Angels at the Table

Our culture has strange ideas about who, or what, angels are. The word “angel” literally means “messenger from God,” which may be a judgement about my sermons, because I don’t think anyone has ever called me an angel.

In my grandmother’s Italian Catholic home, the white version of this art hung over the bed where I always slept. My grandmother always assured me that guardian angels were watching over us, and, for much of my life, it felt that way. I have to say, however, that, throughout my life, messages from God rarely have come from heavenly beings with wings.

The scripture lesson from the book of Hebrews instructs us not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers, because we might entertain angels without even knowing it. Every time I read that. I wonder just what entertains angels?

Welcoming angels to our table seems like a great idea, and hospitality seems like a virtue we should practice. If you read the Bible carefully, however, you discover it is more than that.

When I consult with churches, I often tell them that what they need is an “Anti-Sodomy Ministry.” Generally, they react like you just did. I’ve never been to a church that didn’t think it was friendly, and they are … to one another. I try to explain that the real sin of Sodom wasn’t sexual; it was inhospitality to strangers.

It is easy to love the people you know, but how do we welcome those we don’t know or, even more challenging, those who are unlike us, those who are, well, strange? That is why the writer of Hebrews said that, if we are going to welcome angels to our table, we are going to have to go “outside the camp.” It isn’t such bizarre expectation because that is where Jesus went and where he died.

No one likes feeling like an outsider. There are times, though, when it is unavoidable, like in a new job, or a new city, or going to a new church. You feel out of place, a bit lost. You feel almost ashamed.

We all have been in conversations in which we didn’t have a clue what the other people were talking about or when someone told a joke we didn’t get. You soon begin to feel like a gay man at an auto-parts convention.

I once read about a fellow who was sound asleep one night when his wife heard a sound and sent him downstairs to investigate. He discovered that a pipe beneath the kitchen sink had sprung a leak and was making noise.

The only thing to do was cut off the water and call a plumber in the morning. He had to climb halfway into the cabinet to reach the shutoff valve. Just then, the family cat came to see what was going on. Now, it happens this fellow slept in the nude and had not bothered to put any clothes on before going downstairs.

As the cat wandered up, it playfully took a swat at the guy’s exposed backside, which caused him to jump, striking his head on the bottom of the sink hard enough to knock himself out.

When his wife came down to check on him, she assumed a burglar had attacked him, so she called the police and an ambulance. Before they arrived, though, he came to and explained what had really happened.

The ambulance attendants arrived, and, even though he seemed okay, they put him on a stretcher to go to have the bump on his head checked. As they were leaving, they heard his wife explaining to the police how it all happened, and the ambulance attendants started laughing so hard they dropped the stretcher and broke the poor man’s arm.

We all know being laughed at can be a painful experience.

As kids, we used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but I suspect we knew, even then, that isn’t really true. Words do wound, sometimes so deeply it takes a lifetime to heal.

It hurts to be made to feel like you don’t belong. Being an outsider terrified us as children, and, even today, we avoid it at all cost. We want to be “on the inside,” “in style,” “included.”

Being outside is a frightening experience, which is why this reading from the Book of Hebrews today is so challenging. We want angels in our lives, but being called to become outsiders can push all our own anxiety, fears, and memories. That is why we have to work so hard not to treat someone as an outsider even as we welcome them. To avoid that, the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews suggests we must become outsiders voluntarily.

That seems unthinkable when you’ve spent a lifetime trying to belong, to fit in, to be on the inside, yet that is exactly what Jesus did and calls us to do. That is where Jesus seemed to think we were most likely to encounter the holy ones.

Jesus was constantly eating with tax collectors and those labeled sinners. He didn’t pal around with the pretty people, the rich, or the powerful. Jesus made his life with smelly fishers and women of questionable reputations. Jesus chose to live life poor and homeless. He died as a criminal outside the city.

Jesus identified so completely with those outside that he said how we treat them is how we treat him.

Today’s Gospel lesson tells us that we should not seek places of privilege but, instead, should choose the path of humility because that is where we are likely to find messengers from God.

Many people claim to have a deep hunger for God, but Jesus said we will find God in the most unlikely places. We will find God outside the camp with the poor, hurting, aged, homeless, and lonely. If that is where God is, why do we keep trying so hard not to be outsiders?

Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. In his novel “The Town Beyond the Wall,” a character named Michael has been in prison for a long, long time.

Michael is talking to a new prisoner who has great faith. The new fellow asks Michael how he has been able to stay sane in prison despite such long and unrelenting abuse. Michael begins to tell him about a friend who has helped him survive by listening to his fears and comforting him.

As they talk, Michael, a confirmed atheist, sees a knowing gleam in the new prisoner’s eye, and he screams at him, “Don’t try and tell me that God sent this friend to be with me in prison.”

“Oh no," says the believer, "I would never tell you that. God doesn’t send people to prison, but God does come there to be with them."

That is what Jesus tried to tell us. When life shuts us out, God doesn’t send someone to help us, but comes to us where we are, making it a holy place. God almost always comes to us in the skin of someone who cares, and God wears the most interesting disguises. The Bible says we may be welcoming angels without even knowing it, so we better treat everyone with dignity and hospitality, just in case.

The problem today is heaven is suffering a serious shortage of skin. There are not enough people willing to be outsiders for God to go to all those in need outside the camp. I believe God is calling us to deliberately and consciously live not as insiders, but as outsiders; to willingly choose the humbler place; a place outside the camp, which is perhaps the thinnest place between heaven and earth.

Many of us once felt like outsiders or strangers and, perhaps on some level, still do. I believe we are called to embrace that experience as holy. Only then can we authentically care, give, and serve without condescension. Embracing and owning our outsider experiences empowers us go to those who are outside, not as one who stoops to serve, but as a fellow outsider like Jesus.

The miracle is that, as we go outside the camp, we are going to the place we are most likely to find God, the place where we are most likely to find the transformational spiritual connection with life for which we long. Perhaps if we stop hiding from those painful experiences, denying them, burying them, they can make us sensitive enough to discover the angels who are waiting to be invited to our table.