September 1, 2013: Angels Unawares

Homily by Terry Pierce on Hebrews 13:2

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."

The first time I heard that scripture, it was from the King James version, which reads:

"Do not be forgetful to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

I heard it in a theatre from the mouth of my sister who is a writer and performer.

1991.  "In the West".

Long before I named myself as Christian.

Long before I knew that Hebrews was in the New Testament rather than the Old.

What I remember had to do with the word unawares.

The story was about a woman in west Texas who was explaining why she entertained strangers...because the Bible tells us that they might be angels.

It was the word unawares that got my attention...


Two men approach Abraham's tent.  In the desert hospitality is life.  To leave the stranger without food and water is to leave the stranger to die.  Two men approach Abraham's tent and he tells Sara to prepare the best food they have... Later he realizes that he has entertained angels without knowing it.

The English word angel comes from the Greek aggelos which meant messenger.  The two men who come to Abraham bring a message from God, that Sara will indeed bear a child.

Moses has left his people and is tending sheep.  The Angel of the Lord appears to him in a flame of fire out of a bush...a messenger demanding his attention.

Moses stopped and addressed the strangeness in his surroundings, thereby entertaining an angel unawares.  And like Abraham before him, when God calls, Moses responds Here I Am. 

Messengers...strangers and strange events.

Abraham might have closed his tent...Moses might have walked by without looking.



Mark Buzzoti-Jones, a priest at Trinity Wall Street, suggests that the burning bush is not a one-time event.  when Moses encountered the burning bush, the people of Israel were suffering, and Father Mark suggests that God comes to every experience of human suffering and seeks to end the suffering.

God is calling but our own "addictions, weaknesses, sin, selfishness, indifference, sickness and preoccupations sometimes prevent us from taking off our shoes and paying attention to what is 'burning'".

Father Mark says that "Many lives burn deeply with a passionate fire to do what is good, true, beautiful and just...Some lives burn deeply with a passionate fire to commit evil...God burns with continued unconditional love for the world.  God exists so that every human life will burn with the purifying fire of love for justice, mercy and truth"


When I first read the scripture for today, I thought this the message meant for us as we prepare for Invitation Sunday and in the longer term, as we prepare to be intentional in inviting our neighbors to join us in this community.  It is always helpful when you want to preach something if the lectionary goes along.

On the surface, this is a simple call to hospitality - to care for the stranger and the alien; to give food and shelter to those we meet who are wandering in the desert.

But as I pondered this lesson, it occurred to me that what I am hearing is the call to pay attention to God's messengers...the strangers and the strangeness...the men wandering in the desert straight to my tent with a message meant specifically for me and the bush burning on a hill calling me to stop and pay attention now.


An angel came to Mary and said God picked you - you get to be the laughing-stock; in a world where pregnancy outside of wedlock is cause for expulsion from the community, I pick you; you get to spend nine months carrying a fatherless child in a world where there is no future for a woman who gets pregnant outside of marriage.  And Mary said, Here Am I. 

She didn't have to respond that way.  She could have said, "Wait, let me talk to Joseph and see what he's going to do when I show up pregnant."

 She could have said, "Look, could we talk to my parents together so they know I'm not lying about this."

Or she could have said, "Leave me alone; get away from me."

And God would have found a womb to carry Jesus... that's a story for a different day. 

But Mary said, Here Am I.


Sometimes I think life would be easier if I could have a burning bush or two men who would walk up to me and tell me specifically what God wants from me.  Father Mark suggests that we all do. 

In his words:

"Moses: the one dragged from a river.  We are all pulled from the water of our mother's womb and given a mission of liberation.  Moses' mission of liberation called him to speak truth to power and to give voice to God's desire for justice - God's desire to end all forms of oppression.  In the life of every human being an encounter with a Burning Bush will happen.  In the life of every human being a call will go out with an invitation to make the world better. "

And that returns me to the word I started with, unawares.

At a particularly difficult time in my life, my mom wrote me a letter and said that she wished she could be with me but that she imagined an angel on my shoulder looking after me on her behalf. 

When I think of angels, I think of feathery golden wings gently brushing the side of my face, shielding me from whatever difficulty I've most recently created for myself.

I don't think of burning bushes or robed men appearing in the desert needing food and water or angels here to tell me that my life is going to be upside down and, if I choose to do as I've been asked, the consequences may be terribly unpleasant.

When I think of angels, I don't think of messengers from God.


But during that difficult time in my life, a few people showed up in the desert and helped me find my way. They weren't always the people I would immediately identify as an angel - they included a boss and a co-worker who were willing to directly point out what I was doing to myself that was creating difficulty for me and for other people.  They were people willing to speak truth to the power of my ego and self-centeredness. And I was transformed.

The other side of unawares - the angels unaware of themselves who simply live out their call to speak the truth even when the people around them don't wish to hear.

In that time, I did not identify those people as angels.  In fact, I called them demons - I thought them hard and cruel and mean, in much the way we sometimes see our parents when we are teenagers. 


And that leads me back to the beginning:

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."


God is calling but our own "addictions, weaknesses, sin, selfishness, indifference, sickness and preoccupations" sometimes keep us unaware,  sometimes allow us to walk by the burning bush as though it weren't there or to close the door to the stranger even as he knocks.


In that space,

- in the moment when I would turn away without listening because I don't want to hear what you have to say;

 - In the moment when I am too busy making my life better to worry about the life of the world, or the life of a stranger;

 - in each moment when I have a choice whether to walk across the threshold and greet the world or stay within the safety of my tent

God is calling us to show hospitality to the stranger within and the stranger without ...

God is calling us to greet the desert wanderer and to witness at the burning bush...

God is calling us with an invitation to make the world better...



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