Pentecost 9C Love the Stranger
July 17, 2016
There’s a proverb which comes from today’s first reading…
“Do not neglect hospitality,
because through it, some have entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2)
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s
my mother tells the story of men
traveling across the country – hobos she called them.
They’d come off the train in Des Moines, IA,
and some of them would make their way to the church parsonage
where my grandmother was always ready with an extra meal.
Do not neglect hospitality,
because through it, some have entertained angels.
As we continue our series based on 1 John, “Love is a verb,”
today the theme is loving the stranger.
Abraham is sitting outside of his tent in the heat of the day.
Three strangers stop by.
Without even knowing who they are,
Abraham gets up and runs to them;
he bows before them,
and asks if he may wash their feet, give them a place to rest, and feed them.
Strangers, mind you.
The hospitality of those in the Middle East is legendary even today.
As one author says,
“There is not one variety of olives on the table, but three, and hummus and eggplant, some pita, pickles, and white cheese.
There are two main courses, in case one might not be to the guest’s taste,
and fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, okra, onions, eggs.
Everywhere in the Middle East, the traveler is overwhelmed by hospitality.
In part, such hospitality is a result of the arid landscape.
“To refuse someone refreshment in such a place
is to let him die.” [i]
This story of Abraham and the strangers is part of the holy writings
of Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
In the Qu’ran, 3 strangers say to Abraham, “Peace,”
and immediately Abraham brings out a roasted calf for them.[ii]
The Qu’ran identifies the strangers as the angels Gabriel, Michael,
and Israfil (Raphael in our tradition).
In these passages, hospitality is not measured
by how we treat our friends or family members.
When Abraham sees the 3 men in the distance,
he has no way of knowing who they are.
The blessing to Abraham comes because he has welcomed a stranger.
There are several words for hospitality in the Bible –
but the one used most commonly is philoxenia –
and it actually means one who loves a stranger.
The Bible associates hospitality with aliens or strangers in need,
who were particularly vulnerable in the ancient Middle East:
As one Bible dictionary says, “The plight of aliens was desperate.
They lacked membership in the community, be it tribe, city-state, or nation.
As an alienated person, the traveler often needed immediate food and lodging.
Widows, orphans, the poor, or sojourners from other lands lacked the familial or community status that provided a landed inheritance, the means of making a living, and protection.
In the ancient world, the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one’s land, home, or community and providing directly for that person’s needs.”[iii]
Why is hospitality to strangers, receiving refugees and travelers, such a virtue?
Part of the reason is that there’s no means to reciprocate.
When we extend ourselves to a stranger,
that person may never help us in turn,
(and in fact there’s the risk of harm.)
Philoxenia – the love of a stranger – is pure, selfless love.
The village of Le Chambon in France
sheltered strangers – Jewish refugees — during World War II
at great risk to themselves.
A sociologist studied these villagers,
trying to discover why they would risk their own lives for complete strangers.
“I learned that the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship; it is hospitality…. When I asked them [the villagers] why they helped these dangerous guests, they invariably answered, “What do you mean, ‘Why?’ Where else could they go? How could you turn them away?”[iv]
The opposite of cruelty is hospitality.
Philoxenia – the love a stranger – that’s love.
There’s another European town with a history of hospitality to strangers.
Geel, Belgium about an hour’s drive from Antwerp,
has a church at its center.
It’s the church of St. Dymphna,
a saint believed to have the power to cure mental illness.
As the legend goes,
in the 7th century, the Irish princess Dymphna fled to Geel
to escape her father who was mentally ill and to care for others who were also ill.
But her father found her and she was martyred.
The town became a pilgrimage site,
as people came to pray at the site of her burial
and reported healing.
Later a hospital was built,
but so many pilgrims came, that the hospital grew to over-capacity,
and some began to stay with residents of the town.
For over 700 years,
residents of Geel have taken people with mental illness
into their homes to care for them.
They aren’t called patients or clients;
they’re called guests or boarders.
When they arrive in Geel,
they become part of the daily life of the household.
Today there about 250 guests living with families in Geel.
When households accept guests into their homes,
they also accept some challenges at times.
One couple talked about a guest who would lock himself into the bathroom
for long periods of time to wash his hands.
Another would be upset by visions of lions coming out of the walls.
But despite the challenges, hospitality to strangers,
has a long tradition in Geel.
They have accepted the challenges
and occasional unusual behaviors.
This arrangement has fascinated social scientists for centuries.
150 years ago, a visiting French doctor,
described “the extraordinary phenomenon presented at Geel
of 400 insane persons moving freely about in the midst of a population
which tolerates them without fear and without emotion.”
50 years ago, an American psychiatrist
wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association,
“The remarkable aspect of the Gheel experience, .. is the attitude of the citizenry.”[v]
Philoxenia – the love of the stranger.
Why do people practice it?
For Abraham and others in the middle east,
to refuse it, would be to allow someone else to die.
For the people of Le Chambon,
sheltering Jews was an antidote to evil.
For the people of Geel,
providing homes for the mentally ill has been just part of the attitude,
of living in that town for centuries.
1st John says that love is a verb.
“Love in deed and in truth,” he says.
Loving the stranger –
the traveler, the refugee, the mentally ill –
despite the potential risk and challenges is one of the purest forms of love there is.
[iii] Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology