It may come as a bit of a surprise for you to hear that one of the most important reasons you are here today is to be a good host.
Almost every Christian I encounter — when the conversation goes deeper — touches on concerns about the demise and downsizing of the institutional church. And everyone, it seems, has an opinion about why it is so.
Most of those opinions are rather negative; that is, pointing to something that is deemed “wrong” with the way things are going in the church today. And if only the church did things the way it used to half a century ago, or like the “other guys and gals” down the street do it — well, then, everything would be hunky-Dorry and the church will grow again.
These negative reasons usually presume what needs to change is anything and anyone besides the person giving the “negative” opinion. We may have presumed that the reason I or you are here today is to ‘get something out of’ the experience of worship; so, we are here predominantly to be spectators in the entertainment business.
“But take care and watch yourselves closely,” directs the Deuteronomist from our first lesson for today (Deuteronomy 4:9). Maturity and spiritual growth begin from a healthy self-awareness, not the blame-game to which we more naturally and easily revert.
So for me to stand here and suggest that you are not here to be entertained; and my job is not to do the entertaining, but to encourage you to be good hosts to others, may come at you sideways!
Let me give you some recent examples:
I am grateful for my aunt and uncle for giving the whole lot of us a place and space within which to meet, in Wasaga Beach last month for our family reunion. What stands out for me was their quiet, non-intrusive, relaxed manner of their hosting.
Fundamentally they were gracious, accepting. And this affected the way I felt about myself, regardless of my self-conscious preoccupations. They simply allowed the family reunion to happen. They allowed everyone who came to make of the experience what they brought to it themselves.
The hosts didn’t impose their own agenda; the structure of the day was simple and accepted by all: we gather at noon for the meal; then for those who want, can go to the beach — and several of the younger generation usually go to spend the afternoon there together; and by the late afternoon before anyone is allowed to leave Wasaga Beach we get the family photos done.
The order of service, so to speak, allows for give and take, and everyone engages it together. My aunt and uncle, whose house upon which we descend, make sure the basic things are available for the meal; but everyone brings something and they simply stay in the background helping everyone with their needs. There’s a feeling of mutuality that pervades the experience; it’s not just about the hosts and what they can do for everyone else.
Then, a week later, when Jessica and I enjoyed a couple of days at Chateau Montebello (a parting gift from Zion Pembroke), I witnessed again something good from good hosts. Even though the Chateau was brimming with families and couples and all manner of people — there was even a wedding on site during the weekend — I watched the staff, from cooks to servers, to room cleaners, to receptionists, waiters, tour guides — there were many.
In fact, that’s the first thing I noticed about my hosts — there were many workers there; almost every time I turned around, another staff member was there … to answer my question, to guide me where I wanted to go, to attend to my need. They didn’t tell me what to do; they were there to help me — and make me feel welcome, accepted. They were there to give the space for me to be who I was and wanted to do in leisure and play.
And I wonder: What if the church behaved like this to newcomers, visitors, others who may be crossing the threshold of our church for the first time? What if we, each and everyone of us, allowed our guests to find their own stride with God, to express the mission of God from the giftedness that each of us bear, in Christ Jesus?
We are hosts, all of us. And in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God’s mission, God’s love, God’s desire for all people.
And this outward stance to others begins inside of us. As I stressed last week, what goes on on the inside of us ends up on the outside. What we believe on the inside gets expressed, eventually, in our behavior, our attitudes, our decisions and way we are with others.
Let’s for a moment consider why it is we may have a hard time conceiving ourselves as good hosts. Perhaps a better question would be, simply: what do you believe? When we are honest about what we really believe, when we confess the truth about us, then we can grow into our identity as hosts.
Michael Harvey in @UnlockingtheGrowth makes the point that Christians are supposed to “see what we believe”. This is the basis for faithful living; we are ready to receive the power of God’s presence and purpose in our lives when faith is already active.
But normally, it’s the other way around, isn’t it? We will rather believe what we see — we say, “I’ll believe it when I see it”. But, let’s be honest — that’s not belief; that’s not faith. Belief and faith are interior qualities that precede action, attitude and behavior.
The reading from James today (James 1:17-27) points to the discrepancy between our actions and what comes out of our mouths: “If any think they are religious” but then say and act in ways that are not — then what does that reveal about what they really believe deep down? Not to mention bring condemnation upon themselves. Our faith and what precedes does not depend on our circumstances. We see and therefore act from what is beyond the apparent, the visible, the material reality in which we find ourselves.
In the Gospel for today (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23), Jesus’ teaching validates this relationship between what goes on in the heart and what comes out in our behavior, words and actions: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
Not only what is evil, but what is good as well; because — back to the Deuteronomist (4:6) — our obedience to God will also show “your wisdom and discernment to the peoples”. And from the Psalm: “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (45:1).
If we believe that we’re not good enough, that we have nothing valuable to share with others, that church is about me and what I want out of it — well, then, you can imagine: We wouldn’t be good hosts, would we?
But if on the inside we believe that God loves everyone, even those who are not familiar with church life; if we believe we are precious in God’s sight, that we have remarkable gifts to share with the world, that we have something valuable in faith and that each person who walks in this door is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) — then we WILL see what we believe, won’t we? We will be very good hosts.
God creates this new family in the kingdom of God to which we belong, in which we find our homes. And God invites us all, not because of what we look like on the outside, but because of what God sees on the inside of us. God sees a beauty beyond words.
And upon this gracious conviction, we will see growth and transformation in our lives, and in the life of the church. We will see so much value in what we are all about here that we will learn to invite others to share in the experience of God.