I cannot believe that Christmas Eve is TWO weeks away. This season is flying by and I am trying to soak it up and enjoy time with my family, while also enjoying all of the wonderful things we do at church, as well!
Sunday was our second week into our three-week Advent sermon series looking at some of the spiritual practices the Christmas story teaches us. Ironic that I was preaching my sermon on hospitality the same week as our annual meeting where I gave my report and also talked about hospitality! We had a double baptism on Sunday, so I tried to keep things on the brief side (“tried” – ha!).
Rehoboth Congregational Church
December 8, 2019
I was writing my annual report this week and spent a lot of time staring at the dreaded blinding cursor on my computer screen.
And the thing is, I was not experiencing my usual case of writer’s block; I knew what I wanted to say. The only problem was I was afraid people would start throwing finger sandwiches at me if I started talking about hospitality again.
Hospitality has defined a lot of our conversation this year at the church. I am not entirely sure where it came from, either; it started on my family’s trip to Disney at the end of 2018 and before I knew it, I was obsessing over wearing name tags and how the soap smells in our bathrooms and planning a summer sermon series on hospitality.
And so, a little over a year later, I am not sure if people have bought into my theology of hospitality or just sort of resigned themselves to listening to me talk about it.
And so here I am talking about it again. But hear me out.
First of all, over the course of the year, we have made some really poignant changes that are noticeable, not only to us, as a community, but also to others who have noticed and commented to us – and even thanked us for!
And so I do not keep talking about it because I think we are terribly inhospitable and have so much to learn, but because we are learning and growing and it is exciting to me to keep talking about.
Second of all, I just cannot talk about the Christmas story without talking about hospitality, especially in these two stories.
Our first scripture reading is the story of the birth of Jesus. We all know it well; a census is being taken and everyone needs to travel to their hometowns to be counted. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem and when they arrive, it is time for Mary to deliver Jesus. But there is no place for them to stay; until an innkeeper takes heart and offers them space in the barn, where Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
Our second scripture reading is the story of the three kings. Again, we all know it well; King Herod, frightened upon hearing that a child has been born king of the Jews, sends three wise men to go find Jesus and then tell Herod where he is. They travel to Bethlehem on camels, following a star that leads them to the manger. When they arrive, they offer Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Before I start talking about hospitality, I do want to confess that I am buying into the romanticized versions of these stories a little bit when I draw together Jesus’ birth and my theology of hospitality.
Because the truth is, the bible does not actually mention an innkeeper. Scripture says that Jesus was laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn, but some scholars actually believe that the Greek word “inn” has been translated from – “katalymati” – actually is better translated to the word, “guest room”. This means that Mary and Joseph would have been staying with relatives who did not have a designated room for them to sleep in and therefore slept in a common living space. And while Jesus was laid in a manger, some research indicates that Palestinian peasant homes had feeding troughs built into the floors of common living spaces because animals were often brought in at night to help heat the homes and keep the animals safe.
And furthermore, the bible never mentions anything about the wise men riding in on camels. And for that matter, it never says that there are three, either; we just presume there are three because of the three gifts that are mentioned. AND the wise men actually showed up about two years after Jesus was born, so, as the mother of a two-year-old, I can only imagine that when they offered Jesus these gifts, he did not so much squeal with precious newborn delight, but throw the gifts on the ground, run circles around the manger and then try to climb on the camels.
And yet, there is a magic to these stories – at least the ways in which we have dramatized them over the last 2,000 years – that teaches me, year after year, that sometimes it is better to serve than to be served. These stories remind me that it is imperative for us, as Christians – who believe in this powerful story where God’s love breaks through our brokenness and comes into the world – to serve others.
We, too, are called to find places for people to stay. We, too, are called to give gifts that honor those we give them to. We, too, are called to see the needs of others and listen to the ways in which God is calling you to meet those needs.
The day before Thanksgiving I was on Instagram scrolling through stories and came across a woman named Raechel Myers, the Co-Founder and CEO of She Reads Truth, an organization committed to creating a community – and resources for that community – who reads scripture together every day. Raechel was talking about how she was getting ready to host Thanksgiving; and, as a girl after my own heart, she had detailed plans for food and beautiful place settings and spectacular décor.
But, she said, you do not have to do this to host Thanksgiving; this is just what brings me joy. Hospitality is not about place settings and decorations; it is about people. The next slide on her story had a picture of Thanksgiving prep with the caption:
More than anything, just remember that hospitality is about relationship, not performance. It’s about them, not you.
There are two things that I think are really important to take away from what she said. The first is that the way you “do” hospitality does not have to be the way someone else does it. The Body of Christ works the way that it does because we all perform different functions. The cool part about looking at these two (albeit dramatized and romanticized) stories is that it is two different kinds of hospitality. It is welcoming and it is giving, which reminds us that there are no boundaries when it comes to hospitality; there are just people trying to figure out how God is calling them to serve.
The second thing I think we need to take away from what she said is about hospitality being about relationship, not about performance. And that is where I see the intersection between hospitality and the Christmas story. Because, at its core, the Christmas story is about a relational God; it is about a God that loves people so much and wants to be in relationship with them that God then comes into this world and lives in human flesh.
O come, o come Emmanuel.
Emmanuel means – God with us.
Our God is not a distant God that we need a mediator in which to communicate with, but a God who is here, who is with us, who is in relationship with us.
And so this is where hospitality kind of begins – in our relationships both with God and with one another.
And in these stories – both in what we know from the bible and the stories we have learned in Sunday School throughout the years – we see hospitality through relationships. We see the hospitality of people who welcome Mary and Joseph into their home – whether those people were an innkeeper or Joseph’s family – so she can safely deliver her child. We see the hospitality of wise men – whether there were three or more than three – traveling a great distance to bring gifts to Jesus and then not returning to Herod to tell him where Jesus was. We see hospitality expressed through the relationships of people showing up and sharing God’s love with one another.
As you continue to journey through this Advent season and prepare for Christmas – and whatever that means for you or looks like in your house – I would encourage you to, first of all, let yourself get lost in the romanticized and dramatized versions of these stories, because I think they do have a lot to teach us. But then I would encourage you to think about the people in your lives – and the relationships you have with them – and the ways that you can serve them, the ways that you can express hospitality through your relationships by sharing God’s love.
After all, it is not just about wearing name tags and good-smelling soap; it is about the people wearing the name tags and using the soap and about our relationships with them.
Our relationships with one another.
The thing we have to remember is that when we serve others – we serve God. When we love others, we love God. When we are in relationship with others, we are in relationship with God.
This Advent season I invite you to be in relationship with one another; to not only serve others, but to get to know them well enough to know how to serve them. Find out who they are and what they need. Affirm where they are on their journey through life. Let them know that they matter.
Remember that Jesus came into this world so that our faith would be incarnational and relational.
And so that is how we are called to live out our lives.
Blessings, friends, as you find ways in which to reach out to others this Advent season to love and serve them.
Thanks be to God!