Faithful Stewardship Begins With Faithful Hospitality

February 9, 2022 by Rev. Dr. David A. Davis

The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

To say there is a heaviness in the air these days is a bit of an understatement. Every one of us knows it. Preachers should only name it, not describe it. That is partly because it is so obvious. But even more, the listeners in the pew do not want to hear it again. They (we) are living it every day. The heaviness in the air as everyday people in ordinary parts of life just keep lashing out more, getting angry more quickly, and complaining, complaining, complaining. A heaviness in the air and a whole lot of grumbling.

In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus breathes the familiar parables about lost things into an atmosphere that is heavy with grumbling. Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost son, all in response to grumbling. The grumbling is in response to Jesus welcoming sinners, eating with sinners, hanging with the wrong crowd. “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (v.2) The grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees comes when Jesus welcomes sinners. Think of all the various reactions of the religious leaders toward Jesus described throughout the gospels: questioning, anger, plotting. The grumbling comes when he welcomes.

Jesus hears the grumbling and complaining and with the parables he describes joy. The shepherd finds the one lost sheep and he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices. The woman lights a lamp and sweeps the house and searches carefully until she finds the coin. When she finds it, she calls out to her friends and neighbors, “Come, rejoice with me!” Jesus offers an editorial comment after each little parable. It is the “just so, I tell you” part. Like “anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear” or “you have heard it said, but I say unto to you.” Jesus steps out of the parable proper at that point and talks about the joy in heaven when one sinner repents, the joy of the angels when one sinner repents.

When you read on in Luke 15, when you encounter the most familiar of the parables about lost things, the signature parable of the prodigal son, when you get to the bold type of that major parable that takes up the rest of Luke 15, Jesus doesn’t offer one of his editorial comments. No, the parable of the lost ends with the father saying to the older brother, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost, and has been found.” (v32). Jesus let the father’s joy speak for itself. The reader has to assume that all the angels in heaven rejoiced as well. As to the father’s joy, the woman’s joy, the shepherd’s joy, it was in the finding, the hard work of a search completed, the homecoming, the welcoming. The running, tearful embrace, the coin in hand gasp and sigh, the sheep on the shoulder shout. The divinely inspired joy that comes from heaven is revealed in a grace-filled hospitality that drives you to every lost one, every last one.

In her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine Pohl suggests that “a life of hospitality begins in worship — with a recognition of God’s grace and generosity.” The logic is something like this: disciples of Jesus can only offer welcome and can only embody a counter-cultural kindness, they can only exhibit a hospitality that is pleasing to God because they themselves have been found, been overwhelmed, been saved by grace. Our holy embrace is in proportion to our experience, our knowledge, our own taste, our feel, our own whiff of God’s grace. That’s why every sacramental gathering at the fount is a remembering of your own baptism. The joy of the welcome begins as you know yourself to be that sheep, that coin, that wandering child. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

The welcome begins there as you come face to face with the generosity of God. But the joy described in the parable reaches its fullest when you find yourself searching and finding and celebrating and reaching and caring and embracing, grasping, shouting for every last one. So much of the grumbling in the air today comes from people who are first and foremost concerned about themselves. But hospitality in the Body of Christ can never be defined by, restricted to, or settle for “me,” “just me.” I think a pastor’s worst fear is not hearing “that was the worst sermon ever” or “our stewardship numbers are down” or “I can’t believe we sang that song” or “if you just keep telling stories from the pulpit, I’m out of here,” I think it is meeting someone on the street who says, “you know, I visited your church last Sunday and no one welcomed me.”

Hospitality should to the first thing people think about in the Body of Christ; welcoming someone, everyone, every last one, welcoming them into the Body of Christ. The extent of your reach, the extent of your search, the extent of your embrace is the very reach, search, embrace of Christ himself. You sense the double meaning? The power of it all? The grace-filled wonder of it? As you serve as the arms of Christ, offering a sacred embrace of the other, you are in embracing Christ himself. To use a Bonhoeffer-like phrase, it is as if Christ is welcoming Christ.

Our congregation regularly serves the midday meal at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Trenton, N.J. “Loaves and Fishes” they call it. Often my job has been to be a spotter. I like to think of it has head waiter. The responsibility is to guide the servers who come from the kitchen as they bring plates of food out into the fellowship hall that is packed with guests. Our hope is to be orderly, efficient, and gracious. With all the people and the noise, the bustle, it can be quite chaotic.

Typically, I take the plate from the server and hand it to a guest or ask folks to pass the plates down the table. One year, one of the servers was young girl from the church who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. She had been working hard getting the plates out along with her mother and older sister, and the other 25-30 servers working the floor. As the service was coming to end, the girl came in my direction and we were headed to a table a bit less crowded. I went to take the plate and give it to the older man at the end of the table who was looking in every way like things were hard in his life. Before I could take the plate, the girl said to me, “Can I do it?” “Sure.” She moved over to the table to the gentleman waiting for his dinner. I couldn’t hear if she said anything. I couldn’t see her face, only his. And he smiled, look right at her, and said, “Thank you.” And in that moment, for me, the room got really, really, quiet, downright peaceful. “Can I do it?” is what she said to me. “Can I serve the plate” was all she asked. “Can I be the hands of Christ” here and now? That’s what I saw.

My guess is that very few preachers look to tackle stewardship in March; especially in the season of Lent. But it occurs to me that when it comes to the life of faith, hospitality and stewardship are not all that far apart. Nurturing hospitality, kindness, and grace in a congregation will plant the seeds of faith stewardship. The writer of I Peter would likely agree with me.

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of   sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. I Peter 4:8-10

Jesus responded to the world’s grumbling with the joy that comes with repentance, hospitality, and welcome. As the hands and feet of Christ in the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that’s how we should respond, too.

Rev. Dr. David A. Davis is the senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church. He has served the congregation since 2000. David earned his Ph.D. in Homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he continues to teach as a visiting lecturer. His academic work has focused on preaching as a corporate act and the active role of the listener in the preaching event. Before arriving in Princeton, he served for 14 years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Blackwood, New Jersey. He has published two sermon collections, A Kingdom We Can Taste and Lord, Teach Us to Pray, and served on the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Foundation and the local Princeton YMCA. In addition to preaching in Presbyterian congregations around the country, David has preached to congregations in South Africa, Scotland, the Samuel Proctor Child Advocacy Conference of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Calvin Symposium for Worship, and on the campuses of Harvard and Duke University.

David grew up in Pittsburgh and did his undergraduate work at Harvard University where he was a member of the University Choir, singing weekly in Memorial Church and listening to the preaching of Professor Peter Gomes. David is married to Cathy Cook, a Presbyterian Minister who is Associate Dean of Students and Director of Senior Placement at Princeton Seminary. They have two children, Hannah and Ben.