(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on August 28, 2016, Proper 17)
How to Bless Strangers,
Or, Lessons Learned from Little Children
A lot can happen in four years. When I returned from England last July, after having studied there for four years, I encountered much that had changed. The regretful disappearance of old restaurants, like Don Pedro III, and the introduction of other tasty eateries, like Deep Run Road House and a plethora of donut shops. And now there’s online ordering for places like Panera and Five Guys. But these changes were small potatoes compared to what greeted me when I met up with old friends. While I had been busy reading books in England, they had been “busy” too. They now carried on their backs or in their arms little strangers: little human beings with chubby cheeks and wispy hair, who gurgled and cried and stared wide-eyed at the world around them.
What fascinated me most about these little strangers was how they received me. I expected that they would eye me suspiciously or, even worse, that they would cry. But their most common response was in fact the opposite. These little strangers, to whom I was a stranger, would gaze on me openly with curiosity. They would smile when I smiled. They would laugh when I laughed. Sometimes they would pick up the nearest object—a set of keys or a scrap of paper—and present it to me as a gift of untold value. They made me feel blessed. Although I was a stranger, in their eyes I was someone special. It was almost as though it was because I was a stranger that I was special.
When Jesus said that the kingdom of God belongs to the little children, I think he must have been speaking, at least in part, about moments like these.
Painting a Kingdom Picture
Prior to today’s passage, the writer of Hebrews has been talking about the kingdom of God. He has been encouraging a persecuted community to persevere in their faith, to trust that God was working through them even if they could not see any results. He has been preaching an unseen kingdom, a kingdom that lives in hopes and dreams, a kingdom that is desperate to find expression in our bodies and our cities and our world.
Today, as he draws his letter to a close, he gets practical. He paints his audience a picture of what the kingdom looks like, reminding people how Jesus lived and inviting them to live likewise. For as he says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).
Philadelphia and Philoxenia
The entirety of this kingdom picture is sketched out in the first two verses. In the first verse, the writer urges us, “Let mutual love continue” (13:1). Actually, he says, “Let philadelphia continue.” You know how Philadelphia is called “the city of brotherly love”? That’s because the word philadelphia literally means “the love of brothers.”
It’s safe to say that philadelphia, brotherly love, is what comes natural to the world. Jesus himself observes that greeting your brothers and your sisters and loving those who love you is nothing special. Everyone does that (cf. Matt 5:46-47).
It’s in the next verse, then, that we begin to see the topsy-turvy features of the kingdom of God. Our translation reads, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (13:2). My suspicion is that we read this the way we want to read it, as though “hospitality to strangers” refers to the stuff we already do, like giving directions to someone who’s lost or extending a hand of welcome to the visitor sitting beside us in the pew. But in fact, the writer is urging much more than a safe show of welcome. He’s insisting on much more than the social graces of “southern hospitality,” more than iced tea and a sprig of mint, even more than lending a room to a friend in need.
In the original Greek, this verse actually says, “Do not forget philoxenia.” Philoxenia. That’s the same –xenia as the xeno- in xenophobia. In other words, philoxenia is the opposite of xenophobia. One means the fear or hatred of strangers, and the other means the love of strangers. And this love of strangers is not just social courtesy. It is the same love that we show to our friends. The philo- in philoxenia is the same as the phila- in philadelphia.
A Strange Word and a Strange Hospitality
I’ve chosen philoxenia as the title of today’s sermon because it is a strange word, and I think we need a strange word to remind us of how strange this “hospitality” is. A hospitality that loves strangers as much as it does brothers and sisters is an upside-down hospitality, a crazy hospitality. Whereas the hospitality of this world generally welcomes “those who are welcome to begin with,” which is to say those “who serve our pleasure or our interests,” the strange hospitality of the kingdom welcomes the unwelcome, which is to say, the stranger of whom the xenophobes are afraid, the stranger who may have nothing to give us in return, or nothing but trouble.
Philoxenia is a distinctive mark of the kingdom of God, and so perhaps it’s no coincidence that we see it so clearly in little children, to whom the kingdom belongs. Philoxenia is the strangerly love that a baby shows when it makes you, a stranger, the center of its world. When it opens its arms in delight for you and welcomes you at its table. When it gives you gifts. When it shares your feelings, laughing when you laugh, smiling when you smile. When it blesses you and welcomes you as though you were sent from God.
And according to our writer, welcoming strangers as though they were sent from God is an essential part of philoxenia. He says that by philoxenia, “some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). On the surface, this makes welcoming the stranger sound a little bit like playing the lottery, as though we should always welcome the stranger because, who knows, we might get lucky and end up hosting God. But if we recall what Jesus said about the hungry and the sick and the stranger (Matt 25:34-40), then we know that it’s not a lottery. Every stranger bears the face of Christ.
“Who Is My Stranger?”
The rest of what our writer says today may be summed up in just a few words: “Put others before yourself.” Allow the center of gravity to shift from your own heart to the hearts of the others.
If you think about it, this is just another way of saying that we should welcome not only the literal stranger, but also the stranger inside everyone, including our friends. If we’re friends with people only because they reciprocate our thoughts and our feelings about life, then really we’ve only befriended ourselves. We’ve only reinforced our own self-interests. A genuine love for our friends and family means welcoming the stranger within them. It means welcoming them without the expectation that they reciprocate our thoughts or feelings or interests. It means attending to their deepest needs and desires, especially when these are different than our own.
A Strange Case of Philoxenia:
Covering the Cross to Reveal It
I want to conclude with a real life example of philoxenia, an example that’s so strange, it’s bound to get us thinking.
A well-known Jewish man in a little Wisconsin community had passed away. There was no synagogue in the area, but his family and friends insisted that he be honored in a sacred space. They asked all the churches in the area to host the funeral, and only one said yes.
Before the funeral, the rabbi surveyed the church sanctuary. A cross stood prominently at the front. The rabbi requested that the cross be covered. It’s important here to understand that for many in the Jewish tradition, the cross is a symbol of hate. For centuries, the Jewish people endured massacre at the hands of vengeful Christians who blamed the death of Christ on the Jewish people. These Christians would lift high the cross, and proclaim God’s judgment against the Jewish people, or as they called them, “Christ killers.” I can think of few grosser perversions of Christ’s gospel of love.
The church ultimately granted the rabbi’s request and covered the cross—but not without debate among its own congregation. Wasn’t the cross central to their Christian identity? Weren’t they sacrificing too much of themselves to accommodate these strangers? Sure, they wanted to help honor the man’s death, but it was their house, their rules, right? Surely the Jewish community could understand that.
Personally, I believe this is a beautiful illustration of philoxenia, strangerly love. The love of Christ is revealed not through a symbol or through a proclamation of identity, but through welcoming the stranger, making them the center of our world, as Christ did when he embraced the outcasts of his society. For this little church in Wisconsin, it was only by covering the cross that the church could in fact walk the way of the cross, the way of selfless and sacrificial love. It was only by covering the cross that they could reveal it.
A Kingdom That Loves the Stranger
But that’s only what I think. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. We live in a world where strangers abound, and they’re literally across the street. People who look different, who worship differently or do not worship at all, who envision a different political reality than we do.
Whatever it is that makes them strange, we are called to love them. We are called to put them before us. Xenophobia may be the way of a world that seeks safety and security, that seeks to hold on to what it’s got. But if we are ever to step foot into the kingdom into which God invites us, then we must adopt another way, a wayward way, a way that goes out of its way for others: the way of philoxenia, where the stranger is welcomed as a friend.
Whose kingdom turns strangers into friends—
Open our hearts to receive you
In the unknown and unwanted.
Lead us beyond brotherly love
To a love that goes out of its way for others.
 John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture Series; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), ebook loc. 1181-1184.
 This story is taken from Thomas E. Reynolds, “Welcoming Without Reserve: A Case in Christian Hospitality,” Theology Today 63 (2006): 191-202.