Fearless Hospitality

Posted on 03 Sep 2019

Fearless Hospitality
(Read Hebrews 13:1-8; 15-16)

Yesterday for the first time I heard the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of
Gubbio. Some of you may be familiar with it but for those who are not, I will do my best
to tell it as briefly as possible. There is a town in Italy called Gubbio that was being
terrorized by a wolf. The wolf was eating the town’s livestock and even attacking some
of the townspeople. The leaders in the town tried various things to rid the town of the
wolf. They armed themselves. They hunted the wolf. They kept their children inside and
kept their doors and windows locked. The people were afraid and they didn’t know what
to do. The leaders in the town decided to call upon St. Francis of Assisi to see if he
could help. He was a man of God, a man of prayer, and it was said he could speak to
animals. St. Francis was found and consulted. He agreed to do what he could to help
the town, its people, and its animals. After much prayer he went out to find the wolf.
When he came upon the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and asked the wolf to meet
with him in peace under the grace of the Lord. The wolf, realizing that St. Francis did not
intend to harm him, sat down and listened to what the man had to say. St. Francis
asked the wolf why he had terrorized the town. The wolf said that he was hungry and
had been left behind by his pack. He only caused harm to satiate his hunger. St. Francis
made a deal between the wolf and with the townspeople. St. Francis asked the
townspeople to forgive the wolf, to take care of the wolf, to feed him and to look after
him. Then the wolf’s hunger and loneliness would be no more. The people would no
longer live in fear and all could live together in peace. Brother Wolf became a part of the
town and its community. The people opened their hearts and their homes; fed and
sheltered the wolf and all lived together in peace.

Fear is an interesting thing. Fear can help us by alerting us to the possibility of
danger thereby giving us time to act or get help. Fear can harm us by crippling our
ability to move forward or being a help to others. Fear can harden our hearts and close
our minds. Fear can help us to know that God is bigger than we are and inspire a sense
of reverence and awe. Fear can make us think that we need to close our doors and arm
ourselves. Fear can help us to know our own limits. Fear is no simple thing. The
narrative of scripture tells us that we should fear God. The narrative of scripture also
tells us that we should not fear anything or anyone else: those who look differently than
we do or believe differently than we do, those who have are on the edges of society,
those who are hungry or thirsty or poor or unhoused, those who are sick in mind, body,
or spirit. The narrative of scripture even tells us that we should not fear death. You see,
the promise of scripture is that we are safe with God and there’s really not much else
that matters.

What are you afraid of? I’m afraid of heights and spiders. And something
happening to my husband or really to anybody in my family. Also, not being enough or
not having enough or not knowing what to say. Oh and catastrophic illness and the
climate crisis. Also, not being enough or not having enough or not knowing what to say.
Oh goodness, this list could get long. What about you? When you are honest with
yourself and take a good, long, hard look inside the very core of your being, what are
you afraid of? What wolves are terrorizing you? We have to be able to answer that
question. If we aren’t in touch with our fears, then fear gets the best of us and will run
our lives. This passage in Hebrews seems an odd list of imperatives: let mutual love
continue, do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, remember those who are in
prison and being tortured, let marriage be held in honor by all, keep your lives free from
the love of money, be content with what you have, do good , share what you have…and
right smack in the middle “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid, what can anyone
do to me?”

I believe that what keeps us from doing all that we are tasked with, as disciples of
Christ, is fear. What prevents us from loving our neighbors? Fear. What prevents us
from being hospitable? Fear. What prevents us from contentment and doing good and
sharing what we have? Fear. We fear what we do not know. We fear that we do not
have enough. We fear that we are not safe and that we are not loved. And when we
aren’t sure there’s enough to go around, we are hesitant to share what we have with
others and contentment is hard to come by. When we ourselves do not know that we
are safe, we have a hard time providing safe spaces for others. When we do not know
that we are loved, we have a hard time loving others. When we are fearful, we have a
hard time seeing others.

As human beings we all have the same fundamental needs, to feel safe, to be
loved, to be known and cared for. We also all have physical needs: food, water, and
shelter. Every person you meet needs the same things you do. Every person: the
people ringing the church doorbell for a sandwich, your child’s teacher, the person who
cut you off in traffic this week, your doctor, your dentist, your spouse, your child,
immigrants detained at the border, those people from over there, the most challenging
person in your world, even your enemy and the wolf wreaking havoc on the town. Every
person you meet has the same needs you do. You can apply the golden rule, if you like,
“do unto others and all that” but Hebrews is more specific: let mutual love continue, do
not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, remember those who are in prison and
being tortured, let marriage be held in honor, keep your life free from the love of money,
be content with what you have, do good as often as you can and share.

These are not vague imperatives. These are down on the ground instructions for
living. They’re not easy and we can talk ourselves out of them without too much effort.
Anytime we feel as though our own safety and well-being are at risk, we close the doors
to our homes and our hearts. Anytime we feel as though our own safety and well-being
are at risk, we close our hands and hold on tightly to our resources. Anytime we feel as
though our own safety and well-being are at risk, we clam up and don’t even try to find
the words that may bring healing to another. It’s often our pride that is at stake. Feeling
foolish certainly isn’t an option. We don’t want to run out of food or money or words or
energy so we just stop sharing. It’s not worth the risk.

Hospitality has to do with the way we regard and treat others. It has to do with
the way we receive strangers and friends alike. Time and again, scripture tells us how to
be hospitable. The gospels of Matthew and Mark both encourage us to simply give a
cold cup of water to any who may need one. The books of Exodus and Leviticus tell us
how to treat aliens, strangers, in our midst. We are not to oppress them rather we are to
love and care for the stranger for we were once strangers, we gently are
reminded…over and over again. Loving others is commanded time and again in
scripture. We are to love others no matter who they are or what they believe or where
they have been or what they look like. We are even to love our enemies and those we
fear. Jesus sets that example for us pretty clearly. This isn’t an abstract idea rather it is
to be practiced and we are fooling ourselves if we think it’s easy. In order to be
hospitable and loving and even content, we must take a step back. We must be
deliberate. We must rest in God and ask for help. When I speak of deliberation and rest,
I am not expecting us to do these things faultlessly without wavering. We waver. We
struggle. We wrestle. We are human.

The book of Hebrews was written to a group of people who were wavering. They
were struggling. They were listening to all the other voices around them. They were
conflict avoidant. They didn’t know how to lean on one another or be a community
together. They were afraid. They weren’t sure this life with Christ was really worth it.
Here in this last chapter they are reminded of something foundational: Jesus Christ is
the same yesterday today and forever. That is good news to rest on. They and we are
reminded that we can say with confidence: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?” That is certainly a confidence boosting promise and a
good word for those who are feeling a little shaky. God has promised never to leave us
or forsake us. God has promised to be our helper and God has been our helper and
God is our helper. God helped St. Francis tame the wolf. God helped the people of
Gubbio forgive and share what they had. God helps us when we’re not sure how to
love. God helps us when we don’t think we have anything to share. God helps us when
we’re afraid to let people in: into our lives, our homes, our churches, our hearts. God
helps us to be content with what we have and do good whenever we can. God helps us
because we can’t do it on our own. We stand on these promises of God because the
ground is shaky otherwise.

We do this together, by the way. We lean on one another. We ask each other for
help. We remind each other that we are safe with God and that we are loved beyond
measure. I need that reminder. Do you? That’s the wonder of this messy, imperfect,
beautiful thing called community. As individual, standing alone human beings we will
forget that we are beloved. We will forget that we are safe with God. We will forget that
this life with Christ is absolutely worth it. So, we remind one another. We share our
hopes and our fears. We pray for one another. We seek counsel when we need to. We
laugh together and we cry together. We honor the differences between us and
recognize that our unity is in Christ.

Beloved, when we are safe with God, we have nothing to fear. When we know
that we are loved by God, we love without fear. When we are grateful to God, we share
without fear. With God’s help, may it be so.