Sunday, August 29, 2010

Entertaining angels

Andrei Rublev, icon of the holy visitors at the oaks of Mamre, c. 1410

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
August 29, 2010

On the
Emily Post website, a host giving a party is given six tips for a successful gathering:

1. Invite clearly. Include necessary information for your guests in the invitation. Is the party a casual get-together or more formal? What about the attire? Maybe a guest would benefit by knowing ahead of time who else will be there, which you might mention when they RSVP.

2. Plan well. Preparing your guest list carefully is key to a successful party. Then do as much as you can ahead of time. (Lower the stress level by serving food and refreshments you know will work.) Get everything ready well before your guests arrive, so you'll feel relaxed from the very beginning.

3. Remain calm. Giving a party can be enjoyable, especially if you approach it with simplicity. Get help if necessary, and don't let your guests think you're huffing and puffing. They'll feel far more comfortable if they don't have to wonder whether they're causing you any trouble.

4. Keep your guests feeling welcome. Make sure guests are warmly greeted, then made to feel welcome throughout the party. Look after each guest as much as you can. If you notice that a guest has an empty glass or if there's one person standing alone, remedy the situation as quickly and cheerfully as possible.

5. Be flexible and gracious. Your soufflé falls. Or one friend arrives with an unexpected guest. The ruined dessert? Have a fallback. The uninvited guest? As discourteous as it is for someone to spring a surprise on you, be gracious. No polite host would ever send an uninvited guest packing.

6. Be appreciative. Thank people for coming as you bid them good-bye. And don't forget to thank anyone who brought you a gift.

In the readings from both Hebrews and the gospel of Luke, it sounds as though we are being given a similar list of manners and behaviors but it’s more than being congenial and welcoming. It’s about realizing that we are all guests at God’s table:

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

2. 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.

3. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

4. When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host. …Rather, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that [you may be invited to move up higher and be honored in the presence of all].

5. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

A week ago Friday my family and I, and two other couples from this church, were guests at a banquet of sorts: a Ramadan fast-breaking meal called an iftar. It was held at the University of Bridgeport and it was the first time that all the Muslim communities of Bridgeport had gathered together. And to this auspicious occasion of solidarity they also opened the invitation to anyone who wanted to join them. In the same room, sharing tables, food and fellowship, were Muslims, Jews and Christians—men, women and children. ( news story)

When we first arrived we sat at a table about midway toward the front of the room. But David, my husband and Bruce and Will wanted to mingle with others. Then one of the organizers of the evening encouraged everyone to move to the front, to make room for any latecomers. Therese, Dorothy, and my girls and I remained at our table and were joined by a group of Muslim women and their children. I called it ‘the women’s table’.

Speeches were given by representatives from the different Muslim communities, from the Executive Director of CAIR, the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and from a Jewish synagogue and from the Bridgeport Council of Churches. There was no rancor or criticism against
those who protested outside Masjid An-Noor, the Bridgeport Islamic Society on Clinton Avenue. Rather, we heard encouraging words of compassion, wisdom, and faith.

We were told we did not have to pray but we prayed. We took off our shoes, with men lining up in the front and women lining up behind them. We bowed, we kneeled, we put our foreheads on the floor as best as we could. We listened to verses of the Qur’an and prayers sung in lyrical Arabic. We observed moments of silent prayer.

At sunset the fast was broken with plates of sweet dried dates, bringing to mind a line from the Psalms: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Bottles of water were passed around, as the Muslims in the room had not had anything to drink or eat since sunrise. Blessings were said and then we waited to be called up to the buffet lines for a dinner of hummus, lamb, roast chicken, chicken kabob, rice and salad. There was even cheese pizza for the children and for my vegetarian daughter.

There we were, all of us children of Abraham, many nations, different skin colors, each with our own holy books yet sharing the same story: that of the holy visitors who came to Mamre to prophesy what was promised by God—a child whose descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, as the grains of sand in the desert. Abraham and Sarah gave them the best meal out of what they had, gave them water to wash their feet and shade in which to rest from the hot sun. They had entertained angels without knowing it, for hospitality was law in the desert. It became part of the Mosaic code of law. Jesus counted it as one of the greatest commandments, that we love our neighbor as ourselves, thus, our Muslim brothers and sisters also share this belief, as Jesus is one of their prophets as well.

I know you are welcoming folk, that your hearts are open, your minds inquisitive, and that your hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness are keen. The challenge presented to us in these scriptures is that those whose rhetoric is filled with fear are the strangers to whom we need to extend our love and our hospitality. As it says in the Holy Qur’an: “And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say [words of] peace.” —Surat Al-Furqān 25: 63, The Holy Qur’an, Sahih International version.

Those who say that Islam is a lie: their minds are imprisoned; therefore let us have the courage to think what it must be like to be in a prison of fear and ignorance. They are tortured by this fear and ignorance; therefore let us put ourselves in that place of torture and find within us a source of compassion. Let us give them a place of honor by listening with compassion and an open heart. May we offer words of peace when we are faced with hate and fear, remembering that we are all children of God.

Let us also remain calm and be flexible and gracious. Perhaps this church would like to invite our Jewish brothers and sisters from Congregation Sinai and our Muslim sisters and brothers from West Haven to a meal here at church. You could also open that occasion to any who are interested in learning more about how much we have in common.

If you haven’t already,
make a donation to the United Church of Christ for flood relief in Pakistan, home to 16% of the world’s Muslims and the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. It’s estimated that over 17 million Pakistanis have been affected by the floods, on par with the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in this country but not receiving not nearly as much press or support.

In Gainesville, Florida the Dove World Outreach Center plans to burn as many copies of the Qur’an as possible on Sept. 11. In response to this misinformed plan, Larry Reimer, a UCC pastor in Gainesville, said “If they can burn it, then we can read it.” On Sunday, Sept. 12, along with other Gainesville religious leaders, Rev. Reimer plans to read from the Qur’an in worship. We could join them.

This is a crucial time, when people are uncertain of their future and fear of the other is on the rise, when unrest can be taken advantage of by those who seek power and control. It all depends on how the rest of us respond. Indeed, we need to invite clearly, to plan well, to make our guests, those angels unawares, feel welcome. Most of all we are to be appreciative of this gift, this opportunity given to us, to offer compassion, to be peacemakers, to join together at God’s table of reconciliation. Amen.


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Very cute and disarming. :-)

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

The cat and mosque video, that is.

Cynthia said...

If my sermons ever get to be cute and disarming, please let me know! ;-)

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

LOL! Will do!