Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 & Luke 14:1, 7-14
I’m a fan of the TV series “Outlander,” which airs on Starz. Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Gabaldon, this show features a nurse who travels through time from Scotland in 1945 to Scotland in 1743, and chronicles her adventures as she at first tries to get back to her husband in 1945, but then ends up marrying a man in 1743. Yeah, it’s a complicated plot, but well worth the effort. In the episode where she marries the Scottish man in 1743, there is a scene where two clansmen are trying to convince the priest to perform the wedding. One of the men ends up arguing Scripture verses with the priest, and uses one of our verses from Hebrews today to make his point. Let’s take a look. Note that this particular clip is not available on You Tube; I used my personal DVD copy. It can be found in Season 1, Episode 8 of “Outlander,” titled “The Wedding.” It may be available on Starz.com, or the Starz app.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Now, as we saw in the end of the scene, it wasn’t Scripture that convinced this priest to perform the wedding, or even the idea of extending hospitality rather than obeying the letter of the law, but instead, the promise of windows for his church in order to keep it warm. Sometimes practical considerations win out over the rightness or wrongness of a request. But the reason that I showed this today is because when it comes to showing hospitality, we sometimes get caught up in what we think is right or wrong according to different portions of Scripture or what church tradition tells us. Here is one example: practices surrounding Holy Communion. It used to be common that people did not receive Holy Communion until they were confirmed. That was accepted teaching and church tradition. Then, it was recognized that children who were younger than 7th and 8th graders could understand what Holy Communion was about, and we began to educate 4th and 5th graders about Holy Communion and let them come to the table. Then, we began to think, “Yes, we have our doctrine: that the body and the blood of Christ are in, with, and under the bread and the wine. But do any of us really understand how that works? It is a mystery and since communion is also a sign that Jesus loves us, and even the youngest children can understand that much, let’s welcome everyone, regardless of age, to take part in the meal.” These changes have not come easily for many congregations, and there has been much discussion over the years about hospitality vs. accepted church teaching. And here at Hope, things have changed in just the few years that I have been here, and I think that we have done well in responding to the urging of the Holy Spirit as we have begun to allow all people, regardless of age, to come and take part in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But could the Holy Spirit be urging us to do even more to show hospitality to those who are different from us?
Hospitality means more than being friendly. We here at Hope are a pretty friendly group of people, so if we think hospitality is just being friendly and welcoming, then we’re doing great. But hospitality really means making room for the other person, even inconveniencing ourselves so that the other person has space with us. Our verse from Hebrews today talks about “entertaining angels without knowing it”. This is a reference to the story from Genesis where three visitors come to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham did not just invite them in and pull the best food that he had out of the refrigerator. He invited them in and then told Sarah to bake bread. How many of you have baked bread from scratch before? I have; it’s an all-day affair, and that’s with an electric stove, which this couple certainly did not have. Then Abraham goes out to his herd and picks the best calf, butchers it, and cooks it for his guests. I’ve never butchered an animal before—and I don’t really want to—but I’m guessing that it takes hours to do this. And then Abraham sets the food before his visitors and stands by them as a servant. In order to show true hospitality to his visitors, to make room for them, Abraham makes these strangers the master, and he becomes the servant.
Hospitality is not easy. Hospitality is inconvenient. Hospitality means humbling ourselves and not taking the highest place at the table, as Jesus tells us today, but taking the lowest place at the table. Hospitality can even mean admitting that we were wrong about something. One of the memorials that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted in New Orleans earlier this month was a repudiation of the doctrine of discovery. The doctrine of discovery originated in papal bulls in the 15th century which gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian monarchs. If the “pagan” inhabitants of those lands (that is, Native Americans) could be converted, they would be allowed to live. If they could not be converted, these papal bulls said, then it was okay to make them slaves or to kill them. This doctrine of discovery was enshrined in American law in a Supreme Court case in 1823, and has been used as recently as 2005 in court decisions. Some people have asked what good it would do for the ELCA to repudiate such a thing. Bishop Guy Erwin of the Southwest California Synod, himself a member of the Osage Nation, made this statement in answer to that question:
“One might well ask why a symbolic action like this is important for our church to take—after all: We can’t undo what has been done to native people in our nation’s long and complex history.
We can’t return what has been taken away from some and given to others.
We can’t, by an action like this, heal or repair the harm still felt by the native population—who suffer disproportionately from poverty and its effects: despair, malnutrition, and suicide.
But we can say, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that for us and for our house, we will no longer participate in the great lie that has declared native lives to be of lesser value than those of European settlers.
We can say that we will no longer promote the destructive myth that North America was an essentially empty land, waiting to be filled by God with industrious settlers.
We can say that we value and celebrate the lives and cultures of native people, as we did last night when we let the Houma tribe welcome us to their land, and not we them to our assembly.
And we can acknowledge that our nation–born for liberty and pressing ever toward equality and justice—was founded in tragedy: in dispossession, depopulation, and imported slavery. We cannot advance justice today by forgetting injustice yesterday.
But today, as the ELCA—as the church—we can draw a symbolic line under this tragic legacy, reject this racist notion, and tell the whole world what we have done.
This we can do. Amen.”
In this case, humbling ourselves and admitting we have been wrong in the past makes room for those whom we have wronged to have a more honored place at the table. This is a radical kind of hospitality that makes us uncomfortable. How would it feel for us to sit beside people whom we have personally wronged and from whom we have just asked for forgiveness? Pretty awkward, yes? But that is the kind of radical hospitality that God is asking from us. It’s the kind of hospitality that Jesus shows to us: we have crucified him with our sins, and yet, he forgives us and invites us to come and sit beside him at the table, and he feeds us with his own body and blood.
So, how can we show this kind of radical hospitality to others here in Powell? Well, my first suggestion is to listen. And not just pretend to listen, but to really listen to the other person and try to put ourselves in his or her shoes. Very often, when we’re hearing something we don’t agree with, we are not really listening to the other person. Instead, we are formulating our own argument against what the other person is saying, and are getting ready to come back with a, “Yeah, but. . .” statement. Let’s forget the “Yeah, but’s”. Let’s instead listen to the other person, especially the other person who is different from us, and truly hear what the other person has to say. Let’s even take a few moments to reflect on what that person has said before we respond. We might hear something that is uncomfortable for us to hear, but also something that we need to hear and take to heart; something that can be a catalyst for a needed change. Listening in this way is one way we make room for the other person to come into our lives.
On Friday and Saturday I went to the Wind River Indian Reservation for a board meeting of the Wyoming Association of Churches. We met at the Wind River Indian Baptist Church, which is a small church building on the reservation. In this building, on the first night, I and others with me were the guests as board members from the Wind River Native Advocacy Center cooked a good barbecue dinner for us. I heard reports from each of the members who were there about the work they were doing: working to restore buffalo to the reservation; working to educate the people there about their legal right to vote; working to improve parenting skills; working to implement a vigorous recycling program on the reservation. I heard how they are fighting back against poverty and racism and working to become full, participating citizens of a country where their people have lived for a lot longer than we European-Americans have lived. Before I came to Wyoming, I don’t think I’d ever met a Native American. Now, through my experiences on both the Wind River and Rocky Boy’s reservations, Native Americans have faces to me. They are people who want many of the things I take for granted. I hope that I have now made space for them in my heart, and that, in the future, I can extend hospitality to them.
Jesus tells us that we are to invite those people to our table who are not able to repay us in kind: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Who are those people in our community? Native Americans? Refugees? Homeless? Yes, and probably more categories than I can name. How are we making space for these people in our hearts and at our table? Are we listening to what the talking heads on the news programs are telling us and becoming more polarized every day? Are we ranting about something on Facebook or in the online comments section of a news article anonymously so that we don’t have to engage with the other person? Or are we truly listening to one another’s ideas and making space for the other person in our hearts and at our table, even when we don’t agree with them? These are hard questions that we need to ask ourselves as we seek to find ways to serve in the community of Powell. Let’s continue to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we seek to extend radical and inconvenient hospitality to others. Amen.