Monday, August 29, 2016

Angels in Disguise

Hebrews 13: 1-8
If you remember, last week we left off with the image “Our God is a consuming fire.” In fact those are the final words of chapter 12.  And then it’s like a 360.  There is an abrupt tonal change as the 13th and final chapter of Hebrews begins.  So let’s hear this morning’s scripture and unpack it in a minute.

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.

Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
This passage contains a familiar verse and when I hear it, it reminds me of a beautiful icon painted by the 14th century Russian Iconographer, Andrei Rublev.  The verse is “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  The icon shows three gold-winged figures seated around a white table on which a golden bowl contains a roasted lamb.  The figures are visitors who have stopped by Abraham and Sarah’s camp by the Oaks of Mamre as recorded in Genesis 18.  He serves them a meal and as the conversion takes place Abraham seems to be talking to God.  This icon has also been used as a way to understand the Trinity in Christological terms. 

It is mutual love and hospitality at its very best, one serving the other without prejudice or judgment.  

Whatever the interpretation of the icon there is something compelling about visualizing three strangers who visit your tent seeking food and refuge and by your generous hospitality they are satiated and safe from the elements.  In return it is revealed that they are indeed angels in disguise, messengers from God or rather, God’s presence.  We will get back to hospitality and mutual love in a minute after we look at the passage in its entirety. So hold that image in the back of your head.

This chapter is the summation of the Book of Hebrews and as I mentioned in previous weeks, the book addresses the issues of a new Christian community that is in danger of falling away from their faith.  It was a tough environment for them, Christianity had not taken deep roots yet and it was a counter-cultural movement.  So the author leaves a set of instructions to help them in their faith journey and life as Christ-followers.

These instructions are pretty heady.  They include a call to love your brothers and your sisters in Christ, treat one another with mutuality, sort of like family members, to foster supportive relationships.  And they are to go out and love the stranger; not stay behind closed doors and become an insular little group. 

They have some responsibilities like remembering those who are in prison and those who are mistreated; marriage should be honored and undefiled meaning that there should be no deceit, cheating or betrayal between marital partners. 

The author goes on to say that a place should exist in their lives for contentment acknowledging that what they have really is sufficient for their living.  More and more and more does not make for a more happy person.  It just means that person has a lot of stuff.  And they are to remember their leaders, especially Jesus Christ because he is perfector of faith. 

Then comes the glorious promise of God, that God will never leave them, God will never forsake them but will always be the one who protects and guards them through life. 

And finally what seems like a departure, because the lectionary skips a few verses, there is praise for God and one last gentle reminder to do good and share what you have.  All in all the Book of Hebrews has some very beautiful and often quoted passages.  So we will look at today the notion of angels in disguise from the passage: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

We currently live in a political environment that is not particularly hospitable to strangers or aliens, or at the very least the threat of the ‘other’.  It is couched in political mumbo jumbo and fostered with fear. “Stranger danger”, that concept we teach our young, is alive and well in many adults creating suspicion, mistrust and apprehension of some very good people looking for a chance to better their lives.   This is not what Hebrews has in mind.  We are not to fear the other, the stranger, the alien we are to open our ‘tent flaps’, our doors wide open and welcome the stranger into our sacred space without fear or trepidation.

This passage offers us a different view or at the very least a reminder that there will always be strangers among us, there will be people coming to our doors and it is up to us to entertain them.  But it goes much deeper than simply handing a cup of coffee to them.  It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a stranger in a new place.  We come here each week. 

In fact some of you have grown up in this church.  You know that there are three ways to trot off to coffee hour, you know that we have five bathrooms, two male, two female and one gender-neutral and you know where they are, you know where the Turkey Pen is, the PF room, and the Katherine Knight Room, you know the little door to get into the organ pipe chamber.  But someone here for the first couple of visits has no clue where anything is here much less how to understand our particular culture.  And so as Hebrews notes we must entertain them.  We must offer hospitality to them; but there is a big difference between entertaining and offering hospitality.

Entertaining is to bring out the china and crystal, put on the lace tablecloths, make a gourmet three course meal and be sure that the dog isn’t under foot and the kids have been fed and are upstairs watching TV.  Right?  It is to put on our best dress so that all looks picture perfect.

Hospitality is much different. Hospitality is just not an admirable social skill that Martha Stewart would be proud of; it is an essential sign of our faith.  In offering hospitality we share our place, our tent, making use of what is available to us knowing that there will be plenty for all.  It is inviting people into your life to have a meal of leftovers on paper plates, sharing whatever you have and being thankful.   And liking it not simply doing it because their here.

Or, we can create new places to accommodate these folks coming to our door.  That’s what hospitality is, it’s accommodating, acceptance and mutual love, the kind that God is calling us to, and it’s humbling.  When we open ourselves to others it gets a bit messy because we show others who we are as a faithful group of everyday folks struggling to get by in a crazy world.  But that’s OK.  This is where we find our common roots. 

And when we do that we have invited God’s presence into our lives.  That’s what this verse is all about.  Being open, loving and hospitable to each person we encounter invites God right in.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

These messengers of God are among the greatest of these and especially among the least of these, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the poor and the poor in spirit.  And they are around us.  There is a movie entitled, Entertaining Angels, about Dorothy Day, the woman who began the Catholic Workers Movement in the 1930.  It details her life and how she became the force along with Peter Maurin for that movement.   She championed justice and charity for the poor, hungry people of New York City.  Her belief was that all men (sic) are brothers.  And she saw the Christ within them.
Yes, we can entertain angels and invite the presence of God when we open, with wholehearted, sincere hospitality, open our ‘tent flaps’.  You just never know.


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