**Note: This was my final sermon for the congregation at Pleasant Ridge Reformed Church of Danboro near Philadelphia. E and I have moved to the Rochester, NY area for a new chapter of our lives! More details to come. Please pray for the PRC congregation in their time of transition, and for us, as we absorb and embrace all these life changes!
In Christ ~k**
When I was a freshman in college, and it came time for Spring Break, I hitched a ride back to the Rochester area with a couple of guys from my dorm. John and Dmitri would be driving past the Rochester area on to Maine, and I offered to help with the drive and give them a place to crash for a night in exchange for the spot in their car. I quickly regretted the decision to offer to drive when, after we crossed from Canada back into the United States around Buffalo, we stopped for gas, they gave me the wheel, and it started to snow. Hard. I’ve rarely been so white knuckled while driving, but when you’re 18-years-old, you don’t really think about things like stopping to wait out a snowstorm, you just keep driving!
Anyway, since we had left early in the morning, we made it to my parent’s house in time for dinner, and the next day the guys left, and I began my week off from classes, books, papers, and the grind of the school year.
There is nothing really eventful or exciting about that story, besides the blizzard that we drove through. Nothing out of the ordinary that college kids for generations have been doing. Yet one thing sticks out to me from John and Dmitri’s stay at my parent’s house in Pultneyville that night over fourteen years ago.
Over dinner, as we talked, and John and Dmitri shared about themselves and their trip to Maine, my Dad offered something I’ll always remember. He said, “well when you are on your way back if you need a place to stop for a couple of hours or for a night, the door’s always open.”
Again, this isn’t a remarkable thing for my Dad to have said. Many people offer such accommodations to people who are traveling. Of course, in Pultneyville, the phrase “the door’s always open” was also literally true. We rarely ever locked the door to the house. One member of the church was known to leave his keys in the ignition when he drove up to the hardware store. It’s a small town, and everyone knew everyone.
However, when my Dad offered that to John and Dmitri, I realized just how true this was. In our family growing up, people were always dropping by unannounced. Transients and wanderers were often knocking on the door because our home was known as a place of welcome. Friends of ours in high school always knew they could stay over for dinner without needing to ask. I was often booted out of my bedroom so that colleagues of my Dad’s in ministry would have a bed to sleep in. One of my favorite stories from my Mom and Dad’s early years of marriage is the time my Mom came home to find a homeless man sitting on the couch in the living room, having been brought home by my Dad to shower, have a meal and a place to sleep.
It wasn’t until that night around the dinner table that I realized how countercultural this was, though. This kind of unrestrained hospitality is not the norm. I’m not saying that people are not open to opening their homes when asked, or even when they see a need. I think that people are, generally, hospitable. But the kind of raw, indiscriminate hospitality that my parents modeled for us, and that we see in our scripture lesson this morning, is pretty rare.
The writer of Hebrews is exhorting his audience to show this kind of hospitality to everyone they meet. He writes, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The allusion here is to the story in Genesis where Abraham invites three travelers into his tent for rest and fellowship, three men who turn out to be angels of the Lord.
I am reminded of the story of the Rabbi’s Gift:
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly, it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation, the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again ” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, “the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while, one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
True hospitality is not an idea or a policy, but it is a way of being in the world. In the times of Scripture, “hospitality… was viewed as important, but also as episodic and occasional- providing food and shelter for a few days to those passing through a region or a community. The biblical texts reflect this understanding in numerous places… Sojourners and resident aliens were offered protection and provision under Israelite law… Hospitality was expressed through the laws about gleaning and by making the triennial tithe available to resident aliens along with the Israelite poor… These arrangements are early indications of a formalized, communal provision for strangers. But this provision was tied to personal expressions of hospitality in that faithful Israelites were also instructed to make a place for sojourners within their families when they celebrated holidays” (Pohl).
Look at the life and ministry of Jesus: if he was not teaching about the importance of hospitality, he was living proof of its importance. “He came as a stranger into the world, vulnerable to the welcome and rejection of people… He was a guest in many different homes and at numerous meals… Although without a place of his own, he acted as a host to individuals, small groups, and huge crowds, making use of places that were available to him… Sometimes an encounter began with Jesus as a guest, but he later became the host… Jesus’ practices of hospitality were often brief, intense, personal, and countercultural” (Pohl).
The early church, like the community of the Hebrews, continued this tradition, “distinguish[ing] themselves as communities that cared for poor people and strangers, especially strangers who were sick or destitute” (Pohl). They took to heart to “remember those who are in prison… those who are being tortured…” and so on.
And their example was noticed by people outside their own tradition. In an article on hospitality in the Ancient Church, Christine Pohl notes that even a pagan emperor in the fourth century took note of the hospitality of Christians.
“In an effort to reestablish Hellenic religion in the Roman Empire in 362, Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate the Christian concern for strangers and poor people. Referring to Christianity as atheism, he asked, ‘Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?’ He instructed the priest that hostels in every city should be established for strangers and ordered a distribution of food for the poor, strangers, and beggars. He wrote: ‘For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort’” (Pohl).
In the fourth century, the Christian witness through hospitality was so strong that the emperor had taken notice. I wonder what has happened that the wider culture no longer looks to the Church for guidance and inspiration on how to treat those who live on the margins. It seems more likely that government is more apt to look at efforts of faith communities to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and comfort the sick and imprisoned and say, ‘well, they’re doing it, why should we?’
Perhaps hospitality is not understood the way it should be. When we talk about hospitality, I imagine that what comes to mind is less the sharing of a meal or the sheltering of strangers, and more entertaining friends and family at holidays and special occasions. The questions that spring to mind are, “do I have enough appetizers and drinks?” rather than, “do strangers know they are welcome here?”
When we live as people transformed by the cross, we “transform ordinary spaces into places of hospitality and transformation” (Pohl). Our spaces, both personal and public, all become places where Christ’s welcoming and transforming love are able to work. When we “[welcome] people into the ordinary parts of our lives and communities, we keep hospitality from becoming ‘entertaining’ and reduce the stress and expense often associated with it” (Pohl).
It isn’t a complicated venture. This doesn’t take intricate planning and preparation. It is saying to someone you just met, “would you like to come over for lunch after worship?” and worrying less about whether or not you recently vacuumed, and more about whether you have enough chairs.
When we “[share] meals… [we] break down some of the boundaries between private and public space and create threshold places where relationships among strangers can begin… [and we are reminded] that all of us- members, guests, and strangers- are guests at God’s table” (Pohl).
This is a way of living in the world that I grew up with, and E and I are committed to living and passing down to our children. It is an unusual way of being in the world, but it transforms not only us and the people we will meet, but will transform the world itself.
So, if you ever find yourself in the Rochester area, stop on by. The door’s always open. Amen.
Peck, M. Scott. “Rabbi’s Gift Story.” The Different Drum. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Group Dynamics and Community Building. 30 Mar. 2004. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.
Pohl, Christine D. “Building a Place for Hospitality.” Center for Christian Ethics(2007): 27-36. Www.baylor.edu. Baylor University. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.