Sunday, September 02, 2007

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers..."

Sermon – St Mark’s Episcopal, Richmond
Proper 17

Psalm 112; Ecclesiasticus10:7-18; Hebrews 13:1-7; Luke 14:1, 7-14

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

The desert winds whip wildly and the tent gives little shelter. Their wateris running low, and their feeble bodies are suffering with the extreme temperatures. In the daytime, the sun roasts the sand and any living thing feels the suffocating heat. In the night, their animals shiver with cold, and the old man and woman wrap themselves tight. Their journey has brought them out of the land of their birth, away from the gods of their ancestors. This journey has brought them, in their advanced years, to this place. There are a few trees here that have somehow withstood the ravages of the desert. These trees are known as the Oaks of Mamre, and legend tells that their growth and survival depend on divine help. But, in the desert, anything that lives depends on divine help. In the desert, there is a careful dance when coming into contact with others. The prevailing practice is to offer hospitality to those who need it, to offer help, and to extend a hand, water, food, and even shelter. However, there is also an abiding fear that those asking for help may turn violent, and there are many allegiances and alliances to navigate in this land. The man and his wife are traveling in new lands, and are often the ones who need help, and often are the ones to give it – but there exists an abiding risk to this journey, even though God told them to go.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Into this camp walk three strangers, asking for food, for water, for hospitality. The old man and his wife give food, water, and offered them shade in the desert heat. The three strangers sit together, and offered thanksgiving for this hospitality, for food, water, and for the place to rest. The three strangers also offer conversation. As they sit together, facing the old man, they asked about his wife, who had returned to the tent cleaning up after she set the table and brought out the bread, the hummus, the grapes and the wine. The three strangers tell the old man that his wife would bear a child. Who were these three strangers? The old woman, hearing the conversation, laughed to herself for she had long ago given up on the thought of children of her own. The conversation continued, and the old woman brought out more food and wine, offering hospitality even as she, too, wondered who these three strangers were. Eventually, the three strangers bid farewell, and offered great thanks to Abraham and Sarah for feeding them, for water, for wine, and for the hospitality in that desert place.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This beautiful line from Paul’s letter to the Hebrew refers to that wonderful story in Genesis 18 when Abraham and Sarah encountered three strangers who were actually angels from God. Abraham and Sarah entertained them and showed hospitality to them. This encounter forms one of the key pillars in the Jewish and Christian notion of hospitality for the stranger. Hospitality can get watered down sometimes, if it only pertains to what kind of finger sandwiches or punch is served at a reception. Both Paul and the story in Genesis point to a radicalized form of hospitality. In Hebrews, Paul offers the admonition to show hospitality to strangers – and then names two kinds of strangers that might be offered hospitality: prisoners and those being tortured. Of course it is important to remember the context for this letter. Paul is writing to Christians who are under siege, and some of them have been carried off to prison just for being Christians. To offer hospitality to these prisoners does not mean doing a little prison ministry for an hour a week. Without a visit from a friend, a prisoner would starve, would have no clothes, and could die of thirst. The hospitality given to prisoners by others would offer them the possibility of life. Where this hospitality gets radicalized is that while visiting these strangers, a Christian would put themselves at risk for being jailed as well – the Christians were under siege, and those helping Christian prisoners might be punished. So, when Paul admonishes his listeners to offer hospitality “as if you were prisoners,” this is no metaphor. Paul knows the risks of offering this hospitality, and calls his listeners to this high calling of risky radicalized hospitality.

Likewise for those who are enduring torture. Those Christians who offered hospitality to them would also put themselves at risk for torture. Paul calls his hearers to this high calling of radicalized hospitality because without it, it really is every man for himself, every woman for herself, every child for him or herself. Paul is calling his hearers to this high calling of living as the body of Christ, even though the risks are great. It is in these actions of hospitality that the Body of Christ becomes whole, becomes strengthened. In effect, the church itself is not the building where we go, but in the ways that we bring ourselves to care for and offer hospitality to, one another, and to those strangers, even more importantly. To neglect hospitality is to neglect to see that God calls us to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

It is the calling of every Christian to practice radicalized hospitality. This is not just the calling of the clergy, not just of the Franciscan monks, not just the calling of the do-gooder types. Offering radical hospitality to the stranger is a calling for all of us. In the early church, it was the role of the deacon to help turn the eyes, ears and hearts of the Church to the needs of the world. In particular, deacons offered hospitality to those who were poor, in prison, and in need. The deacon did not to do this work on his or her own, but worked to inspire those in the to work to respond to the cries of a world in need.

And so, as a deacon I want to raise questions that emerge from radicalized hospitality in our present context: (1) How would radicalized hospitality affect our discussions about immigration reform? Could this theology help move the discussion to a different level? (2) How might radicalized hospitality help the current discussions and debates in the Anglican communion? Could our hearts be open wide enough to hear those with whom we vehemently disagree? (3) Could radicalized hospitality help us to engage more productively with people from other faith traditions? Perhaps our common heritage from the dry deserts of the Middle East may offer a beginning point.

I don’t know the answers to these questions … but I raise them as a deacon in this pulpit.

An early deacon was St. Stephen, who served the church in this way, and suffered the fate of many Christians when he was martyred, perhaps under Saul’s supervision. Some people claim that St. Francis was a deacon, and even if he wasn’t, he still embodied that diaconal ministry of service, of radicalized hospitality as he lived with and cared for lepers and the poor and the outcast. St. Francis, even as he suffered the pains of “lady poverty” he also lived a life of joy. Joy is what this radicalized hospitality should be all about – not solely drudgery or guilt-induced service. No! Paul reminds us of the promise of living this type of hospitality,

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

The Good News is that this hospitality is no project of our own, this hospitality is no human invention. God gives us the gifts to open up our hearts to those strangers in our midst, and those strangers all around us. I think we’ve all experienced the ways that turning to others in need cultivates a joy that is deep and abiding, we may “have entertained angels without knowing it”!

The Church exists most boldly and most fully in the sharing of hospitality between people, this is where we experience Christ. God gives us the power to create that space where love for neighbor is cultivated, enabled, and modeled. God gives us the gift of bringing people together in order support one another. There is a saying of the desert monastic, John the Dwarf, which illustrates this point quite well:

“You don’t build a house by starting with the
roof and working down. You start with the
They said, “What does that mean?”
He said, “The foundation is our neighbor
who we must win. The neighbor is where
we start. Every commandment of Christ
depends on this.”

The goal in this life is to build up one another and to work with diligence to bring one’s neighbor to Christ. The church is built on our cultivation of radicalized hospitality of care and love to neighbor, and to stranger. God sets a high calling before each of us, but, God is with us, and God gives us the gifts to open up our hearts to those strangers in our midst, and those strangers all around us.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Rev. Peter M. Carey

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you for this