Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Who has seen or encountered an angel? What was that like?
I have. I see them at least every week, and I’m pretty sure you do to. Let’s take a step back to explain:
What is an angel? Our English word angel comes from the Greek Angelos, which means messenger, diplomat, or envoy. In the context of the Bible- both old and new testaments, as the Hebrew word that’s used- Malak, also means angel- this means one of two things. The most common definition is a spiritual being that is a member of the heavenly court that surrounds God. Some of them are known only by titles and fantastic descriptions: wheels within wheels These are the figures you’re probably familiar: Most famous is Gabriel, the messenger who told Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus. You’ve probably also heard of Michael, the archangel who does battles with the forces of evil.
The other is for human messengers of God: prophets, pastors, all those who carry messages from God.
This is a use that seems odd when we first hear it, but does appear in our every day use of the word angel. How many of us have called a nurse an angel for the excellent care they provided? Or a teacher for providing an education to a hellraiser of a child? Did they not carry the message of God’s healing, God’s unconditional love for us? Were they not a sign pointing toward God, even when they were not aware of it?
But I believe the more important question for us to ask is: How many angels have we missed in our midst because they didn’t fit our vision of an angel looks like?
Before we think we’re too capable of recognizing God’s messengers, let us take a more obvious example. Joshua Bell is one of the world’s finest and most famous violinists; indeed, if you’ve heard of a modern violinist, it’s probably him. He was in Washington DC for a sold out concert, back in 2007 with tickets going for well over $100- which, 15 years ago for a classical music concert, was pretty high. He was asked by a journalist to do some busking during the morning rush hour; he made a total of $37 plus one $20 bill from the one person who recognized him.
This is what I meant when I said I encountered angels every week; people who point to or embody God’s love in some way. At my best, I recognize them. Often I don’t. But I try.
I believe our readings today give us a good opportunity to reflect on noticing the angels around us; in our church, our community, and in our world, especially those that we might not recognize at first. I believe these are best exemplified by the words openness, empathy, assuming good intentions, and humility. Our first reading talks about the first three, while our gospel reading focuses on humility.
Our first reading continues from our past few weeks in the Book of Hebrews- the sermon is nearly done, and this is the application and exhortation section, where the pastor with all the dignity they can muster, begs everyone to please be cool, just for a while.
Remember to be kind to each other is the first piece of advice that our preacher gives, but it is quickly superseded by his next one, a favorite of mine: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” This is, of course, the basis of why we’re talking about angels in the first place.
This is a callback to the story of Abraham and Sarah, who are visited by 3 guests that they give hospitality to that appear human but that they later figure out to be angels.
Yes, good vibes inside the community are essential, but that cannot come at the expense of becoming insular or isolated from the strangers in our midst, our neighbors, or the injustices of the world.
Indeed, what we read in the first part of this exhortation is an expanding circle of care: known members of our community, the strangers in our midst, and those who are suffering, in this example, prisoners and those who are being tortured.
But the way we are reminded to care for them deserves special notice: it is not out of sympathy, feelings of sadness- but rather, “as though you were in prison with them, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” This is a call to empathy – to imagine and feel as though we were there and eventually solidarity; to act as though we were not separate interests groups, but one body of Christ. This is another way of saying, if one part of the body is suffering, the whole body is suffering. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The other pieces of this paragraph are best practices for keeping a community together. The two things that can tear apart a group of people faster than any other are sex and greed. All of us know some community- either a church, a theater, a university, that has been torn apart by either sexual abuse or other misconduct. All of us know a person, place or organization that has been torn apart by greed.
Indeed, greed and lust are two of the biggest hurdles that we face in seeing the humanity of others and especially the divine message that they might carry to us. They reduce people to objects or numbers; neither of which is conducive to recognizing the angels in our midst.
And yes, continuing on in the exhortation, please pray for our church’s leadership; we need it. I need it. Life is hard. There are tough decisions to be made. Know that we are trying our best; often when we mess up or make the wrong decision, there were good reasons for what we do. This is a congregational church- I don’t expect everyone to get in line, but I do hope that we can all assume good intentions from each other. Assuming good intentions allows us to better see the good, the angelic, the love in our midst.
This brings us to our Gospel reading: While eating at the home of one of his fellow rabbis, Jesus tells a story about humility and links it to hospitality.
The context of this story is that in the Greco-roman world, there were upper class parties called symposium, if that word rings a bell. At those parties, mostly men would talk about the big ideas of philosophy, religion and politics and get very drunk on diluted red wine. There would be a u shaped table with the host at the center of the “u”, and the most prestigious spot would be next to the host, with guests arranged according to social position down the sides of the table.
Thus the analogy- better, purely from self-interest- to have humility in this situation, and not be embarrassed by any change of seating downward.
This applies to many areas of life; on Friday night I watched close to an hour of youtube videos of people who showboated during boxing fights and got knocked out for it. We all love seeing someone humbled. We just hate it when it happens to us.
But there’s something interesting about humility for our purposes; Humility that is not mere obsequiousness requires great awareness. It requires an ability to know others and oneself. That awareness, baked into humility, also allows us to see the good, the angelic that people around us do. Sometimes it’s very small things that end up having such a great impact. The more aware we are, the more likely we are to notice the everyday angels.
Openness, empathy, assuming good intentions, and humility. Four qualities for us to cultivate in order to notice the good and angelic in our lives. With the small side effect of making us a little more angelic too.
Because you’ll never know when you’ll be the angel someone needs in their life.