September 1, 2013

“I am For You”

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

This morning’s passage from the Book of Hebrews consists of short admonitions for Christian living. The specific topics include mutual love, hospitality, solidarity with prisoners, sexual morality, wealth, community leaders, and generosity. Similar instructions can be found in many of the other letters of the New Testament, comparable lists of things for Christians to do and to avoid doing.

Reading these admonitions sometimes makes me think of something Jesus said according to the Gospel of Matthew: “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These are the high standards that God upholds for those who would follow the way of Jesus: We must strive to be generous, kind, hospitable, pure, and humble. When we decided to follow Jesus, this is what we were signing up for – a life of turning again and again towards his way, of becoming more and more like him – of serving, and giving, and being for others.

Earlier this summer, I preached on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You remember the story Jesus told about the man who fell into the hands of robbers, and the three others who came along the road, saw him lying there nearly dead, and how each of them responded. Interestingly, it was the religious ones – the priest and the Levite – who saw the man in his need and passed by on the other side of the road. It was the Samaritan, an outsider and rejected person himself, who chose to stop, to help, to let the next few hours or days of his life be about helping a person who needed his help.

During my holidays, I surprisingly heard two more sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and so the story hung in the back of my mind as I reflected on the passage from Hebrews this week. Let it hang in the back of your mind as well, as we consider what the author of Hebrews is telling us.

First she says, “Let mutual love continue.” Certainly, the Christians to which this letter was first addressed likely loved one another within their churches. They probably spent a lot of time together, cared for each other’s spiritual and physical needs, and shared from their resources to ensure that no one was in need. And Hebrews encourages that this kind of caring and sharing should continue. But she also makes it clear that “mutual love” is not about loving only family and friends already in the community. The text continues: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

David Adams, in an explanation of this text, points out that hospitality is one way in which their love becomes concrete. “Travellers of many sorts – itinerant preachers, letter carriers, Christians on non-church business, migrants, and others – were crucial to the spread of early Christianity and the sense that otherwise-isolated communities had of belonging to a much larger whole. Given the dangers and rigours of travel in the ancient world, these visitors needed secure lodging, food, and whatever encouragement their hosts could provide. Even those without letters of recommendation, it seems, were to be received on trust.”

But instead of just saying, “You must be hospitable to strangers and travellers,” or “Just do it because it’s the right thing to do,” the author adds an interesting incentive. She writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The reference is most likely to the ancient and well-known story of Abraham and Sarah. They were the ones who showed hospitality to three strangers part way along their journey. They gave them a place to rest, and served them a meal, and the strangers turned out to be angels – messengers of God – with news so unbelievably good that Sarah could only laugh.

I visited three different churches of three different denominations during my holidays last month, and received a warm and friendly reception at each one. Very much like the friendly Presbyterians here at St. Andrew’s, each of these congregations had the gift of hospitality and each one was putting it to good use on Sunday mornings.

But at the third church, the preacher made it clear that what happened on Sunday mornings was just the beginning. In reflecting on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he encouraged his congregation members that they shouldn’t be spending all their time at church. He noted the church’s attempts to make sure that there weren’t church programs and meetings every night of the week because we are called to be Christians out in the world – loving, serving, and offering hospitality to our neighbours and to strangers in need. He talked about the fact that this kind of ministry requires a willingness to get involved – to link our lives with the lives of others – to let our plans be altered or side-tracked for a time in order to serve, in order to be for others.

That’s the essence of what the Samaritan did in the story, right? He was willing to change his plan because someone needed his help. He stopped, he got involved, he did what he could, and he promised not to abandon the injured man, but to come back and make sure everything was taken care of.

It seems to me that clergy may be the worst offenders when it comes to forgetting that ministry is not just what happens inside the church. Our lives are so focused on church programs, and church people, and church stuff! But ministry is not just what happens between the minister and the members, or between the members themselves. Ministry is what happens when every single one of us is out in the world – at work, in school, in the park, at the grocery store… interacting with our neighbours, co-workers, and strangers, and sharing the love of God through generosity, hospitality, and care. Ministry is what happens when Christians are out there serving and being for others.

I want you to think of a time when you received amazing hospitality. No, I don’t want you to tell me about your favourite hotel or spa where the service is just impeccable! But I want you to take a moment to remember a time when someone cared for you like you were the most important person in the world. Maybe it was a parent, or a spouse, or a child, or a good friend who showed you hospitality and care when you were tired, or sick, or just there for a rare visit. Maybe it was a neighbour or a fellow church member who cared for you when you most needed it. Maybe it was a stranger who saw your difficulty and helped you out of a bind, rescued you in an emergency, or stayed with you in a crisis.

While we were in BC this summer, we stayed for a week on Hornby Island – in the Gulf Islands near Courtenay and Comox. We have a new friend with a home there… Julie is my father-in-law’s new significant other, and we are just getting to know and love her. During our week on Hornby, Julie showed us amazing hospitality – preparing  beautiful meals, making sure we had clean towels and laundry, showing us around the island and making sure we had a chance to go sailing, and even being sure to give us the view of the ocean when we sat down at the table to eat. Of course, Julie is becoming a part of our family. I think a part of her natural mothering tendency was being expressed as she welcomed these adult children who are not technically her own, but might as well be.

But when we were out on the island, I got a glimpse of the fact that Julie’s commitment to hospitality goes well beyond her family. One day the two of us decided to go for a walk at the Provincial Park on the island. We got in her car to drive over to the starting point, and just after turning onto her road she spotted a hitchhiker. Without a moment’s hesitation, Julie pulled the car over and waited for the young woman to climb into the back seat. It was new for me, and I think I almost gasped, because I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker in my life! Isn’t that just asking for trouble? Isn’t it dangerous? What if she tries to rob us or hurt us? But I didn’t say what I was thinking, because I could tell that it was just normal for Julie. The young woman needed a ride, and she would offer one.

During the short ride to the co-op grocery store where we dropped her off, Julie talked with our passenger. Again, she was like a mother caring for someone else’s child just as if she was her own. It wasn’t really a big deal, I guess, but it was the willingness to get involved, to help, and to care for a stranger in need. Although the woman’s destination was right along our way, I got the impression that Julie would have taken her wherever she needed to go on the island. A little detour would not have deterred her.

Lanny Peters tells this story of his experience with a hitchhiker. “Some years ago, I was traveling alone and passed a hitchhiker. My first impulse is to pass hitchhikers by, and putting biblical mandate aside, I would not want to advise anyone else to do otherwise. That day, though, something in the face of the old man with his thumb out made me pause.

“Perhaps it was his snaggletoothed grin or the way he happily waved as I passed. In any case, I found myself hitting the brakes and pulling over. I watched in the rearview mirror as he moved toward my car, hurriedly, despite a prominent limp.

“In a moment, he crawled in the seat beside me, shook my hand, and said exuberantly, ‘Thank you for the ride, young man. My name’s Henry.’ Henry was quite a talker, or perhaps he had just not had a chance to talk in a while. He ended up telling me a lot of his life story and was interested in mine as well, not hesitating to ask questions that many might consider too personal from a stranger. He was retired, and did not own a car. One of his children was in the hospital several hundred miles away, and he was going to make a hospital visit. I told him I was going only about half the way before I would turn and go in another direction.

“At one point, he began talking about a place he liked to eat near where I would leave him. Thinking he was going to ask for money, I was considering how much to give him when he pulled out the most ragged billfold I had ever seen. He searched through it and said, ‘I think I’ve got enough here and would like to buy us both a supper.’

“I laughed and said, ‘No, no, I can buy my own supper. In fact, I can buy yours if you like.’

“’Nope,’ he replied, ‘you’ve done enough already giving me a ride this far.’

“We ate a great little meal at a roadside diner where the waitress knew his name, and I left him there to continue his journey and my own. Later, I suspected I had entertained one of God’s angels without knowing it.”

The thing about our society today is that most of us keep to ourselves most of the time. We stay inside our homes and our fenced yards, and don’t often get to know the neighbours. Most of us drive around in our individual vehicles, so we don’t have the experience of chatting with the people on the bus. In larger cities (and Saskatoon is growing rapidly) many people don’t even make eye contact or say hello when they pass each other on the street.

But the heart of our Christian faith is our conviction that the God who made us has come to us in Jesus Christ. God has not kept to himself and left us to our own fate. In Jesus, God has come to us and gotten involved in our lives. In Jesus, God has loved us, and served us, and given himself for us. And our calling is to follow his way – to go out, to get involved in the lives of our neighbours and strangers in need. Our calling is to love, and to serve, and to give ourselves for others in his name.

As Frederick Borsch puts it, “No Christian manages to live the good life 100 percent.” We won’t live out our calling perfectly all the time, and the lists of admonitions in Hebrews and other biblical books will continue to be a challenge. But “wanting to lead such a life is, however, on the way to being ready to offer hospitality to strangers in the manner the Good Samaritan did to the injured man.”

We may do it while remembering that sometimes in doing so we may entertain angels without knowing it. Or, we may remember Jesus’ own counsel to his followers: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

May God be with us and help us in responding to this call. And as God is for us, may we be for others. Amen.