29 August 2010

Angels Unawares:

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

(Proper 17 (22)) C

When I was a child and a teen in San Antonio, in South Texas, this time of the year meant two things to me -- the start of school and hurricanes. Technically of course the hurricane season was already well started by the end of August, but the storms that I remember always seemed to strike after school started, from late August to the end of September. We were a couple of hundred miles inland, so we received the brunt of diminished winds, with most of the damage done by heavy rains. Safe on the high ground of the north side of town, I could enjoy the excitement and the strong possibility of time off school knowing that the worst that was likely to happen in our post-war suburb was a few hours without electricity and a day or two at the most cut off by flooded low-water crossings from supermarkets and convenience stores. So I would happily help lay in supplies of canned goods, matches, and candles. Beulah was different though.

One of the worst hurricanes to hit Texas in the 20th century, she barrelled into the coast in late September 1967, making landfall south of Brownsville in NE Mexico with 257 km/h winds, and moved inland. Beulah spawned massive rain and 115 tornadoes; it wasn't long before just about everything south of town was underwater. San Antonio was flooded too, with refugees from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, the Gulf coast, and the farming and ranching country in between. Accidents of history and economics meant, as they did more recently in Katrina, that the evacuees that ended up in shelters rather than taking refuge with family or friends were the poor, and in South Texas that meant they were disproportionally Hispanic and Roman Catholic.

As the flood waters moved closer and closer to San Antonio, so did the tide of evacuees, filling church halls and basements, schools and other public buildings. One of those churches was Trinity Baptist, a huge building in those days before mega-churches, set safely on a hill and a perfect refuge from the storm. Pastor and congregation welcomed in Mexican refugees, Texans fleeing the coast, migrant workers from ranches and farms. More than that, the pastor went to the archdiocesan offices and asked the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Antonio to send a Spanish-speaking priest to Trinity Baptist to celebrate mass for the refugees. It was a first for South Texas and maybe for all of North America, a Catholic mass celebrated in a Baptist church.

The storm of words that ensued nearly drove the hurricane off the front page of the local paper. Ecumenical co-operation wasn't so well developed as it is now and the barriers on both sides between Catholic and Protestant were very high, as were those between Hispanic and Anglo. The pastor, however, did not back down or acknowledge that those barriers had a right to be. His actions embodied the words of our second reading, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it"; and "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God". Whether he knew it or not, Pastor Fanning and his church were entertaining angels during that September storm. Not the anaemic youths in white robes and awkward wings of bad religious art but messengers of God's word and purpose, like the ones whom Abraham took in under the oak trees at Mamre, about whom we read earlier this summer. He did not recognise at the time who and what they were but he and Sarah both came to acknowledge both messengers and message as the events of Isaac's birth unfolded, events they had promised.

This morning's readings are all about hospitality and show how important it is in our tradition. The reading from Proverbs and the first part of the gospel speak to the guest, the one who receives hospitality, and how he or she should act. This reading and the second half of the gospel passage speak to the host, the one offering hospitality, and not so much to the 'how' as to the 'why'.

This hospitality can take many forms -- at the time that the epistle to the Hebrews was written, the author was thinking of hospitality to travellers, principally. The fledgling Christian movement was spread and nurtured then by itinerant apostles and evangelists, like Paul and the rest of his mission team, moving from city to city to preach and evangelise. They set up communities, recruited local leaders, stayed for a short time, and then moved on to the next mission field, coming back from time to time for visits of greater or lesser length. Hospitality, which was already considered of great importance by the Judaism that gave Christianity birth, because of their traditions of desert wandering, was of special value in communities that depended on such visitors. They could not very well be put up in the local Holiday Inn during their stay, especially when, as Paul's career shows, their message was often unwelcome to the wider community.

Here in this parish we too take seriously, and have for some time, the call to show hospitality to strangers. It expresses itself in many different ways. In fact we offer hospitality regularly to friend and stranger alike -- through the breakfasts and lunches we serve every week day and the other outreach services we provide to our lunch guests; through the meals that we offer as part of our evening programmes; through the coffee and sandwiches that we all share, lunch guests and members of the congregation alike, after the last service on Sunday morning. We do it, I believe, because we want to do what is pleasing to God, as the epistle to the Hebrews says, by sharing what we have, because it is part of God's call to us. But if by doing so, we are opening ourselves to the tremendous possibilility of entertaining angels, God's messengers, then we should ask ourselves what that message is likely to be. That way we might be better able to recognise both message and messenger when they come.

Here the second reading continues to be helpful. It contains eight admonitions, pieces of advice for living a Christian life, of which we've so far focussed only on two (hospitality to strangers and sharing what you have). One of the ones we haven't looked at so far is in verses 7 and 8: "Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." These are clearly not the current leaders of this congregation: the injunction to consider the outcome of their way of life suggests that their lives have come to an end, thus making it possible to see what the outcome has been. Furthermore, that they "spoke the word of God to you" may mean they were the ones who converted this congregation in the beginning. So these leaders were in the beginning exactly the sort of strangers that the congregation are still urged to entertain hospitably, angels whose message was the word of God.

The content of that word is very clear, and in a very real way here the medium is the message: the word of God that these messengers speak is not some word about God, it is the divine Word Himself, the Logos, Jesus the Messiah. The writer of this epistle reminds us that Jesus, like God the Father, is the same always, yesterday, today, and for the ages. He will not vary or change, but be always true to His divine nature and to us, His brothers and sisters. That is not to say that we always hear the same message in the same way when we receive angels, aware or unknowingly -- Jesus never changes but we do and we are open to hear more or different things about Him or from Him at different times. And our whole experience of Jesus as his family both past and present is that He meets us where we are, in the differing circumstances and trials of our lives, individually and corporately. As we remain with Jesus and open to His words, He teaches us to understand and appreciate more and more of who He is and who we can become.

So when we respond to this urging and practice hospitality toward strangers, sharing what we have with others, we take a ticket for a divine lottery. In this lottery the prize is not money or cars or a new house -- it is the possibility of receiving angels among us, angels speaking the word of God. In that crowded church basement in which hurricane evacuees sheltered, the word that God spoke was, as always, Jesus, but there Jesus as the one that removes the barrier walls that separate us, whether they are walls of race or language or ways of serving God. Here in this church we also have decided to practice hospitality and open ourselves to angels -- God knows what their message will be, what it will be about Jesus that they will show us. But if we remain open to the call to serve God in the ways that are pleasing to God's self, we will also be open to recognise the message when it comes. Amen.