"When Welcome Isn't Easy"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts November 27, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: 1 Peter 4:8-11
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.
I've got a small collection of my favorite complaint department signs. One of these signs seems innocent enough. It reads: "Complaint Department: Please take a number." But the only available number is attached to the pin of a hand grenade. You take a number, you lose.
Then there's the homemade version of this sign, upon which there's a crudely painted: "Complaint Dept. Push button for service." But upon closer inspection, you'll notice that the button is actually the trigger device for a mousetrap. Press the button, and severe pain will teach you not to complain.
Then there's one of those plastic signs that they sell in truck stops along Interstate 5. Highlighted against a bright yellow background you find these inviting words: "Suppose we refund your money, send you another one for free, close the store and have the manager shot. Would that be satisfactory?" Of course the answer, in many cases, is "No."
When I was the Associate Pastor of Education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, sometimes I felt like someone had assigned me to the complaint department without telling me. You see, I had programmatic oversight for the vast educational ministries in the church. With so much going on, there were bound to be complaints.
Now sometimes they were rather, well, nagging and trivial. One of my adult Sunday School classes put up a new white board in a classroom, but was forever miffed when other adult classes used their board. So they complained to me and added to the board a prominent sign that read: "For Berean Class use ONLY." Now that's a welcoming gesture, don't you think?
There were times, however, when the complaints were justified. Many of these came during our all-church camp at Forest Home.
One time a single woman came back shortly after registering. She had gone to the room we had assigned to her, but she wasn't pleased.
"I have a problem with my room assignment," she began.
"Oh, and what's the problem?" I asked.
"Well, I'm single so I was assigned to a room with three other people."
"Yes," I interrupted, "that's what we do with single folk."
"Well, I'm not bothered by having to share a room with three other people," she went on. "The problem is that you've put me in with three men." Oops!
As it turned out, our registrar for the camp was a wonderful woman who was literally losing her eyesight. She could no longer distinguish lowercase 'a' from 'c," or lowercase 'b' from 'd.' We heard all about it from many single adults who had been assigned to coed rooms that weekend!
Perhaps my favorite camp complaint story concerns a man named Charles. Charles, a single man, was assigned to a room with three other single men. Yes, we got the gender right that time. The next morning Charles's three roommates came up to me looking absolutely terrible. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"We didn't get a wink of sleep all night because Charles snored so loudly." Now that was a legitimate complaint, so we managed to find other rooms for these men.
The next year Charles registered for camp again. We weren't sure what to do with him. A man on my camp committee named Stan said, "Look, I can sleep through anything. Put me in with Charles."
"Thanks, Stan," I responded. "That's very kind and generous."
"No problem," Stan continued. "I'll even bring earplugs just in case." So we put Stan in with Charles.
On Saturday morning I saw Stan coming and could tell from a long way away that the news wasn't going to be good. "Stan," I asked, "was it bad?"
"Yeah, really bad. I didn't get any sleep at all. I've never heard anybody snore so loudly."
"Did you use your earplugs?" I wondered.
"Yes, all night. They didn't do any good at all."
Finally, it was my job as Pastor of the Complaint Department to communicate these concerns to Charles, and to explain that in future years we'd have to give him his own, separate cabin, since nobody could sleep within earshot of him. Charles was outraged, accused us of being unloving, and that was the last I ever saw of him. Sigh!
The truth is, no matter how hard you try to be welcoming, sometimes it just isn't easy. Sometimes you'll get complaints. And sometimes, quite honestly, you'll end up being the complainer.
Be Hospitable without Grumbling
This isn't anything new. Our passage from 1 Peter today includes the following imperative: "Be hospitable to one another without complaining" (1 Peter 4:9). This is surely the wisdom of experience, don't you think? If you practice hospitality, if you welcome people into your life and church, there will be times when they become inconvenient, times when they're a giant hassle, times when you'll want to complain.
The word translated here as "complaining" is gongusmos in Greek. Besides "complaining," gongusmos also means "grumbling" or "murmuring." This word shows up often in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, especially in the stories of the Israelites complaining after God had delivered them from Egypt. It gets so bad that God Himself gets tired of Israel's bad attitude: "Now when the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, the LORD heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp" (Numbers 11:1).
The New Testament agrees with the Old Testament that complaining isn't a good thing. The Book of Jude, for example, speaks of "ungodly sinners" as "grumblers" (gongustai). Philippians 2 says, plainly,
Do all things without murmuring [gongusmon] and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, . . . (2:14)
In today's passage from 1 Peter, the imperative is clear: "Be hospitable to one another without complaining" (4:9). The NIV reads, "Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling." The notion of hospitality, so crucial in early Christianity, is closely related to welcome. Hospitality involves welcoming people into our lives, making room for them, allowing them to be at home with us. And, yes, that means sometimes being inconvenienced by them, being put out for their sake. And this can easily lead to grumbling, but we're not supposed to do it.
Welcome without Grumbling: The Context
One of the things I love about the Bible is its realism. I've said this to you before, but it's worth noting again. It's so easy for religious literature to be idealistic, to be filled with otherworldly warm fuzzies, and to completely miss what life really is like. But not the Bible. It's so down to earth and authentic. Peter understands that, as important as hospitality is for us, sometimes it's downright hard to pull off. There are times, many times, in fact, when welcome isn't easy.
So, apart from the command to welcome folk without complaining, does Peter give us any help to do this? Yes, he does. It's in the context of verse 9.
1 Peter 4:8 reads: "Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins." Notice, this isn't touchy-feely love. It's tough love. It's love in the midst of "a multitude of sins." Do you see what Peter's assuming about Christian community here? When we gather as God's people, there are going to be a multitude of sins . . . not just a few, but a whole bunch. Now this is realism, don't you think? So our calling is to "maintain constant love" even when others wrong us, hurt us, and otherwise sin against us. And where do we get this sort of love? Only from God, who loved us this way in Christ, and who continues to help us love each other as He has loved us.
Notice where Peter goes after calling us to be hospitable without complaining. Verses 10-11 read:
Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.
So, our ability to welcome each other without grumbling depends upon "the manifold grace of God." As we recognize how richly God has blessed us when we don't deserve it, we're able to offer the same to others.
Moreover, we must come to see the power of our words, not only to hurt, but to heal. Peter says: "Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God" (v. 11). Now he's not talking simply to preachers here. He's referring to the way we use our words in everyday life. So here the amazing imperative: Let your words be as if they were God's own words. Speak as if you were speaking the very words of God. Wow!
My friends, if we were to take this one verse to heart, it would change our lives and it would change our church. Not only would grumbling disappear, but we'd discover the power God has given us to be channels of His grace and truth through our words. The more you realize how much influence you have through your words, either to break down or to build up, the more you'll use your words for the work of God's kingdom, the more you'll bless rather than curse, the more you'll encourage rather than complain. Can you imagine how this sort of communication could transform a marriage or the relationship between at parent and a child, not to mention a church?
"But," you may be thinking, "I don't know if I can do this. It's a tall order." Indeed. So notice the next sentence in 1 Peter: "Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies" (v. 11). There you have it. You don't have to do this in your own strength. In fact, you can't. But God will help you to speak His words of grace to people. God will give you His strength to welcome one another without complaining. How do you access this power? Simple. It all begins with a prayer, "Lord, I can't do this on my own. I'm not even sure I want to do it. So help, me, Lord. I make myself available to you."
Peter gives us still more in this passage to help us welcome without complaining. Let's go back to verse 11 once more: "Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ." So that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. Here's the key: God's glory. If you have a passion of God's glory, if you seek to live so that He is glorified, then you'll want to serve others, to speak as if with God's own words, and, indeed, to be hospitable to one another without complaining.
Let's face it, for the most part complaining has to do with me, me, me. Sometimes, of course, it has to do with my children, my spouse, my stuff. But the "mys" are just an extension of the "mes." We complain when we don't get our way. We grumble when we're inconvenienced. We murmur when our expectations aren't met. Complaining is almost always an egocentric activity. So, the more we are caught up in God's glory, the more we have a passion for God's name, the less we'll complain, or murmur, or grumble.
But Isn't There a Time When Complaining is Necessary?
Now some of you may be wondering: But isn't there a time when complaining is necessary? From a biblical perspective, I think it's pretty hard to make a case for complaining in the biblical sense, which means grumbling, grousing, and communicating your discontent in a grumpy way. There's no support in Scripture for being bugged about something and grumbling about it or telling all of your friends. So then, no, I don't think complaining of this sort is ever okay.
Yet there is a time when it's right to communicate negative information. Jesus says, for example, that if somebody sins against you, you should go to that person directly and "point out the fault" (Matt 18:15). Given what Jesus says elsewhere, it's assumed that this communication will be loving and respectful, not angry or mean. The goal is reconciliation, not revenge. The imperative of Ephesians makes it clear that we are to "speak the truth in love." This would pertain especially to times when we're tempted to do otherwise.
So if somebody has wronged you, or if something has happened in the church that you believe needs to be rectified, then, yes, there is a time to communicate those concerns. In fact, it's both necessary and crucial to the health of our body that we communicate these concerns. And we're all to do it directly, with the person or persons immediately responsible. We're to do it with grace and love. We're to do it for the sake of reconciliation and rectification.
Is there a time when complaining is necessary? No, there's no place among God's people for grumbling, gossiping, and the like. Complaining isn't necessary, or ever acceptable. Loving communication of significant wrongs, however, is both right and required.
My friends, I've been relating complaining to the church because that's the context of 1 Peter 4. But everything I've said here applies just as well to other relationships. Take family, for example. Is complaining every helpful to family life? I doubt it. In fact, how many of you parents respond positively when your children complain? In our case, complaining sets my children back in their effort to get what they want. I hate complaining!
And what about marriage? If you're spouse is doing something that bugs you, or not doing something you want him or her to do, how much will complaining help? How much does your suppose respond to nagging? In most cases, those on the receiving end of the complaining simply close their ears, so the complaining only builds a wall between spouses.
Here's the bottom line: Not only is complaining wrong, from a biblical point of view, it also doesn't work. If you want people to listen to your concerns, whatever you do, don't complain!
The Challenge of the Uncomplaining Life
My friends, I know that many of you are going to be challenged by this sermon. In fact, ironically enough, some of you will be tempted to complain about it!
Perhaps I can soften the blow a bit by admitting to you that I have been convicted by this sermon. I usually pride myself on not being a complainer. And if I compare myself to certain other people, that's true. But I've had to come clean before the Lord and confess just how often I do complain. It's so easy for me to start grumbling about this and that, and then to start grousing to my friends. Before long, I've invited myself to a nice little pity party in my honor . . . my honor, not God's honor. God's glory has nothing to do with it.
Let me give an example. As many of you know, our 2005 Ministry Budget has been stretched to the limit with some wonderful new ministry opportunities, like Veritas, improved care for infants and toddlers, growth in mission, etc. But, after doing all of these things, we didn't have the money to hire a new custodian as we had hoped. What this has meant, in practice, is that many of us have had to pick up the slack this year. If you're a leader of a ministry, you probably know what I mean.
I've felt the impact especially when it comes to my Thursday morning pastor's study. I used to be able to show up at 6:45 with the room set up and the coffee made. But this year has been different. I've had to arrive twenty minutes early to get the coffee brewing and to make sure the room is ready to go. Since I'm not by nature a morning person, I haven't exactly relished the chance to get up an extra twenty minutes early. And, if truth be told, you could have heard me complain about this early in the year.
But, by God's grace, I got over it. You know what made the difference? I stopped focusing on me, and started focusing on showing hospitality to the folks who come to the Pastor's Study. For them to arrive with the room set up and with coffee on the way is a way of saying "Welcome!" So this thought has helped me, even when I have to get out of bed before the sun has begun to rise.
Here's something I've learned in this process. My shift, from complainer to happy host (well, sort of), has made a difference in my own attitude. I feel more positive about getting up a little earlier. Complaining is rather like quicksand. You wade in, and pretty soon to get in deeper and deeper. Not only is it a bad deal for those around you, but also it damages your own soul.
So, let me ask you:
• Do you complain?
• Do you grumble?
• Do you find it easier to let negative things slip out of your mouth than to remember that you should be speaking as if delivering God's own words?
• Does criticism come more easily than encouragement?
• Do you find it painfully easy to take God's grace for granted, and to obsess about the things that are wrong in your life?
• And when it comes to welcoming others, do you get stuck in the things that bug you about them?
The Story of Hal
I want to close with a story about the difference welcome can make in somebody's life. Now let me say at the outset that it's right to be welcoming - yes, without complaining - no matter what the results in the lives of those we welcome. But God can use our hospitality to changes lives. And this is exactly what happened to a person I'll call "Hal."
Hal used to be a member of this church until he moved away a couple of years ago. Hal was, to put it bluntly, a complainer. He was always bugged about things, and he always let us know. When I first came as your pastor 14 and a half years ago, I tried hard to listen sensitively to Hal. But, in time, his constant nitpicking wore our my patience. There were times, I'll admit, when I'd see Hal across the church campus, and intentionally avoid him because I just couldn't take more of his negativity. And I wasn't alone in this reaction, let me tell you.
Now, as you might have guessed, Hal had a lot of hard things going on in his life. His constant complaining really wasn't about us. It was about the pain in his own heart. But Hal's behavior made it hard to love him.
Yet we kept doing it. Throughout his years as a grumbler, Hal had a place in this church. Many of us kept on trying to love him in spite of how hard it was at times. Along the way Hal began to open his heart to God's healing. He got some counseling. He shared his deeper struggles with a few Christian friends. Over several years a phenomenal process of inner healing happened.
A couple of years ago Hal moved away from here as a changed man. When I last some him a few weeks ago I continue to marvel at how God has transformed him. Right before Hal left, he wrote me a note thanking this church for the difference we had made in his life. It was one of the most heartfelt, effusive letters of praise I've ever received as a pastor. From Hal the Complainer. Now that's grace at work.
Sisters and brothers, you know it doesn't always work out this wonderfully. But sometimes it does.
So here's the practical bottom line: Be hospitable but don't complain. That's clear. It's easy to understand. It's just not easy to do.
Before I close, I want to remind you of what else Peter gives us to help us live out this imperative.
First, God has given you His grace, countless gifts in this life, and most of all the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Be good stewards of this manifold grace, and serve others graciously.
Sisters and brothers, by God's Spirit, you can speak as if speaking God's own words. You have divine power to build up, to encourage, to appreciate, to love. Use your words for God's purposes!
My friends, yes, I know all of this can sound overwhelming, even impossible. But the Spirit of Christ dwells within you to give you supernatural strength. You can stop complaining. You can learn to speak with God's grace. God will give you the strength, if you ask Him and trust Him.
Finally, sisters and brothers, may we live our lives so that God may be glorified in all things. The more we focus on God and His glory, the less we'll be snagged by ourselves and our stuff. The more we seek, as a church, to glorify God, the more we'll be set free from grumbling, and pettiness, and a penchant for hurting each other. God will teach us to welcome one another, to be hospitable to one another, and to do it without complaining.
May He do these very things in us! And may He begin with me!