A Sermon from Sherborne
The hospitality of strangers
The hospitality of strangers: a sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on the occasion of the patronal festival, Sunday 2nd July 2017 by the Revd Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar
Over these last few weeks we have experienced, mostly through our television screens some of the most awful examples loss and hurt I can ever remember. Those of you with much longer memories than mine will I am sure have been casting your minds back perhaps to the days of the war and the terrible nightly incendiary bombs and the subsequent loss of homes and of life. I only know of that second hand growing up as a child in post war London.
And yet within all the horror we have also seen the very best of humankind. The offer of lifts home to those stranded, a sofa for the night offered to strangers, people comforting those who have lost everything, acts of bravery by our emergency services and ordinary men and women throwing objects to stop those intent on killing or maiming.
Over the last few weeks in our gospel readings from Matthew we have been challenged about our commitment to God. Matthew says that following Jesus is about commitment and there will be times when that commitment is in conflict with the family, our work and those with whom we spend our leisure time. I well remember as a child not being allowed to play sport on a Sunday and the tension that brought to my home. Everyone else can why not me? My parents stood firm and I now understand what they were saying to me. Our first commitment on Sunday is to God. Of course the world is a very different place these days, but that doesn’t mean it is better for being different. I cannot tell you the number of times people meet me and say – well I would come to church but I work full time and I just can’t make it on Sunday I need that time to clean and mow the lawn and so on. Something in me always wants to say something like; I bet you make time for your hairdresser or a coffee with friends, but I don’t, I just nod and I say something like – Oh, I know it’s difficult. But it is true to say we do make the time for the things we really care about. Making our faith the priority in our lives is not easy but it is what we are asked to do. And when we do it brings us closer to God and closer to each other.
These last days have given us great insight too into what happens when the Christian message gets out of its high theological tower and gets down with the people. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster the church and those of all faiths have emerged as the movers and shakers in offering practical care. The Bishop of Kensington stood with the people and went with them to see Teresa May in Downing St and won the respect of many whilst the local authority seems to have lost all respect. Perhaps we are lulled by the media into believing that the church is being marginalised. How sad it was that Tim Farron felt forced to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats because of the hounding the press gave him over his Christian principles. This is in such stark contrast to the way Americans view their politicians, positively demanding that they speak about their faith and stand up for those principles. Perhaps it is the media moguls who have an agenda against Christianity. I often shout at the TV when people go on about protecting British values and it usually ends up with me shouting ‘why don’t you get back to going to church then’, because that is one British value we could do well to rediscover.
If we had listened to the gospel reading from St Mathew set for this Sunday we would have heard how important it is to offer hospitality and as we celebrate our patronal festival I am reminded of the many times Mary was dependent on the hospitality of others. As we heard in our gospel reading, early in her pregnancy she sought the hospitality of her cousin Elizabeth. The more I think about this visit the more I am convinced that she did so not out of a desire to see her cousin but rather to escape the prying and condemning eyes of the people of Nazareth who no doubt were very ready to label her in all kinds of unpleasant ways because of her pregnancy. Elizabeth offered her a sanctuary away from all of this. It gave Mary some breathing space; a chance to get ‘her head together’ as we would say today and I am sure that was really important. This wonderful moment, which Luke describes so beautifully for us, also gives us an opportunity to reassess how we encounter people in our everyday lives. We are given a model to follow. Mary and Elizabeth meet in joy, in hope, in trust and in faith. They bring an honesty to their relationship; all is revealed. In our relationships with God and with other people can we claim to be so honest? Do we put up walls and barriers in the hope that somehow we can hide behind them so that God, who sees and knows all, will not see and know us? Do we hold back from offering all to God? Our world needs us to have honest conversations with God and with each other, so that we might have a genuine solidarity with humankind as we all search for that deeper relationship with God and for ways to make our world a fairer and more just place for people to live as God intended..
Later on in Bethlehem Mary was once again grateful for the hospitality offered to her by strangers. She may have supposed that she would find a home with some of Joseph’s relations or as we know from St Luke’s gospel, stay in an inn. Through the kindness of a stranger she was taken to a barn or cave used by the animals and it was there she gave birth to the Saviour of the world. Jesus was born in the world of the lowly.
Matthew records for us the account of Mary and Joseph fleeing Bethlehem for their lives and taking refuge in Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. They became refugees until it was safe to return to Nazareth. Once again I am sure in the early days in Egypt, Mary and her family needed the help of strangers; help to find a home, to find work and to find support.
To offer hospitality is one of the greatest gifts we have to give to our communities; as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2) It need not be the grand gesture, just the simple offering of sharing a cup of tea, going with someone to an appointment or being a listening ear. I am sure there were many moments when Elizabeth did just that for Mary offering her space to talk about the enormity of what awaited her and her son. It is something we can all do regardless of age and it demonstrates so clearly our commitment to God by offering practical love to his people.