Vocation of Hospitality

Preacher: Mary McConnell
Date: July 31, 2016

[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by congregation member Mary McConnell on July 31, 2016. No audio is available.]

Hebrews 13:2-3 The Message (MSG) Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love. Be ready with a meal or a bed when it’s needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it! Regard prisoners as if you were in prison with them. Look on victims of abuse as if what happened to them had happened to you.

I met an angel on an airplane. I was flying from Chicago to Boston by myself, in the days when Mike worked in Chicago and I worked in Brookline. In front of me was a young mother with a cranky one year old baby, and I noticed over time that she handled that baby with such love and patience that it felt like a blessing just to be near her. When we all stood up, waiting for the doors to open, I couldn’t resist leaning over to her and telling her how her gentle manner was a blessing to all of us. She replied, “Oh, thank you, ma’am! This is my very first flight on a plane, and I was so nervous!”

I asked her what was bringing her to Boston, and she told me that her daughter would be having heart surgery the following week there. Thinking of Hospitality Homes, our favorite activity, I asked, “Well, do you have a place to stay? The hotels can be very expensive, and I know of a program that could help you.”

“Oh, no, Ma’am, we are all taken care of. We are staying at the McConnell’s in Brookline.”

“Well, I AM the McConnell’s,” I cried! We laughed and laughed, and she declared that God must have put us together, because she had never taken a taxi before, either, and she hadn’t been sure how to get to our house! We shared a taxi home, and became good friends.

Hospitality Homes is one way our family serves God together. It is a organization that provides free housing for family members who have a loved one in a Boston hospital. It was inspired by a hospital worker who saw patients’ family members sleeping in their cars because they couldn’t afford a hotel room. We have been doing it for almost 30 years, and we still have surprises, like this story I just told. You don’t have to have a fancy house or lots of rooms…just an open heart, a spare bed, and a willingness to welcome a stranger into your heart and home.

And I do it because…I love opening the door to a new family and saying, “Welcome home.”

Here is my secret. We have two empty bedrooms at home. Every time I pass a person who is homeless, I want to invite them to our house. But I know that is awkward…I don’t know them, they don’t know me…sometimes they don’t want to be inside at all. But when I open the door to new guests, I feel like I’m doing it for all those who ARE homeless…the single man, the mom and her children, the woman I see on the T…I open the door and I say a heartfelt welcome to all I am holding in my heart, and for the folks on our doorstep. And I am blessed. I love knowing that we are easing the pain that this family is going through. And I feel God’s presence so strongly in our conversations …in the morning over coffee, and when they return after a long, grueling day at the hospital . Whether it is for an overnight or three months stay, I pray for our guests and feel that our house has been a blessing for them. We can’t take the pain away, but we can make the pain easier to manage.

And you know, we don’t always have a clean house. We sometimes grouse at each other…right there in front of our guests. But they don’t mind, and neither do we, because we know that there is a special welcome in offering our imperfect selves and home…we can all “be at home” together. *It was a long road that we took that brought us to welcoming strangers to stay with us. And, that road is called hospitality.

We hear that word often, in a casual sense. There are hospitality centers at a convention. A student might major in hospitality in college, preparing to work in restaurants or hotels. A “hospitality” table might have a coffee urn and some pitchers of water.

The Bible offers a definition of hospitality that stretches that common use. The New Testament definition of hospitality is loving the stranger, the immigrant, the foreigner as if they were your own brother or sister. That is a charge to us that is a challenge.

Mike and I have found that we have grown slowly into this vocation of hospitality that we offer today. It didn’t happen over night, not by any means. We went through several stages of growth in hospitality as we developed as a family.

It began when we first got married…we entertained our family, and then our grad school friends, people who we knew well. When we moved here, and had our first child, we also began entertaining church friends and friends with children. We even found ourselves hosting other friends’ children overnight, in exchange for their hosting our child. This hospitality was based on friendship and commonalities, and we loved every minute.

Then we moved to Munich with our small family. There we had first hand experiences being the “immigrant”, the foreigner, the stranger. In our little Baptist mission church there were so many visitors each Sunday, often single and lonely. We had a Zaccheus kind of idea: what would happen if we put a casserole in the oven before church, and then while we were in the service, asked God to lead us to invite someone who needed a place to go for dinner after church at our house? Mike and I would huddle in a corner and confer on who we were supposed to invite that day. We were determined to follow God’s leading. And in following Zaccheus in his eagerness for hospitality, we found we were hosting Jesus. We were so blessed by our visitors, and learned so much. We did that monthly while we were in Munich, meeting folks from all over the world, some of who are close friends still today. That was our first experience of welcoming the stranger.

When we came back to Boston, we found our house quickly filling up with a growing family, but even with that, we hosted exchange students. That was a much longer commitment! But when the children began to grow up and move away, we housed others, often from the church, who needed an extended time before moving on. Angie and Tom Markert introduced us to Hospitality Homes, and we embraced this program as a gift from God to fulfill our vocation of hospitality. We began hosting families 30 years ago, families who need a place to stay while their loved one is in the hospital. We have hosted foreigners from South America, and foreigners from New York City…even Yankee fans! Each one we greet and welcome as a member of our family. And we have hosted angels, like the woman of my story.

Hospitality is saying “Welcome home!” to the stranger, and the immigrant. Who are they? I like to say I have never met a stranger…for me, a stranger is someone who I don’t know yet! The immigrant is someone coming from a different place, looking for a home.

Believe me, whether you come from Australia or California, you feel like a foreigner when you come to New England! I remember when Mike and I found ourselves immigrants from California. The culture was SO different and we felt out of place. We were relieved to find welcome here…in the 70’s, Boston wasn’t that welcoming to “outsiders.” At the United Parish we were greeted by Ed Gunn, usher extraordinaire, who not only greeted us warmly, and cooed over our newborn daughter, but made sure we met another couple just like us before we left that first day. We weren’t strangers or immigrants any more. We were welcomed home.

Note: you might have noticed that welcoming isn’t always about welcoming someone into the place where you live. You can welcome people into your office for a snack, to a coffee shop, or to a park bench nearby. It’s all about the welcoming, not about the “where.”

I have found another part of my vocation, inspired by Ed Gunn, in welcoming all who come into both the doors of my home AND the doors of our church, with warmth and love. The welcoming ministry that I am a part of, every Sunday, is God’s work. This is our church home, with an emphasis on HOME. God leads us to greet and welcome and embrace the stranger and the immigrant until they no longer feel like a stranger, but a part of this family. We do that by letting people know that they are not only welcomed but cared about – do they need a rocking chair for their baby? Would they like to sit with some friendly peers? Not to mention, would they like a nametag? We see a welcomer’s hands as God’s hands reaching out in love, saying “Welcome home”.

Hospitality Homes and the welcoming ministry, they are two parts of a whole, and that whole is serving God’s people by welcoming them home. It’s not easy. Sometimes I feel shy, sometimes my house is a mess, sometimes it’s too hot or I’m tired. The key thing is, it’s not about me! Those feelings I have don’t take away the loneliness or the pain of the sojourner, but reaching out to them despite all my imperfections can lighten the load, bring on a smile, provide relief…bring God into someone’s life…all by reaching out and saying “welcome home.”

Remember I mentioned Boston not being that open to “foreigners and immigrants” in the 70’s? Well, that reserve is built into our New England genes. We find it difficult to greet new people, so often we greet the people we know, instead.

I would like to challenge you all to approach greeting each other in a new way, one filled with hospitality. This is just a practice, and no one will be grading you!

Not everyone is comfortable reaching out to someone they don’t know. But I want to remind you again…it’s not about you. It’s about how good that person is going to feel! Find someone you don’t know, and welcome them home, in the deepest meaning of hospitality. Open your hearts to the hearts of others and may this greeting be one that stays with you, blessing you and letting you know that, indeed, you are home!

Won’t you stand now, look around you, find that person you want to greet, and offer them the warmest of welcomes!

Hymn: Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant

An example of how hospitality can bless us:

Luke 19:1-10 19 1-4 Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by. 5-7 When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?” 8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.” 9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”