Entertaining Angels


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John Weems preached, “Entertaining Angels.”

Many churches (including this one) have signs claiming to welcome everyone. What does it really mean to love and include all people with sacred worth?

 

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Leviticus 19:33-34 (The Message)
When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am GOD, your God.

Hebrews 13:1-2 (NRS Version)
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

 

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A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.

 

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When someone has a radically different preference or opinion than yours, how do you respond? Do you tend to distance yourself, or seek to understand his or her point of view?

Last week we discussed the political divide in our country, and I shared some polling data revealing that jury duty, witches and hemorrhoids all received higher approval ratings than Congress. We considered the reality that churches aren’t always the voices of unity and Christ’s love we are called to be, making it all to easy for more than 60 percent of the San Francisco population to entirely avoid houses of worship.

We did not, however, discuss another major dividing line that impacts this great land.

People not only fight like cats and dogs, we fight about cats and dogs.

May I please have a quick show of hands?

How many of you are dog people?

Cat people?

And if you don’t mind me getting too personal, how many of you are bi-petual? (open to both cats and dogs)

To better understand this phenomenon and why we have such strong feelings, I’d like to share a couple of diary entries from our furry friends.[1] First, the dog . . .

The Dog’s Diary
7:00 am – Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am – A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am – A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am – Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm – Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm – Dinner! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm – Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm – Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

The Cat’s Diary
Day 983 of My Captivity

My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength.

The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet. Today I captured a mouse and left its remains at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates my capabilities. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a “good little hunter” I am. Buffoons!

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of “allergies.” I must learn what this means, and how to use it to my advantage.

________________________

While these “diary” entries were of course just for fun, there has been actual academic study of our preferences of pets. Psychologists have invested time looking at the personality type, political preferences, and presumed intelligence of cat owners versus dog owners. For example, one study by the University of Texas revealed that cat people tended to be more introverted than dog people. Other research has attempted to show a correlation between pet preference and spiritual views, with some saying that cat owners are more likely to be independent and therefore atheist. Some people just have allergies. And for what it’s worth, only about one quarter of people are bi-petual.

Here at Calvary, we welcome everyone. Whether you are love pets, avoid them, or just aren’t at a phase of life that makes pet companionship possible, we are glad you are here. We welcome you if you are Libertarian, Green, Independent, Republican, Democrat, or simply Confused.

Welcoming everyone is easier said than, done, however.

Making space for all takes work.

Our Scripture readings today make it clear that inclusivity is not optional:

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

The word in the book of Hebrews translated as hospitality, philoxenia, has a much deeper meaning than the way most of us do hospitality. When we think of hospitality, we could think of providing a short-term room for a friend, a cup of coffee or a cookie at church, or maybe even a few dollars if someone is in need.

Philoxenia comes from two Greek words, “philo,” brotherly or sisterly love, and xenos, strange. So the word we heard translated as hospitality actually means “love of strangers.” Not tolerate, or politely exclude from your life, but love!

God was communicating this message thousands of years before Jesus walked on earth. Humankind didn’t listen.

Like children who don’t really pay attention when a parent demands that we behave “Because I said so!,” we have to continually remind ourselves that God calls us to do more than love people who are like us.

Hebrews 13:3 goes on: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” The author then calls us to be faithful in marriage, respectful of our bodies, “free from the love of money,” and content with what we have.

The passage expands upon the key to following the Great Commandment to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbor as we love ourself. If we could follow these words, we would be happy and the world would be peaceful.

Why is it so hard to tolerate out neighbors, much less love them and love strangers?

My friend J.B. shared a resource that helps explain some our dilemma.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the question of “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” in The Righteous Mind and an excellent TED Talk you may watch online. He says that our righteous minds are set to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.

Nurture, the environment in which we grow up and the way we are treated, definitely has a major impact; however, Haidt argues that nurture isn’t as all-powerful as thought in the last century.

Drawing from neuroscientist Gary Marcus, The NYU Stern School of Business professor argues that our moral sense developed over millions of years of evolution: “The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood.”[2]

So if we are hard wired to be self-righteous, how do we get out of our own way? Haidt says that if we want to change other people, we have to understand our own “moral psychology and step outside the moral matrix.”[3] We must operate with the assumption that everyone does think they are right and have a reason for it. Haidt calls us to “moral humility.”

While we could easily point at others for missing the boat of moral humility, let’s start with the church. Part of the reason it is very easy for more than 60 percent of San Franciscans to never set foot in a church is the real and perceived hypocrisy of church people, including yours truly. We can be very self-righteous about what music they prefer or what they wear. We all have hidden parts of our lives and reasons why we do what we do.

Loving strangers applies not only to new people visiting, but people with views that seem strange to us.

Some of you dress up because you were taught that it was respectful to God. Others among you grew up with parents who dressed up nice for church, then didn’t treat you very nice at home. Some dress casually because you are headed somewhere else after church, or don’t own a suit.

Please wear what you want to wear, what you would wear to a friend’s home who truly welcomes you.

Welcoming everyone doesn’t mean welcoming everyone like us!

Before we judge, let us call our righteous mind to seek understanding.

Some of you hear Mozart and Mendelssohn and feel closer to God because you grew up with the music or encountered it through San Francisco’s rich cultural scene. Others are more moved by pieces we have done by Dave Brubeck or Capital Cities or U2 or Avicii.

Welcoming everyone doesn’t mean welcoming everyone like us!

Before we judge, let us call our righteous mind to seek understanding.

As Hebrews 13 reminds us, when we love strangers, we very well may be entertaining angels.

Imagining everyone we encounter as one sent by God for this very moment changes everything.

Seeking to understand why the stranger behaves as they do is at the heart of following God.

We have much bigger things to do than argue about clothes or music or church business.

Maybe the one who acts tough or bullies you at school or work has been abused.

Maybe the one who seems to criticize everything you do didn’t get much praise at home growing up.

Maybe the grumpy one next to you has chronic pain so severe they can’t muster a smile.

Maybe the person who seems lazy or ineffective is in a pit of depression that you can’t see.

Maybe you are the angel God has sent for them . . .

[1] Of course, this is not an actual diary. It is a joke that circulated the Internet and appeared on The Huffington Post on 5/22/2012.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Reprint ed. (New York: Vintage, 2013), 152-53.

[3] Jonathan Haidt, TED Talk, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives,” March 2008.

 

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