Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost Proverbs 16:18-20, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, Luke 14:1, 7-14
In the fall of 2013, Clarence died.
I had met him in 2011 on a bench in front of the office the church I was serving. He was an alcoholic, and was often laid out on the bench somewhere between awake and asleep. He smelled bad and would gaze at people with starving eyes, hungry for a connection. The pastor I served challenged me to buy him lunch one day. I was 20 and had no idea how to talk to an older homeless alcoholic african-american man born and raised in the Fourth Ward of Annapolis.
I had sat on this challenge, to buy him lunch, for about a week before I finally had the courage and occasion to reach out to this man and buy him lunch.
I said hello, and he greeted me warmly. I asked if he was hungry, and said as it happened I was on my way to lunch, would you like to join me.
We walked over to the Subway across the street where he ordered a sandwich stuffed with every kind of chili and pickle available on the counter. It was an unsufferably hot day, so we ate at the bar stools by the window.
The smell of urine and sweat was quite pungent.
Clarence went by the name C-Note, as in a $100 bill. He told me that he had been a hustler in his youth, always well-supplied with cash.
But when I knew him, he was a lonely old man slumped against the walls of the smart offices complexes which are the homes of lawyers offices and political consultancy groups. We would sit together on the street and he would pull out a worn paperback bible and read from it to me. I suppose he wanted me to know that he knew the Lord, and loved him deeply. He wanted me to know that despite how he looked, he knew this was not the life he was supposed to live.
That summer of 2011 was the beginning of my ministry in Annapolis, but I had to leave and finish my theological studies. He came to my farewell cook-out, where he met the many friends I had made during my time here. He was drunk and he smelled bad, as usual.
I spent the next three years or so in England studying and working. I’d often get updates from the pastor I had served, videos of Clarence greeting me. I noticed that he was developing a large abscess on his neck, the kind of thing easily treated, but his life was too chaotic to get to a clinic. One day as the weather was turning from autumn to winter in 2013 Pastor Joey called me to tell me that Clarence had died.
I had promised him that I would see him again, as I had known that I was called to be in America. It wasn’t to be. C-Note, with his faith and his struggles, with his vivid history of the Annapolis I never get to see, with his welcoming presence, departed this life. He died of poverty, of being an alcoholic, and of having no one to care for him. He was surrounded by a community which had welcomed him in, had served him and kept his company, yet his life still ended early and in pain.
The writer to the Hebrews instructs the reader: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
A stray verse, especially one as potent as this one, can be a very dangerous thing indeed.
It becomes enormously tempting to weave small phrases like this one into an unconverted and unconsidered worldview, as a kind of garnish on an otherwise secure and secular lifestyle. It often goes hand-in-hand with a kind of philanthropy, which appears to be self-giving, but in truth is a kind of self-aggrandizement and control. Control of others, or control of how others see us.
Perhaps you remember the images of the three year old Alan Kurdi, his body washed up on a beach in Turkey, blue shorts and a red t-shirt. This was a horrifying sight to those of us who were living in Europe at the time. The image of the child was shared virally on Social Media and was blown up on the front pages of newspapers.
What will we do? Asked the collective masses. This tragedy cannot happen again. In the aftermath of this millions was donated towards the safety of migrants fleeing Syria and leaders made bold promises and proclamations, as they are expected, I suppose.
Now of course whenever people wring their hands and clutch their metaphorical pearls, real change occurs. This is why a rescue boat full of migrants picked up making the dangerous crossing the Mediterranean spent 19 days this summer unable to find a dock to accept them, just four years after the tragic death of little Alan Kurdi.
The bumbling silence and muffled moans of vague concern which have surrounded this story might be illustrative of an uncomfortable truth about human nature: We are easily embarrassed into action, as it was certainly embarrassing to see Alan Kurdi all over the news. Was the widespread public response about the plight of migrants, or was it about saving face?
The kind of action generated by shame often makes promises it cannot keep and seeks to do good to others only inasmuch as it serves the needs of the one giving the charity. It is also a kind of action which is strange to us who belong to the household of faith, because it has nothing to do with God, who is the source of all love and charity.
Remember the writer to the Hebrews said Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
They did not say “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby you and everyone else will know that you are a good person”
Nor did they say, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby the world will be a kinder and more gentle place”
Many people devote themselves to good works of various kinds believing that in so doing the world will be a better place, or that thereby they can prove themselves to be morally good, upstanding, and worthwhile.
That would be a strange thing for a community of people who know that the only hope for the world is for God to miraculously bring about his Kingdom, and that apart from God’s grace, there is no health within themselves.
The Church is a people called out from the world, awakened to the knowledge of their own sinfulness and have therefore cast their hope on the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, and follow in his way anticipating and beckoning the glorious day when Christs perfect kingdom is established throughout all creation.
This is understood by the Writer of Hebrews, who just a couple of verses before what we read today says: Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
The certain future of the Kingdom of God is what frames the Writer’s next instructions:
Let brotherly love continue.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
Upon reading and hearing these words my first inclination is not to think of God, but about myself. For I come from a generation where God functionally does not exist, and all that matters is living a comfortable and enjoyable life here. And there is a way of conforming how we are reading these moral instructions, as elsewhere in the New Testament, as a way of guaranteeing for ourselves a safe and pleasant life. Being kind and welcoming to outsiders, being considerate of those who are imprisoned, being faithful to our spouses or if we do not have a spouse the not entwining our lives in physical and romantic relationships unless we are prepared to make that a lifelong commitment, and learning to enjoy what we have rather than pine for ever more riches.
But that is not a life which has any need for God. It barely acknowledges him. The writer to the Hebrews desires to transform the reader’s conception of the mundane, for the mundane is how most of our lives are going to be spent.
Indeed, when a chapter earlier we read: let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, it is here in chapter 13 that we get a good look at the track on which we are running, and the kind of regular exercise which will be profitable to make us able to live the faithful life for which we have been redeemed.
We are first reminded that we are in a family, and the love that we share is the love of siblings who belong to one-another. We, the church, are the household of God’s children and so when we are asked to be hospitable to strangers, the stranger becomes not only those who are not demographically alike us, but could even be our own blood relatives, or those we see at our places of work, as well as the addicts and mentally ill who wander our streets or those who speak a different language from us. Are we called to be hospitable to them because thereby we can ensure that we maintain control, that we can place ourselves in the position of benevolent host, and them as meek supplicant? No, we are called to practice hospitality because God was a stranger to us, and has come into the rooms of our hearts. Our hospitality is a witness that we who are Christians were once estranged from our maker, but now are friends.
We remember the imprisoned and the mistreated because our Lord was imprisoned and mistreated, and because many of our sisters and brothers in the household of God ensure this kind of suffering. We witness to the fact that we belong to one-another in Christ, despite what the judgement and scorn of the world says.
We maintain our fidelity and chastity because God is faithful to us, never leaving or abandoning his people. That failure of fidelity is a gross offense to God because it is a visible betrayal of the faithfulness with which he has loved us.
We do not seek for riches because we trust that God will provide for us.
And from this foundation of well-practiced love, welcome, faithfulness, and trust we are often able to step up and encounter the unlovely, inhospitable, unreliable, and untrustworthy and give of ourselves knowing that if the Lord is our helper, no true harm can come to us.
It is this kind of well-practiced faith which seemed to be lacking in those who, in their embarrassment, lept to “solve” the “crisis” of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean sea, and just four years later stare at their feet as another boat is rejected at every dock, for they were easily overwhelmed and lacked the spiritual imagination to conceive of the kind of response which would be generated from real intimacy with the Lord knowledge of his ability to keep his people safe and bring about the fullness of his kingdom in the ways he alone is able.
I welcomed Clarence, or C-Note into my life for a brief time, and I did so believing that I could be the one to see him free from his addiction to alcohol, and help him find ways the fulfill his vocation as a part of this community, and live more securely and prosperously. It was the wise guidance of my pastor and the witness of the people of God which reminded me that I have no power to bring about the salvation of anyone else, but rather my place is to be a witness and to lean securely upon God’s strength and help. I loved him and gave of myself when I could, yet he still died in his state. In the world’s eyes this might have been a waste of time and effort, a lost cause, an uncooperative client or bad patient. But this not how one with a knowledge of the Kingdom of God sees him. One who longs for the Kingdom of God, and hopes in God’s help, will receive such a person with all their ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity, with arms open in faith, knowing already that it is not the place of the Christian to change the world, but rather to be a living witness to the one who will.
Our world is beset by insurmountable horrors, and it is very tempting to look to the Scriptures for a prescription, a cure for these evils. Yet when we do this we forget the journey of our own conversions, how Jesus sought out sinners and welcomed them into his friendship, and by grace changed their hearts, and persists faithfully with them to bring them to the Kingdom which is to come. Our secure trust in God’s care for his Church can make us bold to live lives of self-emptying love, to take enormous risks with our finances or security or futures. It is this witness which shows the world that there is a God, for they will look on us as mad, and when they look again they will see that we have not been discouraged or crushed, but have persisted in our lives and loves because God has helped us and helps us still.
Perhaps if the people of Europe had lived in a close proximity with the people of God living such a life, they too may have found the courage to have faith in God’s care and wisdom, and perhaps would have found ways to face the crisis on their shores with an imagination for a different way of navigating those challenges. I suppose we cannot say what might have been different, and now that moment is fading into history. Yet our neighbors, those who are strangers to us, are always looking for a secure hope and certain future.
May we by our mundane lives of reliance on an invisible God, make visible the truth that God is for them, and desires to come into their house and dwell faithfully with them through the myriad trials of this life, even unto the end of days when the Kingdom finally appears in all its fullness.
So today let us love our sisters and brothers, let us welcome the stranger, let us be faithful and chaste, let us let go of our reliance on wealth for security, and look to those who have walked before us in the faith, and in so doing make it known to the world that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.