Belonging Begins with . . . Intentional Hospitality

Sunday, September 10, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Luke 24:28-35

Grace and peace

Good morning! I’m thrilled we’re all here for another great year of ministry at Augustana. We are kicking off our Annual Theme today, “Right Where You Belong”.

No matter who we are or where we come from, belonging is something everyone looks for in life, and needs. We have a better sense of who we are by the communities we’re part of, the interests we share, and the relationships we tend to. It isn’t something that everyone finds easily though. In the last few years, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called attention to an epidemic of loneliness in America. And it’s impacting everyone. Adults have fewer close friends than adults 30 years ago. Children and teenagers are struggling with anxiety and isolation at rates unlike any other time in history. And seniors, whose families often live further away are experiencing the effects of loneliness at increased rates as well. What Dr. Murthy points out is that this isn’t just an inconvenience in our lives, it’s a serious concern for the wellbeing of our whole society. We’re more isolated, and more divided than we’ve been in a long time. But what we are experiencing is treatable, and it starts with intentional hospitality – of making space for others in the communities where we already belong.

When the early Christians set out to share the Gospel, one of the first things people who encountered them may first have noticed was that Christians came from all walks of life. They were from different cultures, countries, and classes. Men and women both had significant roles within the community, and because they believed the Spirit calls the church together, they understood that whoever joined their community was right where they belonged.

They welcomed strangers, engaged skeptics, gave generously to the needs of the poor, provided sanctuary for widows and foreigners, and practiced intentional, radical hospitality. Why? Because it was how they came to see and experience Christ in their midst. This kind of hospitality went against the grain of culture. It bent the rules of convention. But it became the predominant way people knew they were in the company of Christians. When the church is at its best, these are still the things we focus on. It’s what you could say keeping the main thing the main thing is all about.

These practices took root in the ministry of Jesus, but they took off after his resurrection. In the scripture reading today, a couple of Jesus’ followers were heading home to Emmaus a few days after Jesus’ death.  They had spent the last few days in shock at what they had witnessed. Jesus, their teacher, the one they came to see as their Savior, was dead. They had hung all their hopes on him to rescue their people. They were looking for political salvation, the kind that would end up with a different kind of ruler than the Roman Emperor. Instead, the opposite happened; and they were devastated. I can’t imagine how lonely and disappointing that walk home was. As they walked along, a seeming stranger met them along the way and asked what they were talking about. Cleopas and his friend didn’t believe what he was asking – to them it would have been like someone on the street in Manhattan a couple days after 9/11 asking what was going on around there. But as they welcomed this stranger along their journey, and heard him talk about what he knew about God’s salvation, they didn’t want their encounter to end. When they arrived at their house, they invited him in. They sat down at the table together and shared a meal. When the bread was broken and blessed their eyes were opened and they realized the Risen Lord had been among them the whole time. In that moment the roles were reversed, and the guest became the host to a holy encounter. What would have happened if they would have written him off for not knowing what had happened? What if they would have judged him rather than been curious about who this stranger was? What if they hadn’t invited him to the table?

The church hasn’t always been as hospitable as these disciples on the road.  Sometimes Christians’ intentional or unintentional exclusion has hindered our ability to recognize when Jesus is among us. Maybe it’s been an official policy of the church or denomination, or perhaps it’s a subtle criticism of someone serving more as a righteous gatekeeper than a generous host.

I recently learned that some of my relatives stopped going to church way back in the 1960s because one of them had a skin disease that created sores on his face and arms. A woman sitting behind the family in the pew one Sunday leaned over to another person and said, “How can they show up to church with him looking like that?” Subtle, huh? He couldn’t help it. He was sick and looking for hope and maybe even belonging. But the family never went back to church together again. What could have happened if instead of gatekeeping, the woman would have been compassionately hospitable? If she would have reserved judgment and invited them to sit at the table for coffee after worship with her? She might have learned so much more and may have even glimpsed the face of God in someone looking for hope that comes from Jesus. She might have even been the embodiment of that hope for that family.

Something happens to us when we break bread together. Lives get shared. Judgments soften. God opens our eyes to deeper reality. I once heard someone say, “It’s hard to not like someone when you’ve shared a meal together.”

Intentional hospitality has always been a sign of Christian faith and community. Whether it is at this table (gesture to the altar) when we share the sacrament of Holy Communion together or it is around our own tables in our homes, Christ shows up ready to make our hearts burn and our eyes open to the fullness of God’s presence. This year, we want to intentionally practice that kind of Gospel hospitality – where more people discover that by God’s grace and love, they are part of God’s community and that in Christ all of us are right where we belong.

Today, when you go into the Fellowship Hall, you’ll have a chance to connect with those you might not have seen in a while. But I also hope you’ll pay attention to a couple people you’ve never seen before and simply introduce yourself and maybe ask each other about what you like to do and how you have experienced the morning so far. Then go over to the table with the Right Where You Belong kitchen boards. Every household is welcome to take one home to be reminded that you are right where you belong in Christ – and you’re right where you belong at Augustana. At that table, you’ll also receive a loaf of delicious bread.

I want you to share this bread as a way of practicing some Gospel hospitality. Pay attention to the ways God shows up in your encounter. Maybe you offer to share it with a co-worker who’s struggling in their marriage. Or share it with a neighbor who drives you crazy. Maybe you see someone standing on a street corner asking for help. Whoever it is, here’s my challenge to you – try to share the bread in such a way that you have a chance to know one another more deeply. I’d love to hear how you share your bread so send me an email or stop by the office and let us know.

I can’t help but believe that the Spirit is calling us to reclaim the spiritual practice of hospitality – of welcoming strangers, engaging skeptics, of sharing generously with others and paying attention to those on the margins – even and especially those who might not be like us. And that when we do, we can expect to see the face of Christ and be changed. Amen.

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