A Sermon about Hospitality

“Hospitality: A Dangerous Act with Strangers and Angels”

Hebrews 13.2

We have spent a lot of time talking about hospitality. In many ways it is like singing to the choir because we have some real hospitality skills. There is much we could teach others about hospitality. I suspect that when people join us here, they find themselves feeling welcomed. And yet, we cannot get away from the fact that the bible just keeps talking about hospitality. It will not do to read the bible as if we are to master some skill then we can pass on the passages that address that topic.

The fact is, hospitality is part of what identifies us, not only in our congregation, but in the church as a whole. This is true because it is a characteristic of God. God establishes what hospitality looks like and God has welcomed us into the family with open arms and seated us at the royal table.

Today we are in Hebrews. An interesting book, I suspect it is actually a sermon. Sometimes it seems to raise its voice and even pound on the pulpit to keep our attention. One of the messages found in Hebrews is certainly to stay awake, stay alert. And the reason for this is the people are living in a state of urgency.

The people who first heard the Hebrews sermon were in danger of dying and that causes some to lose faith. So we get a whole chapter about people who did die but kept the faith. Read chapter eleven, there is a long list of people mentioned as people who kept the faith even as they lost their life. We are reminded there is a dangerous history for those who have walked in faith.

But today we find ourselves in chapter 13, it begins clearly, “love your sisters and brothers…” This sounds ok, we’ve heard it before, it sounds like something Jesus might say. The text goes on to imply that we ought to ”love strangers.” This is a reminder that when we are practicing hospitality we do not pick and choose who the recipient is. This seems to go against societal advice. “Show hospitality to strangers.” While we do not hear that often, we do hear advice like “don’t talk to strangers” and phrases like “stranger danger.” These sayings are not without cause. Many, including children, have been harmed during interaction with strangers. Laws have been made in response to some of these encounters. Do not accept candy from someone you do not know. Do not get too close to an unfamiliar van. We are well aware of the dangers in situations like these.

Yet, here we have it, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” It almost sounds polite. As if the writer of Hebrews says “love your sisters and brothers” and oh, by the way, “don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers.” And then, the text tells us that any stranger out there could be an angel. This is interesting, “some of you have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Quite frankly, if we are entertaining angels, it is probably best we don’t know about it. Every time one shows up in the bible, someone falls to the ground, someone hides their face, someone becomes afraid. We have to wonder if angels are hideous or intimidating. Yet, Hebrews tells says that some have shown hospitality to them without knowing it. At the very least, this sounds dangerous.

Hebrews then mentions prisoners. Are prisoners an example of strangers that are worthy of our hospitality? Aren’t these the bad guys? I don’t have to remind you of the recent shooting here in PA. Twelve were shot in a bar with no clear motive. This is another reminder that someone needs to be demonstrating a different way. The bible makes clear that someone is the church. A people who will show hospitality in unlikely places and to unlikely people. Hebrews suggests “hospitality to strangers.” I can’t help but think how dangerous that sounds.

I am reminded of my oldest daughter. When five years old, playing with two others (also five) in a yard near the alley. One of the mothers was watching from the window when a pick-up truck pulled up. A gentleman began speaking to the children. The mother made her way outside and as she approached, the truck pulled away. When she asked the children who they were talking to, they replied they didn’t know who it was. And then, appropriately, this mother gave the speech about the danger of talking with strangers. I am told my daughter replied “we weren’t worried, we knew that God would protect us.” That did not impress the mother. I am not exactly sure of what I think about it. But it did remind me that Jesus told us that in order to enter the kingdom one must become as a child.

Hebrews says clearly “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” What are we to do with this? And it is not as if the Hebrews were safe. In fact, they were in danger of losing their lives. It is one of the reasons the writer reminds us to keep on assembling together. We can’t survive such dangerous territory on our own.

One day in the early pages of the bible, Abraham and Sarah were camping when they were approached by three travelers. They did not hide the valuables. They did not put out the fire and shut the door on the tent. They did not strategize a plan to pretend they weren’t home. Instead, they invited them to stay and eat. They entertained them and it is only later we learn that among the travelers were angels. We cannot help but think about Hebrews “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, you might be showing hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

It might seem so contradictory to use our hospitality skills on a stranger. We might be reminded that one day Jesus was asked about a neighbor. He replied with a surprising story about a Samaritan’s hospitality. And those in the crowd would have been shocked. They would have thought it was impossible and contradictory for a neighbor and a Samaritan to be the same person. It is more likely they would have considered him to be a stranger.

Hospitality might seem so easy. But the fact is, it is a challenge. While showing hospitality, we can never be sure what we’re getting into. Hospitality is risky business. Why venture into something where you can be taken advantage of? Why risk people thinking that you are a pushover? Why enter such dangerous situations at all? All we know is that Hebrews says “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” and we are reminded that hospitality is downright dangerous.

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Goodbye Eugene Peterson

You have probably heard by now that Eugene Peterson died last month. Ever since my friend Dale told me to read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction I was reading everything from Eugene Peterson I could find. Peterson’s contemplative exegesis helped me at a stage when I was struggling to make connections between a biblical theology and a practical pastoral theology. I suspect it was the same for many. Peterson will not be remembered primarily as a preacher. Instead, he will likely be remembered as the guy responsible for The Message or as an author of many books. Yet, as evidenced by As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire, a book of sermons that were preached by Peterson, he was a preacher. I suspect there is a long list of preachers who considered Peterson to be their pastor.

As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire can be read as a devotional or as a sermon primer. It certainly helps us to understand a little how Peterson thought about scripture. It helps us understand a little bit about this one who desired to be like a kingfisher “catching and reflecting sun brightness.” It helps us to understand a little about this one who desired Christ to be “playing through our limbs” in ways that we can live the Christ life “almost in spite of ourselves.” He calls these written sermons “kingfisher sermons” because he knows that capturing a sermon on paper is like trying to “sketch a kingfisher in flight.”

I love what his son Leif Peterson said about his father at his recent funeral. “The writer of Genesis tells us that at the end of each day of creation, God looked around the world that He had done, and saw that it was good.” He goes on to say “I think my dad did that a lot. He was always looking around at the mountains, at the flowers, at the birds, at the relationships forming and playing all around him, and you could tell from that signature twinkle in his eyes, what he was thinking ‘oh man that’s good, that’s really good.'”

He continues by saying that he used to joke with his father and tell him that he “only had one sermon, one message… It’s almost laughable how you fooled them, how for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new… They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them… They didn’t know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret.”

Leif Peterson said that he knew his father’s secret, however, as he had been telling him for 50 years. “For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It’s the same message over and over: ‘God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.’”

I love that. Thank you, Eugene, for a life well lived.

Politics of a Holy Kingdom

I Thessalonians 5.12-24: A Written Sermon

Acts 17 tells us about a church that came to be in what we might call a delicate political climate. Paul and Silas were banished from the city and forced to leave under cover of darkness. A local named Jason, along with others, had been dragged through town and placed in jail. All because of politics. In this church, they were preaching a king other than Caesar. First in the synagogue, now perhaps at Jason’s house. And ever since the letter we call I Thessalonians arrived, they were constantly reminded that this was the message. There is another king, and this king is on the way to establish a new kingdom.

This made people nervous. Especially since, in I Thessalonians this is not just casually mentioned. The reader is reminded in chapter one that King Jesus is coming. And again in chapter two “we will glory in his presence.” In chapter three a prayer that we will be “holy and blameless” when he comes. And in chapter four, nothing less than a royal welcome as a herald announces his coming as trumpets blast. And again, sanctified and blameless at his coming in chapter five. This is not a peripheral message in I Thessalonians. This is not an accidental political statement. The true king is coming to set up his reign.

Caesar had issued a decree. It was against the law to predict a new king during the reign of Caesar. In fact, Caesar declared that he himself was a god.

We cannot escape the fact that when I Thessalonians talks about a king… one who is truly God… it is a political statement. We should not be surprised by this. If we have been reading our bibles, we already know that when the New Testament began it began with a prophet in the desert who kept crying out “repent! A new kingdom is coming.” I think we can hear in his words and actions that he wanted to be sure we understood that this meant a new king was coming.

And then Jesus walked onto the scene. And he came with an announcement “the kingdom is here!” By the end of the gospel we surely understand that he meant “the new king has arrived!”

This conversation about the Thessalonians reminds us there may be tendencies for us, perhaps a majority of us, to become loyal to the kings of the world. We should be able to understand why the residents of the city might get nervous when someone came claiming another king than Caesar. We might be able to understand why they might drag someone across town to restore order. But this conversation about Thessalonians also reminds us that kings like Caesar do not last for long. The fact is, all of earth’s kings are on the way out. We can fall in behind them, but we would be placing trust in a system doomed to failure.

This kingdom I Thessalonians is talking about comes with expectations. We read some of them in our text from chapter five. They come as a list of characteristics that those in the kingdom should exhibit. This is what one with a holy heart looks like. Paul does not spend a lot of time on any of them. We do not get detailed definitions of what any of them mean for us. He shoots them out in rapid fire and we hear things like;

Acknowledge those who work on your behalf and those who care for you. Live in peace with one another. Warn those with idle tendencies and warn those who are disruptive. Encourage the downhearted. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone (sounds so simple, we know it’s not). Do not pay back wrong with more wrong. Do good for one another. Do good for others. Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in everything. Do not quench the Spirit. Be careful with prophecy.

Reject evil. Yesterday morning, here in PA, an armed shooter entered a place of worship during a naming ceremony and killed eleven people, including four officers. In this kingdom, we hear words like reject evil. We hear do not pay back wrong with more wrong. We condemn such attacks. We pray for our Jewish neighbors. We call on people to turn from violent ways. We call on the church to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation and change.

I Thessalonians is an encouraging message of hope. It tells us peace is possible, but only through the God of peace. We get a prayer here in our text this morning. A prayer that the “God of peace will sanctify you entirely in preparation for the coming of the true King.” Thessalonians calls us to live like we are in the presence of the King.

This is how we are to live on days that seem normal. This is how we are to live when we are seriously wondering if the person driving ahead of us really has a driver’s license. This is how we are to live if forced to leave town under cover of darkness. This is how we are to live if dragged across town for our politics. This is how we are to live if a girl named Gwendolyn steals all our change. This is how we are to live if we encounter one who sends packages of hate to people who think differently. This is how we are to live if someone walks into a place of worship and kills people because of their nationality.

We are a people who live in peace with one another. A people who encourage the downhearted. We are people who help the weak, who are patient, and do not repay wrong with more wrong. We are a people who rejoice and pray and give thanks. We are a people who reject evil.

We are a people who believe in another kingdom, one ruled by the true King – Jesus.

The Princeton Scripture Project and a Resulting Sermon

From 1998-2002, fifteen pastors and scholars participated in what has come to be known as the Princeton Scripture Project. Their intention was to explore how to read the Bible in an age we have come to know as postmodernity. Their reflections are published in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. It is a thoughtful work that gives us nine theses that the contributors agreed on. These are;

  • Thesis One: Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
  • Thesis Two: Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
  • Thesis Three: Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
  • Thesis Four: Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
  • Thesis Five: The four canonical gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
  • Thesis Six: Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action — the church.
  • Thesis seven: The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
  • Thesis eight: Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
  • Thesis nine: We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

Richard Hays is coeditor of The Art of Reading Scripture. We are fortunate that he included a sermon “Who is the God Who Will Deliver.” The texts are Daniel 3.16-29 and Hebrews 11.32-12.2. Hays introduces Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as superheroes. He describes the escape of the fiery furnace like a modern action movie. I enjoy this introduction yet agree that marveling too much in the special effects will cause us to miss the story.

Hays cannot assume listeners have any biblical literacy. So he retells the story of Daniel as a story of political resistance. He talks about Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and the three who refused to bow down. Then he emphasizes the king’s question, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” I enjoy his commentary. It is one thing to talk about how this God rescued you in Egypt, “but this is the real world now.” Nebuchadnezzar was certain he held the power. But God saved them and Nebuchadnezzar changes his tune.

Hays is right to highlight the three Hebrews trusted God without knowing how the story would turn out. This is important because not all resistance stories have a happy ending. This is important because our resistance may get us thrown into the fire as well. This is important because we must trust our future to God.

He creatively introduces the fourth figure in the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar says “the fourth has the appearance of a god.” Hays gets my attention as he reports that only three men come out. The fourth figure does not follow but remains in the furnace of suffering. Hays turns to the Hebrews text where there is a great cloud of witnesses who have trusted in the power of God to deliver. At the end of this is Jesus, the “author and finisher” of faith. Jesus did not escape his enemies. He did not emerge from the furnace unscathed. He remained in it and “endured the cross” in order to deliver us. Hays answers the question, “Who is the god who will deliver?” with “the God who enters the furnace with us.” Hays then brings in a text from Isaiah to affirm this response.

I enjoy Hay’s discussion about audience context and his attempt at early Christian exegesis of the OT deliverance stories. Equally helpful is his conversation about the need for resistance in today’s church. Perhaps most interesting is his discussion of how his involvement in the Scripture Project led him to focus on the fourth man in the sermon. Both this sermon and The Scripture Project emphasize God’s salvation. Both presume Old and New Testament as the ongoing story of God’s intervention. Both address the saving presence of God in a way that prefigures what is later claimed about Jesus. Both have confidence in God as the author of the entire drama. I applaud his effort to preach in a way that places Jesus in the role of the saving God of history.

Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light: a Sermon on Acts 9.1-18

I was 14 years old, living in upstate NY, trying to navigate a world of many questions and few answers. The fact is, teen boys don’t always have the right answers. But to their credit, they are at least looking. And I was trying to connect the world of eighth grade with the world I was reading about in the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I was not always right. But I do remember when I first heard on the radio the song “Blinded By the Light.” It was catchy and I was certain it was about Saul on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Springsteen wrote this song and I recognize now that he probably didn’t have Acts 9 in mind when he wrote that lyric but I still think about Saul whenever I hear it. The song begins “Madmen, Drummers, Bummers…” and Acts 9 comes with a madman (Saul) and bummers (persecution and murderous threats). Perhaps Ananias was a drummer (playing with the Straight Street Band).

Acts 9 starts out with Saul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He is on his way to Damascus to find those who belong to “the Way” in order to bring them back as prisoners.

This is the same Saul who was there at the stoning of Stephen. We do not know if he was an instigator or a collaborator but we do know he was in agreement with what happened that day. Because afterward he becomes violent and begins breathing “murderous threats.” That happens in v.1. It is important to highlight that just 18 verses later he “was baptized.” What happened? Acts 9 says he met someone on the road. And we are told that it was Jesus.

Acts is full of surprises. Nearly every chapter seems to present a surprise of some sort. But who saw this coming? Just when we were ready to hear more about Philip running around in the desert welcoming unlikely and unexpected people into the kingdom, here comes Saul with his murderous threats. We are not prepared for the one who is hunting disciples to be turned so quickly or so convincingly.

In the bigger picture we can see this episode as the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gospel of Jesus. Can a cross or even death stop the gospel? Can the fact that listeners do not share a language with the speaker stop the gospel? Can prison or beatings stop the gospel? Can corruption in the church? Can unworthy people? Can continental boundaries? Can the gospel be stopped by one willing to use violence and murderous threats? There is something about this gospel that propels it through most any barrier – there is something about meeting Jesus.

Acts is full of episodes where people meet Jesus. It is worth pointing out that only once, right here in chapter 9, is someone converted by being blinded by the light. It is helpful to know that Jesus does not meet everyone on the same street. Jesus does not work on every one of us in the same way. You are not less spiritual because you were not blinded while traveling the road to Damascus. We want to be clear that God may perform the same work in each of us but God is under no obligation to do it in the same way twice.

Do not measure your kingdom value by your conversion experience. Do not be manipulated into thinking that those who can share with pinpoint accuracy when and where conversion occurred are more spiritual than you. Do not believe that a television preacher who saw a 60 foot Jesus is better at following Jesus than you are. Rejoice that God is calling you. Rejoice that you have met Jesus. Rejoice that God is so interested in you that He has made plans for you.

Sometimes we read a text like this and want to use it as a bully stick. Read it to someone who is speaking against Jesus and say “maybe this will teach you for messing with Jesus… punk.” But Ananias does not show up and say to Saul “don’t mess with Jesus, next time could be worse.”

Other times we might read a text like this and wish our experience was similar. Such an experience might give us validation. A stronger incentive to do something for God. We would know without a doubt that God does have a plan for us. If all conversions were like this, it would be easier to tell who has been converted.

While it is fact that Acts loves to talk about conversion, it does not share many conversion stories that look alike… and there is certainly nothing else like this.

Here is what we know. The way of God will never include opposing Jesus. The ways of God will never include murderous threats. The ways of God may include strange and miraculous ways, like blinding the sighted or opening eye of the blind. The ways of God may include locating the least likely candidate, even the greatest opponent, and turn them toward Jesus.

Let us picture conversion for what it is. It is heading in one direction and then running into Jesus. It is like a crash in the intersection. It is a change of direction. Conversion suggests we are no longer heading the same way we once were. There are new plans. Things that once seemed so urgent are no longer urgent, and new things suddenly become priority.

It is possible you are hiding your true direction and desires from others. But you are not hiding from God. And God has a specific direction for you. The plan is no different than it was for a man who once breathed murderous threats and then one day was blinded by a light – God’s plan for you is to follow Jesus.

Craig Barnes on Getting the Demon Out

Craig Barnes is a highlight of the Festival of Homiletics. This year, he preached a sermon and presented a lecture. His sermon text was Mark 9.14-29 and his title “Getting the Demon Out.” Here are some things that came up during his sermon.

-texts about demons tend to make us nervous The only thing that may make us more nervous are people who enjoy reading about demons.

-whatever your thoughts about demons, let us agree there is something evil out there and it cripples people.

-nine of the disciples become engaged in an argument about getting a demon out of a young boy. They are likely feeling powerless and embarrassed. That often leads people to arguments.

-we want to do something in situations like this. When we cannot, there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

-Jesus appears to be tolerant of doubt. Barnes contrast this with fear, he tends to make a strong statement about fear.

-Barnes asks the question, why stay with the church? He answers “because that’s where I go to find Jesus.” He knows Jesus can be found in other places as well but he also knows the church is Jesus’ plan for the world.

-while the demon possessed boy is convulsing, rolling around on the ground, foaming at the mouth, Jesus appears to be conducting a medical examination “how long has this been happening to him?” Barnes notes that Jesus is never in a hurry and asks, can we move so slowly? Jesus knows healing may take time.

-we too must settle in for the long haul. Join with a faith that has been honed over time by belief and doubt. We want a faith that has been hammered out by centuries of saints, something that lasts.

-Barnes is reminded that in another gospel Jesus will ask “are you going to leave me too?” And the disciples will answer “where would we go?” This is not a statement of strong belief. And then, following the resurrection some continued to doubt. Again, not a statement of strong belief. Still, they worship. That is all we can do, we can go to Jesus.

-when perplexed by our inability to get the demon out, when we become defensive and argumentative, when we feel powerless and embarrassed about what we are not able to do – there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

Advent Surprise

(A Written Sermon, Luke 2.8-20)

One thing that stands out in this text is the element of surprise. The shepherds were in the fields shepherding. They were not waiting for angels to show. This is not like Linus’s pumpkin patch where he goes out on purpose to sit and wait for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. These shepherds were here to look after sheep. They were here working in fields they had worked before without supernatural visitors. They are expecting nothing different on this night. But then, surprise… a visitor from heaven. And then, astonishing news. And then a crowd of visitors from heaven. Yes, of the many things that are going on this night and in this text… surprise is certainly one of them.

And then (and we do not want to minimize this) they went looking for Jesus. They could have questioned whether they were getting enough rest. They could have questioned what was in that bottle they had been drinking. They could have questioned whether they should have eaten that second helping of whatever that was. But the shepherds went looking for a Saviour. They went looking for Christ the Lord. They went looking for Jesus.

The text is straightforward about this “when the angels had left them and had gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

Luke does not record that anyone else went looking. In fact, the gospels seem to go out of their way to suggest that people were just not that interested. It is recorded that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But we do not know if any of them went to find out for themselves. Surely the star was seen by others, yet we are only told the magi followed it. The scholars in the king’s palace were able to tell exactly where to find the child king, yet do not make an effort to find him. But Luke wants us to know the shepherds went looking for Jesus.

The text says “they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.” The text presents the shepherds as eager explorers, seeking, working their way through fields and wilderness to make sense of what they have heard. They are intent about finding Jesus. The shepherds become ideal characters to talk about during Advent. We are all trying to make sense of this news, the news that Jesus is born to save the world. Advent calls for each of us to be seeking Jesus.

Yet it is so easy to become distracted during Advent. After all, there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. It becomes easier to look for a good deal, to look for free shipping, it becomes easier to look for what to serve or what to wear. The shepherds, these characters in the Advent of Jesus, remind us that what is important is to find Jesus. In fact they hurry, they have an urgency to find out if this news could be true.

The shepherds seem so noble, almost dignified. We have romanticized their part of the story. They are such an important part of the story that we forget, shepherds are people on the fringe. It is possible no one would have noticed if they went missing. Still these are the folks God chose to tell first about this good news.

My friend Layne has brought to my attention a connection with women we find later in the gospel. Women, like shepherds,would not have been first century decision makers, powerless in society. Yet women were the first people God chose to tell about resurrection. It is interesting how intentional God is about telling shepherds in the fields and women at the tomb, he sends angels to make sure that these particular people receive this particular message.

These people may not have had much power, much influence on the surface, certainly not in earthly kingdoms. But in God’s kingdom they receive special invitations. No one would have been bragging about the idea that God spoke to shepherds first about Christmas or to women first about Easter. Yet that is what we discover in the gospel about the way that God works.

We started by noting the element of surprise in the story. There is the surprise that a child was born in a stable and laid in a manger and will be the Savior of the world. And the surprise that this news was delivered to shepherds who were watching flocks in fields at night. And the surprise that comes with the implications this news has for us. Yes, this text reminds us Christmas is full of surprises – because God is full of surprises.