Entertaining Angels Unawares: Thoughts on Hospitality

September 17, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


We're sending another gang from our church to Transylvania tomorrow. We wish them godspeed and a wonderful journey. You, church, have just contributed to the well-being of that congregation, whose financial situation is nothing like our own. They were hit last year with a terrible flood, and unlike us, they have no endowment to rely on to make needed repairs. The average salary in that part of Europe is in no way comparable for what an American would earn for similar work. There is 100% inflation in Transylvania, and in 2001, the wait for a phone was five years. Very few people have a car or a clothes washing machine. The minister's parsonage got an indoor toilet in 1992. [These figures were taken from Richard Fewkes sermon of 2001, "The Transylvania Connection"] So thank you for sending your largesse to our friends across the world.

Thank you, Bev Gardner, for your reflections. One of the reasons I wanted to begin a monthly lay sermon called Faith Journeys was to give all of us the opportunity to think about how our religious values and principles affect the choices we make in every day life. Many of you wonder aloud to me, "Am I a religious person? Are you sure I'm a religious person?" Yes. Whenever you make choices on behalf of love, compassion and the encouragement of human dignity wherever possible, you are expressing your religion.

Is it a religious act to support Transylvanian twins in getting an education? Yes. You see two lives that could benefit and flourish from the opportunity to learn, you give them financial support. It is an expression of compassion, of sharing abundance, and it is a statement of belief in the power of learning and understanding; a vote for the flourishing of the human mind. Not every religious tradition makes this vote.

And there is something else that strikes me as particularly religious about the way that Bev and Bernie initiated this relationship with the twins: Bev told me that before she began to send checks to the twins in Transylvania, she had never met the girls. I would call that a leap of faith. Based on an assumption of trust and the integrity of the Partner Church Program, the Gardners jumped right in and got involved. They didn't require photographs or a phone interview or resumes or a letter of application. They heard about a need, it sparked their own sense of wanting to help and support others, and they did it.

And what did they get as their reward?

The point is, they weren't expecting any reward. And that's what makes that kind of act of generosity an expression of religion.

What the Gardners did get, as an unexpected bonus, was friendship that has lasted over the years, a great visit to a country they probably wouldn't otherwise have visited, and a valuable glimpse into the far Unitarian past.
It is also a leap of faith, of course, for our Transylvanian friends to be welcoming in our group from Norwell in a day or two. Some of our seven have made the journey before, but some of them have never met (for instance, there's a new minister in Kadacs whom no one from our church has met). And yet the people of Kadacs will be opening their homes and even letting these folks sing in their worship service and read a prayer from me on Sunday. A leap of faith! A true expression of the religious value of hospitality.

If you've tried to get anywhere lately, you've probably noticed that security is pretty tight at any borders. Hospitality as a global virtue is being eclipsed by security as a national interest. I myself got stranded in Canada (!) this summer because it just never occurred to me that I would need a passport to get back into the U.S.! Jackie had to drive to Randolph with my friend Rachel to mail the thing to me while I languished, a refugee in Montreal. My situation was pretty funny, but most places, it's really not funny. You've got to have all your papers in order, you've got to be searched, you've got to take off your shoes and pack all your liquids in your checked luggage and be treated more as a potential terrorist or illegal alien as a fellow sojourner on the same planet.

Churches must stand against this increased paranoia, and even, I dare say, even be willing to stand on the side of naïvete. Hospitality is one of those disappearing social graces that we don't always think of as a religious value, but graciously welcoming the stranger is a moral imperative in every major world religion. Not only should we welcome the stranger, according the wisdom of many religions, we should see the stranger as a potential teacher or emissary of god. There's that lovely quote from Scripture that goes, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

I was very touched this summer to be welcomed in this way most everywhere I went to worship. I had the most wonderful time going to church in July and August. I attended King's Chapel in Boston three times, I went to a gorgeous little Methodist chapel on Shelter Island, NY with my mom, I went to the United Church of Christ in Brockton, I went to the first fifteen minutes of services at a church in downtown Boston that scared me, so I left (but they were very welcoming!), and most memorably, I showed up 45 minutes late for worship at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ottawa. (We thought the service was at 11:00).

At St. John's, not only was a lovely usher still stationed at the open door that late into the service, she handed my friend and me programs and smilingly showed us where we were in the service. And most hospitable of all, when it came time for Communion, this friendly usher approached us as the other congregants were lining up and whispered to me, "I'm going up now, and you're welcome to the table."

I was quite floored by this. I came in 45 minutes late and she's making a special point to tell me, "You're welcome to the table." No questions about my theology, no worrying about whether or not we were card-carrying Christians, no scowling at us because we had come in too late to be spiritually prepared for Communion, no checking out what we were wearing or how much money we put in the plate, no hesitation at all in her welcome. This really touched me, and I thought, "If this is what people of this church are like, I am definitely not going to miss sharing Communion with them!" And so I lined up to share in that memorial meal instituted by a Galilean rabbi with his friends, and I thought there are so many ways to ask people to share communion:

To share a meal -

To worship together -

To drop by and keep someone company -

To hold a hand, and simply listen -

To pray for someone, to drive them somewhere -

to laugh together in a time of suffering -

To reach across a divide and try to include the excluded --

Do we do it often enough everywhere in our lives? Do we make our welcome as explicit as this friendly woman made hers? Are we as generous and trusting as Bev and Bernie were with their Transylvanian friends, and as generous as the people Kadacs will undoubtedly be to our seven pilgrims arriving there this week? Do we treat the stranger as a sister or brother, or do we wait for them to prove themselves worthy of our friendship, solidarity and inclusion?

The theme of our religious education program this year is "Think on these things." … I hope you will, in the week to come.