It is one of the most basic tenets of scripture in both the Old and New Testaments — hospitality to the stranger.
Abraham and Sarah are the first in scripture to model it. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when he sees three strangers approaching. He rushes to greet them, and invites them to rest a while, to wash their weary feet, and have something to eat and drink.
He orders his servants to prepare a feast for the strangers, offering lavish hospitality to these men he does not know.
As they enjoy the meal, one of the men tells Abraham that his wife, Sarah, will soon have a son. Sarah, who is 90 years old, laughs out loud at hearing such ridiculous news.
It is only after the men have left that Abraham realizes that the strangers he has entertained are angels, messengers from God. Sarah does, indeed, soon have a son.
It’s safe to say that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews was thinking about that story when he wrote the words we hear today:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Other Biblical translations state this verse more poetically, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
“Angels Unaware” is the name of one of my favorite pieces of art — a sculpture in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Some of you may have seen the life-size replica that was at our neighboring Catholic church, Holy Spirit, in January 2021. A much smaller version is on the table in front of the altar today.
Angels Unaware is a life-sized sculpture of 140 figures huddled together shoulder–to– shoulder together on a raft, representing migrants and refugees from all periods of history, and from different cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds.
There is a rabbi fleeing from the Holocaust. A burka-clad Muslim woman fleeing civil war in Syria, a Cherokee crying on the Trail of Tears.
There are Africans in chains on a slave ship, Vietnamese boat people fleeing their homeland, an Irish boy escaping the potato famine.
There are pregnant women and infants; people with bare feet, sandals, and boots; some carrying boxes and satchels, and some carrying nothing at all. One boy holds a small dog, and another child clings to a doll.
If you look closely you will see Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus, fleeing from Herod’s murderous rule, huddled together with all the others.
And in the midst of it all a pair of angel wings emerge, telling us that on this raft full of desperate people, this raft of strangers seeking a new home, is the sacred, God’s angels, every one of them.
Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmaltz used pictures from Ellis Island and actual refugees as models for his work. “You can see throughout the piece despair and sadness, but also joy and hope,” he said.
All of the people on this raft represent those who have fled or been forced from their homelands, looking for the hospitality of strangers to help them survive and start life over again.
Schmaltz’s piece is only three years old, but it is already out of date. Today, parts of Europe are hosts to an influx of refugees fleeing from the war in Ukraine.
The people of Poland are examples of offering hospitality to these angels. Groups have bought out whole hotels to provide a welcoming space for refugees.
The most poignant picture I have seen of the crisis does not contain a single person. Instead, it is a line of baby strollers on the platform of a Warsaw train station. Some are filled with diapers, blankets, and toys — gifts from the mothers of Poland to the mothers of Ukraine.
That is living out the gospel.
Of course, this country has taken in many thousands, or millions, of refugees and migrants over the years, from every corner of the globe. When we are at our best we welcome them with open arms, knowing that the gifts they bring, and the diversity they provide will enrich us all.
Unfortunately, we are not always at our best. In 1939, a ship the St. Louis, filled with 900 Jews fleeing the Nazis, was turned away by Cuba, Canada, and the United States. Ultimately the ship was forced to return to Europe. More than half of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust.
And currently in the news are the actions of Texas governor Greg Abbott, who is rounding up migrants at the Mexican border, and putting them on buses bound for New York and Washington, making them political pawns. No hospitality in those actions.
Offering hospitality to strangers is not only about welcoming migrants and refugees. For many years, St. Dunstan’s participated in Family Promise, opening our doors four weeks a year to provide hospitality and shelter to families with no home, welcoming the sacred strangers.
Showing hospitality to strangers is not always easy. We live in a time of suspicion and fear, when the stranger may well be anything but angelic.
Clergy and members of Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston invited a stranger to join them for Bible study. He accepted the invitation, then killed nine church members.
Earlier this summer at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, people noticed a man sitting alone at a Friday evening potluck. They invited him to sit at the table with them. He pulled out a gun and began shooting, killing three people.
That act of hospitality became an act of sacrifice.
In recent years, more often than we can count, worship at churches, synagogues, and mosques have been interrupted by gun violence.
St. Dunstan’s is a parish known for its welcoming and hospitality. Many of you can tell the story of how you were welcomed when you first walked through our doors as a stranger. It’s an essential part of who we are, one of the ways we strive to live out the gospel.
How do we balance the Biblical mandate of hospitality to the stranger with our need for security?
That is a question being asked by communities of faith throughout the country, including ours. It is a continuing discussion by our vestry.
We are acutely aware of how vulnerable we are in this building on Sunday mornings. We have begun locking the doors after the service begins, with an usher keeping an eye out for late comers. But who is to say that a stranger intent on violence won’t come in earlier, or to Sunday School or coffee hour?
Do we hire security guards on Sunday mornings? Many churches do. Do we keep the doors locked at all times?
The very fact that we are having these discussions goes against so much of how I believe we are called to act as Christians.
I firmly believe that we are called to offer hospitality to the stranger. I also firmly believe that, to use a Biblical metaphor, as the shepherd of this flock it is my responsibility to keep the flock safe.
How do we do both of these things? There is no clear answer.
But this morning’s scripture reminds us that these are not new questions. The Letter to the Hebrews was written at a time when Christians were subject to persecution and imprisonment because of their faith.
The writer reminds, or admonishes, members of the church to show hospitality to the stranger precisely because churches were failing to do so.
“Some house churches, living in an atmosphere of suspicion due to opposition or persecution, would become reticent about extending hospitality,” one commentary on this passage says. “Some even used certain criteria for testing strangers before welcoming them.”
Then, as now, offering hospitality to the stranger could be a dangerous thing. Or it could mean the arrival of an angel.