Our need for hospitable hearts

September 30, 2004

As you read this, we will have just observed the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels on Sept. 29. The Letter to the Hebrews points out that by welcoming strangers, many have welcomed angels without being aware of it. The writer has in mind a meeting with flesh-and-blood reality, which is the medium for an encounter with the divine.

In my own life, there have been many instances, usually moments of uncertainty or vulnerability, in which a seemingly random encounter with another proved to be a moment of profound grace. I am sure many of you have had similar experiences.

Not long ago, I had a free afternoon while I was at a conference in Kentucky. As the previous weeks had been particularly stressful and difficult, I welcomed this open space.

I put on old clothes and set out for Pleasant Hill, a former Shaker village that is now a museum. I passed the time quite agreeably and was just about to leave when I decided to visit one last building. Just inside the door was a guide, a woman dressed in Shaker garb who was explaining the contents and purpose of the building to a group of visitors. After they left, I asked her several questions and was caught by surprise when she suddenly asked: “Are you the archbishop who lives in New York?”

How could she have recognized me, I thought, until she explained that she had been a communicant in the Diocese of Chicago during the time I served as its bishop. She then reminded me that, after my election as presiding bishop, at a diocesan farewell gathering, she had given me a small boat and told me that, though it would be a difficult journey, I had been called to bring the ship through rough waters.

As she spoke, I felt a surge of quiet confidence. At that moment she was truly a ministering angel, and I felt deeply that her words came not simply from her but from the Spirit. I knew then it was not by accident that I had decided to look in this building before leaving.

We not only receive ministering spirits, sometimes we also are ministering spirits, often without our knowledge. We appear, seemingly by chance, in someone else’s life at a particular time. We utter a word or show some expression of encouragement or are simply present, and what is most deeply needed by the other is conveyed through us. And grace occurs. How often I have been thanked for saying or doing something helpful or illumining and realized what had been conveyed exceeded anything I had intended: I was simply a bearer of God’s grace.

What is true for us personally about bearing and receiving grace also can be true of us collectively -- as a church and as a nation. At this moment in the life of our church, and indeed the Anglican Communion, how different things could be if we looked upon “the other” not as threat but as a potential angel. How much more fully the risen Christ would be revealed in the splendor of difference if we could act toward one another, not in a spirit of suspicion or judgment, but with hospitality.

Hospitality, of course, is not without its risks, because “the other” whom we receive may stretch us in ways we had not intended, and the dimensions of Christ’s Spirit they reveal may challenge or expand our perspectives and understandings. This certainly has been my experience in the context of encounters with those of other faiths.

With regard to our nation so blessed in resources, I believe we are called to act toward the global “other” in a spirit of hospitality. We should acknowledge that our values superimposed on others do not always serve the common good or even our own longer-term interests. In that regard, I observed as we marked the third anniversary of the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, that, rather than seeking to explore and understand what might have driven such fury, we chose instead a path that has intensified the very evil we are trying to address. I believe that our current path only makes the peace and well-being of us all that much more elusive.

In these current days of polarizing political rhetoric, we have a responsibility to sort and sift what we hear and ask some larger questions. Why are we so afraid to welcome the other? What word may God be seeking to speak to us through other nations, other cultures and even other religions? How would our world look if that word were embraced and taken into our national consciousness such that we transformed our unequal relationships of power into relationships of solidarity and mutual support? To be sure, there are those who wish us ill. Even so, are we really well-served by assuming the stranger is an enemy?

Let us remember that the stranger, “the other,” the one who most challenges us, may be a potential angel and a messenger of God’s larger purposes. Therefore, let us go forward with hospitable hearts ready to receive the One who seeks continually to come among us in the faces and lives of those whom we call strangers.

Tagged in: Frank T. Griswold