Entertain Angels

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Many years ago I was serving as a mentor to a group of seminarians at Sewanee seminary as they were going through their parish internships, their field education assignments. One day we were talking about ministry experiences they had had outside the usual parish context. And one of the seminarians told a story about volunteering in a homeless shelter, and how one night he spent almost the entire night talking with one man who just came in off the street.

They talked about all kinds of things. They talked about how hard it is to make a life on the streets, and how it only takes one or two bad financial turns to get you to a place where you can’t pay your mortgage and you lose your home. They talked about struggling to keep your hopes up when everything seems hopeless. They talked about finding gifts of God in the simplest little things that keep you going from day to day.

And the seminarian told us it was in that conversation that he first began to really understand that the poor and the homeless were people, with names and stories and identities, not just statistics and issues and stereotypes. He said it was in that conversation that he began to understand that social ministry wasn’t something to do for the poor, but something to do with the poor. It meant being in relationship across economic and social boundaries that usually keep us apart, in order to build better mutual well-being.

It was in that encounter with a homeless stranger that this seminarian felt a call to do socially conscious ministry, to do the work of Jesus in a way that would bring the gospel out of the church and into the streets. That stranger in the shelter was a kind of angel for him, a messenger of God calling him to mission. That moment of hospitality changed his life.

The Letter to the Hebrews today says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Hospitality is a real keyword in the Christian vocabulary. Jesus spoke about it with his disciples. The letters and epistles that were circulated among the early churches wrote about it. Early Christians practiced it in a way their pagan neighbors took special note of. In the ancient world, Christian hospitality was a virtue that stood out from the ordinary in a noticeable way.

You can see that in the connection between the very words hospitality and hospital: In the ancient world, if you were sick, you tried to get a family member to take you in and care for you; or, if you were wealthy enough, you could travel to a shrine of the healing god Aesculapius, where you would receive food and shelter and treatment and prayer as long as you could pay for the required sacrifices. But the idea of opening up a house of healing where anyone could come, where you didn’t have to belong to the family and you didn’t have to pay for sacrifices for the priests – that was unheard of in the ancient world. That was something that Christians started to do as a practical way of living out their call to heal the sick and to extend hospitality to strangers on a social level – and gradually hospitals and health care became something woven into the very fabric of Christian society. Hospitals became places to welcome messages of God’s grace, to entertain angels of healing prayer, in the social practice of hospitality.

And I think we Christians are still called to that social practice of hospitality today. Oh, we don’t need to invent hospitals anymore; they’re all over the place now. But there are still ways in which our kind of hospitality is needed in the world. There are ways in which we can go out into our community, out into our neighborhood, and help create open spaces, accepting spaces, spaces where people can come together and form community, where they can be welcomed and they can welcome as equal partners in building relationships. I think the proper practice of hospitality requires both those things: both to be welcomed and to welcome, both to offer what you have to those who need and to receive what you need from those who have. That’s what Jesus is talking about in the gospel today: not just giving to those who can repay you in kind, but sharing with those who have different things, different experiences, different challenges, different blessings, different kinds of wealth, to share back with you. Giving and receiving like that are both parts of genuine Christian love, and genuine Christian love is the substance of which hospitality is the medium.

A couple of years ago I read about a church in a city that began a community garden. This parish had actually paved over most of its churchyard at one time in its past; but now they wanted to bring some green back into their urban neighborhood. So they built a bunch of raised beds – garden boxes, essentially – in the churchyard, and planted a variety of vegetables. They used the produce to help supply their soup kitchen where they served meals once a week. And they noticed over time that their neighbors – some of the same people who came to the soup kitchen – were not only interested in eating the food: they were also interested in the way the food was being grown. Some of these people enjoyed gardening, too, and they had no green space in their homes; so they wanted to volunteer to help in the church garden. The next year they didn’t just volunteer: they helped plan it, they helped choose the crops, they helped lay out the beds, they brought new ideas the churchfolk hadn’t thought of, they expanded the entire project. And pretty soon it wasn’t just the church doing for the neighborhood, but the neighborhood and the church being neighbors. The urban garden was an open space where the practice of hospitality led to right-relationships active for mutual well-being – led to communion in Christ, just as Jesus describes in the gospel – with a whole bunch of people who probably never would have considered coming into the church building itself to worship. In their hospitality they welcomed the message of God – they entertained angels.

What angels have you seen lately? When has the practice of hospitality opened you up to open the space for someone to reveal God’s message of love for you?

Just about a year ago I was having a very bad day: I felt rushed, I felt overworked, I had seventeen appointments (okay, well, maybe not actually seventeen) and they all were complicated, and I was rushing off to be somewhere else where I was already late to be, and as I came out of my office, there was a woman coming toward me out of Noon Lunch, and she said “Are you the pastor?”

And my first thought – God forgive me, my first thought – was, “Oh no. What is this going to be? What long, involved story is she going to spin that will end up with her asking me for money that I’m going to have to deny because it’s not covered by the Discretionary Fund? Oh no.” Honestly, that was my first thought. But my first words were “Yes, I’m the pastor.”

And then she handed me a $10 bill and a note that said “I would like to say thank you for the great food and the love of Jesus within this church. Everyone is so generous and caring for the community and people. And I want you to use this to help other people too.” And I read her note, and I looked up at her, and I saw an angel. And maybe, maybe, in spite of myself, she for a moment saw an angel too.

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

What angels will you see today? And how will you open your heart, and practice your hospitality, to entertain those angels all around?