Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…” (Hebrews 13:1).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Three weeks ago I spoke to you about fear, and I closed with this verse from 1 John. “Perfect love casts out all fear.” So it seems fitting that I speak to you today about love.
Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews began by commending two kinds of love for our neighbour, although you may not have heard that in the translation we read. It is easier to see in the original language, for the writer uses two words derived from philia, a Greek word for love. “Let philadelphia (love for the brethren) continue. Do not neglect philoxenia (love for the stranger), for through that [love] some have entertained angels unawares.”
Love for the brethren, love for the stranger — here are two harmonious loves we all should put in practice.
Love for our brethren perhaps comes most naturally to us. We love our families, our friends and communities. We love the place where we were raised. We can even love the city and people or nation that claims us as their own.
It is within these bounded domains that we most often learn what it means to love. Our parents look after us, sacrifice for us. On holidays, our families gather and give gifts. All around us, as we dwell in a community or city, we are surrounded by an immense variety of people engaging in activities so diverse that they are hard to enumerate or describe, and yet they are all directed toward the one life of the city. It is a miracle. “Blest be the ties that bind” such civic, communal, friendly, and familial harmonies into one. “Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity.”
May such love for the brethren ever continue.
But we cannot imagine that this is the fullest expression of love. As Jesus said to his disciples, this is the kind of love known everywhere; in every nation, “even the Gentiles” greet their neighbours and say hello on the street to those they know, and show kindness to their friends. We are called to go further than this. “Do not neglect love for the stranger,” though it does not come as naturally.
And who is the stranger? Those we do not yet know, visitors, foreigners (like me), immigrants, refugees; people of a different neighbourhood, city, region, or nation, from the North or from the South; people of differing cultures, laws, and religions — all those whom we do not include: them, the others, the outsiders, people who are not us, who are not like us, people whom we imagine have no claim on us. “We don’t owe them anything,” we often hear. There lie the common roots of xenophobia, fear of and hatred for the stranger. It is all too natural.
No doubt, it is for this reason that we are so frequently told that the pre-eminent lover of the stranger is God. Because it’s going to take the example of God himself to move our stony hearts to love those we do not know.
It was God who called Abraham to leave his home and journey in a land not yet his own. It was God who delivered Israel from Egypt, as a foreign rabble. It was God who first said to Israel, “You shall love the foreigner, since you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19; Lev. 19:33-34). It was God who said he would “draw near” to Israel “for judgment” when he spoke these words through the prophet Malachi:
I will be swift to bear witness … against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, … against those who thrust aside the stranger, and do not fear me, says the LORD. (Mal. 3:5)
Here is our Lord! The psalmist sings of him: “A father to the fatherless, defender of widows” — and a lover of the stranger. Such is “God in his holy habitation. He gives the lonely a home to dwell in” (Ps. 68:5). Such is God’s example of love. He is always seeking the outsider, the lonely, the lost coin, the lost sheep, the prodigal Son. God is seeking them out and drawing them in to safety. This is the God who loves us, whose love we strive to imitate.
If God loves in such a way, how should we love, my friends? We have heard it already. Fix the phrase in your heart. “Let love for the brethren continue, but do not neglect love for the stranger.”
These are not two competing interests, that we can only practice one at a time, as if we had some money set aside to feed our hungry children, and we poured out our largesse instead into the hands and mouths of those we do not know. That is the false dichotomy that greedy misanthropes — most often politicians advocating their policies — would like you to believe.
There is enough love to go all around, for it springs up from an inexhaustible well, even God himself.
My challenge to you this week — if you’re not feeling challenged already — is to give these things some more thought and, better yet, to put those thoughts into action.
How might we love our brethren and the stranger in our personal lives? Jesus’ words here about dinner invitations are more than appropriate. Are all our social activities aimed solely around benefiting those who can repay us or honour us? Are they closed off and tightly bound?
Undoubtedly, we could all do more to influence the life of the broader community. We heard two weeks ago that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, two-thirds of the Europeans living here could lose their civic rights. Successive prime ministers have made promises on this point; but politicians’ promises are like so much chaff. They are driven away by the winds of every change. Is that compassion or justice? These are not merely political issues, but Gospel principles, and there are a myriad other examples we might draw out.
I cannot close this sermon here, though, without drawing us to a broader principle about love for the outsider, the stranger. We have recently been talking about how the life of this parish — of this congregation gathered here right now — can be better oriented toward those outside, and I just want to make a few observations related to that point.
I am certain that as we heard the words of Jesus today, telling us to invite to our dinners the poor, the outcast, the blind, the lame, and all those who cannot repay us, we felt a pinch in our conscience. For who among us practices such hospitality as a way of life? There would be a perfect person. We feel that pinch, and we resolve to meet the physical needs of our neighbour. But what about their spiritual needs?
Sunday by Sunday we gather here for the heavenly feast that is the Eucharist; we draw nourishment from Christ himself, in his Word and in the sacrament of his body and his blood. It is a marvellous and great thing, and I thank my God every time I stand here with you. But who are we inviting to this feast of life? Only those we already know and love? Who is not here?
Consider this. If every church in Cambridge were full to bursting at their main Sunday services, more than 100,000 people in this city would still have no place to go. If we allowed a material famine of such great proportions to continue on our doorstep in wartime or at peace, we would decry ourselves. The national papers would denounce us. A new foodbank or soup kitchen would spring up daily. No effort would be considered too drastic. Why are we not so moved to offer our neighbours the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation?
I commend these things to your thoughts, prayers, and action, as we consider the future together. Le me close with the final verse from our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, praying you forgive my passion, if I have misspoken or offended you in any way.
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16).