What would you do if someone asked you the same question 100 times?
Literally. The same question. 100 times. What would you do? Would you be a bit snarky? Would you be kind of sarcastic? Would you act frustrated? And what if it happened to you every single day? Every. Single. Day. That was my life as a Custodial Bussing Host at Disneyland. Same question. 100 times. Every single day. “Where’s the bathroom?” Now, people would ask it in slightly different ways and in different tones of voice depending on how great the need was, but essentially the same question all day, every day. “Where’s the bathroom?” Because I moved all around the park, I had to know the location of every restroom in every land and which one was closest. Near Star Tours? Go to the one by the Plaza Inn. At the Frontierland Shooting Arcade? There’s one right by the Adventureland entrance. Haunted Mansion? Just behind the French Market. Always use two fingers or your whole hand. Never point with one finger. Some cultures find that to be rude. But that’s not the most annoying question. The most annoying question is the follow up. “Is that the closet one?” Do they think my first option is to send them further away? I would love to say, “You know sir, you got me. There IS a closer one, but it’s reserved for smart people like you who figured out I was sending you further than you needed to go.” But I never said that. Because there is one lesson they pound in your head at Disney University and that is this, “It might be the 100th time you’ve heard that question today, but it’s the first time they’ve asked it of you.” It might be the 100th time you’ve heard that question today, but it’s the first time they’ve asked it of you.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really appreciated that bit of advice.
It’s helped me in many different circumstances to make sure I’m being sensitive to others. And it’s helped me to understand when people might be feeling vulnerable. We tend to look at the world from our point of view. We assume certain things because to us they are like second nature. But when you’re in a new situation or in new circumstances, nothing is second nature and it can make you feel exposed. Keeping this piece of wisdom in your mind forces you to consider life from a different perspective – from the mindset of those for whom what to you is normal might feel uncomfortable or out of place. It makes you step into the other person’s shoes and consider how they might be feeling. Think about it for a minute. How many times have you had to ask for help with something you feel you should already know the answer? Or have you had to ask a question you had no idea the answer, but you were sure everyone else did? When we first started attending my home church back in Georgia, it was a pretty big church and Cassie would drop off Eve at Sunday School while I dropped off Emma or she would drop off both girls if I was helping out in worship that day, but one particular Sunday she asked me to get Eve while she was helping out in Emma’s room. I had no idea where to go and quickly got turned around after listening to Cassie explain where it was. I started feeling anxious. I felt kind of stupid. What parent doesn’t know where to pick up their kid? Everyone was really nice but they all spoke in a language I didn’t understand – “church-ese.” For a guy who hadn’t been in a church since 5th grade, they would talk about the “narthex,” the “sanctuary,” and the “fellowship hall” as if everyone know not only where these things were, but what they were. To someone who hadn’t hardly stepped foot in a church I thought sanctuary was something to do with Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I had no clue what a “narthex” was. To me that was the lobby. And “fellowship hall?” To me that could have been anywhere. If they had said, “the big room with lots of tables and chairs,” that would have been easier. Eventually, I found Eve and of course she was one of the last kids in the room. When we got back to Cassie (I was always good at finding my way back from somewhere), she asked what took me so long and I could only reply, “I got lost.” In more ways than one.
Being lost is a horrible feeling.
Being alone in a strange place, even in a strange but friendly place, is an anxiety-filled moment. But if we can be the people God calls us to be in those situations, we can offer the kind of hospitality that God hopes we will give. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on you, would you please turn to Luke 15 beginning with verse 11. Luke 15:11. When I think about that anxiety-filled moment, I think about this story we are about to read – the story of the Prodigal Son. If you’ve been in church for any length of time, you’ve probably heard this story, but even if you haven’t, it’s one that will probably feel familiar if you put yourself in the prodigal son’s shoes. For the life of me, I had no idea what “prodigal” meant. People use the term “prodigal son” so often to me it sounded like a good thing, like someone who returns home triumphantly. But “prodigal” means someone who wastes money extravagantly. So in this story the son who returns home is feeling ashamed, humbled, humiliated and is really not sure how his dad will receive him. But he has failed so miserably, he doesn’t have any choices left and decides to brave coming home. Imagine what that must have felt like, to have to walk into a situation where you’re not sure what will happen, what people will expect, how they will react and feeling awful about it. That’s the story we are sharing today.
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
How AMAZING that must have felt for the son.
To be accepted so lovingly and openly, to be made welcome by people whom he thought might treat him badly or with judgment. Instead to have pretty much the exact opposite happen must have been more than he could have hoped for. And that’s the kind of people God calls us to be. God wants us to be people of extravagant hospitality. That doesn’t have to mean you spend a lot of money. In fact, money has nothing to do with it. Instead, extravagant hospitality has to do with your heart for others and being sensitive to their needs. It means finding a way to make them feel welcome by going out of your way for them. What we don’t often realize is how much effort it takes to just put yourself in an uncomfortable situation. How much anxiety and fear go into the decision to do it, and the courage it takes just to set foot in it. If we react badly or we fail to exceed expectations, we could set back that person’s progress even more than before they gathered the courage to come forward. We could reinforce in their minds all the reasons they had come up with not to come forward before deciding to push ahead.
What Disney does to show extravagant hospitality can be summarized in two sentences.
Exceed guest expectations. Pay attention to details. There’s obviously a lot that goes into that statement but it all goes back to what we talked about at the beginning, the one millionth question. Someone might be asking a question you’ve heard a million times but for them it’s the first time and how you react will often define for them the rest of their entire day or year or life. It comes down to putting yourself always in the other person’s shoes. Trying to define what it is they are feeling, anticipate their needs, and exceed their expectations. Much of what the Disney company does in their theme park operations is to anticipate people’s needs even BEFORE they walk into the park. They pay attention to details most companies don’t spend time on. For instance, did you know that in most areas of the park there isn’t more than 27 feet between trashcans? 27 feet. That’s because they did a study and found that people will only walk that far before dumping their trash on the ground or in a flower bed. 27 feet. You’ll see even more in a quick service restaurant area or any area with food, but in general that’s how far people go so Disney anticipates that and populates the park with even more covered trashcans. Believe it or not, each trashcan costs about $500 so it’s no small investment, but in the long run it’s worth it. Keeping a clean park makes people feel great about Disneyland, makes them feel like it’s a safe place for their kids, gives them the impression that Disney cares (which they do), and encourages them to come back again. And that’s just one of MANY examples of how Disney exceeds guest expectations by paying attention to the details.
If we could apply that same principle in our lives, it could make all the difference in the world.
Could you imagine the impact we would have on those around us – in our personal lives, in our work lives and in our faith? I think this is a vital lesson for the church. We need to do more than react. We need to be proactive. We need to think in advance how we can meet the needs of those coming to worship for the first time or those returning like the prodigal son. Stepping into a church often takes a great amount of courage, whether you know someone or not. And if you don’t know someone, it’s even more intimidating. So what can we do to create an environment of extravagant hospitality? How can we make sure we are exceeding the needs of those who come into those doors for the first time or for the first time in a long time? Are we thinking about our own needs or are we thinking about others? As we are working on transforming our worship space and talking about ways we can make our church more hospitable, I hope we will all keep our minds attuned to this. I hope we will consider not what we like, but what others need, what they want, what their stereotypes are of the church, and then exceed all of them in such a way that they walk out of here with a feeling of utter joy and a real experience with Christ incarnate. My hope is that they would walk away feeling like they encountered God in worship in a meaningful way. I hope we cultivate an environment that they want to come back, maybe even NEED to come back. Disney is able to be so successful not because they cut corners, but because they exceed expectations. They succeed not because they keep up with everyone around them, but because they strive to be the industry leader and they do that by trying to innovate and create environments that meet the needs of people today. And that’s what we need to do in the church to succeed. There is no doubt in my mind that people are seeking both God and meaning in life and we are in a position to help them see both. Let us commit ourselves to do all we can to have the mindset of extravagant hospitality.