The Hospitality of Strangers

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Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12.

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Happy New Year!  We’re six days in.  And apart from anything else going on, today, January 6, 2019, has much significance in the Christian calendar.  In some Christian traditions, it is Old Christmas, a Christmas Day from the Julian calendar that preceded our current Gregorian calendar.  In some traditions, it is Three Kings Day, when gifts are exchanged, either between family and friends, or by the three kings themselves to children, in commemoration of their visit to the baby Jesus.  And here, for us today, it is the Feast of the Epiphany,of the appearance, of the revelation, of the manifestation. Today, it is the manifestation of Christ, and today especially, to the Gentiles. That would be us.

Epiphany this year is a ten-week liturgical season.  The people who created the lectionary cycle have picked scriptures of majesty and drama for today, to start the season off.

Isaiah describes the restoration of Israel.  They are released from captivity in Babylon, and restored to right relationship with God.  They will see and be radiant, their hearts will thrill and rejoice, because they shine like a beacon in the dark with the glory of God.  They are a beacon that draws their own sons and daughters back from far away. The brightness of their light even draws nations and rulers to come to them.  They bring to Israel the abundance of the sea, the wealth of nations, multitudes of camels, gold and frankincense, all to praise the God of Israel and God’s glory that shines upon and through this restored people.

The Psalmist describes the just and righteous ruler who does the work of God for the people, who delivers the needy and the poor and those who have no helper, who saves their lives from oppression and violence.  Because of this, and because this ruler is also human and needs God’s help, the Psalmist calls down blessings on their reign: long life, effectiveness, peace, and the respect, tribute, and service of other rulers and nations as allies.

The author of Ephesians, writing as Paul, describes the revelation that had been given to him and the other apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This is the grace of his commission to the Gentiles, and in this letter, to the church at Ephesus.  His is the shock and understanding of the mystery of Christ, in which the formerly Gentile strangers have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus, through the gospel. It is this gospel of Christ that Paul proclaims to the Ephesians, in accordance with the eternal purposes of God in Christ Jesus, in whom all Christians, including the Ephesians, have access to God in boldness and confidence through their faith in Christ.

Matthew’s Gospel recounts the drama of the three exotic astrologers from the East, who come to Jerusalem to find the King of the Jews because they have seen the rising of his star. This is an unmistakable sign that an important ruler has been born.  Their arrival, at the current King Herod’s court, throws Herod, the court, and the entire city into fear and confusion. Herod consults with his advisors, who tell him that the true King of the Jews, the Messiah, is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then meets secretly with the Eastern strangers, and charges them to find the child and tell him, Herod, where the child is, because he wants to pledge homage to this new king.  So the three strangers follow the star to where the child and his mother are, and with joy they pay him homage and give rich gifts. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they take another way home.

These scriptures are full of pomp and circumstance, majesty and prophecy fulfilled, restoration and mystery and even intrigue, rich and shiny treasure – and let’s not forget those camels. Yet four verses stand out – no prophecy, no pomp, no explication.  Except for the rich and shiny gifts and the moving star, just a simple story: three strangers, a baby, and a mother. “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Three strangers, who after a long journey of faith rejoice in their journey’s end.  They recognize a child for who he is and who he will become. They welcome him with treasure, to recognize his importance to be sure, but also treasure that is easily hidden and carried, easily sold and bartered, for a young family soon to be on the run for their lives from that same Herod, who wanted to know where the child was, and maybe not to pay him homage.  The three wise ones are warned against him, after all – if they were not already suspicious with all the upset and secrecy at his court. So they take another road home to protect Jesus and his mother Mary, in a time and place where roads were hard to come by, and may just as well lead to other dangers as to joy. If their visit to the baby Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence to them as Gentiles, then in these four verses, beyond all the pomp and circumstance and shiny drama, it is strangers who show hospitality to the child, the manifestation of God.  They show the hospitality of recognition, welcome, provision for his needs, and protection.

We ourselves have just come through the holiday season, a time when many of us have either extended or received hospitality of various kinds:  usually welcome, shelter, and food, if not necessarily protection. The word “hospitality” comes from the Latin “hospes”, and means the generous and friendly welcome of guests and the offer of a pleasant or sustaining environment.  The Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, means “host”, “guest” or “stranger” – all three, the distinction depending on the situation.

That is interesting, because there is a great deal of talk in our air now about strangers, people from far away or who are different from us or who we don’t know, and who may be a danger to us just because they are strangers.  And there is a great deal of concern in our air now about whether or not we in our group – ethnicity, community, city, nation, church – should show hospitality to strangers. And if we should, how much and what kind of hospitality it should be.  There is even concern as to if it should be hospitality we show at all, in the sense of our engagement with strangers being one of welcome and friendliness, pleasantness, or sustenance.

So the Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, is interesting because if it means all three – host, guest, and stranger – it also suggests that these roles are interchangeable in the larger practice of hospitality, and that hospitality itself is a function of each role.

We usually assume that a host extends hospitality, and the guest or a stranger receive it.  But the word “hospes” suggests that hosts, guests, and even strangers, not only receive hospitality but also extend it.

If strangers in particular not only receive hospitality but also extend it, that expands the notion of hospitality considerably.

Now I am the last person to suggest that one should not be careful around strangers, and around hosts and guests for that matter.  All kinds of strangers came up and talked to my parents about pleasantries and directions, and my parents themselves talked with all kinds of strangers about pleasantries and directions.  Pleasantries and directions with whoever showed up. This has turned out to be part of my life too, and now apparently is part of our children’s lives as well. And, it has always been very clear through three generations that one does not get into cars or go off willy-nilly with people one does not know, especially if one is alone or if one’s hair at the back of the neck stands up.  Then it doesn’t matter at all if they are not from far away and look just like us. But while not every stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet, a generous, friendly, pleasant, even sustaining welcome, in attitude and perhaps conversation, couldn’t hurt the prospects for friendship, at the very least until we know there are actual grounds for suspicion.

Because it may be that it is the stranger next to us or in our midst that will be the one to extend hospitality to us, instead of the other way around.  Like the three wise men from far away did with the baby Jesus, they may recognize us for who we are as having the image of God within. They may welcome us with respect and may offer us treasures of friendship or knowledge, skill or humor.  They may even be a source of protection or help. The question is, can we recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers?

The writer of Ephesians reminds us that in one sense we already have.  Through our ancestors in the faith we have accepted the hospitality of strangers in the work of Paul.  He certainly started out as a stranger – a person of another faith and a Roman citizen who persecuted the members of the early church.  He then claimed a rather spectacular conversion experience on the Damascus road that made him not only a member of the Jesus movement but also an apostle.  As an apostle, he was sent to share the Gospel of Christ with Gentiles, who also were strangers, and sometime hostile, to the members of the Jesus movement.  And yet, as a stranger to everyone, his generous welcome and gifts for organization supported new Christians and churches in a number of multi-cultural locations in the Roman world.  Without the work of the stranger Paul, and the acceptance of his hospitable invitation by the early church and by subsequent generations, we would not be here this morning, or at least we would not be here in the same way.

We are also reminded, by the story of the three strangers who extended hospitality to the baby Jesus, that strangers often come to us because they are led to us by God.  While to accept the hospitality of strangers may not always entertain angels unaware, it may very well do. And if it is “just” a generous and pleasant experience, that is all to the good too.  Like many of you, I have had a number of instances of my acceptance of the hospitality of strangers in my life – all of them ended well, and in some cases – not always the most pleasant initially – I consider them a direct manifestation of God’s provision for my life.

All hospitality – a generous and friendly welcome and a pleasant and sustaining environment – has something of God in it.  And in some ways, God is a stranger to us too. God is different from us, never completely known, even as God is God-with-us in Jesus.  God sometimes seems far away, as we are separated from God by sin. God even sometimes seems dangerous, in the invitations to change, to accept the strange, to stretch our comfort zones.  And yet, the first Sunday of every month, and Wednesday evenings, and other times too, here at Marsh the table is set with the tasty sweetness of grain and grape. The invitations to transform are extended:  to be nourished; to love God and self and neighbor; to recognize each other as companions with God and with each other in the adventures of our lives; to have the image of God restored in us. The hospitality of God, the generous and loving welcome, the sustenance of God’s empowerment, nourishment and companionship, it never fails, it never ends.  God the stranger becomes the one in whom we live and move and have our being, in ourselves and with each other.

It is when we accept the hospitality of God that we can most recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers.  So on this feast day of Epiphany, of appearance, of revelation, of manifestation, who is the stranger whose hospitality we might accept?  Is it someone here, sharing grain and grape with us in communion? Is it someone at work or in class or on our block? Is it someone from far away, or who is different from us, or who we do not yet know?  Who may be trying to reach out to us in welcome, with gifts?

With this, as we consider the hospitality of strangers, there is also a question that turns it back to us.  Who might we be strangers to, who might be persons to whom, as strangers to them, we might offer a generous and friendly welcome or a pleasant and sustaining environment?  Who may think that we are from a place far removed from theirs, or think we are different from them, or that they do not and cannot know us? Who might accept our hospitality of strangers, as we have accepted the hospitality of strangers ourselves?  Like the baby Jesus and Mary, there are many people in the world, both near and far, who might accept, might even be desperate for, a generous and friendly welcome, recognition for who they really are, a pleasant and sustaining environment, or even protection and help, even from a stranger.  What guidance from God, in a star or a dream or deep compassion or an experience, might guide us to them?

A host is a host, and a guest is a guest, and a stranger is a stranger.  And, depending on the situation, a person might be any of these. And, in any given situation, a host is primarily a host, and a guest is primarily a guest, and a host is a little bit guest and a guest is a little bit host.  But a stranger can be both completely a stranger and a host, or both completely a stranger and a guest. Let us then be glad of the hospitality of strangers, that we can receive it and also provide it, in the great and unending hospitality of God.  Amen.

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation{victoria gaskell}

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