September 1 2019
Readings Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 & Luke 14:1, 7-14
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The question for today is this: How should we, as a Christian community, interact with one another and those around us?
The answer, given to us this morning both by Jesus in the gospel of Luke and by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, seems at first glance easy and obvious: Hospitality. However, that hospitality comes with a twist and I am going to suggest that our culture makes the demands of that hospitality much greater than we realise which may means that the rewards for doing so, in terms of making an impact in our society, may also be much greater.
When you delve into it, Hospitality is a fascinating word. It comes from the Latin hospes, meaning “host”, “guest”, or “stranger” and is the root not only for hospitality, but also for hospital, hospice, hostel, hostelry and hotel. These are all places where there is an exchange of care between a host and a guest or a stranger in one form or another.
On Wednesday of last week we celebrated the feast of St Augustine and there is a quote attributed to him which brings two of those words together:
“The church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.”
Although both hotels and hospitals are places of hospitality they have quite different purposes and clientele. Hotels are where the comfortably off go to be made more comfortable whereas hospitals are where the broken go to be made whole. Last week Archdeacon Julie posed us the challenge of who do we exclude from this church, from our hospitality if you will, but perhaps there is a follow-up challenge – is the hospitality we offer that of a hotel or a hospital? Are we plumping up the pillows or are we saving lives?
In the Letter to the Hebrews we are looking at Chapter 13, which is labelled as the author’s ‘concluding exhortations’ to his readers – i.e. this is his sign off, but there is no mere ‘yours sincerely’ rather it is a wonderful summary of his thinking and message.
In verse 1 it starts: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.”
We know that Jesus said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
So the church should be a community of love and that is not only because it is good to love one another in a very generalised sense, but because being such a community is a powerful witness to the world: In a world in which love is either non-existent or reduced to a sexual exchange then the very existence of a community who demonstrates brotherly and sisterly love for one another is both a counter-cultural challenge and should be a beacon of hope to the world.
But such love is not simply a warm fuzzy feeling towards those we like and get on with. Being a community of love, a hospitable community, is not demonstrated in simply chatting to our friends at the peace or in sharing coffee with them after the service. It is much more than that, and more costly than that.
The type of love that Jesus was talking about was so great that it would include the laying down of his life for those who were loved. We may be able to imagine laying down our lives for our partner, for a sibling or our children. But how about laying down our lives for a friend, how about for an acquaintance, how about for a stranger, how about for someone we can’t stand? That is the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated to the world and, ultimately, that is the kind of love to which we are called.
You may not yet feel in a place where you could lay down your life for a stranger, but how about something a little less radical. How about offering hospitality?
In verse 2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
The ‘do not forget’ suggests that this is not a new and radical thing being demanded of the readers, rather it is a reminder to keep doing what they have been doing. This community of love is being reminded not merely to keep loving one another but to expand their circle of love to include hospitality to strangers. The church community is not intended to be an inward facing huddle, but an outward facing invitation: come into this place of love and care.
How do we offer hospitality to strangers as a church? Yes, by building the sort of inclusive church community that Julie referred to and doing all we can to ensure that none feel excluded from this place on a Sunday morning but, I would suggest, we need to go even further and seek to be hospitable to the whole community, without hope of reward or thanks or conversion or joining with us, but simply because we are called to be hospitable. We have made starts in that direction: Coffee Pots and Tiny Tots, Who Let the Dads out?, Café Plus, the links with the foodbank all have hospitality and love at their hearts.
But what about us as individual Christians in the world? How good are we at offering hospitality?
This, I would suggest, is where the cultural challenge to us really comes into focus. The middle-East both at the time of Jesus and, I understand, now, has a culture focused on hospitality. You may have noticed at the start of our gospel reading that Jesus went to eat at the house of a prominent Pharisee and so many stories concerning Jesus start with him visitng people and eating with them – only a few weeks ago he was at the house of Mary and Martha.
How does that compare with 21st century English, Kentish, culture?
Lunch dates and dinner dates tend to be arranged in advance and, generally, only with those we really want to eat with.
How would you feel if a friend or relative turned up unannounced at 9.00 pm expecting to be fed? What about if it was that person to whom you said “we must do dinner some time’? and they took you at your word? What about if you had never met the person before? We are quickly moving along the scale from indignation to calling the police.
Most English people guard their castles jealously and keep their circle of hospitality quite small.
But Hebrews urges the followers of Jesus to keep offering hospitality to strangers – because by doing so we may entertain Angels unawares. This is one of those sayings which has sort of entered into popular culture but any guesses what biblical reference the writer may be making?
In Genesis 18 Abraham met with three strangers and his instant reaction was to rush to offer them refreshment and to wash their feet. These strangers turned out not only to be Angels but has also been interpreted as a visitation of the Trinity. So Abraham inadvertently gave hospitality to the messengers of God, or to God himself and this in turn reminds me of Jesus saying that when we feed the hungry and cloth the naked it is him we feed and clothe.
When we give hospitality to the stranger it should be without hope of reward but it may also be in the expectation that in doing so we are coming face to face with God himself.
This exhortation to hospitality for the stranger is not confined to Hebrews. In our gospel reading Jesus is eating at the Pharisee’s house and the story he tells starts with a parable about not exalting ourselves because that is likely to lead to us being humbled. But it continues with the theme which is likely to have the English quivering with social unease:
“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives or your rich neighbours. If you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, which I have already referred to, Jesus made it clear that the way we treat the less fortunate in the world is not an optional extra to our faith, but is a matter of judgment. And here, once again, Jesus is saying that our hospitality towards the stranger and the outcast is a judgment issue.
How many times do we see Christians define themselves by who they exclude? People who believe differently from them, those from different backgrounds, those who don’t or can’t express their faith or lack of faith using the right vocabulary, those who may have a different sexuality or be intellectually challenged or challenging in some way. So many act as though Christian purity is defined or created by shunning those who are different from us in any way.
However is that what we really see and hear in Jesus? The message I see today, and so often, is that Jesus sees our purity not in those we exclude but in those we include, in the hospitality and love we offer to strangers to those who are most unlike us. This is not an optional issue and it is not only a church issue. It is an us issue, it is a you issue, it is a me issue.
Throw a banquet, feed the stranger, entertain the angels.
If you remember nothing else from today remember this:
Hospitality, hospitality, hospitality.