Entertaining Angels – Sept. 1, 2019

Entertaining Angels

A Communion Meditation by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

September 1, 2019

Main Idea:  Love is the way to live.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

This is Labor Day weekend when we all enjoy an extra day off to celebrate the end of summer and the beginning of autumn activities. Labor Day is a secular Sabbath Day, intended to honor and provide rest to those who work. Today, on this our sacred Sabbath day, we remember that honoring and caring for our community is part of worshipping God and following Jesus.

Our Scripture text for today comes from the very last chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews.  After a complex and compelling argument about the nature of faith, God, and Christ articulated over 12 chapters, Chapter 13 is the final application of what has been learned; now that we know, here is how our lives should be led.  It is organized as a list of rules;  among the list there are two “Do not neglects” and two “remembers”.   As we ponder these admonitions we will discover that all express aspects of the same liberating truth;  we are called to live in the love of Jesus our Christ, who “is the same yesterday, today and for ever” (13:8).  Jesus calls us to live lives of love.

Living lives of love sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Although it is a bit of a tongue twister.  But, as you know, living lives of love is not always easy, in fact, it is often hard!  This morning’s text gives us practical guidance on how to keep Christ’s love at the center of our lives.

The text begins with love. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (13:1-2).  In the Greek, these verses have two great words; philadelphia and philoxenia.   Philadelphia means love of family and philoxenia means “love of the strange”.  Right away we are urged to have love for both those we know and those we do not know.

Philadelphia, mutual love, provides a safe place.  If we are fortunate, it is where we start as infants and where we abide throughout our lives. It is love focused within the community.  It requires patience, steadfastness, forgiveness, and a large dose of grace.  It can be a source of joy and also frustration. Sometimes individuals have issues that create problems within families, sometimes resentment or annoyances crop up between those who are very close.  For the early church, philadelphia was vital for a community which was excluded from the wider society.  The love shared among the faithful encouraged and sustained them through difficult times.  

Just as vital was philoxenia, love of the strange, which is commended as an opportunity to “entertain angels without knowing it”. This is love focused outward toward the unknown.  Hospitality for strangers was a deeply held tradition in the Jewish community who remembered that they were once strangers in a strange land. From the Book of Genesis comes the story of Abraham and Sarah showing hospitality to angels without recognizing them as such (Genesis 18). For the persecuted and beleaguered community to which this letter was written, showing “hospitality to strangers” was a risky thing to do but it was crucial for the growth of the early church.  When Christians traveled they would count on being able to stay with other Christians along the way because inns were often dangerous places.  Those who traveled got a safe place to stay and those who opened their homes received news and ideas from far away.  Philoxenia, the love shared with strangers provided mutual energy and blessings.

For us, hospitality may come in different forms but the concept remains the same.  We too are called to welcome the stranger, to open our hearts and our minds and our community to those who are, as of now, unknown to us. 

These two kinds of love, philadelphia and philoxenia, provide the basis for the rest of the guidance given which recognizes 5 more aspects of love.

First, Love includes empathy for others.  This is graphically expressed by; “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (13:3).  For the early church, prison and torture may have been a reality for some of their members.  Prisoners depended on the good will of their friends and family to provide the necessities of life.  All were in danger of prison or torture because of their faith.  

In our lives we sometimes become numb to the suffering we see around us and especially to what we see through the media but we are called to pay attention to people; to acknowledge their pain so that we can give comfort and we can work for healing and justice. Where injustice is happening we cannot close our eyes and turn away, as much as we are tempted. When we see others suffering we can not rationalize away their pain. “Well, they shouldn’t have put themselves and their families in such a situation.”  Our empathy is our humanity recognizing the humanity of others.

2ndly, Love can be trusted.  The instructions concerning marriage are grounded in the idea that love between two people shows how trust and fidelity can grow.  When healthy relationships are honored and supported, the whole community grows stronger. Broken trust and infidelity causes suffering and weakens the community.  This was true then and certainly is true today.

3rdly, Love is not greedy.  This verse about money contains another great greek word aphilarguros, the “un-love of silver”.  “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”  Greed grows from the fear of scarcity and the need for power.  Love is the opposite of those things. The author reminds the community that Jesus is with them always, providing what they need, thus they can be content with what they have.  We struggle with this for our society is built on materialism and always wanting more and more and more.   We need to be reminded that Jesus is always with us.  As we grow in contentment our fears of scarcity subside.

4th. Love remembers.  The early church community was called to remember their past leaders who may have been been followers of Jesus in Galilee and to follow their example. This brings to mind the cloud of witnesses of which the community is a part.  We remember our loved ones who have gone before us and their influence guides our decisions of today.  As a congregation we remember that we are a part of the First Baptist community which has been worshiping together for more than 180 years.   Our ministries are built upon the service of those who came before us. 

Finally, Love is active.  The author writes “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”  The early church understood that the good they did in the world was part of their worship of God.  They rejected the value of ritual sacrifice which ignored real needs among the people.  For us, it is not enough to say “Oh yes, we love everybody” without going outside and showing our love through advocacy and service.  Our worship of God is not only during this hour on Sunday. It is not just about getting ourselves to heaven.  We are worshiping and honoring God everyday as we share love and work for others.

All of this love come from the love of God known to us through Jesus Christ.   The author of this letter writes “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (13:8) which is such a concise and profound statement!  The infinite love revealed by Jesus’ Incarnation and his Resurrection makes possible our very lives. The love shown by Jesus during his ministry provides a model for our relationships. And because Jesus is the same “yesterday, today and forever” there is nothing in our experience that Jesus cannot understand.  With the author, “we can say with confidence,‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ (13:6)  Instead of feeling bound up by rules, we are set free to love without fear or reservation.

And this brings us back to philadelphia and philoxeniaWhen we practice love for each other and love for the stranger we increase Christ’s love in the world.  Especially during this time when fear of strangers is exploding here in our nation and around the world, we are called to open wide our hearts, our minds, and our community so that we might be blessed with the love of Christ found in new companions, new ideas, new understanding and perhaps we just might entertain angels without knowing it.

Let us pray, 

God of love, we thank you for your gift of Jesus our Christ who reveals your love to us and models how we might share this love with others.  Empower us to welcome those who may be vulnerable and those who seem different from us.  Embolden us to speak of your love in places of need and to people in need. May all that we do be a blessing to you and to us and to others.  Amen.