"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
One of my favorite movies is a classic Cary Grant film called The Bishop's Wife. The bishop, played by David Niven, and his wife, played by Loretta Young, have a stranger, played by Cary Grant, come into their lives. This stranger, Cary Grant's character, turns out to be an angel. The bishop's wife doesn't realize he is an angel; the bishop gets told, but can't quite believe it and is unable to tell anybody else, whenever he tries throughout the movie, his voice literally seizes up and is unable to speak, a bit like John the Baptist's dad, Zechariah, when the angel visits him. The angel, Cary Grant, comes to help answer one of the bishop's prayers, though not exactly in the way that the bishop expects. "I prayed for a Cathedral," the bishop shouts exacerbated! "No, you prayed for guidance," the angel replied. There is a bit a romance between the angel and the bishop's wife, and a bit of jealousy on the bishop's part, until he finally realizes what is actually important in life, and his life, and his ministry, get back on track.
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." We have been working our way through the Book of Hebrews this August, and one of the threads throughout the book has been angels. Not just in our readings, but in some of the bits the lectionary skipped over also, going back to the beginning of the first chapter, and then occasionally from time to time throughout the book, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly. One of those implicit times is one we heard early in August in a section about the meaning of faith: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." We were then given the example of Abraham and Sarah, and the act of faith they took, against logic, against reason, to follow God for a ridiculous promise that they would be the ancestors of nations. One of the ways that God announced the promise to them that they had no good reason to believe, to trust, was by some strangers who turned out to be angels. Do you remember that story? By the oaks of Mamre, in what is modern-day Hebron, Abraham was sitting by some trees, probably trying to stay cool from the oppressive sun.I never appreciated the value of a little shade from a tree until I spent July in the Holy Land. And three strangers appeared, and Abraham got water to wash their feet, and had a little feast prepared for them with bread, meat, and milk. As it turns out, they were angels, messengers of God, sent to deliver a message. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Abraham and Sarah had entertained angels without knowing it. By providing welcome and hospitality to the strangers, they had encountered the holy. And were blessed by presence of those strangers, of those angels in their midst.
Angels again appeared in our reading last week when we were given the image of the heavenly Jerusalem, not the literal Jerusalem that you can get to with a day of air travel and a little bus or taxi trip, but the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God that is our vision and hope, that city of God which is not fully realized now for us, but whose gates we seem to occasionally stumble upon as we get glimpses and tastes of it. In this heavenly city, we heard last week that there are innumerable angels in festal gathering. Angels there celebrating God. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." In showing hospitality and welcome to strangers, in the possibility of entertaining angels without knowing it, we get a glimpse of that heavenly city. The barrier between us and the divine, between our city and the city of God, is broken down. It becomes one of those so-called thin places where the distance between heaven and earth collapse. We normally think of thin places as physical spots you have to go to, the classic one being Iona in Scotland, where our youth pilgrims went this week. But, here we learn that a thin place does not need to necessarily just be a physical place, but in an act, an action, in the welcome of strangers, we have the possibility to find one. Not every time, but sometimes, without even knowing it, which is why it so critical to be constantly welcoming. Welcoming, welcoming, welcoming the stranger. To open more and more opportunities to entertain angels, to break down the barrier, and glimpse the holiness of the heavenly city.
In Jesus' teaching today that we heard in the Gospel, he implores us not to invite friends or family or neighbors to our feasts, but to invite the poor, the crippled, and the blind. Yes, these are people who do not get invited to enough banquets, the downtrodden of the world, but they are also strangers. Notice the contrast Jesus gives: the folks to invite are contrasted with the folks you already know. Invite the stranger, welcome the stranger, feed the stranger, entertain the stranger.
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." There are always a lot of opportunities to welcome the stranger and possibility entertain angels here at St. Mary's. There might be newcomers and visitors here today: strangers to welcome. Welcome them. There might be someone who has been coming here for fifty years, but they are a stranger to you: Welcome them. Who knows, you might just entertain an angel. We are gearing up next week to welcome a lot of strangers as we host the Family Night Shelter for two weeks. Lots of opportunities to provide great hospitality to these strangers. We try to offer our guests a warm welcome, great feasts, and to truly feel as much at home as possible while they are here. Who knows, we might just entertain some angels during this time. Next week, we are welcoming another possible family of angels as we welcome our first family of refugees through the new coalition we have been building in the community. We may welcome as many as thirty-five refugees this year, thirty-five strangers, thirty-five possible angels, helping them settle in and integrate into their new homes.
Now, I know it can be scary to welcome strangers, to greet the Other, let alone to truly offer hospitality to people you don't know. Remember, Hebrews doesn't say that every time you welcome a stranger, you will be entertaining angels, just that some have entertained angels by welcoming strangers. That stranger might be an angel. But sometimes, the stranger won't be. It might be a wonderful experience to offer that welcome, or it might turn out badly. It's scary. It's dangerous. It might not go well. Or maybe it goes so great and the stranger is an angel and it totally upends your life, which is also very scary! Much easier just to keep to ourselves, keep our heads down and keep walking. But we are missing out on so much when we do. Do you remember what Scripture often records the angels saying when they encounter a human? Be not afraid. Be not afraid. Welcome is not without risk, but the risk is worth it. Be not afraid. For when we do get to entertain an angel in the guise of a stranger, we are blessed by their presence, even if it doesn't necessarily feel like it at first! When we do get to entertain an angel in the guise of a stranger we can break down the barrier between humanity and divinity, collapse the space between earth and heaven, and peek in the gates and catch a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem. We have the chance to start experiencing the kingdom of God, to start living eternal life now, by creating a thin place in our lives through our hospitality. Welcome the stranger. Welcome, welcome, welcome. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Amen.