September 1, 2019

Bread from Heaven, V: Strangers and Angels

Passage: Gen 18:1–5; Mt 25:34–45; Heb 13:2

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Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
—Hebrews 13:2

One day when Abraham was resting outside his tent during the stifling heat of mid-day, three travelers appear as if from nowhere, and Abraham, like any good Palestinian host, warmly welcomes them into his humble Bedouin tent.

“Let a little water be brought, and a morsel of bread,” says Father Abraham. And then Father Abraham calls for his servants to bake 25 huge loaves of fresh bread and barbeque two sides of USDA Prime beef on a spit over a roaring fire in the heat of the desert day.

A little water and a morsel of bread? Twenty-five loaves of bread and two sides of beef would feed a family of four for two weeks.

After the meal, the visitors, who turn out to be God and a couple of God’s angels, promise Abraham that he, Abraham, who is pushing a hundred and has been on Social Security for 30 years, is going to have a baby.

His wife Sarah, hiding in the back of the tent because apparently she was not invited to this lavish feast, overhears the conversation, and quite against her will, lets loose with a spontaneous, impolitic guffaw quite audible to the Lord, whose hearing is good.

But Sarah can’t help it. She finds God hilarious. As the Bible puts it with one of its quaint, polite euphemisms, “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”

The Lord says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

A year later, Sarah gives birth to a son, whom the two clever senior citizens name “Laughter,” because as Sarah joyfully puts it, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Before when she was childless, everyone laughed at her; now the matriarch of a great nation, everyone laughs with her.

As you can plainly see this story of Abraham welcoming these clandestine celestial visitors is the unreferenced but implied background to our Gospel and Epistle Lessons for this morning.

“Come, you that are favored by the Father,” says Jesus in Matthew, “For I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” says the author of Hebrews, ‘for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Love the stranger, say Genesis, Matthew, and Hebrews: Love the stranger because it’s the right thing to do, but also love the stranger because of all the good things strangers bring to your lives. The point of Abraham’s story is that the stranger brings the laughter, yes? “One year from now,” says God to Abraham, “one year from now, geriatric Sarah will have a baby, and you will name him ‘Isaac,’ which means ‘laughter.’

Strangers wear funny clothes and eat funny food. When a few of us go to Scotland in October, we’re going to wear kilts and eat haggis.

Strangers have funny names. My wife loves tennis so I was scanning the US Open brackets to keep her up to speed, and I said, “Oh, look, Kathy, here’s a first-round match on Tuesday between the #36-ranked Italian Matteo Berretini and the 24-ranked Frenchman Richard Gasket.” She looks at me with hopelessness in her eyes and says, “His name is Richard Gasquet.” She studied French in high school. I said, “It’s spelled just like racquet—q-u-e-t—it must rhyme with racquet; it’s Richard Gasket.” She thinks I’m clueless. She says, “His name is Richard Gasquet.” And of course, I said “Does that mean he plays with a tennis rackay?” I thought that was funny; my wife, not so much.

Strangers have funny names. Strangers talk funny; they have funny accents. They make you laugh. You learn new words. You remember what Meryl Streep as Sophie says in her Polish accent to Kevin Kline as Nathan in that great film Sophie’s Choice when she invites him home for a drink at the end of the day? “Would you like to come over for a night-hat?” she says. She means ‘nightcap,’ of course, but what she says with her broken English is ‘night-hat.’ That’s funny. That made me laugh. The stranger brings the laughter.

Of immigrants, someone once said: “They are what we were.”[1] Immigrants are what we were. That is to say, strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a Native American. Even the folks who’d been living on the North American continent for 14,000 years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” it were probably immigrants from Siberia who’d walked across a Bering Strait land bridge to Alaska during the last ice age. All Americans are descended from immigrants, no exceptions. Immigrants are what we were.

It might be good to remember that. Maybe that’s why Abraham welcomed those strangers so warmly to his home long ago: it’s because he remembered that he was a stranger too. He was not born in Palestine; he’d arrived fairly recently, an immigrant from his distant hometown of Ur in southern Iraq, 500 miles away.

When she was seven years old Maria Isabel Bueso came to the United States from Guatemala. American doctors had invited her to come because Maria has a very rare disease which prevents the cells of her body from processing sugars; this disease causes dwarfism and paralysis. It is so rare that there weren’t enough Americans available to test out a new medicine, so the doctors invited Maria to the States.

That experimental drug worked and was approved by the FDA, partly because of Maria. She’s been in the States ever since, because the medicine is not available in Guatemala. Maria is 24 years old; she’s been receiving the medicine once a week for 16 years. Last year, she graduated summa cum laude from California State University, East Bay.

Last week, the United States Government sent her a notice informing her that she had 33 days to leave the country or she will be deported. The program allowing people like Maria to stay in the country to receive life-saving treatment has been abandoned. There are 1,000 people in the country in exactly this situation. No one told the American public about this policy change. There is no appeal. It is a death sentence; if she returns to Guatemala, she will die.[2]

She was seven when she came to America. She was invited. She advanced the cause of medicine. Sixteen years ago, the United States of America showed Maria a generous hospitality. Now that welcome is being withdrawn. What’s happened to us? The US Government is not in the hospitality business you say? Are you sure?

Six years ago, on the first day of school right around Labor Day, a 15-year-old sophomore at Greenwich High School took his own life. Kids picked on Bart Palosz because they could. He was 6'3" but physically and socially awkward, a gentle giant who would never respond to cruelty in kind, so that if you smashed his brand new, week-old iPhone, he would never do the same to yours; he would just retreat into his own private space in the Student Center at Greenwich High. The cellphone incident was just one example of a pattern of mistreatment that had been going on for ten years.

Bart wasn’t born in America; he was an immigrant, a Polish-American. He had a funny accent. If we could only remember that, as with Abraham and Sarah, the stranger brings the laughter, we could have laughed with him, instead of at him.

At least some of Bart’s classmates at Greenwich High learned a hard lesson. One wise young man, a senior, said, “The school is just really cliquey. And one of the people aren't open-minded enough. Like the football players, sometimes, will only think about football and don't really care about anything else like theater or music. And that's a problem. If you just open up your mind, then you can realize that something that, before, you think you would have hated, you go see the people around and see what they do and find out it's something you've wanted to do your entire life.”[3]

I wish I’d been that wise and that kind when I was a 17-year-old football player. These kids are trying to be faithful to an ancient, central, and repeated axiom of the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

They are learning that the stranger brings the laughter. They are learning that, sometimes, angels have accents.

Click here to view the wonder of bread in our life stories submitted by members.

[1]Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell, Our God Is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2102), p. 66.

[2]Miriam Jordan and Caitlin Dickerson, “Sick Migrants Undergoing Lifesaving Care Can Now Be Deported,” The New York Times, August 30, 2019.

[3]Timmy Prier, quoted by Paul Schott, “Members of New GHS Group Speak Out,” The Greenwich Time, September 5, 2013.