Sunday, November 11, 2018


Do not be afraid. Your jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.
I Kings 17:10-16
One of the hard lessons we have had to learn as a country over the last several years is this: the way people think in the Middle East is not the way we think in the West. We can’t seem to understand that the whole world does not share our values, and when they resist our sharing them, we seem to be shocked. The question in the backs of our minds would no doubt be: “Why would anyone not think the way we think?”

Our readings today, especially the first one, give us a case in point. It reminds me of the reading about three men showing up at the tent of Abraham and Sarah seeking hospitality. If you lived out West in an isolated mountain cabin and you looked up one day to see three men approaching your cabin, you would usher the kids inside and grab your gun. Your first instinct would be to protect yourself from a threat. If you did not know them, you would no doubt assume, until proven otherwise, that they were up to no good.

If you live in an urban area, you would not think of opening your door to three unknown men who came up on your porch and rang your doorbell, especially if you were home alone. You would probably ignore the doorbell, maybe speak to them through a locked screen, make sure you had something to protect yourself handy or even call the police. If you did not know them, you would no doubt assume, until proven otherwise, that they were up to no good.

We see this difference especially in the story of the call of Abraham and Sarah. We see Abraham doing something that we have been warned never to do. In the heat of the day, he is resting in the shade of his tent. When Abraham looks up and sees three men approaching, it says that he runs to meet them, bows down to them, invites them in and treats them like royalty – without even knowing who they are or what they want. He invites them to sit under a shade tree while he has water brought to cool their feet, gives orders to have some fresh bread baked, have a tender calf slaughtered and some cottage cheese made. He waits on them as they eat it under the tree before continuing their journey. It is during this hospitality that he and his aging wife are told they will soon have their first child.

This kind of hospitality is still common among the nomadic herders of sheep and goats who range about the Middle East as they try to live much as their ancestors have for centuries. Desert nomads, even today, are known for their sumptuous hospitality. The abundance of their generosity stands in sharp contrast to the desolate terrain in which they live. But their generosity is not just something nice to do for other people, in some kind of sentimental way. For them, it is a matter of survival. They know that counting on this tradition could one day mean the difference between life and death for themselves and their loved ones. If you live in that part of the world, you simply must be able to count on the hospitality of strangers.
Even in such a situation, biblical hospitality is always a give-and-take proposition as well. The host knows that strangers always bless them with gifts of their own: news from the outside world, fascinating conversation in a very dull and tedious landscape or maybe a bottle of exotic spices from some faraway place.

In our first reading today, we see the obligation to offer hospitality in stark terms. Elijah receives bread from a desperately poor widow of Zarephath. Even though she is down to a handful of flour and a few drops of oil, she gives it away to a stranger rather than violate her obligation to hospitality.

In the Emmaus story, on the first Easter Sunday, when Cleophas and his friend invite the stranger they meet on the road to their home for dinner, they receive a tremendous gift – the presence of the risen Lord himself. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it is an important and unexpected message from God himself. It is in this situation, from these three strangers, that Abraham and Sarah first hear that they are going to have their first baby - a precious son – even in their advanced age. In the case of the poor widow we read about today, she receives an unending supply of flour and oil in the midst of famine.

Hospitality can be a tricky business in our culture where we are taught, rightly so, to fear strangers, so how can we practice biblical hospitality without putting our lives at risk? In a word, by being open, in an appropriate way, to a variety of people and the gifts God sends us through them.

One of the blessings of my life as a priest is being exposed to a variety of people, being welcomed by them and receiving the gifts they have to offer. I have led well over 100 priest retreats in ten countries around the world. I just got back from one in San Antonio, Texas. I used to run a program at Saint Meinrad called "World Priest." We helped acclimate priests from all over the world to American culture. My work in the Caribbean missions keeps bringing me new insights. Here at the Cathedral, we used to say, "all are welcome" and "we will take anybody!" I am proud of the fact that, because of this exposure, I can relate to people of various cultures, millionaires and street people, Protestants, Jews and agnostics, the highly educated and those who have no formal education to speak of, those who have traveled the world and those who have never really left home. My ministry has brought me in close contact with Asians, Africans, Europeans, Koreans, Indians, Caribbeans, Central and South Americans and almost everything in between. By being open to them, welcoming them into my life and being received by them, I have received blessings beyond what I could never imagine as a child growing up in a small, rural town.

One of the great blessings of being a college student or seminarian these days is the opportunity to receive blessings from a variety of new people, if you are open to them. On campus, they are exposed to a variety of religions and ways of living. They are offered opportunities to learn new languages and experience other cultures, both there and on study trips. They may meet lifetime friends and maybe even a lifetime partner. If they are open to receiving new people into their lives, as well as being received into the lives of new people, blessings and even messages from God are possible for them.

There is also another kind of hospitality you can practice – intellectual hospitality, an openness to learn all you can from the people around you. By committing to intellectual hospitality, an openness to sharing and receiving knowledge and insights, you can correct your own thinking and even find a fresh understanding of God. This sharing is marked by consideration toward others and recognition that others’ distinctive individualities and overall experiences are sources of learning, as much as the information found in books. This receiving is often marked by an awareness that however initially strange it may appear at first, the perspective of others can enrich, and even transform, one’s self-understanding. This parish is blessed with several new nationalities that have enriched us all.

The readings today challenge us to expand our narrow ideas of hospitality beyond “tea parties, bland conversations and a general atmosphere of coziness.” Being hospitable is about being open to the give and take that is necessary to receive the gifts that God sends us. God seldom gives his gifts to us directly. More often than not, God’s gifts are delivered to us indirectly, through his messengers. The word “angel” in Scripture means simply “a messenger” and these “angels,” more often than not, look like ordinary people. In fact, they may just be ordinary people that God places on our paths. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “People have often entertained angels, unaware.”

God, not doubt, still has many more wonderful gifts for you These gifts, no doubt, will be delivered to you by the unlikeliest of people, if you are open to all those who enter your life. Practice the spiritual art of hospitality and watch as your life is enriched! Restricting your life to one or two types of people is to forfeit untold blessings. Being open to blessings is the surest way of being blessed.

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