Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
Click here for directions
|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Practicing our Faith: Hospitality
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson: ;
Scripture Lesson:Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:17-19
Friendship Park is on the border between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. It was dedicated in 1971 by First Lady Pat Nixon. She stepped up to the open wire fence, to shake hands across the border and said, “I hope this fence won’t be here too long.”
For many years, people from both countries gathered in this park. There was a garden on the American side which was watered by guards on the Mexican side. They sang songs, had picnics, visited family members. The fence remained, but people could pass food and photographs through it. They could even embrace around it.
Not any more. Today the steel of the fence is so thick you can hardly make out people’s faces through it. You might just barely be able to make fingertip contact with someone on the other side, but touching through the fence is not allowed.
The stories shared in this place are heartbreaking. Stories of citizens of Mexico who were raised all their lives in this country and then deported as adults. The only life and family they know are on this side of the fence, out of reach. Stories of people in the USA who have legal work permits, but not travel permits, desperate for a glimpse of their family members. It is bitterly ironic that this place is named Friendship Park.
Our world is often an inhospitable place. We could talk about many more examples of that, but I doubt you need much convincing.
What I want us to think about today is our response. Inhospitality is not new. People have always been suspicious of those who were different, those who were foreign. Left to our devices, humans tend to stick with those who look like us, who think like us, who speak our language, who worship our God.
Our reading today includes two of the 36 places where the Hebrew Bible reminds the people of Israel of their obligation to foreigners, widows and orphans. These are people who did not enjoy the rights of full citizenship – widows because their rights derived from their deceased husbands, orphans because they were minors without the protection of a father and resident aliens, because they were not citizens in the first place. God is concerned for those who are outside the system, concerned about anyone who is vulnerable and God’s people are charged with protecting and providing for them. So we heard from Leviticus “You shall love the alien as yourself” and from Deuteronomy “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Christian hospitality makes room for the stranger in such a way that strangers can enter into the community and be strangers no more, if they so choose.
Hospitality was central to the identity of the early church. Shared meals were one way that they broke down cultural barriers between rich and poor, slave and free, Gentile and Jew. Table fellowship gave them a way to practice their equal, transformed relationships and a common life.
Emmanuel has taken some very intentional steps in our practice of hospitality. Visitors to our sanctuary always comment on the rocking chairs and the children’s table. Those things send a strong message of welcome. We are friendly. We greet newcomers and are genuinely interested in them. We make room, not just for those who join us on Sundays, but for another congregation to use this building and for various groups to use it during the week. I am not criticizing our current practice. But I am wondering if this is a strength we could build on.
Let me share a couple of stories that have come to me just recently.
One is about two soldiers who served together in World War II buddies. They had become good friends. One of them was killed in combat. The other risked life and limb to bring his friend’s body to a Catholic priest in a French village.
But before the friend could be buried in the little churchyard, the priest had to ask him an important question. Was the deceased a Catholic? The soldier shook his head—“No, that is, I’m not sure. I don’t think he was a religious man.” The soldier had to return to duty, but he promised that one day he would return to pay respects to his friend’s grave.
Years later, the ex-soldier made his way back to the little village and found the old church. He had come to understand that his friend would not have qualified for burial inside the churchyard. Burial inside the churchyard was for Catholics only. The churchyard fence had historically symbolized the boundaries of the Kingdom of Heaven. The ex-soldier therefore searched the perimeter of the churchyard, seeking his friend’s grave marker outside the fence. But he couldn’t find it.
Finally, he tracked down the priest into whose care he had entrusted his friend’s body so many years ago. The priest remembered him and led him to a gravesite that was surprisingly inside the fence. “But my friend wasn’t Catholic! I thought he had to be buried outside the fence!” exclaimed the ex-soldier. “Yes,” said the priest. “But I scoured the books of church law. I couldn’t find anything that said we couldn’t move the fence after the burial.”
The second story is also about a cemetery. This is called “the grave with the little hands.” It is in an old cemetery in the Netherlands which was divided into sections for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Each section is separated with a tall brick wall. In 1842, Catholic woman of noble birth married a colonel in the Dutch Calvary. He was not nobility and he was Protestant on top of that. Their marriage must have been scandalous, but it had lasted almost forty years when the colonel died and was buried in the Protestant section. Eight years later, the woman also died. She had refused to be laid to rest in the family’s large tomb and instead had ordered this monument. She lies on one side of the wall, he on the other, still holding hands.
These stories stuck with me because they suggest that making room for the stranger often requires creativity. Sometimes there is a fence, a barrier, an obstacle to relationship which can be moved or removed. Then there are other times, when you cannot move the wall, but you can reach across it.
The early Christians had to contend with all kinds of obstacles – dietary restrictions, rules about how men and women could relate to each other in public, differences in language, social status, education level and nationality. It had to have required creativity and effort, but they succeeded, and they became known for the love within their community, extended to each other and to the stranger.
Christine Pohl is a professor of ethics at Asbury Seminary. In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, she says this: “We, like the early church, find ourselves in a fragmented and multicultural society that yearns for relationships, identity and meaning. Our mobile and self-oriented society is characterized by disturbing levels of loneliness, alienation and estrangement. In a culture that appears at times to be overtly hostile to life itself, those who reject violence and embrace life bear powerful witness.”
We can practice hospitality anywhere we find ourselves, at school or work, on a public sidewalk, in our own homes. But for this conversation, I am focusing on what it means for us to practice hospitality as a church.
I grew up in another country. In that country, nobody played baseball. My parents were never athletes and not much in the know about popular culture anyway, so I’m sure it never occurred to them to teach me about baseball. So I ended up in the third grade in Michigan without knowing a thing about baseball. Who doesn’t get baseball? It’s just assumed if you are an American, you get baseball.
Sometimes, I think that people assume that if you are an American, you get church. That assumption is working its way out of our system, to be sure, but there are still people who think that everyone else knows about church except them. Baseball seems really simple, but there are a lot of rules which only the insiders know. That’s true with church too. And people who desperately need sanctuary, people who long for a sincere welcome, cannot imagine showing up at a church where everyone will figure out they don’t really know the rules.
The early Christian leaders gave instructions about receiving people with joy and treating them with dignity precisely so that they would not feel ashamed about needing hospitality. Today, I suggest that we need to be extremely intentional about helping people understand what happens here, so they can participate meaningfully and without embarrassment. It may mean some creative fence moving. It may mean reaching across walls that we can’t move, but this is work that needs to be done and we at Emmanuel are well positioned to do it.
In Biblical times, people were physically dependent on the hospitality of strangers. They needed access to water in the desert and food and a safe place to sleep. There are still physically vulnerable people who need that kind of hospitality today. But sometimes the strangers we encounter will be emotionally or spiritually vulnerable and what they need is a different kind of safety.
I remember attending a church where I was a stranger. I was not the pastor. I was a newcomer. It was during a very low time in my life when I struggled with anxiety and depression for about a year. In that church I became part of a very ordinary Sunday School class where we did Bible study and talked about current issues and our families. It was not a therapy session at all, but the class made room for me as I was. I didn’t have to hide what was really going on. After a few months, there was another newcomer. He was also in crisis, having just finalized a divorce. After class one day he said to me, “It sounds so lame, but this hour is the high point of my week.” And I had to agree with him that it was for me too.
An old Irish proverb says, “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” Sometimes, we are the only place in a week where someone is really listened to, the only time when someone receives a handshake or a hug or a pat on the back. Sometimes, we provide the only hour of emotional or physical safety in that week.
And sometimes we offer that kind of thing for people who didn’t even know they wanted it. When Roger was a boy, he and his brother figured out how to break into a church. This church had a pool table in the basement and they broke in regularly after school to play pool. One day, they saw a shadow out of the corner of their eyes. It was the pastor and they were afraid.
The pastor said, “No one in town is trying harder to get into this church that you guys are.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, handed it to the boys, and said, “Come in anytime you want.” I guess you can move a fence, reach across a wall or just give away the key.
That act of radical hospitality changed the lives of their whole family. Their mother eventually became the church treasurer and his father a trustee. A multi-generational history of alcoholism was interrupted. Roger became a pastor and then a national program executive for the United Methodist Church. He says the image of that pastor with that church key is still the best image of Christ he knows.
There are people out there who desperately need that Christ. The apostle Paul said “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” May we continue to make room for each other and may we welcome the stranger as if we were welcoming Christ himself. Amen.