there to replace them. It’s not disgruntled people leaving by the back door; it’s no one coming in through the front door.

Says Bishop Schnase, if church leaders were to set up a task force and ask its members to work late into the night to develop a congregational plan that would cause attendance to fall by 5% and the median age to increase each year, they would come back with a plan that looks exactly like what we have been doing. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Bishop Schnase’s diagnosis is that the most substantial threat to the church comes not from the seminaries, the bishops, the boards, or the conflict between conservatives and liberals. Rather, he says, the most significant threat to the church comes from the failure of churches and Christians to fulfill the basic practices of congregational ministry and spiritual life in an exemplary way.

So, if our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, the five practices describe the process of how we do it. Through Radical Hospitality. Passionate Worship. Intentional Faith Development. Risk-taking Mission and Service. Extravagant Generosity.

Furthermore, these five practices not only describe the congregational practices through which God draws people into relationship, they also chart the path for growth in personal discipleship: Radical Hospitality. Passionate Worship. Intentional Faith Development. Risk-taking Mission and Service. Extravagant Generosity.

Not only do these five practices open our heart to God and to others, they build a life rich with meaning, relationship, and consequence, in other words, a life that matters.

As the ultimate example, Jesus’ life and ministry was grounded in such practices. His life was marked by prayer, solitude, worship, reflection, the study of Scripture, conversation, community, serving, engagement with those who suffered, and generosity. Such practices sustained his ministry, opened people to God’s grace, transformed hearts, and aided people in need. By doing and deepening these practices in our lives, not only will we become more Christ-like, we will do what Jesus did.

Today we come to the first of these five practices, the practice of Radical Hospitality. First, let’s take a look at the hospitality God has extended to us, talk about what practicing Radical Hospitality might look like in a congregation, and then what it means to practice Radical Hospitality in our lives.

Sadly, for many of us, hospitality is not a word some of us might have used to describe our relationship with God, or rather, God’s relationship to us. After all, God was out to damn people to hell, only allowing some into heaven if they believed or lived in certain ways, ways that may have excluded us.

So how did we miss it that hospitality streams throughout Scripture? In Deuteronomy, God reminds the people of Israel to welcome the stranger, the sojourner, the wanderer. Why? For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) God especially loved – God has a special place in God’s heart – for such kinds of people: strangers, sojourners, and wanderers.

But what’s in the Old Testament is nothing compared to what’s in the New, and especially in the Gospels: the love of God shown in Jesus. Jesus loved associating with strangers and sinners, the lost and the last and the least. In fact, he seemed to prefer such people to the religious, for whom he reserved his most excoriating denunciations.

Jesus told stories about what God is like: like a woman searching for a lost coin, like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, like a father embracing a lost son. God is the Father who runs down the road to welcome the prodigal, embracing him, then killing the fatted calf to celebrate. That’s hospitality. Such was the God Jesus taught, lived, and was.

Thanks to someone who took Jesus seriously, we, too, were embraced and welcomed, and given a place in the community of faith. Almost all of us are a part of the body of Christ because of someone else’s hospitality. Someone invited us, encouraged us, received us, and made us feel welcome; a parent, a spouse, a friend, a pastor, or even a stranger.

Based upon the hospitality shown us, you would think it would naturally overflow to others, especially in churches, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Horror stories abound; stories some of us might be able to tell.

When it’s done well, Christian hospitality invites, welcomes, receives, and cares for those who are strangers. It requires a genuine love, an outward focus, a reaching out to those not yet here, openness and adaptability, even the willingness to change in order to accommodate the needs of newcomers. Done well, Christian hospitality issues God’s invitation, practices the love of Christ, and respects each person’s value and dignity.

A typical scenario in a church might look like this: a young single mom stands awkwardly in the entrance with her toddler, looking at all the people she does not know on her first visit to a church. (In our congregation this young single mom might be African-American, or even a recent refugee who does not speak English.) An acquaintance casually invited her to visit, but now she’s not sure this was a good idea. She’s wondering about childcare, self-conscious about the fussiness of her child, unsure where the bathroom is, too timid to ask, doubting whether this is the right worship service for her, even the right church. Where is she going to sit, what is it going to feel like to sit with her child, and what if her little one makes too much noise? Yet she feels the need to pray; to connect with others; and for something to lift her above the daily grind of her job, her bills, the conflicts with her ex-husband, and anxiety for her child.

What would happen if we took Jesus words seriously? We would look at this woman and think, “This is a member of Jesus family, and Jesus wants us to treat her as we would treat Jesus himself.” How then would we welcome her? How would we ease her awkwardness, help her, serve her, graciously receive, support, and encourage her? Because radical hospitality asks not only that we see people as Jesus sees them, but that we see Jesus in them.

In order for this to happen, radical hospitality does not begin in a committee, a council, or among a select group of people: it begins in each of us. A church changes its culture one person at a time. Radical hospitality begins with a single heart, a growing openness, a prayerful desire for the greatest good of a stranger. It begins when one person treats another respectfully and loves them enough to overcome our internal hesitations to welcome them into church, Christ’s church.

For each of us then, radical hospitality begins with our own personal receptivity to the grace of God. In distinct and personal ways, we invite God into our lives, make space for God, listen for God to speak to us, and over and again, say Yes to God.

Why must we do so? Because God is in the depths, and we lose touch with God when we focus solely on surface things. God is in the silence, and we close ourselves to the whisperings of the Spirit when we constantly surround ourselves with noise. God is in the questions that arise when we break free of distractions, and we cut God off when we avoid contemplation of purpose, value, and priority. God is in the mystery, and we turn God away when we live as if the only things that matter are those we can see, touch, explain, or process. God is in the love of others, and we drive God out when we neglect the deepening of relationships. God is in being still, and we overlook attempts by God to reach us when we run constantly from one activity to another. God is in the discovery and exploration of the interior life, and we say no to God when we allow no time for that to happen.

This requires us – as hard as it is – to make space in our lives, our hearts, and our schedules to focus on interior work. So that nurturing the spirit becomes as essential as feeding the body; soul work becomes as important as physical exercise.

One person, Mary Ann, describes it this way:

”You clear a space for the Spirit’s voice, and close the door to as many other voices as possible – things to be done, people to meet, anxiety, guilt, duty. These are always pushing. You slide closed the door for a few moments. Listening for God takes persistence. The still small voice is hard to recognize. But if you sit there long enough something will happen. Peace, a letting go, a centering. An opening. If I practice it every day I get better at it.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Living, p. 36)

To understand how this works, let’s consider the example of Mitch. Mitch grew up with no faith background. His alcoholic father was arrested for stealing money and was discovered having an affair, causing Mitch to have to change schools as a consequence of his parents divorce. He lost his friends, the job he loved, and his place on the baseball team. He developed a violent temperament, ran with rough characters, and made his own way in a tough world of sports, drinking, and hard living. During his early 20s, he lived with a seething anger toward his father. His envy toward others ate at him, for the advantages they had received which he had been denied. He was angry about things that would never be resolved.

Mitch developed a tough veneer that hid any deeper sense of compassion. He had no faith, no church, no God, no positive models for how to handle his life. He worked as a truck driver until he saved enough money to pay his way through college. He flirted with drug and alcohol abuse, but by sheer personal determination, he didn’t get pulled irreversibly into these habits.

Mitch met a young woman committed to her faith. In preparation for marriage, he had several conversations with her pastor. He came to respect the pastor, to learn from him, and look forward to their times together. When Mitch married, he decided that he would “try church.” Is this for real?” was the inner question he wrestled with during his early hesitating steps toward faith. For months he attended with his wife, finding the worship service a confusing litany of language and images of prayers. He felt like an outsider, but he was determined to make it work. He and his wife connected with a Sunday school class for young couples. Mitch was invited to help the community soup kitchen that serves the homeless, and he accepted. He was invited to help with the finance committee, and then with the trustees. He found these strangely satisfying, but continued to feel turned off by small-minded attitudes and cliquishness. Mitch began to read the Bible, to experiment with praying, to volunteer a little more here and there. He helped with the youth ministry, especially sports and outdoor activities. He particularly offered to work with the difficult kids.

Mitch experienced a deepening of his faith through the weekend adult retreat called Walk to Emmaus. He committed to the in-depth Disciple Bible study, and eventually became a teacher himself, especially effective in gathering younger men would had never had any experience studying Scripture. He offered himself as a team leader for hands-on service projects to build and repair homes for people in poverty. Through his non-judgmental approach toward people, he became instrumental in helping many previously unchurched people get involved in various ministries.

Mitch’s language is still rough, his manner brusque, and his approach to church and intolerance for protocol are, shall we say, less traditional. He relates well to professionals, and feels like one of the boys among hard-working folk – oil riggers, ranch hands, construction crews. When someone is going through a difficult time, he gives them his phone number and tells them to call him anywhere, anywhere, and he’ll come. Mitch believes the church really does change lives.

By the grace of God Mitch has become someone different from the life scripted for him. Through faith in Christ, formed and cultivated through 15 years of worship, learning, and service, Mitch found the power to avoid the destructive impulses that undid his father and derailed his family of origin. By the practice of daily submitting himself to Christ, Mitch came to a place he could never imagine – a sense of satisfaction and contribution, making a difference and doing good in the lives of others.

Looking back over Mitch’s story, there were many moments when he could’ve said No, but instead he said Yes. Each of those moments became steppingstones on his journey, building blocks toward growth in Christ, examples of the Radical Hospitality whereby in reaching out to God, we discover that God has already reached out to us, and we can reach out to others. (Mitch’s story may be found in Five Practices of Fruitful Living, pp. 34 – 36.)

The writer Anne Lamott has said, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 1999, p. 141.) May God’s grace reach each of us where we are, but not leave us where it finds us. Amen.

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