There May Be Angels

June 11, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Genesis 18:1-16; Hebrews 13:1-3


There’s a story about a boy who was wandering around the narthex of a large downtown church one Sunday morning and stopped to examine a large bronze plaque that was hung on the wall.  “What are all those names up there?” he asked one of the ushers.  “Those are the names of people who died in the service.” the usher replied.  Curious, and a bit concerned,  the boy asked the usher, “The 9:30 service or the 11 o’clock service?”

I was very gratified at the end of last Sunday’s service to see that no one had died, either from shock at some of the slightly irreverent parts of the service, or from fatigue due to its length.  As a reward for your tolerance and patience, I’ll keep today’s message short.

Despite this very strange spring, with less than ideal weather, the social season here on the coast has begun. This is the time of year when we do a lot of entertaining, so in anticipation of the arrival of our guests it may be well to reflect on the virtue of hospitality.  Though both entertaining and hospitality involve receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, and generous way, there is, I believe a difference.  From the outside the behaviors can look the same. However when entertaining, much of our focus is on what we need to do; refill the potato chip bowl, open another bottle of wine, or change the hand towel in the bathroom.  Hospitality may involve doing these same things, but as a virtue, its focus is less on us and more on the needs of the other.

Hospitality comes from the same source as the words, hospiceshelter and hospitala place of healing. Keeping this in mind, to provide hospitality is to minister to the other at a much deeper level than simply making them comfortable or insuring that they have a good time.  We might do well to ask ourselves in an attempt to provide true hospitality to guests who come to our home and those who attend our Sunday services: Do our words and actions welcome and provide a shelter for our guests? Do we go out of our way to make circles of welcome out of gatherings of strangers? When necessary, do we welcome with forbearance and/or forgiveness? In our greeting do our guests experience gratitude, and rejoicing? If the situation requires it are we conduits of healing, instruments of peace?

Ultimately hospitality is very much a spiritual practice. As such hospitality needs to be talked about and taught in some ways, or “caught” at least, for the next generation to pick it up since it has gotten lost to some degree in US culture. Dr. Christine Pohl, associate provost and professor of Christian ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary states that historically there were a number of stories woven through various traditions about the practice of hospitality: the surprise in who the guest turns out to be, or who the host is, or in the blessing associated with it. “When people stopped talking about it, or took it for granted, or became too busy for it, the whole practice of hospitality began to change. Many of the pieces have endured but Pohl believes  that hospitality has stopped being a coherent whole—that we’ve lost the sense of the practice being located in a larger narrative. Hospitality is rooted in human vulnerability, sociality, and longings for community. We all need to be valued, feel wanted and experience a sense of belonging.

Offering welcome is basic to Christian identity and practice, but hospitality becomes grudging and distorted if it does not flow from a life of gratitude. We’ve been welcomed into fellowship with God and all of creation. The connections between gratitude and hospitality, between God’s welcome and our welcome make  Christian hospitality distinctive. And look at all that we have been given; all that we have to share! Committing to a tradition of hospitality grounded in gratitude, would take us a long way down the road toward faithfully responding to God’s love—as we recognize the value in every human being and come together with respect and warmth. The first move on the part of a Christian should be in the direction of welcome; to welcome as God welcomes, to love as God loves.

As followers of Jesus, we emulate His love and compassion when we show hospitality, not only to family and friends, but even more so to strangers and the less fortunate; when we make room, especially for people who don’t usually have a place. Jesus taught us the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves and the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that “neighbor” has nothing to do with geography, citizenship, or race. Wherever and whenever people need us, there we can be neighbors. This is the essence of hospitality. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus discusses the hospitable behavior of those who will inherit the kingdom: “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, 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”.

In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Dr. Pohl writes, “Sustained hospitality requires a light hold on material possessions and a commitment to a simplified lifestyle.” Hospitality by definition involves welcoming people into a space that’s inviting and some possessions are certainly helpful for people to be comfortable. But if those possessions are too dear to us we can feel the need to protect and care for them to a point that it shifts our focus away from the needs of our guests and may even cause us to be less willing to risk welcoming strangers. Thus the spiritual practice of hospitality calls for detachment.

Hospitality is a virtue that is both commanded and commended throughout Scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of stories and counsel about it.  In the New Testament, we see that during His public ministry, Jesus and His disciples depended entirely on the hospitality of others as they ministered from town to town. The early Christians also counted on and received hospitality from others. In fact, travelers in ancient times relied heavily on the hospitality of strangers as traveling could be dangerous and there were very few inns, and poor Christians could not afford to stay at them, anyway. This generous provision to strangers also included opening one’s home for church services. Hospitality is truly a core component of our religious tradition.

When speaking of hospitality, the biblical world focusses on two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien. Both were usually referred to as “Strangers”. In fact the Greek word translated as “hospitality” literally means “love of strangers.” In the Old Testament, it was specifically commanded by God: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt”.

One of the hot questions in American society today is, what shall we do about illegal immigration? That is a political question. Here’s the religious question: What is the Christian position regarding illegal immigrants?  As followers of Jesus, our primary goal is not to preserve American culture as it has been but to welcome people, all people, recognizing that we are one family. Our priority as the church of Jesus Christ is to reach out to all people regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or where they came from; respecting the dignity and equal worth of every person and transcending social differences. We are to do this so that, as we often pray,  we may all become one. Inclusiveness is right at the heart of the Gospel. “God so loved the world . . .” We can’t get more inclusive than that.

Perhaps in our very sheltered corner of the world we will never have to consider how we should treat immigrants, much less ones who entered this country illegally.  But in our social gatherings this summer we will likely be involved in conversations about them.  We might want to prepare for these situations by reflecting on how Christians are called to live out hospitality in these challenging times. With frequent terrorist attacks around the world, fear and a self-protective stance are understandable.  And yet we need to remember what we say we believe as Christians and then wrestle with the practical application.

We believe that Jesus always welcomed the abandoned, the misfit, the wretched and the outcast.

We believe we are all precious in God’s sight.

We believe we are called to share life together as members of one family.

We believe we are all invited to feast at God’s banquet table.

We believe we are welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, with all the peoples of the earth.

Believing all of this, we  would do well to consider, as followers of Jesus, how much negativity, prejudice, or exclusionary talk we should tolerate before walking away or saying something.

Out of deep gratitude for the sense of belonging that we experience as a member of God’s family and as a treasured member of the Cosmos, in imitation of Jesus who welcomed all and gave particular attention to the marginalized, in the spirit of detachment from anything that takes our focus away from honoring the other, we are called to practice dynamic hospitality. This form of hospitality is not only a gift to the other. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Angels are often the personification of blessing.  By providing true hospitality by focusing on the needs of the other and trying to meet those needs we may become more caring, grow in compassion, consideration, sensitivity, or courtesy. We may become more gentle, helpful, tactful, tolerant or generous.

We are so fortunate to be living in this beautiful area and able to enjoy with family and friends all that the summer here has to offer. As we welcome our guests with reverence and warmth, as we bless them, may we experience blessings through them that we never imagined.