Sunday, November 23, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: A Prayer for the Church Today

Thanksgiving Sunday
Philippians 1:1-11

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While under house arrest in a secure place, probably in or near Rome around 60 A.D., the apostle Paul and his co-worker and scribe, Timothy, crafted a letter for the Christian believers at Philippi.  It is a beautiful letter that expresses deep affection and connection with this body of believers who were part of the first church Paul established on European soil.  It also included words of encouragement, gratitude, thankfulness, some admonition.  Overall the letter breathes JOY - CONFIDENCE - DEEP FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST.

This past summer (2014), I was not under house arrest, but was on a 3 month sabbatical in or near Harrisonburg.  One of my goals was to learn by heart the book of Philippians to ‘tell’.  I haven’t quite accomplished that goal, but I am still working on it.  As I immersed myself in this text, or ‘marinated in the scriptures’, as Dan Longenecker would describe it to ‘biblical storytellers’, I realized that these words were not only Paul’s words to his brothers and sisters at Philippi, but they felt more and more like my words, thoughts and prayers that I wanted to convey to my brothers and sisters here at PV, at least some of them.
So open your heart, mind and ears to hear Paul’s words from the first part of chapter 1 which are also my heart felt thoughts to you.

“From Paul and Timothy, (and Pastor Barbara), servants of Christ Jesus.
To all the saints, God’s holy people, in Christ Jesus at Philippi, (and Park View), together with the elders and overseers.
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all of my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel with me from the first day until now.  I am confident of this that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you since I have you in my heart, and whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace, God’s mission with me.  God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best and so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, those good qualities, that come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."

A paragraph of thanksgiving is pretty standard for Paul at the beginning of his letters, but this one is especially beautiful and shows deep connection with this body of believers.  It sets the direction and tone for the entire letter....sometimes it is referred to as “the Pauline thanksgiving”.  How appropriate that we remind ourselves of it this Sunday.

Paul was troubled by some things he heard about the Philippian believers.  For the most part they were doing well and supporting his mission, but he knew they were being pressured and influenced by outside forces to pay homage to the emperor. He senses they need some pastoral encouragement.  In a later part of the letter he gives thanks for the financial gift that Epaphroditus brought to him from the Philippian church during a time of need, but this opening part, this “Pauline thanksgiving”, is filled with joy and  gratitude, for them...his brothers and sisters for which he has deep affection.

These opening verses of chapter 1 unfold in a 3 part structure:
1.)  vs. 3-6 - expression of gratitude.  He remembers then often and prays for ALL of them, not just a select or favored few.  ALL seems to be repeated a few places...maybe there was a feeling that some were favored and he wanted to reinforce that he was including all of them, no exceptions!  He was reflecting on the PAST. His expression of gratitude was for their partnership in the gospel with him from the very beginning.  He experienced them as faithful partakers, partners, sharers in the ministry.  Not only did they receive the message, but they actively supported his ministry!  He was confident that God who began a work in them, would continue to do so into the future. God will complete, finish, bring to fulfillment that work, at the day of Christ Jesus. This was reason to rejoice.  This was reason for Paul to give thanks!

2.)  vs. 7-8 - expression of Paul’s affection for them.  It carries unusual strength.  It is a language of persuasion.  What he was feeling in the PRESENT as he was writing this letter shows a depth of intimacy and a deep yearning.  The intense compassionate love exhibited by Jesus is now fostered in Paul by his own union with Christ. The deep feeling Paul has for them comes from the heart of Christ Jesus himself.  He is justified in feeling this way.  They are all partners with him in this ministry no matter what happens to him or them.  All share in God’s grace/mission.

3.)  vs. 9-11 - expression of prayer for the church. Paul doesn’t stay in the past, nor dwell in the present with his thoughts, but brings the Philippian believers into the future, by offering his heart felt prayer for them.  He longs for them to have a love that continues to grow and mature.  A love that is not sentimental, shallow, easy.  This kind of love does not shrink away from tough discernment and discussion and dialogue.  It is a love that can withstand truth-telling and even debate, testing a decision in real life situations.  Growing in love, discerning wisely, making good choices...that is Paul’s prayer for the church. 

Isn’t that our prayer, as well?

As I learned and embraced Paul’s letter to the Philippians, especially this first chapter, I wanted to also share similar thoughts with you.

This summer, even though I did not worship with you for 3 months, my thoughts and prayers were often with you and for you.  I prayed with joy and thanksgiving for this congregation and the larger church.  I have felt your support of my work and ministry among you for these 13 years.  You have welcomed me, given me room to grow and mature.  You have respected and honored me for my gifts and affirmed me for who I am.  God has been at work in this congregation long before I became one of your pastors and I believe that God will continue to work here in the future, bringing it to completion and fulfillment at the day of Christ Jesus.

The longer I am here and the more we learn to know each other and to trust each other, our bonds of love are strengthened and I am encouraged by your support.  I have you in my heart.  No matter how we are being called to work and minister here in this community and beyond, we all share in God’s grace and are part of this larger mission.  We are partners in the gospel.  And because we are rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus Christ, our love for one another comes from that center.

And my prayer is similar to Paul’s prayer for the church.  For this congregation, PVMC, for the congregations belonging to VA conference and for the congregations belonging to MCUSA, I pray that our love for one another will grow and grow and mature in ways we can’t even imagine.  I pray that in the midst of these difficult and challenging times, as we face decisions regarding same gender marriages and relationships, and any other potentially divisive issues, that we can value others above ourselves, that we learn to listen respectfully, set our pride aside, discern and probe and work together, to move forward, empowered through the Holy Spirit and in a way that honors and glorifies God.

Can we allow God’s love to abound more and more in us, to “spill out”, to “spill over” into areas of our lives and congregational life to heal, to mend, to transform, to keep us moving forward with hope for the future?

Paul’s letter to the Philippians was marked by joy, confidence, unity, perseverance in the Christian faith and life.  If you were writing your letter to PV or another congregation, facing challenging times, how would you encourage and reassure?  Would your letter be filled with joy, with expressions of love and gratitude?   What would your prayer be for the church today?

And this is my prayer: that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and so that we may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ....To the glory and praise of God. 

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Phil Kniss: Stewardship: Don’t try this at home alone

Stewardship Sunday
1 Corinthians 12:12-17, 24b-27

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You could call this sermon on stewardship today,
a sequel to last Sunday’s sermon on hospitality.
Two very different ideas, you might think—hospitality and stewardship.

But similar, in that they are both grossly misunderstood.
Both been stereotyped, defined far too narrowly,
and so we miss out on their larger meaning.
Hospitality has been mistakenly defined
as inviting people home for dinner.
Stewardship has been mistakenly seen
as dropping more money in the offering.

Both those things, of course, are good and noble.
I encourage you to do both.
Invite people for dinner, be generous in your tithes and offerings.
Quote me on that.

But having people for dinner,
is only a part of a much larger overarching invitation
to open our lives more deeply
and be radically hospitable to the other.
And giving more in the offering,
is only a part of a much larger overarching invitation
to put all that we have and are at God’s disposal,
to be stewards all the time, with all God’s gifts.

But besides being misunderstood and too narrowly defined,
hospitality and stewardship have something else in common.
They require the same attitude, the same posture toward life.
They require the ability to trust.

Hospitality requires the capacity to trust
the one we are inviting into our lives
—friend, family, stranger, enemy, God—
and to believe they are going to
honor the trust we are placing in them
and not take advantage of our welcome,
not harm or violate our trust,
and that they will respond, in time,
with a similar posture of openness and trust of us.

Stewardship also requires trust,
but more specifically, a mutual trust between ourselves and God.
We trust in God as source and owner and provider of all good things.
And we believe that God trusts in us to be good caretakers
of all those good things that God owns.

As I said, we think too small about stewardship.
Theologian Douglas John Hall once said,
“Stewardship is all that I do after I say, ‘I believe.’”
I agree.
Stewardship reorients everything.
Forget the silly notion that stewardship
is deciding how much money to give the church.
Stewardship is everything we do, after we say we believe.

If what we believe is that
God is creator and owner of all that exists in the universe;
If what we believe is that
God entrusts us with the responsibility to care for all of it
in a way that honors the owner;
then welcome to your full-time job,
a job for which you’re not just on-call, but on-duty 24/7.
Your job title is “God’s Trustee.”

I use the word trustee on purpose.
I could say “steward.” Means the same thing.
But when I say “trustee”
I are explicitly naming the essential truth on this subject—
Stewardship is all about trust.

We all know we are invited to have faith in God,
to trust God.
But the astonishing truth
is that God chooses to have faith in us.
God trusts us.

If we don’t understand that,
we don’t understand the core message of scripture.

God loves us, extravagantly.
So God needs to trust us.
God needs to give us freedom to choose
whether to respond to that love, or not.
Else, it wouldn’t be love.
It would be control.

The love response God looks for, hopes for, trusts for, from us,
is that we voluntarily move toward God and God’s purposes,
is that we choose to lean in toward God.

Because God decided to invite us, rather than control us,
the consequence is that sometimes we lean away from God,
sometimes we chose against God’s purposes,
to our detriment, and the detriment of the world.

But God is still determined to bring us, and all creation,
back to our created purpose.
Whatever it takes.
God is determined to save, to redeem, to restore.
But God will not do it alone.

God needs trusted partners in this work.
God needs trustees.
If God worked alone, unilaterally,
with a divine flick of the wrist,
that would eliminate freedom,
the very thing needed for love.
So God invited a people,
and made them trusted partners in mission.

Saving, redeeming, restoring, and reconciling is God’s mission.
And we are God’s trustees.

Trustees are ones who are given trust
by the owner of whatever valuable thing is being entrusted.
We know this term from other examples in life.
When a young child inherits a large sum of money,
it’s put into a trust fund,
and managed by a trustee.
Someone who can be trusted, more than an 8-year-old,
to manage large sums of money.

When a church appoints trustees
to look after the building and grounds,
they choose people they trust
to take care of the property the church owns, collectively.

And when it comes to being God’s trustee,
is it’s never a solo job.
We are appointed as a board of trustees.

It’s not a lot different than the board of trustees
of any organization you know,
like a university, for instance.

The board of trustees don’t own the university.
Maybe a church denomination owns it.
Maybe the state government owns it.
Either way, the board of trustees
carry out the mission and vision of the owners.
Trustees don’t make up their own mission,
they are obligated to serve the mission of the owners.
If they don’t, they will be replaced by those who do.

It’s not always clear, at any given moment,
when facing any given decision,
exactly how the vision and mission of the owner
gets interpreted and applied—
like how to prioritize the annual budget,
and whether to fund this building, or that program,
or change this policy, or that curriculum.

So the Trustees job, is to act as a community of interpreters.
They don’t start from a blank slate,
and decide on things based on what they think are good ideas.
They keep their eyes always
on the mission and vision of the owners,
then, carefully examining all aspects
of the changing needs and circumstances,
they make decisions as a community of interpreters—
they interpret the intention of the owners,
and apply it to the decision at hand.

That’s why it’s healthier when a board of trustees
has a wide range of perspectives,
with a variety of gifts and strengths and expertise,
who approach problems from different angles.
When they pool their expertise and various perspectives,
and remain unified at the core,
they are more likely to stay faithful to the owner.

We—those of us who say “we believe”—
are God’s board of trustees.
We have accepted a communal responsibility,
to act on God’s behalf in this world.
We don’t define our own mission, as we wish.
We serve the mission and purposes of God.

We are the body of Christ.
Literally, physically.
This is not just a metaphor.
We physically, politically, socially embody Christ in the world.
We act in this realm, on God’s behalf, as God’s trustees.

God saw fit to give this body a variety of gifts.
God blessed the body with a variety of perspectives,
and personality characteristics,
and ways of thinking and solving problems.
So that working together,
with God’s saving and reconciling mission at the center,
we have what it takes to be good trustees,
faithful to the trust God has placed in us as a body.

That’s what we heard in today’s epistle reading from 1 Corinthians.
“The body is one,” Paul writes, “and it has many members.”
We need each other.
“If the foot said, ‘Hmmph! I’m not a hand,
So I don’t belong to the body,’
that would not make it any less a part of the body.
And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
But God arranged the body,
and God intends the body to work together
with a unified purpose.
That is the body to whom God had entrusted
his mission and purpose for all creation.


This is all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
We’ve heard it said many times:
“We are one body with interdependent members.”
We have no problem with that.
We embrace it fully. In the abstract. In the theoretical.

But when it starts getting personal,
our enthusiasm diminishes.
We start getting nervous about this notion
that we all share some responsibility for each other, mutually,
in terms of how we’re doing as God’s steward,
God’s trustee.

We don’t really want other trustees looking over our shoulder,
giving us specific counsel,
on how we’re using the gifts we’ve been given.
Gifts in almost any area of our lives—
our vocation,
our relationships,
our time.
And it’s certainly all hands off
when it comes to money and possessions.
That’s private.
That’s just between me and God, thank you very much.

I do think privacy, as it relates to money and possessions,
is essential in many contexts.
It makes sense economically, relationally, spiritually,
to have clear boundaries on information-sharing.
I don’t want, nor would it be helpful to me,
or to my Christian discipleship,
to have all my finances part of the public record,
accessible to all who are curious.
Don’t know about you,
but I don’t want my weekly giving
to be published in the church bulletin.

But I don’t think we can defend privacy
as some noble biblical value.
I think our knee-jerk “it’s-none-of-your-business” reaction
to talking about our money in the church,
is more about our culture of individualism,
than about being guided by biblical principles.

“Oh,” you are probably thinking,
“Didn’t Jesus teach that when we give our tithes,
we shouldn’t let our left hand know
what our right hand is doing?”
No. He did not.
Jesus did say that when we give alms to the poor,
we shouldn’t go out in the street and make a show of it,
so as to impress other people about how kind we are.

But from a biblical standpoint,
accountability for finances was assumed in the faith community.
People were held accountable.

Three quick examples:
One day Jesus sat down with his disciples
directly opposite the temple treasury deposit box,
and not only watched what people dropped in,
but pointed it out to bystanders,
and made comments about it.
Did you see what those rich people put in?
Did you see what that poor widow put in?

Members of the early church, Ananias and Sapphira,
were publicly called out, and punished by God,
for their deceit,
when they didn’t give proper accounting to the church,
for their financial gift.

And when Paul wanted other churches to contribute
to the needy Christians in Jerusalem,
he played one church off another,
the Macedonians off the Corinthians.
He encouraged generosity
by publicly pointing out the generosity of others.

But for us in the church today,
privacy about money is our sacred cow.

No, as I said, I don’t feel called to invite all of you who are curious,
to come over to our house on Thursday,
and scroll through our financial register,
and then advise us on how we plan
to fill out our Faith Promise cards for next Sunday.

I’m not interested in either financial exhibitionism,
or financial voyeurism.
I’m not going to invite you all to look at my personal finances,
because I don’t have that kind of covenant with all of you.
I love you all as my sisters and brothers in Christ.
But I don’t have that level of relational capital
and trust and accountability with all of you,
or you with me.
But if I would say that I can’t imagine opening my books
to anyone else in my covenantal faith community . . .
If I would admit that I have no Christian brother or sister
that I am giving account to . . .
no one in my baptismal covenantal community
that I seek counsel from . . .
then you should begin to wonder about me,
and whether I take my discipleship seriously.
Why are finances off-limit,
when we publicly said at our baptism,
something to the effect that
“we are willing to give and receive counsel
in the congregation?”
and that we “commit ourselves
to our brothers and sisters in the church,
to live in covenant together,
and in obedience to Christ as Lord?”

Is money not part of our obedience?
By what rationale do we say that our use of money and possessions
is somehow off the table,
and not part of our ordinary Christian discipleship?

Is it conceivable, as God’s trustees,
that we might seek counsel from our fellow trustees,
on the matter of how God might wish us
to spend, save, or give away God’s money,
and God’s other material assets
that we are privileged to manage for God?
Is it conceivable, as God’s trustees,
that we might pray with and consult with others,
as part of the process of discerning how we fill out
our 2015 Faith Promises?

It’s probably not conceivable,
if we haven’t already been honestly and authentically
giving and receiving counsel
in other areas of our walk with Christ.

If we haven’t been discussing and praying together
about our vocational choices,
about where and how to live,
about conflict in our families,
about stewardship of our time and energy . . .
then we probably aren’t going to begin
the journey of accountability
by opening up our check book and bank statements.

But if we do have the kind of trusting and covenantal relationships
that help us navigate lots of other challenges of discipleship,
but we have our financial lives under lock and key,
then I wonder if something went wrong somewhere.

Radical way of thinking?
Maybe, for our culture.
But not for biblical people, I would think.
Not for people who think Jesus meant what he said
when he taught his disciples
how to live in the now coming kingdom of God,
a kingdom that consistently confronts
values of the dominant culture.
We may not get all the way there, in one fell swoop.
But what one step might God be calling you, and me,
to make . . .
one step toward a greater obedience,
and greater faithfulness as God’s Trustee?

—Phil Kniss, November 16, 2014

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Phil Kniss: Fully present and hospitable

Church matters: Hospitality
Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

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I can think of a lot of reasons why now,
in our particular place, and time, and season, and context,
hospitality might just be one of the most important things 
we can be talking about as a church.
Not one of those reasons is connected to food, 
at least not directly.

I’ve preached sermons on hospitality before, and will again.
I need to, if I want to be a Christian preacher.
It’s so central to Christian faith and life.
I decided to make hospitality the last installment
in this series on the practices of the church for the 21st century,
not because it’s the least important, but the opposite.

Hospitality is not just one more practice we add to the list. 
It’s different from the others in that
it’s an undergirding practice, 
a defining practice,
a practice that is often invisible. 

When some other practices are being done, it’s obvious.
We know when footwashing is happening.
We know it when we are practicing communion, or baptism,
or worship, or prayer, or fasting, or reading scripture.

It doesn’t always occur to us when we practice hospitality,
or when we see someone else practicing it.
We know it, only on further reflection.
We know it by its impact, by its effect on relationships.
We see it often after the fact.
You might even argue that hospitality is an attitude or human virtue,
more than a practice of the church.
But I’m going to stick with the notion that it’s a practice.

First, I need to clear away some wrong ideas about hospitality.
Being able to put on amazing dinner parties,
set beautiful tables,
add just the right spice to a dish,
and just the right atmosphere to an occasion,
has nothing whatsoever to do with hospitality.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest
that people known for beautiful table settings,
tasty food,
artistic atmosphere,
smart conversation,
and funny jokes,
are less likely to have the gift of hospitality.
I wouldn’t go that far, even if I’m tempted to.

I’ve been to gorgeous homes and perfectly-set tables
where it was obvious that the guests were the most important thing,
where the hosts acted
like nothing else really mattered in that moment,
except being fully present, attentive, and open, to their guests.
And I’ve had the same experience in the humblest of homes,
with the stuff of life scattered on the floor and table and everywhere,
without apology,
only welcome, attentiveness, and presence to me as their guest.

I’ve also been ignored as a guest,
in both kinds of houses.
So I say, there is no connection whatsoever
between entertaining skills, and hospitality.

Nothing wrong about being the “host with the most.”
I love a good dinner party.
Wholesome parties are good for our health and relationships.
The more the merrier.
Just don’t confuse them with hospitality.

If our aim is to orchestrate an event,
to manage the environment,
to entertain the guests,
hospitality actually works against that.

Hospitality is radical openness to the unexpected,
it is letting go of the outcome,
it is welcoming the stranger.
Hospitality never makes the encounter about us—
our space, our skills, our taste, our style.
It is always about the other.
It is about being fully present to another,
in whatever way they need us to be present.

So hospitality is hard work.
It can be exhausting.
It can hardly be done 24/7.
We need respite sometimes.
We need our own space.
It’s a lot easier, truth be told,
to put on a perfectly dazzling dinner party,
than it is to practice a life of deep hospitality.

Now that I’ve established what hospitality is not,
let’s explore more what hospitality might look like
in the 21st century church,
in everyday followers of Jesus,
in the workplace,
in the public square,
in the face of conflicting values,
in the presence, even, of the enemy.

A quick word study shows “hospitality” is derived from 
the Latin word hospes, meaning “host” . . .
but—get this—it also means “guest” or “stranger.”
Originally, there is no clear separation of guest and host.
The same root word branches off into all kinds 
of other interesting words we commonly use—
like hospital, hospice, hotel, and hostel.
Hostel, as in a boarding house.
But also, hostile, as in the posture of an enemy.
The related Latin hostis, actually means “stranger or enemy,”
which is where the word “hostile” comes from.

Are you confused yet?
Is hospitality about being the host, or about being the guest?
Is about friends, or about strangers and enemies?
The answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

I’m not trying to build my whole case on word origin,
but I think it’s at least worth pondering the notion
that in earlier times, and in other cultures,
hospitality was an expected duty;
hospitality was more about protection and survival,
in the days of traveling long distances on foot,
than it was about dinner etiquette and entertainment.

We’ve come a long way,
from the cultural expectation to feed and house the stranger,
to now gated communities and triple-locked doors
with alarm systems and video surveillance.
I fear that some perfectly reasonable safety measures
meant to manage risk in a modern world,
have had unintended consequences.

Self-protection starts to seem normal, and even noble.
We start living lives that are locked and dead-bolted
against anything that might disturb them.
We close ourselves to whatever it is 
that we fear has potential to harm us.
We make our circle of trust smaller and smaller.
And we become inhospitable Christians.
Guarded Christians.
Fearful Christians.
Christians who are thus paralyzed,
rendered incapable of stepping out into the unknown,
unable to engage boldly in the risk-filled mission of God,
ready to move, with God, 
into the broken and abandoned places of society.

For the Western church today, 
the practice of deep hospitality is counter-cultural,
and leads us to places we cannot foresee.

In the two scripture readings this morning,
the ones granting hospitality
had no way of knowing where that simple act was going to lead.

Had they known,
would they have taken that first step 
of opening themselves to the other?

When Abraham offered his time, and his tent, and his table,
to the three unknown visitors,
he could not have envisioned where that visit would lead—
to a promise that Sarah would bear a child in her old age,
to an impending disaster awaiting his nephew Lot
in the nearby cities about to be destroyed,
and the family disaster that followed.

But hospitality, from the moment the three strangers approached,
demanded openness to the unknown.
And Abraham, true to the multi-layered meaning of the word,
was both host and guest.
He gave and received hospitality,
and his life was changed forever.

And in today’s Gospel reading,
another example of hospitality—actually two kinds of hospitality.
Martha cared, meticulously, for Jesus’ physical needs.
Mary sat at Jesus’ feet in deep listening, and contemplation.

Both were valid expressions of care.
But Martha missed an opportunity for deep hospitality,
when she, rather than be fully present and open,
chose to manage and control the event, and her sister.
Mary, meanwhile, chose to be fully present to their guest Jesus.
She opened herself, her mind, her spirit, her life,
without knowing where it would lead.
Had she known she was befriending one who later
would be executed as an enemy of the state,
and enemy of her own people,
would she have allowed herself to get so close?
would she have been so hospitable?

This is a challenging time in our world,
the clash of civilizations and religions has never been more heated,
and more dangerous.
This is a challenging time in our nation,
political polarization is becoming more pronounced,
rather than less.
And we know this is a challenging time for the church,
with conflicting practices and convictions,
taking a toll on our church body, and on our leadership,
and certainly, taking a toll on our witness in the world.

This is the season, now, for deep hospitality—
in the world, in our nation, in the church,
this is the time for the followers of Jesus 
to renew the practice of hospitality.

This is the time for us to make the difficult choice,
not to manage and control, but to yield to the future God has for us.
This is the time to, like Mary, sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen.
This is the time to, like Abraham, 
to be fully present with the visiting stranger, the “other,”
whether that “other” be an Iraqi Muslim,
a Palestinian refugee,
a Jewish settler,
a Tea-Party Republican,
a far left Democrat,
a God-and-country southern evangelical,
a bleeding-heart liberal secularist,
a socially conservative Christian,
a gay or lesbian Christian,
a veteran, a soldier, a peace activist,
an environmentalist, or a climate-change denier.

This is the time not to walk away from those who are different,
but to walk toward,
with open hearts, open minds, open arms.

This is the time for the practice of giving and receiving hospitality,
the practice of being fully present,

All of which, by the way, 
are nearly impossible to achieve on social media & public forums.
It takes being with. Being fully with. 
Being face to face, with eye contact.

If, in our present church conflict over sexuality,
or in any other kind of difficult conflict we may face,
you hear rhetoric from either side 
that sounds hard, and positional, and ideological, and polarizing,
and frames the conflict entirely as an “issue,”
instead of speech seasoned with grace and kindness,
referring to people we know and relationships we value,
then you can pretty well determine
that person would benefit from the practice of hospitality.

In so many matters that are divisive,
whether theological matters in the church,
or different political visions,
or conflict between cultures and religions,
it’s easy to spot those who practice hospitality,
and those who don’t.
Hospitality honors the other, and moves toward difference,
and engages difference with respect and reverence.
Hospitality is fully present with the other.
Fully present. Attentive. Compassionate. Responsive.
The practice of hospitality will result, brothers and sisters,
it will result in speaking differently 
about the matters that divide us.
It won’t guarantee that we come to the same conclusions.
But we will speak differently about our differences.
And we will choose to remain in meaningful relationship
through our differences.

But now, lest you take me to be talking only about
getting along with people who have different points of view . . .
lest you think I am only preaching a gospel of mutual human respect,
which you will hear preached in every religion,
in almost any house of worship,
and in any secular civil gathering of reasonable people . . .
lest you think that,
let me add this to the Christian practice of hospitality:
We, as individuals, and as a church,
are called, are invited, are mandated by Jesus,
to be hospitable to the Holy Spirit.

Hospitality doesn’t begin and end with interpersonal relationships.
We create a space in our lives and in our churches
to welcome God, and open ourselves to God’s purposes and will.
Just as being fully present 
is essential to meaningful human relationships,
so being fully present with God,
being attentive, 
being responsive (that is, obedient),
is an essential component of the Christian journey.

We can hardly talk about faithfulness to the way of Jesus,
and faithfulness to scripture,
if we are not practicing hospitality toward the Holy Spirit,
if we are not in a posture of yielding to the Spirit.

Again, just listening to the Spirit doesn’t guarantee uniformity.
Obviously, we each are listening with less than perfect ears.
We each are listening through the filters that have shaped us.
We are certain to hear only part of what the Spirit is saying.

So it requires great humility,
and continued listening to each other.

But we still have to be in a listening mode,
and in a posture of openness to truth that the Spirit may yet reveal,
and a willingness to obey that which the Spirit reveals,
even if it’s a hard obedience,
that takes us in a different direction than we were heading.

That is simply what it means to practice hospitality.
It’s what it means to practice church.

So hospitality is easy to spot.

If all we’re hearing is noisy debates over issues and ideas,
and all we’re seeing is people pounding in stakes
and declaring immovable positions,
or organizing into affinity groups
whose purpose is to confront rather than listen,
or seeing people choose to walk away
rather than engage the other respectfully,
then we have become just another partisan political machine,
and we have neglected the church practice of hospitality,
and probably many other communal practices of the church,
at the same time.
If that is what we are seeing,
then we as a church are called to repent.

If, on the other hand,
we are observing compassionate reaching out to the other,
careful listening and waiting on the Holy Spirit,
if we are seeing yielding, and mutual submission,
and a desire to obey the call of Jesus and the will of God,
if we are noticing persons who strongly disagree,
truly honoring each other,
being fully present with and attentive to each other,
and together listening for the Spirit of God to speak,
then, thanks be to God, hospitality is being practiced,
church is being practiced,
and God is on the move!

—Phil Kniss, November 9, 2014

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