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Entertaining Angels

Last week we hosted a campout right here on our lawn. It was parents and church kids, as well as friends of friends and people from the neighborhood. And that was part of what was astounding. It wasn’t just one of our kids who invited a friend, many of them did. And their friends came.

In a time of apps and games and big screens in high definition, the most enticing offering on a perfect Saturday night in the summer was to race around for hours on end, hopping between a creekside and a labyrinth, a playground and a tether ball game. There was barbequed deliciousness and smores roasted in shifts that made it smell like hot waffle cones. We didn’t do much that would be labeled officially religious, but we ate together and sang together and talked about being parents together. The kids roamed the lot like a joyful mob.

The highlights reported to me were of course the smores, but also what seemed to matter the most was simply to be with friends, to play freely outside for hours, seeing the stars and watching the labyrinth glow in the dark. It was witnessing the sun come up with an orange and pink hue when it first peeks into the day. And doing it with friends new and old.

That’s the part that struck me. The kids were absolutely unafraid of inviting a friend and welcoming them into their world. They wanted to show it off, to savor it, to share it. Eddie did. And Eliza did and Ellie and Jo Jo did.

And this week I have been wondering what it would be like for us to learn from our kids? Because we are living in a time where people are afraid, lonely, anxious, depressed and numb. And for far too long progressive Christians have feared offending. We have feared being seen as like “those” Christians, the ones who are inviting someone to church to rescue them from hell later on. We have worried of being seen as anti-intellectual or worse being seen as weird. And yet, what if it is our call to rescue people from the hells of now, from the pain of the isolation and separation of modern life? What if it is part of our call to extend ourselves beyond comfort to offer to show the world wonder and smores and laughter? What if something is missing from our own lives and the world God imagines when we aren’t constantly drawing the circle wider? Maybe what is needed is not just kindness, but hospitality, an invitation to come in? This practice has gotten lost in many expressions of Western Christianity but it was there from the start, right from the very beginning- it’s the foundation of our faith.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” This is a piece from a longer sermon in the letter to the Hebrews. The intended audience was a relatively new community that had gathered around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. To be sure, showing hospitality to strangers was and is woven into the fabric of life in the Middle East. The word hospitality appears only a few times in the Christian scriptures, but in that cultural milieu, one wouldn’t bother mentioning something that was assumed. Because in that time and place, hospitality was “regarded as a right by the traveler, to whom it never occurs to thank his host as if for a favor. It is granted as a duty by the host, who himself may very soon be dependent on someone else's hospitality.” Furthermore, “the traveler is made the literal master of the house during his stay…” 1

Radical hospitality was one of the pillars for the early adopters of Christianity and was understood as a right and a duty. Also, it was a core spiritual practice- a regular exercise in loving beyond comfort. It was simply a part of what it meant to belong. The Greek word for hospitality, (filoxenia) fil-ox-en-ee'-ah literally means, love to strangers.

So when we hear, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” it means “Do not fail to love strangers.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Books of the Law and the message of the prophets, was always dependent on how the orphan, the widow and the stranger were treated.” 2 In Deuteronomy we read: ‘The Lord your God... is not partial, executing justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (10.17-19). Leviticus says: ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in the land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (19.33-34).

Do not fail to love strangers.

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

Scholars contend that the use of angels in this mini sermon in Hebrews is recalling the visit by the three angels to Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. The guests are seated at the table, not the hosts and in some icons all of them are shown seated together. The point is that, it is intentionally unclear who is the guest and who is the host. All are gathered at the table together as equals. Not one is outside, separate, disconnected. The guests are welcomed in as if they had been there all along. “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you…”

But in this divided time, in this angst-infused moment, how can we live out this call? In this landscape in America’s public life, where hate and racism and military weapons have been invited fully into common spaces, the idea of loving strangers, can feel frightening. And yet what if it’s not abstract, what if is finding ways to rescue our neighbors and friends and strangers from all the hells of now? What if that is evangelism? What if that is holy hospitality?

At the end of the campout, we all gathered in a closing circle. With a candle in the middle we sang and were invited to share. There was some silence and the sound of the birds carrying on with their morning song. As we passed around the talking stick, and came near the end, one of the kids who had come for the very first time shared something like this, “I am not sure if I will go to this church, this is my first time here. It has been a hard time. I have a sibling who has transitioned genders. This campout was fun. I feel welcome here. Thank you.”

And in this new season together, my hope is that we are ready to entertain, ready to show off our world, to savor it, to share it. As this body changes, grows and moves, how can we set all of our tables so we can’t tell the difference between the guests and the hosts? “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you…” This just might be a rescue from the hells of now.

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

Look around, there are angels among us…

1The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Doughty, Arabia Deserta, I, 228).


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