Year C; Proper 17; September 1, 2019
Luke 13:22-30 and Luke 14:1, 7-14
Many of you know that I attended Bob Judd’s funeral last week at Christ Church, Bronxville, New York. It was a magnificent service full of music wtih an oboe soloist, a long-time friend of Cristle’s whom Cristle discovered was a member of Christ Church, Bronxville. She played with the choir as they sang “The Lord is my Shepherd” from John Rutter’s Requiem.
I was moved to tears for most of it. After the funeral, I was able to share our greetings and condolences with Cristle, Katie, Hannah and Sarah. Cristle was moved and pleased to thank me for our prayers and the flowers we sent to their home.
I stayed at my friend’s apartment on W. 157thStreet in Manhattan and learned that I could take the commuter train, Metro North from the Harlem 125thstreet station into Bronxville. It was a 30 minute bus ride from the bus stop close to the apartment. I boarded the bus dressed in my collar, black dress and stockings. I looked like a clergy person. And I was treated kindly by some of my fellow passengers. I may have been the only white person on board.
At one of the bus stops in the heart of Harlem, a woman in her 40’s boarded and stood near where I was sitting. I felt her looking over at me. She was beautiful and wearing an all-white, chiffon-like dress. Her make-up was perfect and so was her beautiful Afro bob. She smiled and smiled at me. I smiled back
Then she said, “Are you a priest?” I said, “Yes. I’m on my way to a funeral.” She asked from what church. I told her that I was an Episcopal priest from Maine. I said, “You might know of St. Ambrose Church which is an Episcopal Church near here. Or you might have heard of Bishop Michael Curry who preached at the royal wedding last year. He is our bishop.” She had heard of both.
She said, “I’m on the way to my church because we are having a prayer luncheon. I would love for you to come visit my church.” I said, “I would love to someday.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a card that read, “”BE OUR GUEST, THE ABYSSINIAN BAPTIST CHURCH.”
The Abyssinian Baptist Church! THE Abyssinian Baptist Church, the world famous historic, dynamic, gospel-singing, justice-committed Christian community in the heart of Harlem! I began to cry knowing how historical and important her church was – and how active it has always been in the African-American community.
In fact, I had recently watched a C-Span book program of Colson Whitehead standing at their lectern talking about his book, “The Underground Railroad.” And many of us here know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the time of his teaching at Union Theological Seminary, was so moved by their gospel-singing and joyful service to those in need that it inspired him to return to Germany to continue his mission against Nazi oppression.
On the back of her “Be Our Guest…” card was a small map, the subway lines that reach the church, the times for Sunday worship and the statement, “Winning more souls for Christ.” I thanked her for inviting me. I thanked her for her historic church and all the good work they have done with the poor in Harlem and beyond.
As she exited the bus, I called to her and gave her my name. I asked her for hers. “Dana!” she said, smiling. And we gave each other a blessing as we parted.
I was her guest, EVEN on a public bus. It was clear to me that Dana carried her heart of hospitality with her wherever she went. I think that the bus ride and encounter with Dana was something of an “angel connection.”
In the Letter to the Hebrews, I find one of my favorite passages of Scripture, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The writer of Hebrews goes on to give instruction to his community of faith. For example, hospitality extends to prisoners and those who are tortured. THEY are named as worthy of empathy. Maybe they are angels.
Hospitality extends to marriage and the marriage bed. They are named as sacred and not to be defiled. He gives a warning about greed and concludes by instructing the hearers of the letter to “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” He is teaching that mutual love and hospitality cannot be hallmarks of the Christian faith if there is greed.
My article in our September newsletter described this passage as direction for our community, for mutual love for each other and for extending hospitality to strangers who enter here. I described how we have embarked on an organizational structure of ministries to be able to be more mindful and nimble in our hospitality and welcome.
And it will be our openness to the Spirit’s movement that will make our hearts ready for surprise and random encounters like the one I had with Dana on the bus in Harlem. I was the only white woman on a bus with mostly local people going on errands, going to work, taking children to appointments, minding their own business. And Dana’s heart was ready to initiate a friendly conversation with me.
There was something in her spirit that moved Dana. Something moved her to smile at me and to catch my eye and begin a conversation. Dana had the Spirit of hospitality, an eagerness to “entertain angels without knowing it” and most importantly, she was unselfconscious about it.
With Dana, I experienced an almost loving, almost joyful encounter with a stranger. She was a young black woman, a Christian. I am a white woman, twenty years her senior, an Episcopal priest from Maine going to a funeral in one of the wealthiest towns in our country. We engaged almost as angels. We became immediate Christian friends. The Spirit was present somehow. I think we each had an attitude of really seeing the other person, catching each other’s eye and being hospitable to each other in conversation.
And the “angel” part of it – well, my scientific training makes me wonder about “angels,” but what we had was an angelic metaphor for the brief, unexpected Christian friendship we experienced. It was holy. Her entire being was like, “Do not neglect to smile and seek eye contact with a stranger, for by doing that some have engaged in holy conversations.” That is the spirit of Christian hospitality.
I wonder about hospitality and “entertaining angels What if we spent the rest of our days smiling, sharing eye contact with a stranger, and with the spirit of hospitality say, “I’d like to invite you to join us in our community of faith.”
May we carry hearts of hospitality wherever we go.