Monday, August 29, 2016

Hidden angels

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

Frank[1] drank his coffee strong and black, and he liked bacon hot from the pan.  He was indifferent when it came to fried eggs and couldn’t quite see the point of buttered toast. 
I learned the menu well for Frank’s annual visit when I was the rector in Cooperstown, New York.  In Cooperstown, we had what we called “the August people,” who head out from New York and Boston to escape the late summer heat beside our shimmering lake.  Frank was one of them, coming every year for a day or two when August turns into September.  Unlike those other August people, who spent the night between the fine linen sheets of the Otesaga Hotel, Frank bedded down on the couch in Saint Agnes Chapel.
Frank, you see, was a hobo. 
I guess “transient” is the proper term, or “homeless person,” but hobo has more dignity to it, and that’s the one thing Frank had never lost.  He was “king of the road,” planning his journeys to take in the best weather and the most interesting company.  He still whistled and loved to tell stories and valued the freedom his way of life provided. 
Saint Agnes Chapel had never been fitted with a lock, so we had hobos from time to time.  By the time I came in to read Morning Prayer most were long gone, but Frank was a late riser and he joined in the prayers.  The first time I asked if I could make him some breakfast, he politely refused, but eventually it became a routine.  At first, Frank would eat his meal alone in the Chapel.  But eventually, he trusted me enough to eat together at the picnic table on the Rectory porch.   Once you got him started, Frank was a fount of tales about the road, observations about society, slightly bizarre religious opinions. 
Frank was wise to be wary of me, he’d been battered around enough by those in charge, but he came to trust me, I think.  My hospitality grew from something offered up mostly because it was the right thing to do into a deeper kind of fellowship, a pleasure in each other’s company.  We sometimes still fished around a bit to find an unaccustomed way of getting our point across.  We each knew that we were reaching across a divide, and that’s never easy.
The last time I saw him, Frank came to the Rectory door, and I think he had something to tell me.  But I was busy, not ready for a visitor.  I don’t remember what it was now.  Maybe I needed to pick up the children or finish a task around the house.  There just wasn’t time to sit and chat.  Did he need something, I asked, some food or some money for medicine again?  Maybe we could talk in the morning, when things weren’t so pressing, I said.
Frank wasn’t in the Chapel the next morning, and I never saw him again.  That conversation with him on the Rectory porch continues to haunt me.  If some have entertained angels without knowing it, maybe some who were afraid or too busy have sent them packing?  I saw Frank’s id card once—needed it for my records when I was covering his prescription.  Interestingly, it didn’t say “Frank,” which didn’t surprise me that much.  But it didn’t say “Gabriel, messenger of the Most High” either.  But there was something odd about that encounter, and I wonder what I might have missed when I was too busy to welcome the stranger.
True Christian hospitality, hospitality shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is radical and costly.  These words from Hebrews, and Jesus’ call in today’s Gospel to spread a banquet for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are certainly prompting us to be kind, to look out for the less fortunate, to value diversity.  But if we think that’s all that’s meant by them, we’re letting ourselves off far too easily. 
Fellowship that crossed rigid social barriers had a central role in Jesus’ ministry.  In today’s Gospel reading Jesus was breaking bread at the house of a prominent Pharisee, but He was more famous as One who “welcomes sinners, and eats with them.[2]”  Jesus message was good news for the lowly, who found themselves blessed and honored in His kingdom. His grace is the answer to the universal problems of sin and death.  So every person, no matter his social standing, race or language, is a potential follower of Jesus, someone to whom the Gospel message is addressed.  As St. Peter summarized on that day when the first Gentiles were converted, “"I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him… All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.[3]"
In the second part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus urges His followers to use the meals they host as parables of this new kingdom, occasions where there was “no partiality” for those esteemed in the world.  The guests gathered in the Pharisees’ dining room knew that religious people often looked down on the poor as morally inferior, and that “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” had been banned from the priesthood and the temple’s ceremonies by the Old Testament law.  Jesus was poor, but you can bet there were no crippled, lame or blind guests sharing the Pharisee’s table that day.  But it should be different at the tables spread by Jesus’s followers—in the dining room and at the Eucharistic Altar.  There all should be welcome, especially those whom no one else will claim.  The church is truest to its Lord when it dismantles the barriers that keep people apart and cultivates trust and love between people who are dramatically different from one another. 
And these are not easy tasks.  A significant part of Saint Paul’s pastoral work was spent trying to help Jews and Gentiles learn how to get along with each other.  The Epistle of James sharply rebukes a congregation that shows partiality to the rich while giving the poor the cold shoulder.[4]  Most every church nowadays has a slogan about everyone being welcome, but there are few where deep friendships are forged across the barriers of race, education, class, political affiliation.  We may kneel side by side at the Altar rail, but how often do we sit across one another’s kitchen tables? 
My ultimately failed experiment with being a host to Frank reveals part of why this is difficult.  People who have been battered around by our society are reasonably wary of trusting those who have power, afraid that someone might take advantage of their vulnerability, or just look on them as tokens of their own generosity.  On the other hand, when we’re used to presenting a carefully controlled image of polished success to the world, it can feel threatening to reveal the messiness of how it really is: a sink full of dishes, children bouncing off the walls, fear and pain just below the surface.  Hospitality also requires patience, a willingness to listen and flexibility in the face of the unpredictable.  Trust takes time, and so often in the lives we lead, time is in such short supply.
Here at Saint Timothy’s, this part of Jesus’s message is very important to you.  Your mission statement says that you aspire to be a congregation “that treasures all people” and that here we “open our doors to everyone.”  The last time the Diocese of Virginia did a survey of such things, you ranked as the most racially diverse Episcopal congregation in Fairfax County.  I know that many of you have formed deep friendships across major social barriers. 
But we still have room to grow.  Over the last five years you have fostered the growth of a Spanish-speaking congregation, beginning by offering warm hospitality to an outside prayer group with no place to worship. When the question was posed quite directly a few years ago, you decided that we would be “one Saint Timothy’s,” a congregation active in worshipping in two languages and ministering to two different cultures. 
That’s a good slogan, and structurally speaking, it remains true.  But as a description of our relationships with each other, it remains largely an aspiration. A few of you come to the Saturday evening service even though your Spanish is pretty rusty, and you sit down at parish events to chat with our Latino parishioners even though conversation is difficult.  I’m grateful for that, and I know our Spanish-speaking parishioners are as well.  But I wish there was more of it.
Because I believe that God is holding out an important opportunity to all of us in this invitation to become “one Saint Timothy’s.”  Our Epistle reminds us that the strangers we welcome often bring unexpected blessings.  Three mysterious visitors came unbidden to Abram’s tent, and the great patriarch had time for them, and spread a feast. They announced that his prayers had been answered and that God would send Him a son, the heir of the promise.
When I shared breakfast with Frank, I always felt that it was Frank who was enriching my life.  I brought the bacon and the eggs.  He brought the wisdom and the memorable stories.  When I worship with our Saturday evening congregation, I’m reminded that my Spanish vocabulary comes up short.  But I’m also moved by the joy in their singing, their reverence before the Holy Sacrament, their excitement about sharing the faith.  People are going door to door in Herndon with brochures about what God is doing at Saint Timothy’s, and those brochures are in Spanish, not English.
When you make space at your tables and in your hearts for strangers, sometimes you give God space to do something truly wonderful.  When you take up the patient work of breaking down social barriers, unexpected renewal often follows.  Or you can be in a hurry, with plenty of guests to serve already, thank you very much.  And the hidden angels will be on their way, knocking at another door, where someone else might have faith enough to welcome them.

[1] Not his real name.
[2] Luke 15:2.
[3] Acts 10:34-35,43.
[4] James 2:1-7.

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