The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
The past few weeks, we have been reading through the Book of Hebrews. As we have heard, Hebrews is quite concerned with showing that this new thing that is blossoming - communities of faith centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - is well grounded in the past, in the faith of their ancestors. The book begins: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways." And then the author goes on to ground the faith in the psalms, the prophets, the covenant made with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, the temple sacrificial system with Jesus as both the high priest and the sacrifice, Moses and the Exodus, Creation and the Sabbath, the great ancestors in faith from Abel to Rahab, lamenting that their isn't enough time to talk about Gideon, David, and Samuel. And through it all, Jesus is the fulfillment, the embodiment, of the faith they have received from their ancestors.
Today's reading is no exception. When the reading today says to "Show hospitality to others, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it," it is not a new command or completely out of the blue, but is grounded in a specific reference to the past: The story of Abraham. One day, by the Oaks of Mamre, three strangers came to Abraham, while he was shading himself in the heat of the day, and he offered these three strangers a generous hospitality. He offered water to wash their feet, and he slaughtered a calf while Sarah made bread. Now in the ancient Near East, the culture of hospitality was strong. Offering hospitality was a matter of life and death. You offered hospitality because you yourself might need it someday. Abraham got something more out of the deal, though. It turns out that the strangers were angels, in one interpretation at least, who blessed Abraham and Sarah with the news that they were going to have a son within a year. The Book of Hebrews is saying that not only is hospitality generally a good idea but it is the opportunity to encounter something, someone, holy. Hospitality is a practice that offers the opportunity for spiritual growth.
"Do not neglect to show hospitality for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." In our Gospel today, Jesus takes this concept of hospitality a step further. You may not just entertain angels in your hospitality, but the act of hospitality can be, at least, a glimpse, if not a complete entrance into the kingdom of heaven. While receiving hospitality at the house of a Pharisee, Jesus implores the guests to seat themselves in the same way that he talked to his disciples about who gets to sit at his right and left hand in the kingdom: The first will be last and the last will be first. Be humble. Pick the worst seat in the room. Do not give in to pride and assume that you are the best and that the world revolves around you. Do not lift yourself up; you will be lifted up. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. And do not engage in hospitality expecting anything in return, as society and culture teach, as the ancient practice of hospitality was founded upon; engage in hospitality simply for the sake of the kingdom. "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
The contemporary American religious scholar Diana Butler Bass wrote that hospitality “stands at the heart of a Christian way of life, a living icon of wholeness in God.” On one level, icons are a particular form of religious art. But at a deeper level, icons are much more than the picture. An icon points to something larger than itself. For example, an icon of a saint doesn’t really show us a pretty picture of that saint, but rather points us towards the God that the saint loved and followed and worshipped. So, the living icon of hospitality isn’t really about hospitality, but rather points us towards the God that we love and follow and worship. Hospitality is a sign of the kingdom of God.
That assumes, of course, that the hospitality is as Jesus outlines, hospitality offered purely, not for gain, not for return, but purely for the other. That is what we are trying to do with ministries like the Family Shelter. For two weeks, starting Tuesday, we will host families who otherwise would be on the street. We will give meals and shelter to families who otherwise might not have a warm, dry place to sleep. And the kids will be more prepared to go to school. Who can learn when chronically hungry and tired? We offer this hospitality to people who will not give anything in return, except an opportunity to see the kingdom of God, except the opportunity to welcome angels, and receive the blessing of their presence with us.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, be hospitable to all, truly hospitable. Not hospitality in exchange for something in return. Not hospitality simply to impress those who everyone tries to impress. But hospitality to those who almost never receive a true welcome. Hospitality for the sake of hospitality. Hospitality as the center of our very being. Hospitality as a living icon of the wholeness of God. Hospitality for the angels. Hospitality for the kingdom. Amen.