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The Beauty of Pentecost: Angels Unawares

Reflections from Our Pastors

Yesterday’s sermon reflected on the dramatic story in Genesis 18. Three strangers show up one day at Abraham’s home, picturesquely described as “by the oaks of Mamre.” I picture those travelers, weary from heat and dust, eager for some shade and food. Abraham, the patron saint of hospitality, welcomes them. Sarah gets busy in the kitchen preparing a meal.

These three strangers seem to know everything about Abraham and Sarah, including their future – which will include a child. Laughable, as both are beyond childbearing (much less childrearing) years. Are they just 3 guys? Angels? God somehow manifest in them? What they suggest is absurd. Their reply is precisely the one the angel Gabriel gave to Mary when she explained why she couldn’t have a child: “With God, nothing is impossible.”

We would all love some impossible something from God. What intrigues me is the way impossible possibilities come to those in Scripture who welcome strangers, who show hospitality. Zaccheus would have kept being a sniveling cutthroat – but he welcomed Jesus, whom he didn’t know at all, into his home (Luke 19). Lydia heard Paul preach by the river in Philippi, invited him into her home, which became the church for the first Christians there (Acts 16). Pharaoh’s daughter welcomed an abandoned infant – of another race – into her palace; this Moses led God’s people to redemption (Exodus 2). Jesus’ last sermon spoke of care for the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned – and said whatever you do to them, you do to me (Matthew 25). Hebrews 13:2 says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

As I said in my sermon, God doesn’t hand you a mirror and say “Be narcissistic” and impossible possibilities will dawn. God doesn’t say “Hang around with your own type,” because people like us only feed our narcissism. God wants us to stretch out, expose ourselves to those who are different, learn new things, get curious, trust you don’t have it all figured out just yet, presume you’ve got some major growing to do. Jesus was hospitable to everybody – except those who were inhospitable to others.

How would we do this during lockdown, or in my neighborhood of people who look like me? Get creative, figure it out. Read a book if you can’t find a person. Emily Dickinson wrote that “The unknown is the mind’s greatest gift, and for it, no one thinks to thank God.” Every day, think what you don’t know, and more importantly whom you don’t know. Work on it. A little, every day. Make an unlikely friend. Surprise yourself, and the other guy, and your existing friends who might be a bit puzzled.

In our day, Americans are desperately lacking in hospitality of mind and heart. Political rancor and political ideology? The iron door of the soul has slammed shut. Can I get curious about the thoughts of others? With race: do I really understand people who look different? How silly of white people to diagnose in their minds what troubles the black community and what “they” should be doing. It’s not charity, haves helping the have nots. When we welcome the stranger, if the Bible has any wisdom about it, we welcome God into our midst, we entertain angels – and we block God, who welcomes us when we are strange, and strangers. Isn’t it odd, but so simple? You feel distant from God, not because you are distant from God, but because you are distant from God’s people who could be God’s impossible possibilities in your life and the world.

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