(Jeremiah 2:4-13; Ps.81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14)
I belong to a book group, which meets every couple of months, whose stated purpose is to read “the classics”. That word means different things to different people, so we’ve read all kinds of books – everybody gets a chance to pick – and sometimes the book seems like a complete dud. But usually you see why it’s a “classic”; because even though it may have been written out of a world that on the surface is very different from yours, it speaks to you. I had that experience a while back when we read the novel A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster. It was written about a hundred years ago, and takes place in British colonial India.
The strongest impression the book made on me was how it brought to life the interface between the culture and psychology of the English, on the one hand, and the Indians (both Hindu and Muslim) on the other: how utterly different they were, and therefore how difficult it was for them to live together, and to get along, which they had no choice but to try to do. To oversimplify outrageously, as described in the novel, the British instinct was to value efficiency; identifying a desired result, figuring out the best way to get it, and then making it happen; keeping to schedules; certain that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.
Forced to coexist with that, in Forster’s novel as in history, was the view of the much older Indian culture that all of that stuff is relatively unimportant: that our day-to-day lives reverberate with much larger forces at work in nature, and in the universe; that there is divine music being played all the time in our lives, between you and me right here now; and that’s what we need to pay attention to, that’s the purpose of human life.
Of course most of the time these two points of view talked right past each other, and we know how that played out in history: sometimes the consequences of that utter lack of understanding were lethal (usually for the Indians.) But there were times in the book (as I’m sure there were in real life) when someone from one side stepped back from insistence on his or her particular way of life, and made the effort to understand, and appreciate, the other, to allow it to be fully itself, and live; and when that happened, new life, larger life, was created, and there was growth, for everybody involved, on both sides.
That’s a kind of experience that the Christian life invites us to; and there’s a verse that we just heard in the letter to the Hebrews that guides us in that direction.
We’ve been hearing from this letter for a month now. The letter to the Hebrews is mostly an exposition about Jesus Christ, who he was, and is; and, because of who he is, why following Christ is the way successfully to bushwhack our way through life, through all the wrong turns and pitfalls that come our way, past all that to the joy and the fulfillment that God constantly offers us in creation. Hebrews is a highly condensed letter, with a lot of intricate reasoning, and most of it needs a certain amount of unpacking. But the last chapter, from which we heard today, is different: it turns from abstract theologizing to practical advice: good life-lessons of a kind we find in many of the New Testament letters, and lessons that we need to hear regularly.
In today’s reading the author of Hebrews uses a particular figure of speech that reminds us of this. Twice today we heard the admonition, “Do not neglect…” “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have….” In other words, this is something that we already know to do, but as people of faith we know we need to remind ourselves: we need to be proactive about keeping such things foremost in our minds, and not be asleep at the wheel. This is one of the reasons we come to church. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” It’s important to understand that this is not about somehow getting on God’s good side. Rather, when we take a hand in the increase of God’s joy, in the mystery of creation we make it possible for the Holy Spirit to enter more fully into this world, and do God’s work of healing and reconciliation, in ways we can’t foresee.
The other use of this phrase – “do not neglect…” – in today’s passage occurs near the beginning, in a well-known verse: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” This verse is appealing in a number of ways, not least for the hint of adventure that’s involved: we all love a mystery guest. But what’s going on here? Why should we not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, and what does entertaining angels have to do with anything?
We have to be a little careful here. The verse doesn’t mean that we should be nice to strangers because they might suddenly reveal themselves as magical beings hovering three feet off the ground, who’ll grant us three wishes.
Let’s remember the biblical understanding of angels. There are plenty of stories about angels, and references to angels, in both Old and New Testaments. What makes an angel an angel? We get our English word “angel” from the Greek angelos, which means “messenger” (and the Hebrew word for “angel” in the Old Testament has essentially the same meaning.)
Of course the different angels in the Bible carry different messages, because they address different situations. But whatever the specifics of the message might be, God’s purpose, through the angel – through the message - is to bring to the person the angel visits a greater awareness of the kingdom of God - God’s nature, God’s love, God’s power – in the specific circumstances of that person’s life. For example, when the angel comes to Mary, at the Annunciation, he tells her that she’s going to have a son: that’s the kernel of information. But of course that’s not the whole story, by a long shot. This son of hers is going to be the living, physical presence of God on earth, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity. So there’s literally a world of meaning, about who God is, in the angel’s message. And Mary receives that message just the right way: like a seed: it grows in her, and opens her to a world that neither she, or anybody else, had ever conceived of before; and it starts her on a new, utterly different direction in her life; which we see in the unique faithfulness she shows, demonstrated throughout her story in the gospels. This is the kind of life-changing message that angels bring: this is what makes an angel an angel.
The specific instruction to us in the verse is, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers….” To “show hospitality” to people means more than simply to give them food and drink and a roof over their heads. It means opening not only your home, but also your heart, to them. It means to live out, in however small a way, the knowledge that humanity is one family. So hospitality in its essence doesn’t necessarily have anything at all to do with food or drink or shelter; but rather in offering ourselves – who we are, as much as what we have – in honoring who the stranger is, embracing the common humanity we share. It’s an expression of trust, which is freely given; which ultimately is trust in God.
InA Passage to India, on those rare occasions when someone puts aside his or her insistence on their own way of seeing the world, and welcomes in the other’s – when they show hospitality to strangers – that’s a sacrifice that’s pleasing to God. And we know that because of the new, larger, richer life that’s created, for everyone involved.
There are many ways someone to appear to us a stranger, and many ways for for someone to be our guest. Whenever we find ourselves in such situations, if we show hospitality, I think the chances are pretty good that the stranger will actually turn out to be an angel, whether he or she knows it or not. Because that stranger will bear a message from God: that through our self-offering, our eyes will be opened to a part of the kingdom of God that we hadn’t seen before. So let us not neglect to show hospitality to the strangers who show up in our lives. We’ll start to find angels popping up all around us. Thanks be to God.