Sermon: Entertaining Angels

2 September 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
September 2, 2007

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Entertaining Angels

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

The more I studied this text from Hebrews this week, the more it struck me the urgency of the author – who was a preacher, most scholars seem to believe. It’s probably a sermon for Greek-speaking Jewish Christians. In other words, this preacher, trying to wind it all up here in the 13th
and final chapter of Hebrews, is out of time. And yet, he obviously feels he still needs to add final reminders of all the things he thinks are most important to the survival of the churches that would receive his words.

Do you know what I mean? It sounds just a little random and disconnected. Kind of the way my sleep-deprived mind was working the morning of the first day of school as I stood at the front door of my house. The kids were heading for the bus stop. “Have a nice day – make a lot of new friends!” But wait, as my mind grinds into another gear, don’t make so many friends you disrupt class. “Be good – be nice to your teachers!” By now they’re in the road, where there’s traffic, so I have to yell, “Be safe!”

These are the kinds of famous last words that the preacher flings our way here at the end of Hebrews. Love your friends in the church. But wait, love strangers too. Even prisoners, and those who are being tortured. But wait, don’t love too much – don’t commit adultery! Oh, and don’t love money too much either. And don’t forget to be nice to your teachers; respect your church leaders. And don’t forget Jesus – Jesus is what it’s all about! Jesus is everything. So don’t forget to give thanks and praise to God, and give your time and money generously to His church. There actually
are a few more outbursts of advice in this chapter, but the editors of our lectionary were kind enough to edit it for length.

It’s almost as if the point of the whole passage is not any one particular piece of advice – although I’ve chosen to focus on the part about “entertaining angels” – but rather on giving a pep talk to
rally the troops, to remind people of the importance of their mission as disciples. I guess we could
all use that kind of message, even today. But as for back then, we don’t know much for sure about Hebrews – either who wrote it (probably NOT Paul) or exactly when it was written. Scholars DO
seem to agree that those who first received the Letter to the Hebrews probably had been discouraged by persecutions – such as Emperor Claudius’s expulsion of all Jews and Christians
from Rome in the year 49.

So these urgent admonitions in Hebrews 13 were probably in response to both discouragement and lack of direction among the first Christians. Some house churches barely 10 years old were already shut down, their people dispersed to other towns. People’s early excitement about the Good News of Jesus had waned a little, as the realities of how hard it was going to be to rebuild their churches was sinking in. It’s not too unlike moderate, mainline churches like ours, so many of which are stagnant in their growth, or worse, in actual decline. Sometimes it seems as if we’ve lost our passion, and our sense of purpose – the fire that fuels our faith. When faith is new, it’s more like the happy little first-grader skipping down the path to school. When we’ve been around a while, we act more like jaded teenagers barely able to drag themselves out of bed on school days.

So here we are, we preachers today, left to shout a tidbit of good advice each Sunday like mom at front door. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Jesus’s famous parting words to his disciples in John’s Gospel are “Love one another.” He says it’s the most important thing we Christians have to remember. It’s not just a good idea or a helpful suggestion. God does not want us to hear that and just roll our eyes and say, “OK, Mom.” To be kind to one another, to reach out in love to everyone – but most especially to those we don’t know or don’t like – is the MOST important thing we do as a church. We are called to bear witness to the steadfast love of God for the world – love great enough that Jesus Christ, God’s only son died for us, WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS. We are called to reach out in love to the world’s MOST unlovable characters, as Jesus did – the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers. For in doing so, we might even be entertaining angels unaware.

You recognize, of course, the reference to the famous story of Abraham and Sarah entertaining angels. In Genesis 18 we read that “the Lord” appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he
sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Verse 2 says, “He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him.” Now whether the Lord appeared WITH the three men, or if the Lord was ONE of the three men, or if the Lord WAS the three men – like an early form of
the Holy Trinity – the text doesn’t say. All we know is that Abraham showed the three men the
best hospitality that could be offered in the desert. He brings them water to wash their feet, and
he offers them rest and a snack – while he gets Sarah and their servants to prepare a great feast.
It is not until AFTER Abraham and Sarah offer all that hospitality that they get the Lord’s message – that they would bear a son and found a great nation. It is only then that they learn that they had entertained angels unaware.

In the very next chapter we learn that two of the three men turn out to be God’s angels sent to destroy the wicked city of Sodom for their appalling LACK of hospitality – the custom in Sodom
seems to be to form a gang to attack and physically assault all visitors. Having learned that the destruction of Sodom is the next mission of the angels, you know Abraham and Sarah would have counted themselves very lucky that they remembered the good manners their parents taught them. It was a hospitality “near miss.” Ever had one of those? You’re nice to some random person, BEFORE you know they’re important?

I did that once, when I was at our Northern California Nevada Conference annual meeting. I was talking with old friends, and showing off my new baby Lela (who was with me in a sling) when a rather ordinary-looking, casually dressed woman I didn’t know showed up on the porch of the dining hall, looking a little lost. I saw her nametag said she was from Cleveland, Ohio, so I interrupted our little group’s conversation to check to be sure she was OK – and to welcome her to California. Later – when she was dressed in her red and gold liturgical robes and serving communion to the gathering of all our churches, I found out she was The Rev. Dr. Mary Susan Gast, our new Conference minister. What did I know? I had been on maternity leave. I was glad my mother had taught me good manners. I saw a movie once where the OPPOSITE of that happened – and a person going for a job interview is rude to someone in an elevator, only to find out at the top that they’re getting off at the same floor, and turning the same direction down the hall, and going into the same office – only the OTHER guy is going into the BOSS’s office to conduct the job interview … sometimes justice is served.

Hospitality is sometimes not just important, it can be a matter of life and death. This may sound disrespectful to you, or maybe even sacrilegious, but I heard a comedian say once – I think it was George Carlin – that when the Lord returns on Judgement Day, some churches better hope and pray the incarnation of Christ is not in the form of a homeless Jew. I think it was Robin Williams who had
a similar joke – like, Jerry Falwell had better watch out if Jesus comes back as an African-American lesbian – because, boy, will she be mad!

The story of the destruction of Sodom makes a good case for churches to be “open and affirming” – because the story is not about the evils of homosexuality, but about the cruelty of that city’s INhospitality. Foreigners, Genesis 19 teaches, are part of God’s family – and are to be treated with kindness, not as enemies to be assaulted and run out of town on a rail. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Any close reader of the Bible would see this verse not just as a good idea or helpful suggestion. At its heart is the greatest commandment, that we love one another.

It’s not so far-fetched to say the mission of Christ’s church, in spreading the Good News of God’s love, is all about hospitality. And if that’s true, we should offer hospitality whenever we can – whether it’s around Christ’s table of grace as we celebrate communion, or during our 250th Anniversary Campaign visits that are coming up next week. Through our visits, we can bear witness to God’s love in action, get to know one another better, and share our hopes and dreams for our next 250 years together. Our campaign goals and the mission of the church, after all, are both rooted in hospitality. For guests invited here by Jesus, we should bring out our best – the best music, the best housing, the best kitchen, the best classrooms. If this were just a clubhouse, we could use old crates as chairs, serve stale peanuts, and even post “no girls allowed” on the door.
But if this is a church, it is the Lord’s temple, and it is a place where we are to welcome all guests
to His feast.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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