Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hospitality to Strangers

My memories of Hebrews 13:2 go back to my childhood, and a book that I received from my godparents.  It was called, "Angel Unaware", by Dale Evans Rogers (remember Roy Rogers?) and was about their young daughter who died while she was yet a  child.  I remember the positive message that caring for a sick child turned out to be a blessing and a transformation rather than a hardship.

I suppose that this verse is one of the best known passages of scripture.  It's right up there with, "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever."  Or "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen".  And who wouldn't want to entertain an angel (even though you didn't know it until afterwards)?

But since I am now a student of Biblical languages (especially Greek), and since I have been thinking more deeply (especially lately) about the word "stranger", I can't stop thinking about this passage of scripture.

I start with that really disarmingly short first verse.  "Let mutual love continue."  You know what "mutual love" is in Greek?  Philadelphia.  The city of brotherly love.  So love your brothers and sisters.  That's the first thing.  And that makes sense, right?  Not controversial at all.  Not that I'm saying that it's always EASY, but it makes sense to love "one another."

But the next part -- about showing hospitality to strangers -- well, that's another thing, if you really think about it.  Without any disrespect to Dale Evans Rogers, the word "hospitality to strangers" in Greek is really one word "philoxenia" -- which means "love of the stranger."  To be hospitable is to love the stranger.   And the word entertain?  is the word "xenos" in Greek, which means both to be a host AND to be strange.  To be a good host is -- in a way -- to be strange.  Or maybe -- just maybe -- the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.

This blows my mind.  This blows my mind as an American and a Christian and a pastor.  Partly because when I hear the word "stranger" -- this is a word that I don't associate with angels so much as I do with fear.  Especially these days, but not only these days.  These days we are afraid of the strangers at the border, people whose lives and poverty we cannot seem to imagine.  But most of us -- were at one time strangers and sojourners in this land as well.  We were immigrants from somewhere, poor or hopeful or fleeing oppression.  Most of our families have a story about when they were strangers, when they didn't know the language, when they prayed that someone would be kind, speak slowly, help them count their change in the grocery store, help them find their way in a strange city or a strange neighborhood.

But perhaps the best host knows what it means to be a stranger, and perhaps this applies to the church as well.  We have become too at home here in this world.  We have forgotten what it means to be a stranger, and this affects our ability to truly share the good news.

I remember that long ago, I lived as a missionary in Japan.  I was there to share the gospel, to invite people to the great feast, which is Jesus and his love.  But most of the time, I was a stranger.  I couldn't read the labels on food in the grocery store.  I didn't know how to cook most of the food I found there, at least at first.  I only knew a few other people, who came to Japan with me.  I understood the rhythm of the liturgy, but not the words.   And it seemed to me (although I didn't realize this for a long time) that this was a part of the point.  To be a stranger.  Not to know everything.  Just to know Christ, and him crucified.

We used to get off the trains in our neighborhood, and walk through the streets, smelling the good smells coming from people's houses.  We would joke about knocking on stranger's doors and invite ourselves in for dinner, but we had learned enough Japanese culture to understand that we should never do that.  But we knew that we were vulnerable, and needed help to navigate the world.

Perhaps the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.  I can't help thinking about Jesus, who was guest at so many parties, and how many people thought they knew him, but they didn't.  He was the best host who, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and shared it with his disciples.

The truth is, the world is a strange place, and the Kingdom of God is stranger still.  Love your enemies.  Forgive people, and keep forgiving them.  Be generous.  Give everything away, and you will be rich.  You are deeply flawed, and you are deeply loved.  You are not what you do.  You are not what you buy.   Love the stranger.

There is no "strategy" to mission.  It's just love.  Love one another.  Love the stranger.  Love yourself, in all of your strangeness.  Love Jesus.  After all, the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


The other day a woman I am acquainted with startled me by saying that she has experienced people telling her to "go back where she came from."  I knew that she was born in the United States, so I could not imagine the scenario where someone would say something like that to her.

"When does this happen?" I asked.

"When I am talking to my 92 year old father," she said.

So people assume that, because she is speaking in another language, a language that they perhaps do not understand, that she is somehow less-than.  That she does not belong.

Things like this happen.  A woman from my congregation took her daughter to get her driver's license.  She has an hispanic last name, and the woman at the office asked if she or her daughter had a green card.  She is from CHICAGO.  But for some reason or another, because of the arrangement of certain letters in her name, it is assumed that she is less-than.  That she does not belong.

Like my new acquaintance, the one who speaks to her father in Spanish, and to me in English.  The fact is (and perhaps this is what really makes people uncomfortable) she is not less-than.  She is more-than.  She is bilingual.

I remember going to Disneyland when I was sixteen.  It was a long time ago, and we went on a tour with a number of other first-time visitors to Disneyland.  The tour guide was telling us all about the history of Disneyland, and then, she turned to some other guests sitting next to us, and she started talking to them in French.  I was fascinated.  I couldn't imagine being able to just switch languages like that.  I couldn't imagine being bilingual.

This is the immigrant experience.  It was the experience of my grandparents, on both sides.  My grandma Judy came from Sweden as a young woman, worked as a domestic in Connecticut, and kept her foot in both countries for awhile, traveling back and forth from Sweden to American until she met my grandfather.  She tried to teach us Swedish words.  I only remember a few of them now.

What is it that makes us want to believe that someone else does not belong?  That they are somehow "less-than"?  To know more than one language, more than one culture, more than one reality, is rich and necessary in our world.

I think that to be a follower of Jesus is, in a way, to be an immigrant.  When we take the values of the Kingdom of God seriously, we will realize that there is another language in the world.  It is the language of the Kingdom of God, and sometimes it doesn't make sense.  The kingdom of God speaks of valuing those who seem to be less-than:  the widow, and the orphan and the stranger.  The kingdom of God tells us to pay attention to the small and the vulnerable rather than the powerful and the successful.  The kingdom of God speaks of love that asks nothing in return.

And there are people who might hear that kind of language and say, "Go back to where you came from."

The woman I know who was told, "Go back to where you came from" -- she said that her family is from Patagonia.  She showed me pictures.  It's a beautiful place, where she's from. But she is called to be here now.  She promised to teach me a little Spanish.

The Kingdom of God is a beautiful place.  And more and more I hope to learn the language of that place too.   Every once in awhile I hear a new phrase:  "a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench" -- so different than the language of the other world I live in, where the poor are crushed and turned away.

Someday this world will fall away, and all that will be left is the language of the love of God, and we will see the beauty in those we thought were less-than, and we will be astonished.  In the meantime, we are called to teach each other a few words of the New Language, to be bilingual.