Scripture: Hebrews 13:1-3
The story goes that there once was a successful businessman. He worked long hours but he was an expert at growing business operation to larger scales. Finally, his family convinced him to actually take a vacation and they went to a small Brazilian village on the beach. As the businessman sat on the beach one morning, he saw a fisherman rowing a small boat toward shore having caught several big fish. Impressed by the haul, the businessman approached the fisherman and asked, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?”
The fisherman replied, “Depends, but usually just a few hours.”
Instinctively sensing a business opportunity the businessman asked him, “Then why don’t you stay out longer and catch even more?”
The fisherman shrugged, “Because this is all I need.”
Slightly confused the business man then asked, “So what do you do for the rest of the day?”
The fisherman replied, “Well after getting up early and catch a few fish, I take a nap in a hammock and then I have the rest of the day to do whatever I wish.”
Shocked by all of the wasted time, the business man shook his head and offered up a suggestion to the fisherman. “I have a PhD in business management, and I can help you to become a more successful person. You should spend more time at sea and catch as many fish as possible. Once you have saved enough money, you should then buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. Then you will be able to buy more boats, hire employees, and catch even more fish. From there you can set up your own company, your own production plant for canned fish, and create a distribution network. From there you can move from this small village and set up a corporate HQ in a big city which will allow you to expand to other markets.”
The fisherman listened patiently and asked “and after that?”
At this point the businessman was getting really excited by the possibilities and continued, “After that, you can buy a big house where all the other influential people live, and when the time is right you can go public on the stock exchange, float your shares, and you will be rich.”
The fisherman then asked, “And after that?”
The businessman had to pause for a moment to think what came next and then said, “Well then you could retire to a small fishing village by the ocean. You could get up early in the morning catch a few fish, take a nap in a hammock, and then have the rest of the day to do whatever you wish.”
This story illustrates a simple but profound point, growth for the sake of growth is not the same thing as success. This is a story that actually originated in the world of business and is often told to try and get people in the corporate sector to evaluate why they are doing what they are doing. It is meant to cause them to ask are they growing just to grow or are they succeeding. The point of the story is to cause the hearer to reflect and ask themselves why?
While this is a story from the business world, I think it is one we need to hear in the church world as well. I think every church in the world has the desire to grow, all of us want to see more cars in the parking lot and less empty pews. However, especially in the church, our goal should never be growth just for the sake of growth. Our goal is to make disciples, to introduce people to the love of God, and that should be what motivates everything that we do.
Unfortunately, in the midst of doing what we need to do to meet that goal it is easy to lose sight of our ultimate motivation. For instance, every book on church growth has a chapter devoted to hospitality. Often these chapters get very practical in their suggestions such as having proper signage, a clearly labeled parking lot, name tags, coffee that is hot, and a clear process for visitor follow up. All of those suggestions are well and good. They are all worth considering and probably worth doing, but our reason for showing hospitality should not be just because it is a means to growth. This morning’s scripture is a simple but firm reminder not to forget to show hospitality to strangers. Not only might we entertain angels, but hospitality is one of the key ways we share the love of God with others.
The verse that often stands out from this morning’s section of scripture comes from verse 2, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This verse is a direct callback to several times in the Old Testament. Abraham, Gideon, and Manoah all hosted angels who came to visit them. More than that though, it is a call back to the Old Testament traditions on hospitality. Even to this day, in Middle Eastern cultures hospitality is an important virtue. The importance of showing hospitality to strangers is encoded into the bible. We can see this in the book of Job. When Job is accused of not following God he has to defend his righteousness. As part of this defense he mentions hospitality in Job 31:32: “but no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler.”
Kindness to strangers and hospitality is a key part of God’s law. For instance, Exodus 22:21 states, “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Then Leviticus 19:10 commands, “And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Leviticus 19 continues in verse 34: “the stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
The ancient Israelites were called to go above and beyond the cultural hospitality rituals of their region, they were to radically accept and provide for strangers. This is because in the bible hospitality to strangers is one of the main ways that the followers of God display and express God’s love to others. This was a message that the original audience of Hebrews needed to hear.
Hebrews is a little bit different from the letters that Paul wrote to churches. For the most part, Paul’s letters were written to churches he founded. They were first generation churches with first generation believers. There is textual evidence within Hebrews itself that implies the author and the audience were second generation believers. They are the children and the people who came after the first generation. It is the start of Christianity going from a new movement to an established institution. That is a transformation that took centuries, but a lot of the commentary in Hebrews can be seen as being directed towards trying to keep the dynamic, movement nature of Christianity intact. The reminder to show hospitality to strangers is part of this. A lot of Greco-Roman religious institutions were not terribly friendly to strangers. Part of their religious culture was having secret rites that people were initiated into. There were hoops to jump through to be accepted, and there was a strong divide between outsider and insider, between accepted and stranger. This morning’s scripture was a reminder to the original audience that God has always asked the followers of God to be kind and show hospitality to strangers. This scripture directly connects doing so to God’s love.
This was a reminder that a second generation church needed, and it is a reminder that the church needs time and time again. Local churches as institutions constantly face the temptation to turn inward, to focus on insiders, and not show hospitality to strangers. I am reminded of a story from a person in ministry once about a Pastor-Parish relations committee meeting that went downhill. The PPR committee is supposed to focus on issues related to the pastor, but this meeting quickly turned to complaining about other church attenders. One woman wanted to know what the pastor was going to do about a young family, whose baby liked to scream along with the hymns. This led to someone else complaining about an older man who was not too connected to anyone else in the church, but every time he came he brought a large cup of coffee with him. These complaints gave way to the new family that just started attending and always brought snacks for their toddler into the sanctuary. The solution offered to these complaints was to put up signs around the sanctuary starting what was not allowed. The pastor resisted this solution though, stating that if a guest visited our own homes, we would not put up signs telling them what they are allowed to do. The pastor’s point was why would we treat God’s house different than our own? When we have a guest visit our home, we rightly show them hospitality. We will often put the comfort of our guest above our own personal comfort. As members of God’s family we should extend the same sort of hospitality to people when they visit God’s house.
As this morning’s scripture states, we should not just extend this hospitality to guests that we know but to strangers as well. Anyone who walks through the doors of our church should be able to tell that as a fellowship of believers we prioritize their comfort as guests over our own. Multiple studies have shown, that when someone comes as a church as a stranger they can in fact tell if they are welcomed or not, if they are wanted or not. Surveys have shown that most people who visit a congregation decide within ten minutes if they are going to come back or not. This means that if someone is not extended hospitality, if they do not get a sense that they valued and wanted here within ten minutes we may have to work do. So it is likely to a good idea to follow the hospitality recommendations from the books. One of the common ones that all of us can follow is the three minute rule. Studies have shown that after worship most people tend to congregation in conversation with the same small group of people each week. The three minute rule is to spend the first three minutes after a worship service connecting with and talking to people you may not normally interact with. Some weeks this means you introduce yourself to a visitor and other times it means you talk to someone who sits on the opposite side of the sanctuary as you do.
We should take intentional steps to be as welcoming and extend hospitality as much as possible, but we have to always remember why we are doing it. Our primary motivation for reaching out, inviting people in, and welcoming them is not to grow for the sake of growth. Our reason for showing kindness to strangers should never be motivated by dollars in the plate or butts in the pew. Our motivation for showing hospitality is plainly stated in verse 1 of this morning’s scripture: “keep on loving one another.” The way love strangers is by extending them radical, gracious, fully accepting hospitality. Even if a person never contributes money, or even comes back because if we have shown hospitality to strangers, then we have welcomed them into God’s house. As followers of Christ if we put others above ourselves when they visit, then we will be sharing the love of God with strangers. It is this love that changes lives, it is this love that makes disciples, and so showing hospitality to strangers is the first step into how we live into our mission. So may we the people of North Judson UMC keep on loving one another and may we not forge to show hospitality to strangers. In doing so we might entertain angels, but we will certainly be proclaiming the love of God through our actions.