Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A September Sermon: Welcoming Strangers and Entertaining Angels

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at Christ Church Cambridge on 1 September 2013. The readings for the day are available here.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

When I woke up this morning, and glanced over at the calendar on my wall, I realized that it is time to tear off the page called “August,” and stare “September” in the face.  I don’t know about you, but I do this with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, there is a certain sadness that summer, for all practical purposes, is over.  All those novels we intended to read will have to wait for another time, those lazy days sitting on the beach or by a lake are now behind us, and although we’d like to deny it, we’re beginning to notice that the days are getting just a little bit shorter as the sun sets a tad earlier each evening. 
On the other hand, September means autumn, one of the most glorious seasons of all.  In these past few weeks we’ve already had a preview of the deliciously crisp air that fall brings, as the humidity and heat of summer begin to recede.  And, as the night air becomes almost chilly, we remember how sweet it is to sleep more deeply with windows open to dry, cool breezes. 
But September is special for another reason:  it means the beginning of school.  I have served my entire ordained career in schools – first as a chaplain to an elementary school, then at a middle and high school, and now as a chaplain at Harvard – and I confess that one of the many reasons I am drawn to the academic world is because of the fresh start that each school year brings.
The start of a school year is like a little resurrection.  Whatever mistakes were made last year are now forgiven; whatever disappointments we may have experienced then we now see were occasions for growth and learning; and instead of being weighed down by the past and what has been, we behold a marvelously open year ahead of us, full of promise, another chance at growing into that person God is calling us to be.  Whether we are students, teachers, or staff, we all share in this sense of newness and re-birth.
The rhythm of life in a parish like this one is not that different.  Modeled after the academic year, we organize our church life around a program year that also begins in September – and thus, we kick off our new year at Christ Church next Sunday.  And so, the parish and the University have in common this time of transition, as we together leave the summer behind and move into a new season of possibility.
During this past week, I was invited by both the Freshmen Dean’s Office and the graduate student dean to represent the Harvard Chaplains in orientation programs for new students, as well as for residential advisors and proctors who will be responsible for overseeing residential life at Harvard.  One of the primary topics we discussed is the importance of community as one of the foundations of a healthy University.  My own contribution to that discussion was to offer up the biblical practice of ‘hospitality’ – which is the theme of today’s readings – as an essential aspect of creating communities of genuine human flourishing.
‘Hospitality’ is one of those words that has lost some of its original meaning.  For some, it evokes images of genteel sweetness, polite conversation, perhaps some tea and finger sandwiches – a tame and pleasant practice, something your grandmother might insist upon, but nothing of real substance.  For others, it is a word that has been hijacked by the hotel industry only become just another buzz word in a Holiday Inn slogan.
But the biblical foundations of the concept of ‘hospitality’ are far richer and deeper than these contemporary connotations.  The underlying Greek word literally means ‘love of the strange.’  And, the Hebrews were from the beginning strangers, wanderers in search of home, a nomadic people dependent upon the hospitality of others for shelter, protection, and the basic stuff of life.  Even when the Hebrews inherited the Promised Land after their time in Egypt, God constantly reminded them that this land of plenty ultimately was not theirs but a shared gift.  They were merely caretakers, stewards, living on the land by God’s grace.
And because the Hebrew people deeply understood what it means to be a stranger, to be vulnerable, to be outside the power structures, they were able to emerge from this experience of vulnerability with an authentic appreciation for their God’s imperative of hospitality.   
We are all familiar with the two great biblical commandments – to love our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Yet, the rabbis remind us that neither of these are the most frequently uttered commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, but rather the slightly different admonition that “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”   This appears some 36 times in the Books of Moses. 
In Jesus’ life and ministry, of course, this ethic of hospitality takes on an incarnational reality of even greater urgency and subversiveness.  Jesus eats with tax collectors, touches and cares for lepers, forgives prostitutes, gives hope to the poor, defends the weak and the widowed, and weeps with those in mourning.  Jesus’ ministry is at its core about unreserved welcome.  It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the central images of Jesus’ ministry is the shared meal around a table where all are invited, where no one is turned away, and where those at the table are urged, as we are urged in today’s gospel reading, to make room for others, especially for the lowliest among us. It is in hospitality such as this, Jesus assures us, that we find true blessing. 
So, when the author of the letter to the Hebrews in today’s epistle lesson urges us not to neglect hospitality, for in showing hospitality to the stranger many have entertained angels without knowing it, he is drawing on a long and powerful theological tradition.  Through hospitality to others, we not only imitate God’s welcome to us, but often are surprised to find ourselves in the company of God’s messengers.
Sadly, the wider world in which we live is defined more by hostility than hospitality.  Not only is our world wracked by horrible violence – the dire situation in Syria is only the most recent reminder of this – but even more subtly, our world is increasingly filled with fearful, aggressive, and suspicious people who anxiously cling to their possessions, their money, their status, and their position, because they view these things as their only protection against a hostile and insecure world.  In turn, the message the world consistently sends is that life is a zero-sum game of haves and have-nots, that life’s goal should be to end up with the haves, and that the clearest markers of success in this race are to wear the right clothes, own the right things, have the right kind of body, vacation in the right places, pursue a powerful career path, hang with the right crowd and not be caught dead with the wrong one.  Indeed, central to the world’s message is the construction of complex social barriers and boundaries of identity that are intended to separate the right people from the wrong people. 
You do not have to live in such a world for very long to begin to feel anxious, threatened, insecure, inadequate, afraid, unwelcome – in a word, a stranger.  I worry that too many of our students, and too many of us, live in this place of estrangement and dis-ease.
One of the central missions of our Church – whether it be this parish or our Chaplaincy – is to expose this message from the world as a false and destructive one, to live into a different system of valuing and honoring people, and to hold up an alternative model of hospitable human relationship.  To use the words of Catholic writer Henri Nouwen, in truly Christian community we want to create a “free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Such hospitality is not designed to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. . . .  It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way.  The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.  Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find her own way.”[1]
As part of our Chaplaincy’s renewed commitment to being a ministry of hospitality, I am delighted to share this morning some exciting news.  As you may know, our Chaplaincy owns a beautiful, old house just two doors down from the Church at Two Garden Street.  Donated to the Chaplaincy by Christ Church well over fifty years ago, the house was originally intended to serve as a center of Episcopal life for the Harvard community.  Sadly, because of financial pressures, several decades ago the Chaplaincy’s Board was compelled to lease out the house to others (first to Harvard University for administrative offices, and then for the last decade, to a social club on campus) in order to generate sufficient income to support the Chaplaincy’s operations. During this time, the Chaplaincy moved its campus ministry into the basement of Two Garden Street, from which it has been operating for over twenty years.  Now, however, all of that is about to change, as the Chaplaincy moves to re-claim and re-purpose this glorious, old house.
Starting in January 2014, the Chaplaincy will cease renting out the house so that we can embark upon a bold new partnership with the diocese’s young adult ministry, Life Together.   Seven Life Together fellows will be living on the upper floors of our house in an intentional residential community, while they serve 10-month fellowships helping local parishes and nonprofits to develop meaningful social justice and outreach programs.  At the same time these fellows move into the upper floors, the Chaplaincy will move its offices and common student space to the main floor of the house to create a vibrant and welcoming space for our ministry to Harvard students.  Starting in January, Two Garden will thus be a redeemed space of authentic hospitality, where Harvard students and Life Together interns will be able to worship together, share meals and conversation, serve the wider community together, host exciting programs, and teach and learn from one another.
Our dream is that through this exciting new partnership between a venerable campus ministry and a dynamic young adult ministry, the house at Two Garden Street will become what it was originally intended to be:  a visibly active and profoundly welcoming center for Episcopal life at Harvard.   We want our house to be a place where Christian leaders – both Harvard students and other young adults from the diocese and beyond – are formed and nurtured.  We are optimistic about the many growth opportunities that this bold experiment will offer and we invite this parish to be an active participant in helping us to build this new community.  We are not quite sure of all of the details, but we are confident in the promise of our future and trust in the Spirit’s guidance.
So, as we look forward to the year ahead, and to starting afresh as both parish and Chaplaincy communities, my prayer for us all is that we renew our commitment to being a welcoming and hospitable people, always remembering that we too were once strangers in a foreign place.  Who knows, by practicing the hospitality we preach, maybe we will find, in the phrasing of the old King James Version, that we have “entertained angels unawares.”  Amen.

      [1]        Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (London:  HarperCollins, 1990), p. 49.

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