‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’ (Ordinary Sunday 22C, 1 Sept. ’13)

Readings
Hebrews 13.1–8, 15–16
Luke 14.1, 7–14

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke quite personally about my journey as a person of faith, from my early life as a fundamentalist Christian to the current day. I don’t often speak so personally, so it’s quite unusual for me to begin today in a personal vein as well.

The Book of Hebrews says:

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

I want to speak about hospitality today. I want to begin by reminding you of the hospitality you, the members of this congregation, showed Karen and me when we first came here. And those of you who weren’t here then, you can hear the story for the first time.

Short version:

Karen and I came here in a pretty bruised state. All of us can go through difficult times in our work, and that’s true even when you work in the church. It was true of me thirteen years ago.

I wasn’t the minister of this congregation when we first came; I had only recently commenced what became a happy placement as a chaplain at The Wesley Hospital. We’d moved into the area, so we ended up attending here.

The kids were younger, so we’d often come in late. It wasn’t the easiest thing to get four kids ready for church by 8.30am. We’d arrive, get into a back seat, and I’d play at being incognito. When the service was over, we’d go pretty well straight home.

I had this idea that hardly anyone knew me, and that very few would know that I’m an ordained minister of the Uniting Church. How wrong could I be?

But you let us be. You let us come late and leave soon and not talk to many people. You gave us shelter, hospitality, a place to be. You gave us asylum. We were ‘asylum seekers’.

My predecessor was good to Karen and me, and listened to our story. He invited me to preach sometimes but I wasn’t keen. But slowly, bit by little bit, the urge to get more involved grew in me and I started to take the odd service.

My predecessor moved on, and you began the process of finding a new minister. Then the day came when I could hear the Spirit saying that I should put my hand up to be the minister here. And—to my great surprise!—you agreed.

It all began with the hospitality that is a hallmark of this congregation.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…

Some of us—most of us?—know what’s like to be a stranger. Some of us have come from other lands, from Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. All of us who migrated here were strangers here when we first arrived. (Don’t worry about me, I’m ok—I’ve been here for 48 years. I’m starting to get used to Australia now.)

But you know, we can be a stranger anywhere. We feel like a stranger in a new job or a new school. Or we may be the only divorcee in a group of happily-married folk, or we may be bereaved and no one will talk to us about how we are. We can become the stranger in any situation, and I daresay we have indeed all been strangers at one time or another.

Coming to a new church is another ‘stranger’ experience. You walk through the door, and you wonder what will happen. Will you find at least one friendly person? It takes a certain level of courage to try out a new church community. When it ends badly, the story is usually not about how terrible the sermon was or that you didn’t know the songs or that the seats weren’t comfy. More often than not, it’s a story of being ignored, that no one spoke to you. It’s usually a story of inhospitality.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…

The bible is full of instructions about offering hospitality. Take Leviticus 19.33–34 (reading “alien” as “foreigner” in the NRSV):

When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Of course, it’s also there in our passage from Hebrews, but it’s not just there. Look at Romans 12 (verse 13, reading from verse 9):

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints…

Of course, this is Christian Living 101, it’s basic stuff! This ‘basic Christian living list’ concludes with these words:

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Extending hospitality to strangers is part of basic Christian living!

And it’s very much there in today’s Gospel:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

How may we be welcoming to strangers? Hospitality is a spiritual practice, which requires certain attitudes, like:

  • appreciating the differences in people;
  • trying to see things from their point of view;
  • respecting others and showing them kindness.

A stranger is someone with another set of experiences from ours, someone who can enrich our lives.

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

The Book of Hebrews takes it one step further. A stranger may be an angel—which is to say, a messenger of God. That’s what the word ‘angel’ literally means; an angel is a messenger.

Any stranger you give hospitality to may have a message from God to you. If you refuse hospitality, you may miss out on the message.

When the bible describes an angel visiting, what is it that the angel always says? That’s right, it’s “Do not be afraid.” It’s quite right for our children to learn ‘stranger danger’. It’s necessary for their safety. But it’s quite another for adults to harbour a blanket fear of strangers and foreigners, a global fear of the differences they represent. “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Do not be afraid.

When new people come to church and we offer hospitality, they may be angels, messengers of God. Do not be afraid. Newcomers may have a new word for us. We grow in grace as a community through welcoming newcomers.

So if you’ve only been here a short time, watch out! You may be an angel with a message for us.

And if you’ve been here since Noah was in short pants, remember: hospitality is a spiritual practice—

  • appreciate the different things new people bring;
  • see things from their point of view;
  • respect them and show them friendship.

Soon, we’ll be sharing in the Eucharistic meal, the meal of Thanksgiving. In this meal, we extend hospitality to all God’s people. Jesus Christ is the Host, and it is he who invites us, each one. In this meal, there are no strangers; Christ makes us his guests. Christ gives you and me places of honour. Whoever we are, wherever we’re from, whether we are married or divorced or young or old or anything else, however we’ll vote next Saturday, we are welcome.

Just as God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and therefore tells Israel to treat foreigners as citizens, so Christ who makes us his friends calls us to show friendship to the stranger in our midst.

This is Refugee and Migrant Sunday. And for me, and I suspect some others, there’s an elephant in the room. As a local church, we are called by God to show kindness to strangers, a welcome to newcomers. But right now, the major political parties seem to be hell-bent on making things as difficult as possible for some strangers. These are the ‘boat people’, who still make up a small percentage of the asylum seekers who come to Australia annually. The great majority of asylum seekers come by plane, unnoticed.

If our politicians’ policies fail to measure up to the bible’s words on giving hospitality, the churches should ask questions. And they are.

The desperate people who go out in those boats drown, and it surely can’t go on. Father Frank Brennan, a respected Jesuit priest and a lawyer, said this in a recent lecture:

The only way to stop the boats ethically is to negotiate a regional agreement with Indonesia and Malaysia…this would take a considerable period of time, a good cheque book, and a strong commitment to detailed backroom diplomatic work avoiding the megaphone diplomacy which has marked this issue of late.

But what can we do about this, if anything? As a welcoming church community, how do we relate to the wider picture? God said to Israel,

When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

What does God say to us, the people of the new covenant?

We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Our votes elect the members of the government, and they represent us. Whoever we put a ‘1’ next to in the election next Saturday, we will have to preference one of the major parties over the other. If neither of them have the right policy on boat people, is it a question of which is the lesser evil? Many people of faith feel there is a burden upon their shoulders as they consider their vote. We need to pray for the voters of this country, whoever they cast their vote for.

But we can make the decision here in this congregation. Here all are welcome, whoever they are. We can be a place that puts itself in the shoes of other people, who appreciate the differences between people, who listen to others with respect. We can welcome others, whoever they are, as part of the family of God. We can show hospitality to strangers, and maybe be met by angels. Yet—if we do it here, if this is part of basic Christian practice, then we need to pray that it will be part of our country’s policies too.

We can’t make that happen across our country, but we can say this: the democratic process does not stop at the election, and the remarkably unanimous voices of the Australian churches will continue to be raised in defence of the stranger in the future.

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

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