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Sacraments of Hospitality

September 9, 2013

“Sacraments of Hospitality” Luke 14:15-24; Hebrews 13:1,2,16 © 9.8.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I can count on one hand the number of times in my ministry of over three and a half decades that I have celebrated both sacraments on the same Sunday. So I can’t resist taking a few minutes this morning to reflect with you on a common characteristic they share.

Maybe the place to begin is with a definition of a sacrament. Could be we learned back in the day that a sacrament is a visible and outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. One of the catechisms talks about sacraments as “sensible” signs. The writers didn’t mean utilitarian, as in “sensible shoes.” They meant something we see, touch, taste, feel, smell, and hear. The Spirit sneaks up on us through our senses and leads us into something deeper, into mysteries and realities we can’t touch or see, but which are just as real. Our senses lead us into the presence of God as they spark our imaginations, our intuition, and fan the low-burning inner light into the full flame of “one pure and holy passion.”

But beyond textbook and catechism definitions is a connection between the sacraments I just noticed recently. Both baptism and Eucharist—Holy Communion—remind us that God in Christ is a gracious host.

We have an easier time thinking of Communion that way than Baptism, but stay with me on this. Baptism, however done, when you strip away all the prayers and presentations and oil and candles, is water. The stuff of life. What we can’t live without. The liquid that makes up most of our bodies and covers much of the surface of our planet. Baptism is the entrance into the church, which among other things can be thought of as God’s banquet hall. God our host meets us at the door, which is where baptismal fonts are often and properly located. He knows we are weary from our journeys, the “burning of the noontide heat and the burden of the day” (“Beneath the Cross of Jesus”). We’re thirsty for hope and meaning, wanting someone to cool the fever of our frenetic striving. And God in Christ gives us a drink, a soaked cloth to put on our neck or our forehead, a spritz on the face, a bucket-full over our heads or a good dunking if we want it. His grace refreshes us, renews us, reawakens us.

We came to God’s banquet hall at his invitation, which we have accepted. We know that God’s dinner and fellowship at his Table is better than anything else we could experience, anywhere else we could be. We’re grateful for it, because we never expected to sit down at such a fancy feast. We thought maybe it was reserved for someone better, someone really interesting or talented or powerful, the sorts of people who get invited to dine with presidents and monarchs and corporate CEOs and rock stars. But instead, we heard the good news that there was and is a place for us at the Table, that God wants more than anything for his banquet hall to be filled. And there’s always room for one more, because the grace of our host is boundless, his kitchen always open, his food nourishing and tasty, his wine the finest vintage. In the presence of God, there are joys forevermore. Why would we turn that down? Why would we want to be anywhere else than in the banquet hall with people from the east and the west, the north and the south? And when finally we prepare to go out from the hall into the world and our daily lives, we join in praying with the hymnwriter: “With the saints who now adore you, seated at the heavenly board, may the church still waiting for you keep love’s ties unbroken, Lord” (“For the Bread Which You Have Broken”).

And indeed that is what the hospitality shown us leads us to do: to keep love’s ties unbroken. We who have been so well treated do the same with and for our neighbors and each other. We show kindness to strangers, the Blanche DuBois of the world who depend on it. Who knows? In doing so, as Hebrews reminds us, we might just be entertaining angels. Indeed, our Lord went beyond that writer to say that when we clothe and feed and visit and comfort the least and the left-out, the lonely and the languishing, we do it to him. We become, in our actions, our words, our very bodies, his sacraments of hospitality, the visible, touchable, tangible signs of his grace in the world.

May God grant that we welcome his invitation and his care and extend them to our neighbors.

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