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.

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