August 28, 2022

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Michael Swartz

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

When I agreed to fill in for four months here at the Church of Peace, Mary Oelschlaeger asked me to answer a number of interview questions for a little piece in the Church Mouse to help those who are rather new to the church and did not know me from before could get to know me better.  This is an example of thoughtful hospitality on Mary’s part.

When she asked for my favorite scripture I picked this one:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers/thereby some have entertained angels unaware. And here it is today!

I was mainly thinking of immigrants and refugees – who / which has been a blessing to my ministry since about 1980 in Redwood City when my church included many migrants from Tonga.  This was the subject of my dissertation in 1995.  This hospitality is the basis of the work with Mayan Ministries in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, the English Language Learning program here at Church of Peace, and the one at Bethel Wesley United Methodist Church in Moline with which I am affiliated right up to today.  Some 40 years!

The text “hospitality to strangers” recalls when Abraham, still a nomad, saw two men on the horizon and offered them food, water and hospitality.  One outcome of that generosity was the promise of a child for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, and the founding of a dynasty.

Some see this as the beginning of God’s blessing of the human family with relationship.  We became God’s people and that continues to this day.  The blessing of humanity founded on a simple act of kindness and hospitality.

Now hospitality was a cultural value at the time and not begun with Abraham and Sarah – it was doing what was normative good practice in a particular circumstance.  It was not any spectacular good thing, just doing the “right thing.”  Cultural norms codify common sense, and in this instance being able to identify with the situation of the other.  Here we are back at “empathy” again.  A special strength of the Church of Peace.

Such cultural norms are “enlightened self-interest.”  We are all are in circumstances of need at one time or another and in one way or another.

Hospitality is related to the Golden Rule.  “As you would that others do to you, do also to them likewise.”  This is sort of the lubricant to good human relationships and more common sense than sublime morals or ethics.  “What goes around comes around.”  The whole notion of “karma.”

Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt (and enslaved.)

Jesus elaborates on this theme in Matthew 25:  “As ye did it to one of the least of these you did it unto me.”  I was hungry and you gave me food, I was naked and you clothed me.  I was in prison and you visited me.  Etc.  So when Abraham did the right thing he did it to angels and got a blessing.  When we do the right thing we receive Jesus – sort of a variation on the idea of communion; receive Christ.

The list of good and normative behaviors itemized in the reading from Hebrews is an elaboration on this idea of doing the right thing by others – the poor, strangers, prisoners, those being tortured and so forth.  As I was mulling over the list the thing all the folks listed have in common is that they are vulnerable.  According to our Bible the right response to human vulnerability is kindness, and recognizing it getting a break is what we desire and pray for when we are experiencing vulnerability.

As I continued mulling over the list of vulnerable situations it occurred to me that the opposite of hospitality is exploitation.  Another way to responding to vulnerable people is to exploit their distress for what seems like gain.  Sort of “kick them while they are down.”  Or, resent it when they get a break.  And my thinking kept getting darker and darker as I recognized and recalled stories about how we as a society and even sometimes as individuals try to make a buck out of the distress of others when they are vulnerable.  It started with payday loan lenders and went downhill from there.  I was getting depressed by the sermon.

Who wants to come to church to get depressed?

To lighten it up a little bit I here are some lines from the innkeeper, a musical piece from Les Miserables, “Master of the House.”  It could be called “when hospitality goes bad.”

Master of the house, keeper of the zoo
Ready to relieve ’em of a sou or two
Watering the wine, making up the weight
Pickin’ up their knick-knacks when they can’t see straight

I do whatever pleases
Jesus! Won’t I bleed ’em in the end!

Food beyond belief
Mix it in a mincer and pretend it’s beef
Kidney of a horse, liver of a cat
Filling up the sausages with this and that

Charge ’em for the lice, extra for the mice
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice (Hand it over!)
Here a little slice, there a little cut
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut
When it comes to fixing prices
There are a lot of tricks I knows
How it all increases, all them bits and pieces
Jesus! It’s amazing how it grows!

Apparently, we human beings need to be reminded by Jesus and Abraham to be kind to strangers and show hospitality.  Whenever in an old movie someone said, “you ain’t from around here, are you, stranger…” or when the car broke down on a dark and stormy night, things were going to go bad.  If the Golden Rule and hospitality is the common lubricant of human relationships, exploitation is the common grit in the gears.  And both are common in human interaction.

God as sovereign seeks to grant protection to the vulnerable.  Legal systems in civilized countries as sovereign also seek to protect the vulnerable.  It is a commonplace to define a society in terms of how they protect “the least, the last and the lost.”  We are called to be on the side of the angels.


Hospitality is holy common sense.  The Golden Rule is right.  Be kind to others, especially the vulnerable.  Today’s sermon, even more than usual, is filled with bromides and timeworn phrases.  The role of the preacher is often to say “out loud” what everyone knows is true.  We all just need to be reminded again and again.  Me too.

Amen and amen.

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