This morning’s epistle reading contains an intriguing question, “What can anyone do to me?” The context makes it obvious that the author refers only to bad things. My immediate reaction to the phrase was a single word, “Plenty!” Although criminals have never violated my person, I have had my house robbed and my car totaled when someone rear-ended mine after I had stopped at a red light. Everyone at least occasionally suffers unfair criticism by others. Illustratively, I once had a parishioner, upset with my insistence on complying with Navy and Marine Corps regulations governing Chapel funds, inform me that I was doing the devil's work when I refused to permit the continued expenditure of funds in good, but explicitly prohibited ways. Reports of financial scams and identity theft are a media staple. One of the enduring harms with which many people now live as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an exaggerated sense of vulnerability. Is this morning’s epistle lesson wrong in implying nobody can cause us grievous harm? Alternatively, does it mean something else?
The reading from Hebrews instructs Christians to offer hospitality to strangers, inferring that in doing so we, like others, may unknowingly entertain angels. Contrary to medieval theologians, cultural stereotypes, and fundamentalists, the word angels in the Bible more often refers to God's messengers than to supernatural beings. What the epistle says, in other words, is that by offering hospitality to strangers we may receive a message from God.
I suspect that a halo effect applies to how most of us think of self, parish, and nation. We tend to imagine that we are more hospitable than we actually are. If you welcome and entertain family and friends in your home, that is good. Hebrews, however, forces me to ask, Do you also welcome and entertain strangers in your home?
Does Holy Nativity warmly welcome and entertain strangers? We face a mixed scorecard. For example, our worship services, especially for those who do not read, are difficult to follow and require juggling several books and pieces of paper. Holy Nativity is in the process of taking a couple of important steps to improve its welcome. First, by the middle of September, I hope that the worship bulletin will contain the entire service, something that we once did but then discontinued. Including the entire worship service makes it easier for members, and far more importantly, for visitors to follow and participate in worship. And the Vestry has set as one of its goals for the next year developing an effective program to welcome newcomers on their journey from visitor to member. Volunteers are needed to help with that program. If you are interested, please speak Louisa Leroux who is leading that effort or to me.
Nationally, the issue of offering hospitality to strangers faces several roadblocks. The US erects barriers to keep out unwanted immigrants, creates programs to deport illegal immigrants, restricts access to healthcare to those who can afford to pay, and incarcerates non-violent miscreants for life.
Lest you consider my vision of hospitality too broad, recall this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus, the invited guest of honor at a feast, told his host,
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But 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…
Jesus implicitly acknowledges that his affluent if not wealthy host does not know the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind whom he should invite to dinner. Then, like now, the well-to-do generally ignored, or even ostracized, the poor. Furthermore, Jews in Jesus’ day sought to justify their exclusivity by citing their belief that being crippled, blind, or impoverished was a mark of God's disfavor.
Jesus gives us the same instructions. We, the body of Christ and the nation, are to show hospitality to the poor, the outcast, and the despised. Jesus envisions a global community in which all live as brothers and sisters. Is Jesus’ vision an unrealistic utopian ideal or the future that God intends for us and for our world?
If you are like me, you answer that question with a yes and a no. Yes, I am committed to Jesus’ vision of the future. The acclamation Praise to you, Lord Christ! which follows the gospel reading, expresses a prayerful hope that Jesus’ vision will come to pass. Praying “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” from the Lord’s Prayer expresses the same hope. Yet when I examine my life, I see that I fall woefully short of Jesus’ standard of hospitality. I too often fear people whom I do not know, people who seem to have different values or beliefs than I do, people whose desire for a better life appears to threaten my quality of life. Fear dampens or extinguishes the fire of faith, causing us to act in ways inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings and vision.
Former radio talk show host Kenneth Hamblin, who had just learned to scuba dive, was vacationing with his wife on Lake Powell. Diving alone, he ineptly fired his new spear gun at a carp near the end of his dive. Surfacing, he laid his spear gun on the water and was startled to watch it sink. The lake water was very murky – a dark, ugly place. He did not want to go back down after the gun and he could not see the bottom. Yet he could not admit to his wife that he had lost his expensive new toy. So back down he went, into the depths, following a weighted rope to help him stay under the boat. After his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see more than he had expected. Unfortunately, the rope did not reach the lake’s bottom. Although he did not want to let go and sink into the murkiness, he liked the prospect of facing his wife without the gun even less. So he overcame his fears, let go, and found the gun.
Life can seem very murky. We know what we should do, but fear letting go of the lifelines on which we depend and to trust that God will care for us. Consequently, we decide to rely upon self, our money or other possessions, an addiction, or almost anything else. As we heard in this morning’s first lesson, human pride begins by forsaking God, which inevitably leads to sin, fear, and brokenness. This morning take a chance. Let love prevail, both our love for one another and God's love for us. The message the angels, God's messengers, bring us is a message of hope, a message that will help us, like the author of Hebrews, to say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"