Sermon:  July 8, 2018


                   LESSONS  FROM  SCRIPTURE

SCRIPTURE: Mark 6.1-6: He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

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                Rules & Laws: Are They Meant to Be Such Broken Things?

"Rules meant order. Without them they’d be killing each other. It began with butting in, with parking in disabled spaces, with smoking in elevators. And it ended in murder." – Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder.

"As a rule, I believe people shouldn't follow rules; rules should follow people." –
Eric Micha'el Leventhal (perhaps playing on Jesus’ own admonition that the sabbath is for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath, when accused of breaking the law of the sabbath by getting food for his disciples).

"The first rule on breaking a rule is to know everything about the rule." –
Nuno Roque

"Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind." –
Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"The young know the rules. The old know the exceptions." –
Oliver Wendell Holmes

We have a lot to say about rules and laws in our society – typically about how someone else has broken them, made a mockery of them, failed to follow them. Apparently the first rule is that rules are made for other people.

In Jesus’ encounter with the hometown crowd during worship, he runs into a whole bunch of unspoken rules – the kind of rules we just know we’re to follow, without knowing or caring why.

In Jesus’ world, the "rules" about choosing a king were well-known – formulaic. So too for religious leaders. The two most fundamental rules were: (1) you have to be from a certain family lineage; and (2) you have to be trained – educated – in the language, in the stories and in the "rules".

So it’s not surprising when Jesus’ home-town folk react to his teachings with the proverbial, "who are you to tell me about anything to do with God?"

You’re a . . . carpenter! You’re – well, that kind of kid – the kind with no dad (Mary’s boy being perhaps an insult – as in we know who your mom is, but your dad? That’s another story, isn’t it?).

It’s as if they’re saying, You’re just like me. Well, actually, you aren’t. You’re worse than, less than, me. I know who my dad is. You? Not so much. And here you are, gettin’ above your raisin’. Yeah. We know all about you.

And there it is – Jesus the Rule Breaker. God’s law? What about our laws? Our rules? You sure don’t follow them, now do you? You’re people (whoever they are) sure aren’t the ones to lead us. You have no special training in our ways. And aren’t we chosen? So just who are you to break our rules? Those rules exist for a reason. They bring social order. Without them, well, there’d be . . . chaos! Without our rules, how would we know when to get up in the morning? How would we know what to eat and what not to eat? How would we know when to go to work and when to stay home? How would we know who to marry? How to raise our kids? We need our rules!

"Covenant implies that God is very active in the bond between God and the faithful. God is a living God who does not make a promise and walk away . . . the ideal covenant [is] not a set of rules written on stone, but a life of faith inscribed on the heart. . ." Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews by Melissa Bane Sevier, 2017-2018 PW/Horizons Bible Study, p. 22.

The people at synagogue that particular sabbath when home-town boy Jesus showed up and presumed to teach had forgotten the most fundamental rule of all – which weren’t really rules to begin with.

They had forgotten that covenant life with God is a life of faith inscribed on the heart rather than a set of rules written on stone.

But before we even get to this understanding, perhaps we have to begin with understanding what a rule even is.

So. Just what is a rule? Science would say a rule is an immutable law of nature – something that is so and always so, now and forever. But rules change. So apparently rules aren’t laws. But sometimes laws change too, even laws of science. When we learn something new, the laws of science have to be amended to take that new knowledge into account. The knowledge isn’t really "new" – the information has been there all along. What is new is our knowing of it, our discovery of what has been true all along.

In that sense, Jesus was "new knowledge" – there all along, the people came to discover what had been true of God all along – or not.

So if there was a rule in Jesus’ encounter with the hometown crowd, maybe it wasn’t about whether he came from the right family or not or whether he knew enough to teach them or not. Maybe the "rule" was found in its breaking. What rule? Perhaps it was the rule of love.


What was broken? We learn it from the last sentences in our passage: Jesus couldn’t do his work. He. Could. Not. Because of their unbelief, Jesus was unable to accomplish anything of lasting importance. A few healings, sure, but nothing else. Because of their rejection.

The Rule of Love is simply a way of saying that relationship with God resides in the hearts of humanity. Evict God from our hearts, refuse God admittance in the first place, and love cannot find its purchase, cannot thrive.

The people thought Jesus was breaking all the rules – and he was. All save the only one which matters, that is.

Sometimes it is necessary to break the rules in order to keep them. The gospels are chock-full of examples: Jesus and his followers breaking the rules of sabbath (a rule of rest for the people) in order that his people have the rest of being well-fed . . . Jesus breaking the rules about not hanging out with bad people by hanging out with bad people in order that they might become good people . . . Jesus breaking the rule against a man hanging out with a woman not his wife in order that the woman at the well might find the meaning of true fidelity, fidelity in faith . . .

Jesus breaking the rules against not hanging out with foreigners, especially non-believing foreigners, in order to make folks like the Syro-Phoenician woman and others a part of God’s kingdom in the eyes of all and telling stories like the Good Samaritan (a horrible kind of foreigner) to show that neighbors are the ones who show up not give up or walk past and that maybe, just maybe, a Good Samaritan is the best kind of Jew.

The irony when it comes to things to do with God is that submission to God (following the rules) looks like rebellion (not following the rules) to other people. Sometimes (sadly, more often than we’d like to think), you’ve got to break humanity’s rules in order to follow God’s rules.

Here’s the news flash, the thing worth proclaiming: Jesus did not come to give us more rules.

Jesus came to give us himself.
And he did.
And then he said – you do likewise.
Don’t give them rules.
Give them you.
When they knock at your door, give them you.
When they have to little to eat, give them you.
When they’re alone and afraid, give them you.

When they’re wrong to the point of harming others, give them you.
When they have nowhere to turn, give them you.
When the borders and the boundaries would keep them out, give them you.
When the gas would choke the life out of them and you have to breathe for them, give them you.
When they are lost and weeping when it would seem that their children are no more, give them you.
Give them not your worst but your best, not your leftovers but your banquet fit for a king.
In giving them you, you are giving them me. My house. My food. My love. My rules.
Give them you.

Now that’s a rule worth the keeping.



McDowell Presbyterian Church

      

                                    


Sermon:  July 15, 2018

                                                          LESSONS  FROM  SCRIPTURE

MARK 6.14-29: King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


                                                        OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!
                                                          ( The Absurdity of the Laws of the Absurd)


In the last month, we have considered the place for and meaning of rules and laws in living out a gospel life, coming up with a few propositions along the way: the law is love or it isn’t the law. Radical hospitality is what the law of love, gospel love, looks like. Sometime we have to break the law in order to keep it.
         What we are trying to be mindful of is simply this: we follow God. Not man. Not men. Not rules. Not laws. Not even the laws of God. We. Follow. God. It may be that following the laws of God leads us to follow God. That is what we would like to believe. The problem, however, with that view is that the laws of God are not a formula. The path is not that straight nor that simple, for in following rules or laws, we inevitably follow someone’s interpretation of those self-same rules or laws – sometimes it’s an expert, sometimes, it’s a family member, neighbor or friend. Most times, it’s our own understanding we’re following. And nothing will take us more quickly away from God than the following of our own understanding.

But if we can’t follow the rules with certainty that in so doing, we’re following God, then what’s a Christian to do? Perhaps most of the time, we can safely follow the so-called rules of faith. Perhaps not. Hopefully, the propositions (not rules) that we’ve considered in these past weeks are helpful: the law is love or it isn’t the law. Radical hospitality is what the law of love, gospel love, looks like. Sometime we have to break the law in order to keep it.
In advancing our understanding, today, let us consider the proposition (by no means a law) that a law that renders an aburd result is no law of God.

To illustrate, the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland is as good a place to start as any.
In Lewis Carroll’s story, the Queen of Hearts was described by Carroll himself as a "‘blind fury’ who is quick to give death sentences at the slightest offense," hence her oft-quoted command, "Off with their heads!"
         Said to represent either Queen Margaret of the House of Lancaster (who actually made a remark about a foe to that effect – essentially ordering that first his crown be removed, then his head) or Queen Victoria, the character of the Queen of Hearts serves more as an obstacle along Alice’s journey than a true villain, mostly because although she orders beheadings with virtually every breath, they are seldom carried out, making her a bit of a comic figure, albeit an ominous one.

Stories are one thing, however; real life, quite another.

During the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, it is estimated that 40,000 people were guillotined. In one of those cruel ironies of history, the French journalist who named the beheading device the guillotine (after a French politician who recommended its use for the efficient dispatch of the "enemies" of the Revolution) was himself guillotined.
      Many French and other writers were shaped by the French Revolution and its aftermath, including among them Anatole France, who, railing against the French Republic and the revolution which made it so, in his story The Red Lily, says, "A man is called dangerous when he says that there are wretched people. There are laws against indignation and pity . . .", earlier opining in his now-famous quote, "The poor must work for [the wealthy], in presence of the majestic quality of the law which prohibits the wealthy as well as the poor from sleeping under the bridges, from begging in the streets, and from stealing bread."

In other words, per British journalist Ally Fogg, "To treat rich and poor alike is to treat them entirely differently."
It is just as wrong for a rich man to steal to feed his family as for a poor man to do so. It would be funny if it weren’t so true that many in one form or another have uttered such ridiculousness in utter seriousness.
        In a legal memorandum, John Roberts (now Chief Justice Roberts) once opined that "Giving state courts the final say over school desegregation . . . would not involve unequal treatment because white officials as well as black groups would lack the right to appeal . . ."
            In a 2007 dissenting opinion in the case of Jefferson County Board of Education, et al., Justice Stevens notes the majority’s statement regarding Brown v. Board of Education, "‘Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin.’ . . . This sentence reminds me of Anatole France’s observation . . . The Chief Justice fails to note that it was only black schoolchildren who were so ordered; indeed, the history books do not tell stories of white children struggling to attend black schools."

In 2014, a man was killed in a choke hold by police in New York City for the alleged offense of the illegal sale of cigarettes.
          We could go on and on with examples whereby the state of being poor, of being without, result in different outcomes than for the wealthy, on the disparate treatment and outcomes even from so-called equal treatment, vis-a-vis the powerful and the powerless.

Thus do we come to ponder in our scripture passage today from the gospel of Mark on the role of kings and governors, of sexual misadventure, of the cost of speaking truth to power and the role of rules and laws in the deeds and fortunes (or misfortunes, as the case may be) of our human condition. To paraphrase the martyred priest Oscar Romero, killed for his own words of truth to power, John was a "prophet of a future not his own."
        Herod, universally condemned for his violence throughout the New Testament, is portrayed as weak, easily manipulated, indulgent, and violent (it may well be worth our time, perhaps on another day, to contemplate violence itself as an act not of strength, but of weakness).

In Acts 12.1-2, we read, "About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword."
          The literal translation of Herod laying "violent hands upon" is "stretched out his hand to do evil [against]". In our passage in Mark, we learn of Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. In Matthew 2, of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (the killing of the male children two years of age and younger in an attempt to murder Jesus as a young child). And of course, there is Herod’s role in the execution of Jesus as an adult.

At times, we can read Herod as a comical Queen of Hearts figure; at others, he is an effective arch-enemy of the gospel, jailing and killing its proponents every chance he gets, made only less efficient for the lack of a guillotine.
       Yet let us not lose the point of the gospel account: Herod operates from weakness, John from strength.
Herod is motivated by service to self; John by service to God.
         Herod seems to have the final say, but he too will one day die. The gospel proclaimed by John and lived by Jesus will live and live on.
Herod operates out of fear. John operates out of faith.
And in the doing even of his most evil deeds, Herod is ridiculous. Absurd. A fool.
And at some level, he knows it.
He does not want to kill John.
          Yet he does. Why? Because he seems to feel he has put himself into a box he cannot get out of: by promising the girl whatever he asks and by making the promise in front of other people, Herod convinces himself he has no choice but to kill John. After all, a promise is a promise. [SIGH]
             He would rather kill a man than allow himself to look foolish for making the promise, seeming not to realize that what he does is make himself look foolish for keeping the promise (and he has apparently rather quickly forgotten that rules never have meant much to him up to now, having married his brother’s wife in violation of the law in the first place).
     Moreover, while this drama of the ending of John’s life unfolds, Jesus is on a parallel track, having just been to his hometown where he’s rejected and can do no lasting good work because of it.
      While John languishes in jail, Jesus gets a drubbing from his hometown friends and neighbors and in response, sends his disciples out with the instructions that if they too are rejected, to keep on going and not look back.
       While John is being killed and having his head served up for sport on a platter, Jesus is feeding the 5,000. It’s almost as if Jesus is hosting the meal after the funeral for John.
          There were rules in Herod and John’s time about not marrying the widow of family members – probably for pretty good reasons related to the social fabric of the community – not to mention to prevent someone from pulling a David to get the woman he wanted. Herod had no problem breaking those rules. Or the rules against killing. Or the rules of love for neighbor and stranger. No. Those rules presented no impediment to Herod at all.
          But make a silly promise to a girl and do it in front of people whose opinions he valued and suddenly old Herod is the best rule keeper in the room. It is absurd. No. He is absurd. And in his absurdity, he makes of the girl, his wife, the guests, and the people of the kingdom an absurdity, for they all become the people who follow a fool. All because he is afraid of what people will think. And too weak to do anything about it. If their good opinion of him really mattered, after all, he simply would not have done the things he did. Or would have repented of them and made amends.
           But Herod insists on doing what too many of us – believers and non-believers alike – are prone to do: want to have that proverbial cake and eat it too, by doing what we wanted and then trying desperately to cover up the evidence while continuing to do the thing simply because we want to – you know what I mean, right? How what we really want is not to get caught?
           Well, old Herod got caught, all right. And there he stands, in all his foolish splendor. Like Herod, we are challenged to choose every day.

And the question is whether we will try to hide behind the rules, making of them and us a fool? Or will we step out into the open light of day, confess when we fall short? Own our failings? Turn back to the God we stray from? Make recompense where we have caused harm?

Or will we keep on insisting that those we have harmed are to blame for getting in our way? You know there’s really no rule for that. There’s only the doing, only the living and it is up to us which it will be.

Sermon: June 24, 2018


LESSONS FROM SCRIPTURE

Luke 10.29-37: But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Genesis 18.1-33 [Abraham, Sarah, the three angels and God]

Matthew 25.40: And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Hebrews 13.1-3 & 16: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. . . Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 12.15-21: And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

1 Kings 17.9-16: "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But she said, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth." She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

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                                      Holy Hospitality

February 29, 2006 (from Baghdad during my time with CPT while four of our colleagues continued to be held in captivity, having been kidnaped – just about 8 days before one of them – Tom Fox – would be murdered – my e-mail home – an excerpt – an e-mail I titled "Unassuming Angels":

. . . for thereby some have entertained angels unaware . . . An older man came to our door recently and one of the Team let him in, mistakenly believing him to be the driver he was waiting for, as we do not answer our door to strangers out of concern for security. The man, as it turned out, is part of a human rights group in Iraq; their name translates in English as the ‘Iraqi Activates’. Since that first visit, he and a co_worker have been back several times. They gave us a letter they have been handing out at demonstrations at Firdos Square (where the Saddam statue was so famously toppled), calling for the release of our colleagues and attesting to our good intentions and work here. During one of their demonstrations, an Iraqi man came up to them and told them, "I am a Christian, but I have done nothing for these men, my fellow Christians, yet here you are, Muslims, and you have done this. Thank you." The Activates told us that we have many friends in Iraq and that they continue to hope and pray for the release of our guys. It is no small thing to be an Iraqi and stand in public demonstrating on behalf of Westerners. They have lifted our spirits with their concern and their willingness to take risks to speak out against the taking of our friends. They have truly been ministering angels to us . . .

Henri Nouwen tells of a meeting with a former student in which they sat mostly in companionable silence for the duration of the visit. As he was leaving the student said to his former teacher, "From now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground."

I suspect this, then, is what it is to entertain angels unaware: to be touched by such grace in the encounter that forever thereafter, the ground between us is holy.

Which brings us to hospitality. Biblical hospitality. What we might call "holy hospitality". Holy hospitality is common to, and at the same time, much more than human hospitality, which always has an element of self-interest at its heart and is generally understood as being nice or polite to strangers and guest.

Holy hospitality is a radical thing – a notion of welcome where no welcome may be expected or demanded or required. Only given.

Holy hospitality is probably best taught, embodied, explained, exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10.29-37], given in answer to a lawyer’s question, who is my neighbor? Indeed, a synonym for the word "hospitality" is "neighborliness" – acting as a neighbor. The word "neighbor", is from two Old English words meaning "near dweller".

Jesus’ point in the Good Samaritan parable is crystal clear: the one who is your neighbor is the one who dwells near in your heart, as shown by their actions towards you.

We can understand ourselves to be the Levite or the priest or the Good Samaritan, but I suspect Jesus wants us to understand that who we are in the parable is the man near death lying helpless on the side of the road.

It can be hard to understand the call, the duty, to holy hospitable near dwelling neighborliness when we’re walking down the street; but when we’re the ones lying helpless on the side of the road, all doubts, all inconveniences, all questions, are swept aside, in the simple knowledge that our neighbor, our near dweller, is the one who helps us.

As shown in the meeting between Abraham and Sarah with the three emissaries from God (generally understood to be angels) in Genesis 18, Abraham responds to their presence with hospitality, the warm welcome of a desert dweller to travelers far from home and the three respond with other forms of hospitality or welcome – the promise of a son for Abraham by Sarah in their old age and later, God’s conversation with Abraham regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham sways God towards judgment tempered by mercy.

Such radical holy hospitality, such open welcoming, understands a few basic principles right at the core of itself:

1. God is a God of both mercy and justice and without both, each is less than itself. Both voices are necessary. Without mercy, justice is something other than, indeed, less than itself – without mercy, justice isn’t justice at all. Without mercy, there can be no welcome of the unwelcome strangers in our midst.

2. All voices are necessary at the table of our understanding. I need you and you need me. When it comes to making decisions, to hashing out policies and ways of being, we tend to think the process is one of compromise – the act of each side giving up a little bit to meet somewhere in the middle – no one happy with the outcome, but all agreeing to live with it. But the best decisions we make together are not the product of giving up, of stripping away. Rather, our best decisions and actions are the product of adding to – that is, I need what you bring to the table and you need what I bring – without each other, we are not complete. We do not detract from each other; we add to each other. This is the lens through which holy hospitality sees everyone: not as threat, but as gift. It is the vision of life together not as a debate but as a marriage.

3. Holy hospitality is a response to need, to presence. The simple fact that someone is on your doorstep, whether literally or figuratively, evokes the response of holy hospitality. And sometimes such offering results in a gift in return – but not always. The thing is done for its own sake out of its own need – to simply be what it was made to be.

4. The presence or absence of holy hospitality shapes a community – out of such radical caring for others, communities are born, expanded to include others never thought of before as being a part of, shows others what radical gospel-love looks like and in so doing, changes the heart of the community itself.

5. Open hearts yield open doors; open doors demonstrate open hearts. Holy hospitality requires that, according to Dr. Melissa Bane Sevier, "the doors of our hearts must always be open to anyone Jesus would welcome." Here resonates the passage in Matthew where Jesus instructs his hearers that what we do to the least among us, we do, quite literally, to him. [Matthew 25.40]

6. Radical holy hospitality dares to see every stranger, every guest, every visitor, as a messenger from God. Matthew 25's call is to understand that how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves is how we treat God’s own self. Hebrews 13's message about entertaining angels unaware challenges us to be open to each newcomer, every old friend, all who cross our paths, as carrying messages from the lips of God to our own ears. What changes, Dr. Sevier wonders, "how might we see people differently if we understood them to be God’s messengers?" It’s one thing to welcome Jesus in the face of another, to make a place at the table for them. It’s quite another to listen attentively to what these pilgrim visitors may have to say to us, with the openness we’d have if we but knew they were God’s own messengers.

7. Radical, biblical, holy hospitality is costly – it involves sacrifice – the sacrifices of time and effort, of attention and care, of resources shared rather than stored, the sacrifice of the risk of an open door and an open heart. [Luke 12.15-21]

8. To borrow from Henri Nouwen, ". . . guests are carrying precious gifts with them . . ." Think here of the angel visitors to Abraham in Genesis 18 and Elijah, who brought food to the starving widow of Zarephath and her son [1 Kings 17.9-24].

9. There is a mutuality in hospitality. Nouwen again: ". . . in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most previous gifts and bring new life to each other."

Holy hospitality is mutual in its receiving as well as its giving. Holy hospitality sees God as merciful as well as just and acts out its own destiny accordingly. Holy hospitality, when it saves, saves for your rainy day as much as its own. Holy hospitality looks forward eagerly to the uninvited guest and the message the guest brings, hoping thereby to entertain the angels among us. Holy hospitality is eager to learn from other, unthreatened by the different, the other. Holy hospitality opens its heart and its doors. Holy hospitality willingly pays the price of welcome.

So, friends, we are left with the question before us: when strangers stand at our doors, will we fling them open in welcome and be changed? Or will we hunker down in fear and uncertainty, unwilling to take the risk?

Will we be frightened at the sight of little children? Overwhelmed by their great need? Or will we step over the threshold of our own fears and uncertainties, extending our hands and hearts and bid them welcome?