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A Stranger Kind of Love

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached the following sermon
at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Pooler, Georgia on August 29, 2010

A Stranger Kind of Love
Hebrews 13:1-8, Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus offers advice for those attending parties and those hosting parties. He sounds a bit like a Messianic Good Housekeeping, or a divine version of Martha Stewart Living. But doesn’t Jesus’ teaching cut through the niceties to the heart of the matter, the spirit rather than the letter of the law? Thinking about this, I was reminded of Martha’s Way vs. My Way, an email joke I ran across some time back. Here are three examples comparing how Martha Stewart does things with a much more practical approach:

Martha’s way: Stuff a miniature marshmallow in the bottom of a sugar cone to prevent ice cream drips.

My way: Just suck the ice cream out of the bottom of the cone, for Pete’s sake, you are probably laying on the couch with your feet up eating it anyway.

Martha’s way: When a cake recipe calls for flouring the baking pan, use a bit of the dry cake mix instead and there won’t be any white mess on the outside of the cake.

My way: Go to the bakery. They’ll even decorate it for you.

And finally:

Martha’s way: Now look what you can do with Alka Seltzer: Clean a toilet. Drop in two Alka-Seltzer tablets, wait twenty minutes, brush and flush. The citric acid and effervescent action clean vitreous China. Clean a vase. To remove a stain from the bottom of a glass vase or cruet, fill with water and drop in two Alka-Seltzer tablets. Polish jewelry. Drop two Alka-Seltzer tablets into a glass of water and immerse the jewelry for two minutes. Clean a thermos bottle. Fill the bottle with water, drop in four Alka-Seltzer tablets, and let soak for an hour (or longer, if necessary).

My way: Put your jewelry, vases, and thermos in the toilet. Add some Alka-Seltzer and you have solved a whole bunch of problems at once.

But we know Jesus is neither Martha Stewart, or Miss Manners. Jesus is teaching something much more important than rules for hosting banquets. After all, Jesus knew all about being a stranger in need of hospitality. Look at the Gospel of Luke, from which we get today’s Gospel reading. From Luke chapter 9:51 through the end of the book in chapter 24, Jesus is almost always on the road. Jesus is continually the stranger to a new town in need of hospitality. Jesus also offered hospitality while on the road. Jesus would find himself surrounded by a crowd made up of people come to check out the stranger in the area who came with a new teaching and yet he would serve as the host, sitting them down and feeding the multitudes. Jesus even serves as host in others’ houses. The Last Supper was served by Jesus in a home where Jesus himself was a guest.

Alongside this Gospel reading, we get a selection from Hebrews that sheds more light on what Jesus is teaching. The Hebrews reading says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The original Greek passage our translation comes from has an interesting turn of phrase. This verse from Hebrews says, “Let Philadelphia remain. Do not go on being unmindful of Philoxenia.” Philadelphia means brotherly love. Philoxenia means love of the stranger. It comes from philos meaning love and xenos meaning stranger. Throughout the New Testament, the Greek philoxenia, love of the stranger translates in hospitality in English. In the Bible, hospitality is not just something we offer friends and relatives (or even rich neighbors). The Bible tells us that hospitality is something extended to strangers. The author of Hebrews tells us to continue with the brotherly love we have for one another, but in doing so, we are not to neglect to love strangers.

The author of Hebrews connects love of stranger to another biblical story. We are told, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” This is a clear reference to the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament book of Genesis for they entertained strangers who turned out to be more than they expected. Abraham saw three men approaching his tents. As any good Bedouin would do today, Abraham invited the strangers to rest and refreshment. But Abraham really went out of his way, offering to wash the three strangers’ feet, and to have a meal prepared for them. The three strangers blessed Abraham and promised the aged Abraham and Sarah that they would bear a son within the year. Abraham offered hospitality to strangers, who turned out to be angels who brought him God’s blessing.

I heard this same idea of strangers bringing a blessing repeated when I was an intern with the Anglican Church in Tanzania. During an orientation program in the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam, I was told that a visitor in the home is seen as bringing blessings, so many Tanzanians would want to host me. Once I was at work in far western Tanzania, I found out how true those words were. But in discussing it with Canon Bikaka, the priest for whom I worked, I said something about how I was told that the visitor brings a blessing, so people wanted me to come so that some good thing would then happen to them for sharing hospitality with a stranger. Bikaka explained that I had it all wrong. He told me that as a stranger invited in to share hospitality, I was the blessing. Anything that might happen later was extra. Sharing hospitality with a stranger was itself a gift. And in the back of beyond in Tanzania, I could see how that was certainly true. Inviting a stranger as a guest in the home to talk with and entertain was a gift in itself.

But I also learned in Tanzania how it is not always clear who is the stranger. When any newcomer comes to any place, everyone they see is a stranger to them and the newcomer is the stranger to everyone they meet. Let me explain that a little better with an example. I knew that I was a stranger in a strange land so to speak, but I missed the point that the people I met could wonder how strange they appeared to me. They wondered what I thought of their homes, their food, and their customs.

When I first arrived for the internship at St. Hilary’s Church in Kibondo, Tanzania, a four-day youth rally was beginning. One important feature of this event was the performance of numerous traditional dance groups. Each group would present a dance set to live music. The dances each illustrated some biblical lesson. These dance groups were a great example of how the Tanzanian Church has found uniquely African ways to share the Gospel. In a non-church setting these dance groups would earn money with tips from the crowd. Someone giving a tip would be expected to dance with the group with a bit of teasing back and forth with the lead dancer before giving the tip.

During the first morning of the event, Canon Bikaka danced out and gave a tip to one dance group. Later others followed suit, much to the delight of the dancers and the crowd of more than 1,000 onlookers. Just before lunch, one group was doing a particularly good job and I decided that I too should offer a tip. I took out a suitable bill and step forward. There was an uneasiness palpable in the crowd. Then I decided not to hold back. I went over the top in presenting my tip, playing with the lead dancer and joining in the fun. The crowd went wild. The tension present a moment before exploded as everyone seemed to burst out laughing at once. I knew some folks were laughing at me just as some were laughing with me and I didn’t care. I just danced along, gave the tip and danced away.

Later I could look back on that dance as a major event in my internship. People all over town were talking about the mzungu, the foreigner who had joined the dance. Rather than stand back and watch, I joined in. As the only white person present at the event, and often the only white face to be seen in the town of 6,000, I was an obvious stranger in their midst. But rather than treat the people and their customs as strange, I crossed the barrier dividing us and danced. During my brief stay in Tanzania, Philoxenia, love of stranger, transformed in Philadelphia, brotherly love.

How can we possibly live out love of the stranger in our day-to-day lives? Are we to really go riding around in our cars, trolling for poor, crippled, and blind dinner guests? Certainly, Jesus did mean for the folks he was talking with to do just that. But, inviting folks to a party because they can’t pay you back is just one dramatic way to show philoxenia, love of the stranger. Jesus didn’t say to share love with everyone you don’t know. What he was really saying was to share love with the people no one else loves.

The reason why hospitality is so essential for a church as this is the one place where no one can ever be a stranger. Sure, folks come who I don’t know, and may never have a chance to meet. But the table in our midst is not my table. It is the Lord’s table. And there is no one who crosses our threshold who is not fully known to the host. Whether we as a church are welcoming or not, everyone who shows up at St. Patrick’s—all sorts and conditions of people—are welcome.

Jesus is cutting through the letter of the law to its spirit. Through his life and ministry in which he loved the unlovable and noticed the person others passed by, Jesus revealed that the term stranger is a temporary one anyway in eternal terms. For in God’s time, there will be no strangers. All will know God and one another fully. Today’s stranger is the person you may come to know for all eternity. This is the communion of the saints—those of us in the here and now and the rest of the Body of Christ through time. To this communion, each stranger brings his or her own unique gifts. St. Patrick’s, Pooler will be made more fully into the image of Christ through each newcomer welcomed into the midst of this congregation.

Of course, showing love for the stranger is not confined to Sunday’s only or to church only. I’m not suggesting you butt in where you are not needed, but there are times when it is appropriate to reach out to someone you don’t know to share God’s love. These situations are hard to characterize this Sunday morning, but you’ll know the chance when you see it.

One word of warning as I close: I preached about philoxenos once at King of Peace. Gil White and his son Jason were among the last folks to leave that Sunday and before they had gotten away, a car stopped with a flat tire not quite in front of the church, but almost. The car was clearly visible out of the windows of the house that served as our church building. Gil and Jason rose to the task, leaving the church building to change a flat for a stranger before they even got out of the parking lot. Another time, I prepared a sermon on hospitality and ended up with two friends coming to stay the weekend, present in worship that morning after sleeping at my house and being fed at our table, none of which I planned, when I wrote the sermon.

I took a risk this week in preaching about hospitality and you’ve taken a risk by listening. Keep your eyes open. God is ready to show you that opportunities to show love to strangers are closer at hand than you think. They may begin here at St. Patrick’s as this church welcomes strangers, but this love from God will extend to every area of your life.

Amen.

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