Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Sunday Sermon: Entertaining Angels Unawares

How appropriate that, on the day when our secular culture celebrates fatherhood, we read in Genesis of God's promise to Abraham that he would be the father of nations. This is the story that puts the twinkle in his eye that ultimately becomes the whole chosen people of God.

Three strangers come to Abraham's desert camp, out walking in the midday sun when any sensible person is, like Abraham, taking a nap in the shade. Who are they? The narrator tells us it is the Lord who appears, but what Abraham sees is three men, and no further clues are offered. On this first Sunday after Trinity, we are immediately reminded of God in three persons. And the promise they bring is clearly from God, a followup to the promise Abraham received in the previous chapter.

Father Abraham demonstrates impeccable middle-eastern hospitality, setting a high bar, by the way, for fathers to come. Water for dusty feet, a seat in the shade, a special feast to welcome the visitors. Imagine for a moment this 99-year old man tottering back and forth in the sun, to invite the strangers in, to bring water, to tell Sarah to get cooking, to pick out a calf for butchering, to serve the feast. And he stands by to wait on them while they eat. This is a lot of work for random strangers, and it carries an important subtext: the stranger who comes to your door is sacrosanct, because, as the letter to the Hebrews will put it centuries later, some who have welcomed strangers have entertained angels unawares.

The conversation is surprising. Where is your wife, Sarah? Evidently Abraham and Sarah are known to the travelers. And then the prophecy, and Sarah's snort of laughter.

Laughter is not common in Scripture. We have nothing in the Gospels about Jesus laughing, and almost all Biblical references to laughter are about someone sneering or mocking. But not here. Overhearing the strangers' prophecy from her spot behind the tent, Sarah can't help but laugh aloud, in disbelief, in awakened hope, in embarrassment, in sheer astonishment. Her laughter says, "Are you kidding? Me, a dried up old stick, have a baby? And look at him - he's an old man."

But, as we learn again and again in Scripture, nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. And later, after the child is indeed born, she names him Isaac, which means laughter, and she laughs again, in joy and triumph, singing, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

After the mysterious strangers leave Abraham's camp, the next stop on their journey is Sodom, where they are to carry out God's punishment on the city for unspecified sins. Abraham's nephew, Lot, has learned from his uncle and, like Abraham, he goes over the top with hospitality. But the citizens of Sodom demonstrate their sinfulness by violating that sacred law. Contrary to popular belief, their sin is that they do not honor the stranger, and for this sin the city is destroyed. It is made really clear that abuse of hospitality is a cardinal sin in our story of salvation. And the thread continues in the ministry of Jesus.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus addresses hospitality from the other side, focusing more on the guest than the host. He sends out the disciples, two by two, to test the hospitality of the people they meet. He tries to prepare them for anything, but anyone who has ever answered the call to discipleship knows that we will encounter situations we could never have anticipated. (When I answered the call to come to St Paul's I didn't imagine that I would be using a bullhorn to bless marchers in Balboa Park and hosting press conferences.) The disciples are to go out among the people, taking no baggage and depending on those they meet for hospitality. Those who respond generously to the needs of the disciples will receive the peace of Christ. Communities that don't offer hospitality to the stranger - well, they will suffer the fate of Sodom. Only those who open their hearts to hear the good news of the Gospel from the stranger will know God's peace.

Today we are sending out disciples from St Paul's, as Matt and Katie McGinness leave San Diego for a new life in Hawai'i. We will offer them a special blessing at the end of the service. Terri Mathes just read a lesson in our pulpit for the last time this morning, before she and Jim depart for Virginia in just a couple of weeks; we will offer them our blessing on July 1. I sincerely hope that neither the McGinnesses nor the Mathes's will ever be dragged before governors and kings! In this city church we are constantly welcoming new members and saying goodbye to people we have come to love. We can think of all those who leave us as missionaries, to be sent with our blessing, carrying the peace of God with them to their new communities. And conversely, we can think of our many visitors and newcomers as holy strangers, messengers of the Gospel, sent to test our hospitality and to share good news if we are willing to hear it.

This week St Paul's was given an unusual opportunity to share the good news through the press conference we hosted, in which we were able to say to a wide audience that we are Christians who welcome everyone and rejoice in diversity, in contrast to those who call themselves Christians but who judge, condemn, and abuse those whose sexuality places them in a minority.

Each of us individually is a missionary, as we go about our daily lives in the office, in school, or in the community. We may feel rather ill-equipped to share the good news: Episcopalians generally don't get much training in sharing our faith stories.

But fear not: the cathedral staff is working on the introduction of small group ministry, which I hope will become the basic structure of all that we do here at St Paul's; and this ministry, this way of being, is intimately connected to the practice of holy hospitality.

Do you remember who welcomed you when you first came to St Paul's? For a lot of people, it was Deedra Hardman. Her mantle has passed to Pat Kreder and to our greeters' corps who watch for visitors and guide them to worship. I am struck by the number of people who, years or even decades later, remember who it was who ministered to them when they entered the cathedral for the first time. Hospitality matters, and it makes a deep impression. Wouldn't you like to be remembered in the same way? I invite you to think about how you show hospitality to our visitors here each week, and to do what you can to ensure that they will have warm memories of you in the years to come.

It's time for us to take hospitality to the next level, to what we might call radical hospitality. This means embracing those who come into our midst and taking the risk of giving them leadership roles, taking seriously their diverse gifts, and, crucially, being willing to change who we are for the sake of enriching our community. This is challenging, because it means giving up control, stretching our comfort zone, allowing transformation to take place. A lot of congregations and clergy never get there. I feel some resistance to radical hospitality myself. But the ability to stretch is actually in our Anglican DNA, thanks to the first Queen Elizabeth; and when we dare to be stretched, we will experience a holy transformation.

One way to practice this diversity in community is to form intentional small groups that pray, study, and share together, accepting that not every member will like every other member, that all of us will sometimes feel uncomfortable, but committed to giving every person a voice and vote, sacrificing our own comfort to make room for the other in our midst. Church isn't all about making friends, although that can be a wonderful side benefit. It's about being the body of Christ, about rubbing shoulders and sharing the table with people we don't understand and don't get along with. It's not like inviting friends to a dinner party in your home, because this isn't our house, this is God's house, and we are all equally guests and residents.

Everything we say about hospitality and the church also applies to our civic communities: cities, states, and nation. We are called to welcome the stranger and to open our hearts to the possibility - even the likelihood - that our community will be changed. This is a good thing: communities benefit from a diversity of leadership, from the combined creative power of multiple cultures and perspectives. We are made stronger by our diversity. In this week's dreadful fire in a 24-story apartment building in London, dozens of people perished. Fire alarms and sprinkler systems didn't work. The death toll would have been even higher if some of the residents, Muslims observing Ramadan, hadn't been up extra early to eat something before sunrise, which meant they discovered the fire and knocked on their neighbors' doors to wake them up. The beautiful diversity of that community saved lives on Tuesday night.

Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation in the Episcopal Church, offers us this prayer*:
"May our hearts open to the spirit of God.
May we move beyond our fears, reaching out in trust, openness and welcome.
May our yearning for transformation create a space where God can pour more love, more trust, more compassion into us.
And may we extend the same compassion and radical welcome into the world, all for the sake of Christ."


 Year C Proper 6 June 18 2017 
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges

*Stephanie Spellers, "Radical Welcome", p. 158, Church Publishing, 2006

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