Practicing Radical Hospitality, or Living with Arms Wide Open
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable.
Presented: 10/09/2011
Author: Rev. Steve Kindle
Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13
Copyright: © 2011 by Rev. Steve Kindle

Please see the sermon manuscript for citations of sources quoted or used.

Perhaps you saw on TV recently a sign a protestor was holding that asked, “Who would Jesus hate?” It reminded me of a bumper sticker that said, “Dear God, please spare me from your followers.”

Let’s face it. The image of Christianity in America and throughout the world is becoming increasingly more and more negative.

In 2007, David Kinnaman published a groundbreaking book, UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. This book is the result of three years of extensive interviews with 18-39 year-olds today.

Through his research, Kinnaman uncovered the negative perceptions the unchurched had toward Christianity.

He noted six perceptions these outsiders have of Christians:

(1) Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes.

(2) Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people.

(3) Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbiansand other minorities.

(4) Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, and often identify as right-winger conservatives who want to replace the constitution with the Bible.

(5) Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others. They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.

(6) Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality. Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers, ignoring evolution and global warming.

Many Christians, upon hearing these charges against us, react as the outsiders expect us to react: judgmentally and simplistically. Their reply? “What do you expect from people whose minds have been clouded by the evil culture of secular humanism.”

I think we need to own up to these charges. While they do not describe all of Christendom, they certainly describe too much of it.

American Christianity is becoming more and more unwelcoming and mean-spirited.

Whose voices most decry the efforts of gays and lesbians to find equality in America?

Whose voices denounce our Muslim friends and neighbors as unwelcome and likely terrorists?

Whose voices label Pro Choice advocates as “baby killers” and sanction killing abortion doctors?

Whose voices denounce the world’s religions as inventions of Satan and treat them as enemies?

Whose voices most label the poor as lazy and unworthy of government help?

Need I go on? “Who would Jesus hate, indeed?”

Today, when I identify myself as a Christian, I am assumed to uphold these notions. I long for the day when people will immediately bring to their minds what my mind thinks of as Christianity.

But let’s not be too hard on these Christians. They are victims of biblical ignorance. They have been seduced by a means of understanding the Bible that is foreign to it. My heart breaks for them because I know they are leading unfulfilled, joyless lives; and that they need our love, not our condemnation. I know this because I once was one of their true believers. And the best way we can minister to them, and to anyone, is to love them and welcome them.

I know that some of us, upon reflecting on this sorry state of Christian behavior, immediately took the attitude of the Pharisee who said, “Thank God that I am not like one of these.” And if you did, you just joined the ranks of the oppressors. I know this because I have to constantly disabuse myself of my own smug attitude.

To the contrary, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do. And don't jump all over them every time they do or say something you don't agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. (Romans 14:1) How could Paul act this way?

The place to begin is to listen to these words he wrote to the Roman Christians. He gave this healing advice, Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7) REPEAT

Hear this as a Jewish Christian would: gentiles??!, Roman oppressors??!, slave masters??!

Christians weren’t welcoming because they were trying to be good, but because they were profoundly aware of God’s welcoming in their lives and wanted to share it with others.

And the world is starving for God’s radical hospitality. The churches that practice welcoming Christianity may be the last welcoming communities in America.

Gospel welcoming is unconditional grace, unmerited love. It is bestowed as God bestows the sunshine and the rain on the just and the unjust. Just as we were welcomed into the life of God, so we welcome others into our lives and the life of our church. Unconditionally, fully, with our arms wide open.

The purpose of gospel hospitality is to invite others to experience the living, welcoming God, and experience the welcoming God in others.

We need one another, especially those other than ourselves

[Lesson learned from living with the gay community]

In Bismark, ND, where I grew up, we had our local crazy coot. He wore a heavy wool railroad coat all year ‘round, and it could get over 100 degrees in the summer.

He died and left that coat to someone who had befriended him

It was discovered that this old coot had sewed ,000 in the lining of that coat.

I wished I had befriended him.

What I needed to learn was that every old coot, every stranger, every “other” has the equivalent blessing of ,000 in relationship value that I can have for the asking.

We want Niles Discovery Church to be successful. How do we measure that success?

Numbers? Big budget? Longevity? Popularity in the neighborhood?

I believe that the only true measure of success of a congregation is how thoroughly we welcome those most in need of welcoming.

One of the most unlikely and amazing historical events is how a ragtag group of backcountry outcasts could, within three centuries, become the dominate religious force in the Roman Empire. How did Christianity become popular so quickly? Especially at a time when it was illegal? Hundreds of thousands of Christians were tortured and killed by the Roman government, yet more people kept freely choosing to join the new religion.

To be a Christian was not easy in the year 300. Christians were laying their lives on the line every time they assembled for worship. Yet the rate of conversion was most remarkable.

The Christian population grew by 40 percent a decade, from about 1,000 Christians in the year 40 to 33 million in 350 AD, slightly over half of the population.

So, what explains this rapid growth?

Epidemics were among the great terrors of life in the ancient world. Look at what ordinarily happened when an epidemic hit an ancient hometown. The first people to leave were the doctors. They knew what was coming, and they knew they could do little to prevent it. The next to leave were the pagan priests, because they had the means and the freedom to do so.

Ordinary pagan families were encouraged to abandon their homes when family members contracted the plague. Again, they knew no other way to isolate the disease than to leave the afflicted family member behind to die, perhaps slowly. Christians were duty-bound not to abandon the sick. Jesus had said that, in caring for the sick, Christians were caring for him. So, even though Christians knew little more about medicine than the pagans did, they stayed with their family members, friends, and neighbors who were suffering.

Consider this account of the great epidemic of the year 260, left to us by Dionysius of Alexandria: Most of the Christians in our city showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of others. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending their every need, helping and comforting them — and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pain.

Christianity had the same effect in other ways. It offered cities filled with strangers, orphans, widows, the homeless, and the poor a new family and community and a new way of life that freed them from many of the fears that tortured their pagan neighbors.

When the pagans practiced infanticide by leaving unwanted children exposed to the weather to starve and die, Christians rescued them and they would grow up Christian.

Thus, the pagans who received Christian care were more likely to survive and, in turn, to become Christians themselves. And, in times of epidemic, when populations as a whole plummeted, church growth soared, even when Roman soldiers were executing Christians by the thousands.

The emperor Julian, who despised all Christians and led the charge to re-paganize the empire, still had to grudgingly admire their charity: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our poor lack aid from us.”

Gradually, invisibly, but inexorably, the Christian way of radical welcome transformed the Roman Empire. Christianity transformed the way neighbors treated the sick, the way parents treated their children, and the way husbands and wives loved each other. It was this welcoming lifestyle which attracted so many new believers.

Until we regain this radical hospitality, we won’t be able to transform a single block! And if we grow any other way we will still be spiritually stunted and sterile.

I would say that the best definition of a Christian is one who knows the welcoming of God and seeks to find that welcoming God in others.

Listen to this morning’s text the way the Message Bible puts it:

9Passing along, Jesus saw a man at his work collecting taxes. His name was Matthew. Jesus said, "Come along with me." Matthew stood up and followed him. 10-11Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew's house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus' followers. "What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?" 12-13Jesus, overhearing, shot back, "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders." (Matthew 9:9-13)

Many become church members but not Christians, not welcoming people who know their own welcoming
They are never transformed by the gospel
They have no ears to hear or eyes to see their own welcoming and their desperate need to welcome others, for this is the only way one can find God.

This is a true picture of the church today. When progressive Christians seek the company of gays and lesbians, and the oppressed aliens, and the marginalized minorities, some of our conservative brothers and sisters have a similar fit. We are accused of keeping the wrong kind of company and, heaven forbid, should we ever bring any along with us to church.

Earlier I stated that we should not be too hard on these Christians. They are victims of biblical ignorance. They have been seduced by a means of understanding the Bible that is foreign to it. Because they have been taught that the Bible is without error, everything in the Bible must be of the right attitude.

Take Moses for example. In Deuteronomy 23:1 No eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. This is another way of saying that eunuchs are unworthy of attending church with the rest of us normal people. Why? Because they can’t procreate. Sound familiar?

But Isaiah knows that God feels differently. He quotes God as saying,

For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; (Better than the ability to procreate)
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
The first non-Jewish Christian was the Ethiopian eunuch!

Just one more example: Moses, again, says, Deuteronomy 23:3,

No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord,

Why? Because they had been inhospitable to Moses and Israel while they were wandering in the Sinai desert.

Ruth, a Moabite woman, became the great-great grandmother of Jesus. God gets the last word by mingling in Jesus’ veins the blood of the outcast Moabites.

Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst!” In other words, “God’s welcome is right here with you.”

To be a welcoming church is to fulfill both of the Great Commandments, to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

The realm of God is the world’s true home; they just don’t know it yet. Will they ever?

They may if we can truly become A NEW CHURCH FOR A NEW DAY! That is, a community whose welcome is as wide as God’s, with our arms wide open. AMEN

Audio version not available.
Video version not available.