Sunday, May 1, 2016

Open Houses

Acts 16:9-15
May 1, 2016

"An intervention of grace." That's how I describe my experience at CREDO. It's hard to believe but it has been three years -- three years this week in fact -- since I flew to Louisiana to attend the CREDO conference for clergy. For those who may not remember this time as vividly as I do, CREDO is a retreat/conference put on by our denomination's Board of Pensions. It focuses on four aspects of a clergy person's life: physical, financial, spiritual and vocational. It isn't something you sign up for, you are invited to attend. If you accept that invitation, all costs for your travel and stay are paid, except an initial fee. When you say, "yes," you receive a large canvas briefcase filled with all the materials you'll need. Because before you actually attend CREDO, you have homework to do. You have to get your physical health assessed. You have to go through your finances. You have to fill out an evaluation of yourself and get four other people to fill out that same evaluation about you. You have to answer questions, create a timeline of your life, and do various other things to prepare for your 10 days away.

My going to CREDO was an intervention of grace to be sure, but grace works in funny ways. When I received my invitation in September 2012, I was thrilled and excited to be on the list. Two of my friends had attended CREDO conferences and said it was the best thing they had ever done. But the closer I got to May 2013, the less excited I became. I didn't want to go. I would start to work on some aspect of my homework and have to stop because I didn't know how to answer the questions, or I couldn't bear to answer them. I just didn't want to go. Why had I wanted to do this? It was all too hard, too much.

It wasn't just that I didn't want to do homework, it's that between September 2012 and May 2013, my life was kind of falling apart. But the real purpose of CREDO is not just to provide another continuing education conference for clergy. It's not just about workshops and evaluations. It's about showing hospitality. At CREDO, you are cared for, loved, pampered, listened to, prayed for, loved, welcomed. It's no coincidence that our words hospitality and hospital sound alike. They have the same root meaning. The original definition of a hospital was a place where needy people were sheltered. While many people today associate the world hospitality with the tourism industry, to show hospitality is to make others feel welcomed. When I arrived at CREDO, I was an emotionally and spiritually needy person; I was haggard and tired and approaching burn out at lightning speed.  Yet I was shown nothing but hospitality. I was made to feel welcome. It was an intervention of grace at a crucial moment in my life and it has made all the difference.

I can't help but think that the hospitality Lydia showed to Paul and Silas made a difference for them as well. Our passage from Acts starts in the middle of the story, in the middle of a paragraph actually. This was Paul's second missionary journey. He and Barnabas had a disagreement over traveling companions, so they went their separate ways and Silas accompanied Paul instead.

It would seem that Paul's initial destination was Asia, but the Holy Spirit said, "No!" So they traveled through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. They tried to go into Bithynia, but once again the Spirit wouldn't let it happen. So the apostles reach Troas, and they were stuck there. One commentator referred to it as "stalled." They were stalled in Troas until Paul received a vision of a man from Macedonia asking them for their help.

In Macedonia they met Lydia. Here is what we can surmise about Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth. Purple cloth would have been an expensive cloth, and one that was reserved for people of wealth. So it is assumed that Lydia was a woman of some means. She was described as a "worshiper of God," even before she heard Paul and Silas. She was most likely a gentile, and she was a woman of faith. I understand that to mean that she worshipped the God of Israel, but did not yet know of Jesus. But when she heard Paul and Silas, "the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly," to the good news Paul preached. Her response to that good news was immediate. She and all who were with her were baptized, and she opened her house, her home, to them. She possessed the gift of hospitality and she was persistent with it. The narrator, who in verse 10 surprises us by switching from third person to second person, said, "She urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.'"

She welcomed them. She showed hospitality. She gave them shelter. Perhaps she was a channel of grace for them, as much as they were a channel of grace for her. When we view hospitality through the lens of the gospel, through the eyes of Christ, I wonder if that is what hospitality ultimately is -- a channel of grace; even if we don't know or recognize it at the time. When we show hospitality, we become a channel for and a means of God's grace.

In my study bible, there is a note about verse 15. That's where Lydia responds to Paul and Silas by saying, "if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." The textual note says that "In Acts, a person's hospitality indicates the capacity to respond to the truth of God's word."

Lydia responded to the truth of God's word and put that response into action by offering hospitality. What is our response to God's truth? In other words, how do we show hospitality? And if we don't, what prevents us from being hospitable?

I think this congregation does an amazing job of welcoming others. Y'all are truly friendly to other people, not just friendly to each other. You are gracious and inviting and you make sure that a newcomer is able to participate fully in the service. You don't let someone leave without at least saying, "Hello" and "We're so glad you're here."

But I wonder if the one mistake we make in our hospitality is waiting for the stranger to come inside, instead of going out and meeting the stranger where he or she is. Paul and Silas were prevented by the Spirit to go to Asia and other regions. Their original plans were thwarted. Maybe God is trying to push us to see that our original plans, our original way of doing and being the church needs to change. Maybe God is calling us out there, rather than sending people in here.

I don't know. I know I ask a lot of questions like this, but I don't have specific answers to any of the questions I ask. But what I do know is this. When I have been most in need of hospitality, when I have been most in need of shelter, the people who showed me that hospitality and offered me that shelter came to me. I didn't go looking for grace, but grace found me. Grace found me through the kindness and compassion and generosity of other people, sometimes unlikely people in unlikely places.

Who needs our hospitality? Who needs us to come and find them? May the God of grace, compassion, hospitality and love, the God who shelters us in our need, help us to open our houses, open our hearts and shelter others.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"

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