Unknowingly entertaining angels.
When I was a baby Jesuit I went on a 200 mile pilgrimage in upstate New York, where I had to beg for food and shelter, relying on the Lord working through strangers I met. The rule of the pilgrimage required that I did not tell anyone I was a Jesuit. One night I approached a house, knocked on the door, and a few seconds later a young man came to the door. He looked like he was about 17 or 18, a big kind of a guy, looked like he worked out or something. When I asked him if I might have something to eat or drink, he said no, and left me standing at the screen of the door. A few seconds later, I heard him protesting inside to someone: “We don’t know who he is,” and then another, older voice responding, “No, we don’t.” And then suddenly the boy’s father was opening the door for me, and welcoming me into the house, and to the table where the family was gathered for dinner. We all stood to say grace, and then sat down to eat. They asked me some questions, but not too many, and told me a lot about themselves. It was one of the best meals I have ever been invited to share with anyone.
On July 4th I was wandering near the World Trade Center, and I stopped in front of a new building going up on Park Place. It was a controversial site a few years ago, when developers announced plans to build an Islamic Center there with the hope it would promote an interfaith dialogue. Opponents called it the Ground Zero Mosque and an insult to the victims of 9/11. That plan was eventually scrapped, and a luxury condominium is now rising on the site. It was a very different story than the one I was told by a pastor of an evangelical Christian church in Tennessee.
He had heard that a group of Muslims had bought 30 acres of empty land right across the street from his church and were planning to build a complex there. This was the Bible Belt, and he admitted that he was upset and fearful of his potential new neighbors. So he prayed about it a great deal, and asked his leadership team to do the same. The Muslims wanted to have a place for their families to pray and play, but they knew that they would probably not be welcomed in the neighborhood, and they were fearful of what might happen to them.
That’s when the pastor and his team understood that they were being led to find a way to love these people. So they created a huge banner and hung it up on their property facing the land across the street. It read “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to our neighborhood.”
Not all the members of the church were happy about it, and a bunch were outraged and considered leaving to find another church in which to worship. The pastor suggested to the leader of the disgruntled group that he read the Gospel we heard today, the one about Martha and Mary, which is all about hospitality, about welcoming the Lord into their midst. After praying over it, he realized that there was a sickness in him, and that he was the problem in what was going on with the world today.
The Islamic center began to go up, and just when it was almost finished, it looked like the builders might miss their target completion date, so they asked the pastor if they could use the Heartsong Church for the first few days of Ramadan prayer. The pastor prayed that they would have to use the church, because he thought it would be great for both congregations. And so they did. And they stayed for the entire month of Ramadan.
And it was awesome. The Muslims and the Christians got to know one another personally, and soon they were giving blood together, they co-sponsored coat drives and blood drives, they created a joint Thanksgiving dinner together, and every spring they got together for a big picnic for families of both places. It became an amazing friendship that no one ever imagined could have happened in the Bible belt. The church member who was originally the loudest opponent of the Islamic Center became its biggest supporter.
The readings today are about hospitality. There is a line that I love in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” And that’s the point of the first reading, the wonderful story of Abraham entertaining three strangers, one of whom was the Lord himself in disguise. That stranger, upon his departure, promised that Abraham’s elderly wife Sarah would become pregnant, and absurd as that sounded, Abraham understood who it really was that he had entertained in his house that night when his wife miraculously did give birth months later. Which is also the focus of the Gospel, the story of Jesus coming to visit Martha and Mary. It was kind of scandalous at the time, though typical for Jesus---a man coming to be a guest in an unmarried woman’s household, Jesus teaching a woman as he would a disciple, violating Jewish laws. It’s about hospitality, “for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels,” and somehow Mary especially understood who this was in their midst. She sat at his feet to listen to his every word. It’s about hospitality, about opening our doors and our hearts to the Lord, who comes to us often as a stranger, and when we least expect it. “We don’t know who he is,” say all of us, everyday in our suspicious New York caution. “”No we don’t,” and that is precisely the point: He could be knocking on our door especially when we’re most cautious and protective of our little world. That applies to those knocking at our borders, and Jesus never utters the words, “Send them back”.
It’s about a kind of radical hospitality, which requires that we let go of a need to shape other people into our own image. We extend hospitality when we include people within our community without an expectation that they will fully conform to it, and even when they disagree with us. We may even concede some of our community identity in order to be more hospitable to those whom we welcome. The message of radical hospitality is more than, “you are welcome to join us.” It says, “We see you and want to join you, wherever you are.” In short, Christian hospitality doesn’t just ask “do you want to be with us?” It says “how can we be with you?”. We Christians say “I want to become a part of your story more than I hope you will become a part of mine.” It’s about Jesus visiting us in our homes, in our hearts, it’s about us being like Mary, and not so much like Martha.
It’s about this home, too, where we sit today, and the neighborhood that surrounds us. Think about it—who is wondering around our neighborhood and homes, lost in sadness, overwhelmed with a sense of loss? Have we neglected hospitality, through which some have unknowingly entertained angels? Have we ever gone out of our way here at Epiphany to be a place of great hospitality, great welcome, good food and eats, a place to find rest for weary hearts and bodies? Who knows about this family in the neighborhood? Have you ever said to someone who lives near you—hey, come on down to our church, it’s a great place, be with us to sing, celebrate and eat a great meal. I think it’s something for each of us to think about, and something for each of us to do something about. This is a wonderful place, it’s a great family, and we have a lot to share with people in the streets all around us. And we can’t just wait for them to show up on our doorstep—we need to go out there and bring them in. We don’t know who they are, no we don’t: precisely! And the Lord is waiting out there for us to meet him in them , and the Lord is waiting in here for them to meet him in us.
It’s about hospitality, about unknowingly and knowingly entertaining angels, opening up our rooms and our cupboards and our hearts. It’s about inviting them in, not sending them back, never ever.