Sunday, September 9, 2012

Strangers Among Us

Strangers Among Us
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 9, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:13b
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Luke 14: 7-14 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

The NRSV chooses to place a paragraph indention at the end of this morning's verse in the marks of a Christian from Romans 12, so we've made it through at least what the NRSV chose to delineate as the first paragraph of this dense passage. There does seem to be a change of pace after this morning, in that after this morning, the passage gets even more radical. So far the Marks of a Christian have been ultra demanding, but next week we get into how a Christian is supposed to deal with enemies and hatred, pretty radical stuff, especially since we will talk about loving our enemies and overcoming hatred with love, but this week, although not so radical, is very difficult in our inward focused world, and that is Romans 12:13b "Extend Hospitality to Strangers," so taking a look back before proceeding forward:  

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. [1]  

To pair with "extend hospitality to strangers" I chose a passage where Jesus is discussing hospitality in the parable of the wedding feast from Luke 14:7-14:
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  

One of the ways that I sometimes get at what I want to say about a text on a given week is to think about what's most obvious. I try to get at what the cliche sermon would be for a given text. I think about all the sermons I've listened to and try to think about what the typical preacher would say about it, and then I try to tip that upside down, and go just a little deeper? I try to challenge the standard and see if there isn't something more waiting beyond obvious. So with this text I think the standard would be trying to get the congregation to look outside of themselves and to seek ways to become outward focused, to push people to greet visitors a little bit more friendly, to be more aggressive when it comes to inviting folks to the church, that maybe we should reinstate passing the peace to get us out of our seats and greeting each other just a little more. There are movements all across America as our the mainline denomination attendance is falling to try to reach out and grab people and bring them into our church, to be welcoming because that is what it takes to grow a church, and this passage sings out to do so. That's what I think the standard sermon for this text would be, and I'm sure you've heard that type of sermon before. Let's find ways to be more welcoming, so we can grow, grow, grow, sell, sell, sell, and feel better about ourselves. But is that hospitality, is that extending, is that what we are being called to do in this passage, or like most of these marks of a Christian, does it require so much more. Remember, as we've seen every week since we've begun this study, that the marks of a Christian parallel the marks of Christ, the marks of the cross, the marks of the nails through the hands and feet, requires more than just being more friendly, why would this week be any different? Why would this passage, and its demands, all of a sudden, be doable, checkable, simple, and barely nudging us out of our pews and our comfort zones.
Like we've done so often during this series of sermons let's look at the words. Extend in Hospitality to Strangers. Basically we are looking at three key words in English, the verb Extend, the object of what is being extending, "hospitality" and the recipient, "strangers." In Greek though what is 5 words, extend in hospitality to strangers, is simply two. Diokontes Philoxenia. Diokontes which is translates as extend, and then hospitality to strangers is Philoxenia. Let's talk Diokontes first.
The NRSV says "extend", but as I was looking it up in the lexicon I found it is translated many different ways, but based on the context is best looked at as "to run fast in order to catch a person or a thing." To chase, to pursue, to earnestly endeavor to acquire." This is much more aggressive, much more direct than merely to "extend." So the ante is raised, extend just falls far short.
Now let's look at the object, "strangers," skipping over hospitality because I want to spend the most time on hospitality, bringing our gospel passage into play. Philoxenia, a word that is typically translated as "hospitality to strangers" is actually a compound word. Philo, which we've seen before, "love" like in English Philosopher, lover of wisdom, or Philadelphia, brotherly love, as we looked at a few weeks ago, Philanthropy, lover of people, here we have philo xenia, lover of the stranger. Now when we think of stranger, perhaps you are like me, you revert back to childhood, and possibly it is different for you all because our society has greatly changed over the years, but think of what we now teach our kids about strangers. There is "don't talk to strangers;" "Don't take candy from strangers;" "Beware of strangers;" In Strangers there is danger. Was it like that for you when you were a kid? But here we are called to go out, actively pursuing strangers in love.
As our Old Testament lesson showed there is a grand tradition in the Bible of strangers, both in being a stranger and in caring for strangers. "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, and he went down into Egypt and lived there as a stranger. . ." It all begins with being a stranger, and many of the rites and rituals outlined in the Pentateuch are focused on remembering that as a people the Hebrews were once strangers, remembering that, remembering the vulnerability that a stranger experiences, remembering how God reached out his hand to help, how others along the way reached out their hand to help them as they were strangers in a strange land, throughout the history from Egypt to the promised land, to the divided kingdoms, to the exile, to the reclaiming of the land and the reestablishment of the temple in Jerusalem, the concept of care for strangers is central to the Jewish understanding of identity and responsibility. It's somewhat foreign to us in America, though it is ironic as this is a nation of immigrants and in such a nation of strangers, but rather than allowing our status as strangers bring us together we have let it tear us apart, maybe it is because we do not know who we are. Perhaps, and maybe forgetting that we are strangers and vulnerable is a major part of our problems.
I bring this up because this is the context for hospitality to strangers in our text. Strangers is not simply the people that we don't know, but the people who are on the outside, the margins of society, and to extend, rather chase, pursue, overcome, run after, is our call to them, quite more extensive than merely greeting our visitors, whom we do not know. It is interesting too, because the reaching out to strangers is in a way forging an identity. For the Jews it was part of their history, part of who they were as a people, and reaching out to strangers became a way of internalizing that unique status and position. Now look at us Christians, as we try to live up to the Marks of a True Christian, we too find our identity in our history as strangers, looking to Christ, our Lord, who was a stranger in this world, was cast aside. Remembering that heritage as a part of who we are and who we are called to be can really be centering and identifying for Christians.
And that brings me to hospitality. Do we understand hospitality any more in our culture? We are consumers we pay for people to be hospitable to us. Restaurants and hotels and the such have changed the idea of hospitality. In ancient times travelers were welcomed in, given food, given shelter. There were no such thing as reservations, no such thing as travelers checks, no such thing as McDonalds. Travelers had to rely on the hospitality of folks if they were to survive, and like most things in society where there is necessity there is invention. Because there was a need for people to be hospitable people were. It was understood, it was part of a code. In many so called underdeveloped societies in our modern times you still see these types of hospitality remnants. Are we truly so advanced? Remember what we teach our children about strangers, hitch hikers, strange knocks at the door. Think about it the next time at Halloween you see a "Trunk or Treat" and think about why there is a need for safety's sake to not have kids knock on strange doors. Where is the hospitality in our society today? Our fragmented distrusting world has almost completely forgotten the notion.
And so that leaves church. Are we hospitable to the stranger? Do we know what true hospitality is? Are our greeters and visitor cards and warm smiles enough? We've had visitors, we've had people we've never met walk through that door, but when was the last time we had a stranger, on a Sunday, a true definition of a stranger, the oldest definition, the wandering Aramean type definition? And yet this passage says that the "true Christian" doesn't just wait for the stranger to greet, who never shows up, but runs after the stranger, takes hospitality to the stranger, on the stranger's terms, on the stranger's turf. Hospitality on the run.
Now why? Let's look at what Jesus calls hospitality because he like me, seems to like to take common understandings and amp them up beyond the cliched norm. The first part of  his wedding feast parable deals with the humility needed to be hospitable. There is a lowering of self, so that the other, the stranger may truly be raised up. The I is lost, the I am such and such is lost, the we are such and such is lost, the us is lost, and it becomes about the other person. Not we are glad to have you, see the pronouns of inclusion and exclusion, we / you, but "he may say to you, friend move up higher." Radical, the stranger sets the parameters of the meeting, the guidelines, the status. Then the second part has to do with the why. Why humble yourself? Why extend hospitality? Why stick your neck out?
I've seen it across the country in meetings and focus groups and seminary classes we need to grow our church, we need to get people in, the church is dying, we need to be more externally focused so that we do not die. Again there it is we, we, we. Look at how Jesus explains hospitality.

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. 

They cannot repay  you, hello, it's not about you, it's about them. We extend hospitality not because we want to grow but because we care. We care about the stranger. We care about the stranger because we are strangers too, we were strangers too, Christ was a stranger too, and set an amazing example of hospitality by disrobing the heavenly honor, casting aside the crown, and becoming flesh, becoming one of us, a stranger amongst us, to save other strangers, so that we may all be found again, loved again, claimed again in God's house, in God's family, to live in peace and love and new found identity forever. So yeah we better greet our visitors, and yeah we better be as friendly as we can, but our hospitality cannot be bound by that door, and it cannot be bound by this hour once a week, it must be a hospitality that aggressively breaks outside into the world. Romans 12:13b Diokontes Philoxenia, Agressively pursue being a lover of the stranger, again the marks of the Christian are the marks of Christ, radical, extreme, immaculate, messy, personal, sustained with blood and sweat, and discomfort, and risk, and above all forged in the amazing possibilities of the ultimate definition of love. May God give us the strength. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:9-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.