What would you do if you got asked the same question 100 times? A day. When you’re a cast member at Disneyland it happens. Every. Single. Day. “Where’s the bathroom?” “Where’s Mickey?” “How do I find Space Mountain?” Over and over and over. But no question – and I mean no question – is as annoying as this one. “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” I kid you not. Not once but many times a day would I get asked that question. It’s hard – I mean REALLY hard – not to get sarcastic at that point. The answer isn’t just obvious, but they said it themselves. “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” Disney believes how you answer that question will determine how successful you are.
Assume that people aren’t stupid.
That’s a good place to start. Most of the time, what seems like a dumb question is really a cry for help. The person knows they need something, but doesn’t know how to ask for it. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking the question. Usually when people are asking you, “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” what they’re really asking is, “What time will the parade get HERE?” If you’ve seen a parade at Disneyland, you know the 3 o’clock parade STARTS at 3 o’clock SOMEWHERE, but from one end to the other it can be half an hour later before it gets to where you are sitting. Maybe they want to know if they have time to grab a bite to eat. Or go to the restroom. Or change their kid’s diaper. There’s a lot hidden behind an innocent question and the role of a good Cast Member is to find out what it is people are really asking and help them as best you can. When you can do that, sometimes you can make a person’s whole day brighter. And if you’re really lucky, you can make an impact that lasts their whole life. You wouldn’t believe the heartwarming tales we hear from guests about how Cast Members have made their vacation. There was one family whose little boy lost his teddy bear at the park. They had searched everywhere and no one had been able to find it. They reported it to Lost and Found, left their name and room number, and left the park for the day. Later on, someone found that teddy bear and turned it in. The Cast Members at Lost and Found remembered how sad the little boy was and decided to do something special. They took the bear all over the park, snapping pictures with it and all sorts of different characters. They printed those pictures, put it in a small photo album with a letter from Mickey Mouse saying that his bear had missed him but had been well taken care of and returned the bear with the photo album and letter to the boy that night. That little boy couldn’t stop talking about what a great adventure his bear had and made that vacation so much better.
When people ask questions, often they’re a little bit lost.
Maybe not physically lost, but emotionally, spiritually, intellectually lost. And while it’s easy to dismiss them, when someone is willing to ask a question they are being vulnerable to us in that moment. How we treat them says a lot about us. I can’t help but think about the passage from Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats. Jesus is telling his disciples a story about a day when everyone will be judged by what they’ve done in life and he starts separating people into two groups, one on his right and one on his left. He says to the group on his right, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” We may not realize it, but how we treat people looking for help says more about us than about them.
Being lost is a horrible feeling.
And like I said, anyone asking a question is lost in their own way. Being in a strange place, even in a strange but friendly place, is filled with anxiety. But if we can be the people God calls us to be in those situations, we can offer the kind of hospitality that will offer a way to those who need it. 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. I had to look it up. People use the term “prodigal son” so often, it sounded like a good thing, like someone who returns home triumphantly. But “prodigal” means someone who wastes money extravagantly. “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. Put yourselves in the shoes of the Prodigal Son.
11 …“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.” (Luke 15:11-24)
What that must have felt like to be greeted like that!
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. To use what we have to help others know the love of God.
Disney’s philosophy of extravagant hospitality can be boiled down to two sentences.
Exceed guest expectations. Pay attention to details. Exceed guest expectations. Pay attention to details. It’s in everything they do. From the lightbulbs in the stores, to the smell of vanilla coming out of the vents at the candy shop, to making sure the streets are clean. The key to exceeding expectations comes down to putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, trying to understand what THEY need and what THEY want, and helping them find it. Sometimes that means anticipating their needs even before they walk in the door. For us, that takes a different form. Really good welcome bags for 1st time guests, putting together creative worship that’s also relatable, having a clean worship space, being well-organized…there is so much that goes into creating an atmosphere that helps that person walking in those doors to feel more at ease. Stepping into a church often takes a great amount of courage. Even if you know people, if you’re here searching for answers to your faith questions, it’s intimidating. Creating that atmosphere of extravagant hospitality becomes so important to ease those feelings and make it possible for someone to be open to where God is leading them. Some of you might be wondering why we’re talking so much about Disney in church. Do I want us to BE Disney? No. Do I want us to be LIKE Disney? When it comes to extravagant hospitality, yes. We shouldn’t be afraid of taking the best of what the world has to offer and make it our own. If we’re going to reach beyond these walls to influence the lives of those around us, we have to be innovative and adapt what works in the world and make it work for the church. A church afraid to change is a church that is slowly dying, but created us to bring life into the world. Let us be that light and that life!