Entertaining Angels (September 1, 2013)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 1, 2013 

Text:  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Today’s title and text were those used for this summer’s Peace Camp.  The full title was, “Entertaining Angels:  Peacemaking through Radical Hospitality.”  Plenary speakers, Bible study, workshops and incidental conversation all addressed this theme.  How can the practice of radical hospitality lead to a more peaceful world?  Indeed, how can it not?  The program booklet for the week was headed by these words from Radical Welcome:  Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation by Stephanie Spellers:  “In practicing radical welcome, we ask God, ‘What would you have us do?  Who would you have us embrace?’  And when God presents us with the holy opportunity to be stretched beyond our comfort – either by welcoming a particular group or by allowing that group’s culture and perspective to transform us – then we leap forward in faith…”

How does this challenge sound to you?  When you hear the word hospitality these days, what do you think?  Maybe hosting a family gathering or open house or a holiday party for folks you know and love?  Or perhaps, if we turn to the hospitality industry, we think of hotels, bars, restaurants, resorts and retreats, places where travelers find respite and refreshment, pleasure and play.  From our position of privilege we don’t give a lot of thought to hospitality as a necessity, as being a life or death matter as it was in the time when today’s text was written.

The writer of Hebrews encourages us “not [to] neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  Why is this important?  Well one argument the writer makes is that “by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  You never know for certain how your guests may affect your life.  You may not even know with absolute assurance who your guests are.  The reference in the text is probably to the experience of Abraham and Sarah who welcome strangers under the oaks of Mamre that turn out to be messengers from God with messages that change their lives forever.

In those days hospitality was often a matter of survival in a wild and hostile environment.  Christine Pohl reminds us that “Before inns, hotels, and restaurants, every stranger needed someone’s hospitality.  Whether or not they had resources, when people were away from home, they were dependent on the kindness and generosity of others, often strangers” (Christine Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” Christian Reflection, The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2007, baylor.edu).    Hospitality was a moral imperative in many ancient cultures.

In addition, Erik Heen tells us that “The Greek word…traditionally translated…’hospitality’ is philoxenia, literally, ‘love of the strange.’”  He continues, “Many ancients were locked into lives of routine and did not stray far from their places of birth. Life was difficult and mobility was limited.”  He then speculates that “One way in which the world became ‘larger’ was to open one’s home (however poor) to those that came from ‘outside’…The unknown seekers of hospitality brought news (and stories!) of the wider world and broke open one’s little provincial world. There was a kind of marvelous exchange, then, of mutual benefit between host and guest. The guest received protection (inns were dangerous places), food, and company. Hosts were led out of themselves and their ‘little’ worlds. Those locked into deadly routine were engaged by that which was ‘outside’ the camp” (Erik Heen, “Commentary Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, 2013,” WorkingPreacher.org).

The challenge for us, it seems to me, is whether or not we might recapture some of the significance of these ancient perspectives on hospitality.  Might we look beyond our comfort zones to see that are there still people on this planet in desperate need of hospitality?  Are we willing, indeed open, to loving the strange – and the stranger – not only because of their need but also for the ways such love might expand our consciousness and appreciation of the world in which we live?

“Break the Bread of Belonging” was the first hymn I encountered by the great British hymn writer, Brian Wren.  I am still moved by the way it attempts to capture the experience of people who are refugees and immigrants, people who, for whatever reason, have left country, culture, family, friends, home and livelihood in search of freedom and a better way of life.  “Break the bread of belonging.  Welcome the stranger in the land.  We have each been a stranger.  We can try to understand.”  And is this not true?  Have we not, each of us, had some experience of being a stranger, even if it was only the benign moment of being new to a neighborhood, school or church?  We can multiply the affects of those experiences on our own lives to try to understand the experiences of those who have fled the terrors of war, oppression, poverty, natural disaster.  We can see and embrace the need of some, whether they are deemed “legal” or not, to be offered hospitality, to be welcomed because their ability to survive and thrive depends on it.

And then there is the wonder and delight of sharing the stories of those who have come seeking hospitality and found welcome.  Some of those sitting here this morning have provided education, insight and understanding in this area for me.  I won’t go down the list calling you out, but let me tell just one little vignette from last week’s picnic.  I sat across the table from Paul Tuan as he shared some of his story of leaving China as a young man, coming to this country for educational opportunity, eventually finding his legality challenged in an age when the US still had laws on the books limiting Chinese immigrants to 105 a year.  Ask Paul to tell you the rest of the story of how playing the flute in an army band led to citizenship.  His story and those of others of you are fascinating and enriching.  Many of us have traveled broadly, but we have not always taken the opportunity to get to know with any intimacy the people and cultures we have encountered.  Indeed, we still have much to learn from the stories of those who gather here week after week.

What strikes me most deeply about the writer’s exhortations in this chapter of Hebrews is the opening line: “Let mutual love continue.”  Our acts of hospitality, of social reform, of individual and communal fidelity, of generosity, of trust and of worship are born of our ability to live lives of mutual love.  In the end, those we encounter, in whatever circumstance, are our sisters and brothers.  We are all children of God, made in God’s image and likeness, regardless of color, creed, national origin, orientation, identity, status.  We are all sisters and brothers, common kin in the family of God.  How do we, any of us, all of us, receive our kinfolk?  How hospitable can we be to one another?  How can we ground our lives in mutual love?

On this weekend of my mother’s 95th birthday, I think back to those days when her family – parents, 10 sisters and brothers and their children- would gather in my grandparents’ yard before tables groaning with the most delicious food imaginable.  In spite of our differences – politically, socially, theologically, economically – I can still remember the mutual love that drew us and bound us together.

“Francis Taylor Gench reminds us that ‘love, in the New Testament, is not something you feel; it is something you do.”  She says, “Love seeks the well-being of others and is embodied in concrete efforts in their behalf” (Hebrews, Westminster Bible Companion quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Open Table,” SAMUEL, 9-1-2013, ucc.org).  “Entertaining Angels:  Peacemaking through Radical Hospitality” – how might the mutual love we practice in acts of radical hospitality lead to peace on earth?  This is a particularly acute concern as our government considers an attack on another country in the Middle East.  How will military action against Syria, no matter how we justify it, lead to peace, hospitality or mutual love.  The expense of a military strike alone would be better allocated toward acts of peace, hospitality and love.

What if we were to order our actions as if everyone we met was a messenger from God?  If not a messenger per se, surely a child of God?  How would we live differently, how would our actions and attitudes be transformed?  Would we experience a leap forward in faith?  Would the reign of God come just a little closer?  What if we were to ask God, in all seriousness, “What would you have us do?  Who would you have us embrace?”   Just for this week, let’s not neglect to show radical hospitality to strangers.  Let’s see if by doing so we find that we are entertaining angels.  Above all, let us continue in mutual love.  Amen.