Inconvenient Hospitality

November 3rd, 2011

Several years ago, during the Christmas season, a North Carolina church learned about the joy of service, both individually and as a congregation. This church, concerned about homeless people in their town, especially during the winter months, spearheaded a program to help. They, along with fourteen other churches in their city, each committed to care for homeless people for one week each winter. Each church opened up its facilities, usually the fellowship hall, to care for about eighteen to twenty homeless guests. Their job was to provide them with a warm and safe place to sleep, meals, and other needs for the entire week.

In early November the cooperating churches had their final organizational meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to schedule a specific week for each church for the winter months. The pastor of the organizing church planned to go to the meeting, but she was busy, so she asked a woman from her church to go in her place. This woman, a new Christian and new church member, was an enthusiastic and devoted layperson. The pastor gave her a list of convenient weeks in January and February for their congregation to care for the homeless group. The pastor told her, “Make sure to schedule us for one of these weeks.”

The woman went to the meeting. But not long into the meeting, they reached an impasse. Not one of the fifteen cooperating churches was willing to take Christmas week. First, it interfered with all their Christmas activities, including Christmas Eve services. Second, everybody knew their members would not want to cook meals and provide other services for homeless folks during the Christmas holidays. This woman, an enthusiastic new Christian believer, was dumbfounded. She could not believe that none of the churches would take Christmas week. In fact, the more they argued about who was going to have to take Christmas, the madder this woman got. Before she knew it, she smashed her hand down on the table, stood up, and gave a speech. “I can’t believe this,” she exclaimed. “Jesus and his family were homeless in Bethlehem on the very first Christmas, and yet not one church in this community is willing to care for homeless people during the week of Christmas. Shame on you!”

The pastors all felt ashamed but not ashamed enough to volunteer for the week of Christmas! When nobody volunteered, this laywoman boldly proclaimed, “My church will take Christmas week, not only this year but every year!” One of the pastors said, “So moved.” Another said, “I’ll second that.” After a quick vote, the meeting adjourned.

After the meeting was over, this woman went to see her pastor. She was excited. She said, “I have great news! Our church gets to care for homeless people during the week of Christmas, not only this year but every year! Isn’t that great?” Well, that wasn’t exactly great news to the pastor. What about their Christmas Eve services? How would they find volunteers to cook and care for homeless people during the holidays? No, this was not good news at all to the pastor. In fact, she was sorry she had not gone to the meeting herself. But what could she do? It was a done deal.

The next Sunday the pastor gave the news to her congregation. She said, “We are going to host homeless people during the week of Christmas, and we need a bunch of volunteers to help.” She didn’t think she would get any response, but she was wrong. People came out of the woodwork to volunteer. Families with young children volunteered, saying to the pastor, “We want our kids to know there is more to Christmas than getting presents.” Families who had lost loved ones during the year volunteered, hoping to fill the void of the Christmas season. In fact, the pastor got more volunteers than she could use. Christmas week finally arrived. Eighteen homeless people came to the church to spend the week. And much to this pastor’s surprise, it ended up being the highlight of the year for the church.

People brought in tons of food all week long. The homeless guests ate like kings all week. Church members also brought nice clothes and coats for them to wear. They brought gifts for everyone, especially the children. And they didn’t just give food and clothes and gifts; they gave of themselves as well. People stayed for hours to visit with the group. They ate meals with them and played games with them. They even had a marathon, three-day-long Monopoly tournament! Many members spent one or more nights during the week. The church members got to know these people as real people. Although they were not required to go, all eighteen of the homeless guests went to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service. They were warmly welcomed by the entire congregation, and everyone in attendance had a holy moment. In fact, the whole week turned out to be a glorious experience for the church, and it continued to be that way for the next five years.

This story has an unusual ending. After six years of hosting homeless folks during the week of Christmas, the pastor got a phone call from another pastor in town. He said, “You know, everyone in this town has heard about how much fun your church has hosting the homeless group at Christmas. So we were wondering, would you be willing to share that week with some of the other churches? We were hoping we could do Christmas week this year.”

Thanks to the audacious action of one new believer, the whole church and even others in the community learned something profound. They learned that true fulfillment comes not by taking care of our own needs but by taking care of others.

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Martin Thielen serves as senior pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church, Brentwood, Tennessee. For a complete Advent/Christmas sermon series, including a Christmas Eve devotional, see “Getting Ready for Christmas” at Martin's preaching and worship site, www.GettingReadyForSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide for leading a seven-week congregation-wide initiative based on the book, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.

 

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