One year my sisters and I arranged a surprise meeting with my parents at a Shakespeare theatre in Canada, near Niagara Falls. My sister Heidi and I came from Chicago where were living and got there first and took our seats in the middle of the row. My sister Hollie arrived 10 minutes later with my parents from New York, whom we had not seen for about a year. They began stepping over people on their way to their seats when suddenly they recognized that the people they were trying to step over were us. Then there were shrieks and laughter and hugs. After that, Shakespeare was something of a let down.
On this first day of Advent, this first Sunday of a new church year, and on Sundays to come, we will use the theme of hospitality to help us welcome Christ into our lives and our church. Hospitality requires recognition.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians speaks of it when he writes that he longs to see his friends “face to face.” He wants to look at them, come into their presence.
We call the entry area to our church the Hospitality Area. I once called it the lobby and former senior pastor of this church, Dick Olson, corrected me. It’s the Hospitality Area because it is a place to come face to face, to recognize one another. To recognize someone is no less than an expression of the gospel, the good news.
And to not recognize someone is the opposite. Story told in Hospitality Gathering, young family visiting church. During greeting time, people seated next to them, obviously members of the church, stood and turned away from them. The family was left standing there. They never went back. They still remember the pain of that moment.
Sometimes it is easy. It’s easy when love abounds as Paul writes. I hope your Thanksgiving Day was such a time.
But sometimes it is not easy. Paul, in just a few brief words, takes us there. Paul prays first that God will increase the Thessalonians’ love for one another, the easy part, but also, will increase their love for all. The hard part.
Hard because it means making space, coming face to face, recognizing people you don’t normally see, encounter, recognize. It could be the janitor in your office, or a waitperson at the restaurant, or the clerk in the pharmacy. On this day when we bring gifts to be carried to Bethel Neighborhood Center in Kansas City, Kansas, it could be our neighbors in Kansas City, Kansas.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I LOVE this service. Thanks so much for doing it, being there.”
A user-friendly resource for busy pastors!
Peter and I used to live in KCK but since we moved to Johnson County, we never go there, except to Bethel on 7th Street. Next Friday and Saturday, you have an opportunity to go there and to discover the power of recognizing someone who is normally invisible to us. To do this is a small act of respect and welcome. But it is not small, because the power of the presence of God is in it.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the grocery store with the idea of recognizing strangers in mind. Instead of going as fast as I could and keeping my eyes on the grocery list or the broccoli, I looked at people, looked them in the eye and smiled. One young woman with two varieties of foil turkey roasting pans held them up for me and said, “. Which one is better for an 18 pound turkey?” And before long I’d learned that this was her first time to cook Thanksgiving dinner and she didn’t really know what she was doing. I don’t really know what I’m doing either, but we talked quite a while and then decided together which pan was best, oval or rectangular. We chose oval. And I left with my heart feeling glad and whole.
It didn’t solve the problem of war or domestic violence, homelessness, racial injustice. Or does it?
Sometimes by the very acting out of welcome, a vision for a whole society is offered. We act as though the world we believe is coming is already here.
During the Colonial period in American history, an eclipse of the sun caught members of a New England state legislature off guard. In the midst of general panic a motion was made to adjourn, but one of the legislators stood up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, let candles be brought.”
Bring on the Advent candles. Let them light the face of a stranger. Let us welcome God as we face those we usually do not see.