The following sermon is one of many by the Rev. Foster Freed of the United Church of Canada that will be presented on this site over the next few months and years. Foster is one of best preachers I have been privileged to hear in my years of ministry. Foster is the pastor of a large and growing congregation (Knox United) located in Parksville on Vancouver Island in the Province of British Columbia.
A Sermon Preached at Knox United Church (Parksville, B.C.)
on 30th June 2002 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)
by Foster Freed
You will notice that I have given to this sermon the title "The Host." In actual fact, it would have been no less accurate had I given it the title, "The Guest". Those two things, you see, are profoundly inter-connected: being a "host" and being a "guest" that is. As a matter of fact, the Latin word that is generally translated as "host" can also be translated as "guest".
Guesting and hosting. Being received and receiving others. Being welcomed and welcoming others. Those things are intricately linked in human life, since no one gets to play the role of guest, until someone else indicates a willingness to play the role of host.
And it is with the role of host that we Christians tend to be especially preoccupied these days, especially we mainline Christians. Even when we allow for the fact that we live in a retirement community; even when we recall that it is now summer and that many families go away for the summer; even when we further factor in that this is the first long weekend of the summer; there is no denying that ours is an ageing congregation, not at all untypical of our ageing denomination. No wonder we tend to place, and quite rightly, a high premium on hospitality. No wonder we expend a good deal of energy learning and putting into practice the habits of the good host.
I'm thankful that we are not that congregation. As I complete my ninth year at Knox this very morning(!), I am grateful that this congregation has never been even remotely like that congregation.
And yet. And yet.
This past Tuesday evening, along with a half dozen other Knox folks, as well as some 25 folks from other churches, I attended a meeting at the Anglican church down the street. We were gathering at the invitation of Helen Wagg, a member of St. Edmund's Social Justice and Outreach committee. In light of the changes currently being implemented to the Provincial Social Assistance programme by the present government of British Columbia, we were there to strategize how we, as churches, might best meet the needs of those within the wider Oceanside community, who were especially at risk.
And I am quite certain that those who gathered for a meeting that brought together Christians from a diversity of churches and theologies, were every bit as diverse in terms of their political and ideological affiliations. Nevertheless, that group was unified in recognising that the churches cannot sit on their hands if there are people going hungry in our community. Which is furthermore to suggest that we were unanimous in the recognition that our churches may increasingly find that hospitality--playing the host--will mean a great deal more over the coming months, than simply extending a firm handshake and a warm smile to newcomers on Sunday mornings.
As I said earlier, I am struck by that odd feature of Latin, in which the same word can mean both guest and host. For that matter, I am also struck by the oddity of that remarkably short and crisp discourse from Matthew's Gospel: the one Jane read to us a few moments ago. It comes at the tail end of the tenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel: a chapter in which Jesus provides his disciples with their marching orders. And the intriguing thing is that Jesus' assumption is that his disciples are likelier to be guests than hosts. In a very real sense, he is sending them out into the world not so that their hospitality can be tested, but that the world's hospitality can be tested.
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me," is the charge with which he leaves his disciples. "And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." Jesus, you see, appears to assume that his followers will be on the receiving end, rather than the offering end, of hospitality.
And we are inclined to protest that it could not have been any other way for those first Christians. They were a part of a tiny, struggling movement. We, on the other hand, are part of an established church, a church which until only recently could rightly have been described as an establishment church. It is only right and proper, or so seems, that we be sensitive to our obligations as hosts. Only right that we should seek to play that role with faithfulness and skill. Only right that our graciousness as hosts be second to none.
And still I wonder. I wonder.
I wonder how we might respond, you and I, were this congregation to begin recruiting next fall, a team of door-to-door evangelists, a team that would, in a sense, be called to work in tandem with our Sunday morning hospitality team. In other words, a team that would one day be as proficient at allowing themselves to be welcomed as strangers at other people's doors, as our hospitality team currently is at welcoming strangers to this congregation when they enter through its doors. And trust me, I am not asking that question in a wise-guy sort of way. On the contrary, I am not asking you anything I am not also asking myself. Fifteen years from now when I am, God willing, enjoying my retirement years, I have no trouble imagining myself as part of a congregational hospitality team. But I have good reason to believe that I will continue to find myself as terrified then as I am now, at the prospect of knocking on strange doors, for the purpose of inviting their strange or not so strange occupants to visit my church.
And maybe, just maybe, that's why the Latin language found it natural to use the same word to describe both a guest and a host. For the simple reason that the offering of true hospitality (in other words being a host) requires from us the same willingness to be vulnerable that is so much a part of the receiving of true hospitality (in other words being a guest). But the difference, perhaps the difference, is that when we are playing the role of host, we can kid ourselves into thinking that we are still in control. Whereas when we head out into the world and knock on the doors of a stranger, we know that we have relinquished control. And maybe that is not such a bad thing. Perhaps, as a congregation that wants to offer authentic rather than merely superficial hospitality to our community, maybe we could do a lot worse than to become reacquainted with how it feels to be on the receiving end of someone else's hospitality. How it feels to be vulnerable. How it feels to find oneself in a strange place, eagerly looking warmth and friendliness, but also for an intimacy and depth of care that surpass even the friendliest of smiles.
Then again, isn't that the real essence of the Gospel. Our belief that God-in-Christ, who can be presumed to have been very much at home in God's own space, nevertheless chose to vacate that space and temporarily become a guest in our space. That we might one day become year-round guests in God's space.
Which perhaps accounts for the fact that one of our primary missions during our time on this earth is for us to learn how to receive and how to be received; how to welcome and how to be welcomed; how to be a host; how to be a guest. In the process learning how to be vulnerable, how to be open. That we might become guests worthy of a welcome. That we might become hosts worthy of a visit.
In the name of Jesus, our guest and our host, may it be so. Amen.
copyright - Sermon by Rev. Foster Freed 2002 - 2006 page by Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2006 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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