Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
The vestry is finalizing the work of the mutual ministry review started two months ago, and the mission, vision and values process started last year. As it has worked on mission statements for the different language groups at St. Athanasius, each group has independently struggled with the same word cluster that seems central to the spirit of St. Athanasius. In Spanish, they settled on the word accepting. In Korean, they chose the word welcoming. In English, they decided to use two words: welcoming and inclusive. All of this says that our vestry believes that welcoming is central to both our faith and our church. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are welcoming. We want to be. But are we? As we worked on the mission statements, we reminded ourselves that a mission statement is a declaration of intent. It doesn’t mean we’re already there; it does mean we see being accepting, welcoming and inclusive as an urgent and central part of our identity. We want to be known as a welcoming, accepting and inclusive community.
God knows this matters in our world and our country right now. We live at a time when many emphasize the threats in our differences rather than the connections. Muslims are a threat to Christians. Blacks are a threat to police. Homosexuals are a threat to heterosexuals. Immigrants are a threat to legal residents. Criminals are a threat to law abiding citizens. Terrorists are a threat to civilization. Of course, if we’re going to see differences as a threat, the truth is that both sides see each other as threats.
The letter to the Hebrews uses the word hospitality to address this, while Jesus uses the word invite: invite the lowest, the humble, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to your party. What image comes to mind when you hear the word hospitality? For some of us the image might need a little adjusting. What first comes to my mind is the parlor at the church where I grew up: wall-to-wall carpet, plush chairs and sofas, a pinkish tinge on the walls, and adults holding coffee cups on saucers talking about nothing in particular. Fortunately for me, that image fades quickly as I sit and listen to my heart. I think that’s true for most of us. When we sit with the word hospitality a little longer, it evokes deep yearnings in us. For some, it may be the yearning to belong, to be home, or to be loved as we are. For others it may be a yearning to be allowed into some place from which they have been locked out; or to be allowed some freedom where they have only known restrictions; or to be acknowledged as a human being when they have been treated as less. So we yearn for hospitality. But as people of faith we are called to show hospitality, because others live with those yearnings as well.
Sometimes people of faith get mixed up between hospitality and morality. We view the "other" as morally deficient, and that is the reason we can't be hospitable. We do this to entire groups, like Muslims, gays, blacks, and so on. We also do it to people we love. At the wedding reception I attended in Cuernavaca last Saturday, I sat with a couple that I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. They are evangelical Christians facing a dilemma that their evangelical faith has created. Their daughter has been in a relationship with a man for 10 years, and my friends want them to get married, but the man doesn’t have any faith. That creates a crisis for them, because they believe their daughter should marry a Christian. I asked them if they wanted to have a relationship with their daughter and son-in-law in the future. Their answer was, “of course.” I also asked them if they thought God would be sad if their daughter married a non-Christian. They weren’t sure. I shared my belief that the church has often mixed up grace and morality. We believe we need to protect moral values even when it forces us to be inhospitable: Jewish parents treat their son as dead because he starts dating a Christian woman; Christian parents kick their gay child out of the house for being gay. Those parents believe they’re pleasing God by sacrificing their love for their children for morality. I believe God weeps over such a deep misunderstanding of love and hospitality. My friends would be hospitable to their son-in-law who doesn’t share their faith by opening up to receive and learn from him, and then share their values with him in conversation. Radical hospitality requires deep humility.
Hospitality becomes a powerful and personally relevant word when we realize how central being wel-comed is to our well-being, and that at some level we are all at risk of losing it. When we experience rejection and conditionality in our lives, we long for a place that is truly welcoming. Hospitality becomes radical when we tap into the connections that exist between us underneath the surface. The letter to the Hebrews gives further power to the word when it invites us to consider that the stranger whom we either treat kindly or turn away might turn out to be an angel, and to “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” I wonder how that would change the debate about water-boarding.
These two invitations from the writer to the Hebrews respond directly to the two primary reasons most of us fail to show hospitality: we are afraid of strangers and apathetic toward those outside our normal circles. We don’t often think about people in prison because we don’t see them. Hebrews calls us to re-member them –to literally make them members of us again, to act as if we were in prison with them. Likewise, we often don’t entertain strangers because we fear what they might do to us; we tend to assume the worst. What if instead we treated strangers as if they might be angels in disguise? I know that many of you, like I, have stories you could tell of precisely that happening.
Things get even more intense when we turn to the Gospel. Jesus turns our fears about hospitality on their head by offering a whole new set of values – Kingdom values. In God’s world it’s not worth much to show hospitality to those you know because they might pay you back, and that would make your hospitality a zero sum game. If you invite a stranger, especially the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, they can’t pay you back, and then the favor will be returned at the resurrection of God’s people.” That kind of hospitality goes way beyond the parlor at Westwood Methodist Church! Jesus is inviting his followers to practice hospitality as if they were already living in the Reign of God. Immediately before this passage, Jesus spoke of people coming from east and west, from north and south, to eat in the reign of God. That means that the table set for us this morning, and the tables we set in our homes, churches and communities, are foretastes of the banquet of God’s Reign. In other words, practicing hospitality today is a rehearsal for an eternity spent in the reign of God.
This Wednesday St. Athanasius will open a Cooling Center for our neighbors without shelter. Just as it is a horrible thing to have to sleep outside when it’s below 40 degrees or raining, so it is to be outside when it’s over 90. Our church is air conditioned 24/7 because of the organ. Some of us decided that since it’s cool anyway, we might as well invite some of those living in the heat to get some relief. It’s our small attempt to live into today’s Gospel. Nobody is going to pay us to do this. We might not even get a thank you from the guests. But we are practicing hospitality as if we were already living in the Reign of God. And in Jesus’ view, that’s worth a lot.