The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 28, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s
This last week my family and I had the joy of being guests in a small Maine camp of a few St Michael’s parishioners. As guests, we were granted the lovely screened-in sleeping porch where we could hear the loons call at night; we were helped into and out of the kayaks, canoes, rowboat, life vests, floaties, and all the other toys of life on the lake; we were cooked for on the grill and on the stove; we were taken for a drive to the coast to see a beautiful lighthouse and eat seafood. And as guests, we brought bottles of wine and snacks to share, washed the dishes when they piled up, swept the floor after our children tracked in too much of the forest, tried not to take too much time in the bathroom, and stripped off the sheets when we were leaving. Just as, over the summer, we have done in various ways and on both sides of the equation, being guests in our parents’ and friends’ homes and hosting friends and their children in our home. We have cooked and eaten others’ cooking; cleaned and enjoyed not cleaning; planned outings and happily gone along on others’ plans. All in the wonderful spirit of hospitality, something we get to practice more in the summer than any other time. The chance to try on each others’ lives a little bit and see what we learn.
Many years ago I stayed with a group of friends in someone’s grandparents’ cabin in the French Vosges mountains. On proposing the trip, my French friend noted that when people stay someplace together and see each other with ‘des petits yeux’ in the morning – ‘little eyes,’ eyes puffed up from sleep – they come to know each other in a different way. The expression has stayed with me ever since, because it says something true about sharing hospitality. Instead of seeing each other with our public faces on, we enter into a more private space. We know each other in a new way.
The scripture readings today talk a lot about hospitality, and I think it is this kind of hospitality they are referring to. Jesus gives a set of instructions about hosting and being hosted, issues of supreme importance in that time and culture. Instead of focusing on status and honor, he says, set all that aside. Just be together, with all kinds of people. Hospitality is not an opportunity to show off your status or increase it to advantage; nor is it an opportunity to engage in quid pro quo. Hospitality is a time for intimacy, breaking bread together, seeing each other with different eyes. Not the carefully curated Facebook self, but the real self, with petits yeux, rumpled hair, and all. And as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.
I was thinking of that line when I read a wonderful story from the Times from late June, about small groups of people in Canada who have welcomed Syrian refugees. Canada allows ordinary citizens to band together and sponsor refugee families, and so many have done so that the demand has outstripped the supply of available refugees. Book groups, church groups, and just random groupings of neighbors have signed on to do everything from finding apartments, schools, and mosques for families to teaching them how to skate and canoe. Days after refugees arrive in Canada, their sponsors appear, picking them up from the hotel they are housed in and taking them off to settle in their new home.
The story tells of the vast differences the sponsors and refugees encounter – language and culture, gender roles, the unfathomable trauma the refugees are coming out of – but also tells of ways they come to know each other, finding ways to truly help and be helped. It ends with a brief mention of how one of the sponsors was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery, and the ways her refugee family reached out to care for her in return.
It’s all a vast experiment, and no one knows how it will work when the year of sponsorship is over. But the hospitality expressed throughout it all is astonishing. The refugees are bewildered and impoverished, and the sponsors support them financially and spiritually. The sponsors are well-meaning but sometimes ignorant, and the refugees teach them their culture and share some of the tragedy in their lives. And in the process, both see one another with different eyes – not their best public selves, but their real selves, in all the glory and flaws. Unlikely combinations of people, seeing each other with their petits yeux.
In some ways the refugees have no choice in the matter. But it amazes me that the Canadian sponsors are willing to be so vulnerable, opening their homes and their hearts and their financial resources to these complete strangers. We are all given plenty of reason to be fearful of strangers, particularly strangers who differ from us in as many ways as Syrian refugees differ from middle-class white Canadians in Toronto. One of the comments to the story online, unsurprisingly, raised the alarm and the need for ‘heavy-duty screening of these (Muslim) immigrants.’ That’s the world we’re used to, and what we hear in our political rhetoric today. And indeed, there’s no guarantee for either the sponsors or the refugee families. Any of them – from either side – could turn out to be terrorists or psychopaths or just unpleasant people who meddle in your life too much. Yet still, both sides enter into the arrangement, willing to take the risk.
Because true hospitality is a risk. It is a position of vulnerability to allow someone into your home and into your life. It is a position of vulnerability to be a guest in someone else’s world. It is vulnerable to reach across differences to know and be known. We may get hurt in all kinds of ways. But we also may entertain angels without knowing it.
As individuals in our own lives, in the summer season of hosting and throughout our relationships, we know that deeper friendship and trust comes only through risk. As people of faith in a church congregation, we know, or we should know, that welcoming the newcomer and feeding those who come to Saturday Kitchen is an imperative in our ministry, despite the risk. And as people of a nation built by centuries of immigrants and refugees, slaves brought unwillingly, natives forced to welcome others to the land – all the mixed polyglot of our history – we know, and we should know, that it is only through hospitality that we exist, even with the risk. It is only by risking knowing and being known, opening our hearts and homes and minds to others who are different from us, that we are who we are as human beings, and as a people.
Hospitality is not just a civic virtue, although it is that. It is not just personally rewarding, though it is that. Hospitality is what we are commanded and called to do as people of faith. Not just because the one we welcome may be an angel; not because we’ll get something out of the deal; not because there’s any guarantee that we will be safe and all will be ok for us. But because it is what we must do to live, as children of God. The Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality came in a desert land where without taking care of one another, people would not survive. Our land and our time is no less of a desert. If we do not care for each other, then we will cease to be – to be children of God, to be people of faith, to be human.
But it is not just a commandment laid upon us. It is what we can do because of what God already does for us – giving us life, shielding us, providing for us the blessings we take for granted every day. “The Lord is my helper,” quotes the letter to the Hebrews. “I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” May we reach out our hands and hearts, without fear, and love.