Saturday, September 3, 2016

Angels Among Us 
Hebrews 13:1-7 
August 28, 2016[1]

I. Introduction
Our theme verse for this morning could have been a message on Twitter in 140 characters or less (137 to be exact): “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV) We could simply add a hashtag—maybe something like #angelsamongus—but that would throw us over the 140 character limit. One of the problems that I find in using Twitter is that there is just not enough space within 140 characters to fully deal with the nuances and questions that come up—questions for which the answers aren’t always that clear cut.
I suspect that some of you may have felt that way last Sunday when leaving our Worship Service and discovering outside that some people you didn’t know were seeking financial help. How should Christians respond to requests for help from people we don’t know, especially when we are unsure about their real motives?
II Biblical Teachings about Strangers
Against this backdrop, the biblical direction from our First Lesson this morning is clear. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2).
To our ears, this sounds like a theological sound bite or a Twitter post, in 140 characters or less. To some, it may even have a tone reminiscent of letters from your mother when you first go away from home, reminding you to eat a good breakfast and to sort the darks from the whites when you do laundry.
To the Jewish readers of this letter in the first century, this simple injunction was more than just a moralizing, finger-wagging point in a sermon that was already too long. This statement used a short-hand reference to Jewish history that all Jews at that time would have known and instantly related to. Sort of like referring in our day and age to a reference to George Washington and the cherry tree. Even though most people assume that George Washington did not really cut down the proverbial cherry tree, the very mention of it connects Washington with the idea of honesty, that he couldn’t tell a lie and neither should we.
Most Jews of the day would have immediately remembered the story of Abraham and Sarah and the visit they received from three strangers. You can read about it in Genesis Chapter 18.  Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men—strangers—standing near him. Immediately, Abraham offered them hospitality in a manner that was fitting for the culture and custom of the day. He brought water so they could wash their feet. He had some bread brought to them, butchered and prepared a calf for a meal, stood by them while they ate, and he gave them an opportunity to rest under a nearby tree. Abraham saw it as an honor that these strangers had come to him. Abraham referred to himself as their “servant.” (Genesis 18:5).
It wasn’t long before Abraham learned that these were not ordinary travelers. One told Abraham that Sarah would bear a son. Sarah overheard the conversation and laughed—she was well past the age for bearing children. I don’t think she would have laughed if she knew who was speaking, for it was the Lord who spoke those words, and that the other two strangers were angels, messengers from God.
But the idea of “angels among them” wasn’t the only reason that a Jewish audience would connect with those words. They knew the problems of being strangers in a strange land because the history of the Jewish people has been story of a people on the move. The history of the Jewish people was a history of migration and the Jewish people often found themselves to be the strangers. Abraham himself had left the land of his fathers in search of the land that God had promised to him.
A few generations later, the Children of Israel found themselves living in Egypt, first because they were seeking food in the middle of a famine, and then involuntarily because they were enslaved in Egypt.
When the Lord delivered the Children of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, they began a 40-year long journey. Once again, they were aliens, traveling towards the land that God had promised them.
As the Children of Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses instructed them to remember where they came from. When presenting their offerings to the Lord, they were to remember: “My father was a wandering Aramean…”  (Deuteronomy 26:5).
In other words, the Jewish people were to remember that they too have been strangers, aliens, and they had received hospitality. So also they should provide hospitality to others.
Jesus made the stakes even greater. He told us that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome the Son of Man; we welcome Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus says
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in …
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in …’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40).

III. Problems
All of this sounds fine, at least in theory. It gets more difficult in real life. At least it does for me. Based on the comments I received from some of you concerning our visitors last week, I know that I am not alone. For much of this past week, I have wrestled with questions about how I responded to the people I didn’t know showing up and asking for help.
There is the tension between the call of Jesus to help the poor, the stranger, the “least of these” on the one hand, and the need to be a faithful steward of the funds that have been entrusted to me—whether those funds are my own or the Church’s.
Last week I saw so many red flags that suggested our visitors might not be all that they appeared to be. It seemed too “coincidental” that a family from some other country of origin might just happen to show up in Fluvanna at the end of our service at a time when they knew that those who worshiped had just sung the Lord’s songs, had just prayed, had just heard the Word proclaimed. It seemed too obvious a play on the heartstrings of God’s people.
And yet, I really believe that all of us, including the strangers among us, are Children of God and loved by God, even though all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God loves the strangers among us, too. None of us deserve God’s love.
There just was not enough time last Sunday morning to get all the facts, to properly assess the situation. It just so happened that last Sunday was packed to the hilt with a funeral service, a Habitat for Humanity event, and a church meeting all after the morning Worship Service. Yes, it was a busy enough day that I was not able to sit down with our guests, to listen to them, I didn’t even get their names. I wrestle with the reality that real needs don’t always wait until it is convenient for us to thoroughly evaluate them.
So as I continued to wrestle, I dug into my wallet and pulled out some cash, trying to determine in an instant how much would be too much (after all, I was suspicious) and yet would be compassionate enough, just in case the needs of these guests were real. My motives were some mixed combination of wanting to feel good that I didn’t turn them away but not wanting to give away the store.
IV. The Response of Jesus
Jesus didn’t seem to wrestle with these issues. Just a few weeks ago, we talked about the Parable of the Good Samaritan—the storied response that Jesus gave to a lawyer who, when faced with the command to “love your neighbor as yourself, asked, “Who is my neighbor?” After telling about the three responses of the people who passed by, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor to the victim lying in the street. When the lawyer responded, “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus said “God and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37).
But Jesus didn’t simply tell stories. Jesus gave himself as the example to show us how to respond to the needs of others. While I am debating inside my head about whether these visitors “deserved” our help, I remember that Jesus gave everything for me—He gave His life for me—when I didn’t deserve it. In the words of St. Paul, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8). Paul exhorts us to “let this same mind be in [us] that also was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5).
V. Application
If the goal I am to be reaching for is to have that same mind of Jesus, I find that I have a long way to go. I suspect that I have company—friends traveling on the same spiritual journey, friends who join with me, who join with none other than St. Paul, who acknowledged, “not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12, 14).
My goal is to love in the way that Jesus loved—not because I want to earn God’s love, but because God has loved me even though I didn’t and I don’t deserve it. “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
I you share my concern about how we as the people of God can share with others the love we don’t deserve but we have received anyway, I invite you to join in a conversation. I would like to suggest that we meet next Sunday after the worship service to continue the conversation on this tough issue. As you can see, there are not easy answers.
But there is a promise, a promise that the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4). In fact, we just might discover Him, together with his angels, walking and living among us.
May it be so!

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

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