For the past month, I have shepherded a church for Dr. Steve Smith, a dear friend of mine who was my mentor during my studies for my first doctorate. In fact, he sponsored me and was responsible for guiding me through my classes and dissertation, culminating in my oral defense of my dissertation on December 15, 2005.
We became fast friends and I was honored to write the wedding ceremony for his eldest daughter, Nikki, and several years later, I delivered the eulogy at her funeral – much too early, the victim of an auto accident. I also walked beside Steve during the final illness and death of his first wife from a severe neurological disorder. Many years later, I united Steve and Tena, his second wife, in a wedding ceremony I conducted for them. In other words, we are close and have, in many way, lived life together even though Steve is more than ten years younger than I am.
As close we are, I was still pleasantly surprised, and honored, when Dr. Smith asked me to pastor his church for the month of March while he is in Israel. He is a Greek and Hebrew scholar, having travelled to the Holy lands more than thirty times throughout the years. His speciality is translating ancient texts in the Promised Land.
So, for the past month I have been driving 9o minutes south of our home to preach the message and lead Sunday School. It’s the closest thing I have ever witnessed to what I perceive to be an “Acts 2” church. That is the original church, started at Pentecost, after the ascension of Jesus to sit at the right hand of His Father in heaven.
Steve has always been interested in the beginning of the church and how authentic the relationships were. It is clear that the people of his church love one another, enjoy each other and have chosen to live life together. They are gracious, welcoming, genuine and attentive to the things I taught during my time among them. I truly could not have asked for anything more.
Each week, Dr. Smith called in during the service from Jerusalem and spoke to his congregation, making sure that I was treated with dignity and respect, expressing his love for all of us and teaching us about whatever place he happened to be that day. It was terrific.
Last Sunday, after my fourth and final sermon during the month, I received an ovation from the church body as well as a card signed by the families who attend the church. They prayed for me and our family and made it clear that I was welcome back in their midst any time. I felt more welcome than at any church I have ever been a guest in.
Admittedly, it was tiring to drive more than three hours each Sunday while also preaching and teaching, both church and Sunday School, for almost three hours. On the other hand, it was worth it for the fellowship and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the times I spent in seminary with my classmates more than twenty years ago. Dr. Smith just has the ability to create environments that invite the Holy Spirit into space and highlight the best traits of the people in his church.
This coming Sunday I will be back attending our own church, but I am sure that I will have wonderful memories of Steve’s congregation for years to come. The thing that stands out about my time this past month is the spiritual gift of hospitality – the divine enablement of helping someone to be comfortable in a new and unfamiliar environment. Clearly, they are experts at this!
Our verse for tonight is from the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Moses, the author of this book, tells us, in Leviticus 19:34, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (ESV) I certainly received that kind of treatment for the entire month.
My encouragement this evening is that God expects us to welcome other believers and practice hospitality. My prayer is that each of you will receive the kind of hospitality that I was so fortunate to receive – a new standard was set for me this March. Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…