Thank you for sharing this early moment of your day with me, with God, and with the thoughts and words of this reading that I hope you will carry with you throughout the coming day and night.
Hebrews 13:1-3 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
13 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 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.[a]
Tim’s Devotional Reflection for Today
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The writer of Hebrews is recalling the account of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 offering hospitality to three strangers. They who end up being messengers of God. This could also refer to other similar accounts in the Hebrew scriptures (and other accounts found in Greek literature).
Imagine the scene. An old nomad named Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent in the scorching heat of the day. Imagine him dozing there, listless from the heat. You can see him through the waves created by the way the heat rising from the desert floor bends the light. He is sitting in the shade of his camel hair tent. The sun coming through the pin holes of the weave of the dark-brown-almost-black tent makes the interior of the tent look like a star-lit night. But, the heat says otherwise. In his drowsy state, the old nomad looks up and is startled to see three strangers. How did they arrive without him seeing their approach? He rubs his eyes and they are still there, so he jumps up and runs to meet them, bowing to the ground, treating these three weary strangers like royalty. He insists that they enjoy rest and food and drink before continuing on their journey. He says, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
Abraham mobilizes everyone in the camp to get busy making a feast. Abraham is as busy as any of them. Sarah takes three measures of the finest flour, kneads it, and makes cakes. Although there is some disagreement over the modern equivalent of a measure, some scholars suggest that three measures is as much as a bushel! That is a LOT of flour! In any case, we know that three measures was a considerable amount—far more than “a little bread.”
Abraham and Sarah don’t do any of this because they suspect that the visitors are especially important. Not till one of them speaks of Sarah having a child do they have the faintest idea that they are more than chance visitors. The whole point is that Abraham does not at first know who they are. But the readers of Genesis know. The first sentence of the account tells us: “The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” God visited Abraham and Sarah that sweltering day by the oaks of Mamre in the form of three strangers and the lives of Abraham and Sarah were never the same. To use the words of Hebrews 13 :2, they “entertained angels without knowing it.”
Today in our culture—as in nearly every culture in nearly every time and place—we need an antidote to xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Xenophobia leads us to label others. Xenophobia leads us to dehumanize others. Xenophobia leads us to stifling bias against others. Xenophobia builds walls and destroys bridges. What is the antidote to xenophobia? It is philoxenia—hospitality, literally love for strangers.
Think of it. If I truly know someone who is different from me, then I can no longer simply label that person. If I have extended hospitality to a stranger, then that person is no longer an abstract label, but a human being. If I have sat at table with someone, then how can I hold on to a prejudice or bias that ultimately has nothing to do with the individual, or even reality. If I live my life with philoxenia, instead of xenophobia, then I build bridges and tear down walls.
Jesus took it one step further. He called us to move from xenophobia to philoxenia to philadelphia. In other words, we move from fear of the stranger, to love for the stranger, to loving everyone as our brother or sister.
This passage from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews is a call to love, to show hospitality to strangers as though they were angels, to remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and to remember those who are being mistreated and tortured, as though you were being mistreated and tortured. What an important word for our time.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
There is a lot of theology woven into hymns. To enhance today’s reading, I recommend listening to “How Firm a Foundation”. I hope you will take a few moments to let the words of this message and the emotion that always connects us to music connect with your soul.
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word
What more can He say than to you He has said
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed
For I am Thy God, and will still give you aid
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand
When through the deep waters I call you to go
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow
For I will be with you, your troubles to bless
And sanctify to you your deepest distress
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply
The flame shall not hurt you, I only design
Your dross to consume and the gold to refine
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to His foes
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake
I am so grateful for you, for our church, and for the Love that will see us all through this very difficult time. Please stay safe and well and we’ll be together again in spirit tomorrow morning!
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster