Roots of Hospitality: Welcoming Meals and Small Groups
September 30, 2012
1 Kings 17:8-16
I begin my trip to Isle of Iona with a flight to Scotland, landing in Edinburgh. Then a car trip, driving on the left side of the road — I have to be especially careful as I leave the airport, since my normal American reflexes want to pull me to the right. I cross the lush green Scottish countryside, the exact opposite of the California desert I described about last week when I talked about Saddleback Church.
Then I take a car ferry from the town of Oban to the Isle of Mull, which offers truly stunning views of the coastline. After driving across Mull, I take a passenger ferry across a windswept sound to the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. I feel like I have reached the edge of the world.
Of course, I had a very twenty-first-century perspective. When St. Columba was banished from Ireland and traveled to Iona in the year 563, the island was the easiest of points to reach by sea, and it would have felt close and convenient instead of remote. As in all things, what you see depends on where you stand.
This rugged and rocky island became the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. It was from this point that Columba launched his missionary expeditions onto the mainland — even saving a man from the Loch Ness monster, according to legend. He established a Christian community that has existed in various forms for the past 1500 years, currently as the progressive — but also deeply traditional — Iona Community.
Today’s community was gathered by a Presbyterian pastor during the Depression, and it is committed to biblical hospitality and acceptance. Members of the community spent forty years rebuilding the Iona Abbey, with dormitories and a dining hall, which welcomes guests for programs each week. They added a Welcome Centre and Community Shop along the road to the Abbey, where visitors can have their questions answered and browse books and crafts while sipping a cup of tea or coffee.
Through the centuries, Christians have gathered around tables on Iona to experience koinonia — a Greek word meaning communion or fellowship. Hospitality begins at a table in the Iona Abbey dining hall, sharing tea and cookies with people from a rich variety of backgrounds. On a Tuesday afternoon, I hear the life story of Scotsman Alan Watt, and then I watch as he engages a number of young guests in conversation, asking questions about their experience at the Iona Community’s youth conference.
On a Wednesday night, I sit in the dining hall after worship, and am approached by a teenager from Oklahoma who is spending the week at Iona with his youth group. I marvel at the confidence he shows in approaching me, and realize that his ability to reach out has been shaped and strengthened by his time in the community. Over tea, we talk about why we came and what we are learning. On Iona, the expectation is that people will make connections around tables, with both friends and strangers.
In contrast, most table fellowship in American churches involves people who already know each other. Over at Fairfax Community Church, a weekly “Pizza Night” was established so that worshipers could eat together after the Saturday night service. But my colleague Rod Stafford discovered that the event was very inhospitable to visitors, since members tended to gravitate toward people they already knew. Meals are hospitable only if church members are intentional about inviting guests to sit down and eat with them.
Welcoming congregations know the importance of gathering people around food and drink. It is when people share a meal that they become close to each other, and close to God. From the time of Jesus to today, the practice of hospitality has almost always involved eating meals together — think of Jesus sitting down with tax collectors and sinners, hosting the Last Supper for his disciples, and feeding the five thousand. Jesus threw a feast with just five barley loaves and two fish. That’s why you have goldfish crackers on your tables — the fish have multiplied!
Feel free to snack on these crackers through the service. This morning I want you to recall your favorite meal, the people who were there, and what made it special.
At my previous church, Calvary Presbyterian, the congregation was both culturally and racially diverse. What brought members together were international potluck dinners, in which spicy stew from Ghana was enjoyed right along with Southern fried chicken. There, I discovered that the clearest path to unity is through the stomach. It is when people sit down to eat and drink together that God’s presence will be felt, relationships will develop, community will grow, and people will be reconciled to one another.
Shared meals are an important root of hospitality, and so are small groups. And they go together, because whenever you gather around a table you are creating a small group. In today’s scripture lesson from 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah is sent by God from Israel to the city of Zarephath, near the foreign town of Sidon. God says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (vv. 8–9).
Zarephath was a Phoenician commercial capital known for its exports including wine, grain, and oil. And yet, it was not prospering at the moment Elijah was sent to it because the region was suffering from a terrible drought. Like the United States in recent years, it was experiencing an economic crisis.
This becomes clear to Elijah as soon as he arrives at the gate of the city. A destitute widow is gathering sticks so that she can make a fire, prepare a few cakes, eat them with her son, and then die. The future looks bleak for her, but Elijah remembers the promise of God — that a widow in Zarephath would feed him. He knows that his God has commanded hospitality, even in a time of drought and deprivation.
So Elijah says to the woman, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink” (v. 10). The widow looks at him, probably wondering if this is the man of Israel that she has been commanded to feed. She knows that he is a foreigner and that he worships a different God. But since a vessel of water is not an outrageous request, she turns to get some for him.
As she is going, Elijah calls to her and says, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” She stops and shakes her head, knowing that she cannot do it. Then swearing by the name of his god, the God of Israel, she says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug” (vv. 11–12). She has no bread, not even a morsel to offer. And because she is probably feeling depressed and lonely, she cannot imagine where in the world she will get some.
But Elijah believes in God’s promise, and he will not give up. “Do not be afraid,” says the prophet Elijah to the widow; “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth” (vv. 13–24).
Here is the promise of hospitality, delivered by Elijah: with God, a little goes a long way. It sounds incredible, but we see the reality of it in our own lives. A child is born, and parents naturally worry about what is required to raise a child — emotionally, physically, educationally, financially. It can seem overwhelming. I remember, when the nurse handed my newborn daughter Sarah to Nancy and me for the ride home from the hospital, I asked myself, “Is this legal?” I felt so unprepared. But with God’s help, there was always enough.
Youths come pouring into church for their Sunday night dinner, and volunteer cooks scramble to put the food out. Numbers are always a little bit fuzzy, but with God’s help, a little goes a long way. Church leaders put a budget in front of the congregation, church members make pledges to support the mission of the church, and no one knows exactly how budgets and pledges will match up. But with God’s help, there is always enough.
In all of these situations, it is important to make a place for hospitality — to open our hearts to children, open our church buildings to youths, open our wallets to the mission and ministry of the church. Like the widow of Zarephath we discover amazing things when we say yes to what God is asking us to do, and when we make a commitment to supporting God’s work.
Scripture tells us that the widow goes and does what Elijah says. She does not have much to share — just a handful of meal and a little oil — but she offers it freely. Yes, times are tough for her, just as they are today for many Americans. But despite her depression and destitution, she makes a place for hospitality. And what is the result? She, Elijah, and her household eat for many days. The jar of meal is not emptied, neither does the jug of oil fail (vv. 15–16). With God, a little goes a long way.
This is the promise that is made to us as we strive to become welcoming congregations and extend God’s love and grace to all people. Like the widow of Zarephath, we have an opportunity to open our doors to strangers and to share what we have. Like the prophet Elijah, we have a chance to trust in God’s abundance, and to believe that the Lord will meet our needs, even in difficult times.
One important element of this story is that neither the widow nor Elijah has a full experience of God’s goodness in isolation. The oil and grain meet their needs only when they come together in a very small group, a prophet and a widow, an Israelite and a foreigner. Together, they form their own little “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), and together they discover the amazing power of the one Lord God.
Christian hospitality requires the creation of intimate and honest small groups, focused on friendship, community-building, Bible study, and spiritual growth. Members of the Iona Community in Scotland meet in family groups on a regular basis. They open their houses to one another, share leadership in Bible study, look at contemporary issues in light of Scripture, and conclude each gathering with a shared meal.
At Saddleback Church in California, newcomers are quickly invited into small groups where friendships can grow as people focus on spiritual topics together. At the beginning of an eight-week sermon series on healing, I heard Rick Warren stress the importance of each worshiper joining a small group. He explained that “God wired us in such a way that we only get well in community.”
Here at Fairfax, our youth fellowship has weekly small group Bible studies in which Scripture is studied and concerns are shared. Our women meet in monthly Circle meetings for Bible study and conversation. Our Midlife Men on a Mission discuss Scripture after dinner every night on their trips to Honduras. And when we had a Lenten focus on hospitality a couple of years ago, we had almost 150 of our members in small groups for weekly discussions. Small groups are where personal connections can be made and God’s presence can be felt. We should always be in the business of creating and supporting such gatherings.
Shared meals are important because the clearest path to unity is through the stomach. And small groups are critical because we only get well in community. Great things happen here at Fairfax when we cultivate these two roots of Christian hospitality.
Let’s do it right now, with some table conversations. Pair up with someone next to you, or across from you; make groups of two or three at the most.
Take just a minute to follow the instructions in the bulletin: Describe your favorite memory of a meal. Say who was there. And tell why it was special.