ENTERTAINING ANGELS

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 

On Tuesday morning I heard a radio program about a small village in Italy.  Like many small communities in Nova Scotia, Riace has experienced significant out-migration over the decades as people “head down the road” for work.  The few remaining locals refer to it as a “place to grow up” and then leave.  The mayor had a village filled with empty houses and very few prospects.  So he developed the idea of welcoming refugees and housing them in the many empty buildings.  Remember, this is at a time when many European politicians are calling for walls to be built to keep migrants out and numerous right-wing parties are riding on the waves of anti-immigrant fear.  In contrast, the narrow streets of Riace are home to people from a dozen different African and Middle Eastern countries.  They are people who have fled terror, war and persecution.  It’s not perfect – the economic challenges are still present.  But hundreds of people have a realistic hope of a better life because of Riace’s hospitality – and the town has new life, vibrancy and hope.

What comes to your mind when you imagine hospitality?  When we travel, Heather and I like to stay at B&Bs.  But the differences between B&Bs can be quite striking.  A place may have fine rooms, lovely sheets, great food and still have hosts – actually they’re more like owners – who give the distinct impression that you’re more of a problem than a guest.  It becomes purely a financial interaction.  In other places – the majority I hasten to add – the owners are more like hosts.  They make you feel welcome, they ask about your day, they share the little-known gems of the community.  So you feel welcome.  Even someone like me, who’s not really wired for a lot of touchy-feely stuff, notices the difference.

In our reading from Genesis today, Abraham is dozing in the entrance to his tent in the mid-day heat.  Desert temperatures can be brutal so work is done before and after what the Spanish call siesta.  Abraham is not on a solo camping trip with his pup tent.  He and his extended family and all their flocks and herds have been travelling for 25 years, moving from place to place seeking water and forage.  This day, three travellers appear out of the shimmering heat haze.  No one travels in the mid-day heat.  It’s suicide!  But here they are.  Abraham’s training kicks into gear.  Hospitality is a sacred obligation in many parts of the world.  In ancient times, with no restaurants and few inns, the very survival of travellers depended on the hospitality of strangers.  In response, many of the great religious traditions specify hospitality as a duty of believers.  It is still practiced among the Bedouin of the Sahara.

So Abraham sees these travellers and his training ramps into high gear.  “Honour us with a visit.  Have a little something to eat.”  Have you ever had that experience where “a little something to eat” turns into a 2000 calorie meal?  In some places, when you’re invited for “tea” be sure to bring your appetite along because it’s a lot more than “a cuppa and a couple of bikkies”.   Abraham’s community provides veal and yogurt and milk and bread baked from the finest flour, because welcoming guests in appropriate style is an important matter of honour.

Hospitality is one of the great themes of the bible.  When the Hebrew people escape from slavery, God gives them food and water in the desert and then commands them through holy law to do the same.  They are to love the sojourner, says Deuteronomy, “for you yourselves were once sojourners in Egypt.”  In the NT Jesus teaches us that acts of hospitality are actually prime indicators of our relationship with God.  He says: “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me a drink; a stranger and you welcomed me.”  We have had it brought to our attention in a forceful way in recent weeks with the floods of desperate refugees fleeing Syria, the practice of hospitality can be, literally, a matter of life and death.  

Media reports suggest that significant numbers of Canadians – individuals, families, groups and organizations (including churches) are stepping up to provide hospitality to refugees.  That is consistent with Canada’s history.  In 1913 Canada admitted 400,000 migrants.  In comparative terms, that would be almost two million today or seven times our current rate.  In 1956 we admitted 37,000 Hungarian refugees.  Between 1978 and 1981 25% of all immigrants were refugees.  That compares with less than 10% in recent years.  Today, however, bringing in a refugee family can take as long as nine years.  Australia, on the other hand, has pledged to bring in 12,000 Syrians by Christmas, compared to Canada’s 10,000 over three years.  What does hospitality look like?

And what exactly is it – this thing we call hospitality?  In the first instance, hospitality involves offering food, drink and shelter to the stranger.  But it is actually a much richer concept.  It is an attitude, a habit of the heart that we can cultivate and nurture and from which rich actions naturally flow.  The truth is, hostility toward folk who are different from us is a very natural human reaction.  It’s wired into the most primitive part of our brains.  We are reared to be wary of strangers.  Our Christian task is to turn the stranger into a guest.  Of course, if it was as easy to do as it is to say, then Jesus would never have had to command it!

I heard once of a sociology professor who had an odd course requirement.  Once a month students had to take a “cultural plunge.”  They had to put themselves somewhere they would not normally go, amongst people they would not normally choose to be with.  Once they got there, the students couldn’t just sit back and watch – as if the strangers were animals in the zoo.  They had to jump in and participate in whatever was going on.  What would that be like for you?  Where would you have to go for such a “plunge”?  The person telling the story remembered going to the racetrack to join the feverish betting; attending a midnight showing of the cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show;  being at a soup kitchen with homeless people; participating in a First Nations sweat lodge; and going to a meeting of the African Violet Society.

The idea is this: if we put ourselves in unfamiliar environments over and over again, our hostility to strangers will gradually fall away.  We’ll begin to realize the people – even those who look and act differently – are people just as we are.  Like the little town of Riace it is easy to become ingrown, defensive, inwardly focussed.  It gets easy to divide strangers into two groups, like us and not like us – and fear the latter.  Some times, we go so far as to try and summarize a person in one phrase: he’s an alcoholic; she’s divorced; he’s an ex-con; they’re from away; they go to a different church – or no church.  It’s as if that one dimension sums up an entire person.  As if they are not complex, multi-faceted people with a rich history – as we imagine ourselves to be.

Take a moment and speak to the person sitting next to you – hopefully not the person you came with.  I’d like you to share your answer to this question: “What does it feel like to receive genuine hospitality?’  You have a couple of minutes to do that now

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There’s a story told in a variety of settings that goes like this.  A famous Zen Buddhist teacher received a guest from a Western country who came to inquire about Buddhism and talked incessantly.  The Zen master politely served tea.  But as he poured it, he filled the guest’s cup and continued to pour.  Tea overflowed everywhere.  Finally the guest cried out: “Stop.  It’s overfull,  No more will go in.”  The teacher replied: “Like this cup you are also overfull of  of your own opinions and speculations, of your own thoughts and desires.  How can I show you Zen unless you first make room?”

Which brings us to the final requirement of hospitality; perhaps the hardest of all.  Yes, we need to set aside hostility and suspicion.  But we also need to create an open space, some emptiness into which the stranger can move and find room.  Imagine you invited someone to visit you at home.  You open the door but refuse to step out of the way.  You just stand there.  You could carry on a wonderful conversation there in the doorway but how welcome would they feel?  Hospitality means not just making room physically – but spiritually and psychologically too.

Think of someone you know who is so full of themselves that there is no room for others.  They are full of their own ideas and certain that those ideas are absolutely correct.  The entire encounter with them is them directing, controlling, dominating the exchange.  There is no room, no free space, for your ideas, no space for your thoughts.  Their cup is too full.  Sometimes the church is like that: so eager to talk about the wonderful things we’re doing, or how we’ve always done it this way, or the list of expectations or rules the newcomer has to follow.  So there is no room for the stranger’s hopes, dreams, or ideas.

Or think of the person who is so consumed by their own needs that they cannot meet you as a person but only as a resource.  “What can you do for me?”  “What can I get from you?”  You get the feeling that they’re really not listening to you but only thinking what they can do with what you’re saying.  You feel invisible and unwelcome, except as a means to their ends.  Churches can project that, treating every new face as a potential resource to meet the congregation’s needs.  Not an attractive welcome.  However, I will say something in defence of church communities.  It is sometimes difficult to know what a newcomer wants and expects.  I have had people leave the same congregation with these two statements: “Nobody asked me to do anything.” “They kept trying to get me involved in stuff.”  So the newcomer needs to take some responsibility for their own wishes and letting others know.  But the broad point is valid: the stranger is to be welcomed for their own worth, not because of what they can do for us.

Then there are those people who, as hosts, simply receive and welcome.  They are just there.  They are comfortable enough in themselves to make room for you.  Not threatened by new ideas or different possibilities.  They suspend their judgments.  They give those they meet the benefit of the doubt.  They take time, open their hearts and invite others in.

That’s hospitality.  That’s what Abraham gave.  It’s a disposition of the soul that may result in concrete acts: food, drink, shelter for example.  But it is much more.  it begins with letting go of suspicion;  suspending judgments; cultivating an open, spacious and welcoming heart.  The little Italian town of Riace has been changed because of the welcome it gave.  And Abraham and Sarah, they welcomed angels and had a child in their old age, their fondest dream realized.  How about you?