1 Kings 4:8-17; Hebrews 13:1-3
Southminster Presbyterian Church, February 23, 2020
Nearly 25 years ago, in the summer of 1995, I started as the pastor of the San Leandro Church of Christ in the East Bay of California. I was 29 years old, and my predecessor, Mel, had retired after serving there for more than 30 years.
Now there is no such thing as an interim pastorate in that particular sect of Christianity. I just moved to town and started preaching a few weeks after Mel had moved away to start his retirement. I had had enough classes in seminary about church dynamics to know that this was not an ideal situation. At least Mel wasn’t still there, but still…
So one of the first things I did when I got there was to start what Presbyterians would call a “mission study”—something that should have been done between pastors. We put together a team of 10 people—balanced by race, gender, and age—to do the hard work of visioning and articulating where we wanted to go as a church. We tried to find a term that wasn’t too triggering and settled on calling it the “purpose statement team.”
One piece of research the team did was a spiritual gifts inventory. To prepare the congregation for the inventory, the leader of the purpose statement team created some educational materials on each spiritual gift. While she was working on that, she called me one day and asked, “Can you give me a biblical example of the spiritual gift of hospitality?”
I quickly mentioned the story of the Shunammite woman whose story we read this morning. Looking back, I am amazed that an obscure story from an obscure part of the Hebrew Bible popped into my mind so quickly, but that’s what came to mind.
It has always been a fascinating story to me. Elisha was a nomadic prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel. He was hand-picked by the more famous prophet, Elijah, to be his successor. But the story gives a bit of a glimpse of life in the ancient world.
People who traveled in the ancient world had all sorts of dangers as they moved between settlements, from wild animals to unfriendly tribes of humans. Any time they arrived at a settlement, they were dependent on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging.
The Shunammite woman was obviously wealthy. No peasant could have talked about adding onto a house to create a guest room for a prophet. But this woman—whose name is never given—is portrayed as a genuinely strong woman in this patriarchal setting. She feels an affinity for Elisha, thought him to be a holy man of God, and basically told her husband, “This is what we’re gonna do.” The woman’s husband actually appears later in the story and proves himself to be a complete wus—and rather dense on top of that. But the wife was a strong woman and knew just what she needed to do.
This strong woman did not ask for anything in return for her generosity in providing lodging, but the man of God gave her something anyway—the ability to bear a son.
So our theme this month is hospitality. I think hospitality takes many forms. You don’t have to build a guest room for a prophet to be hospitable. In fact, you don’t have to be a gifted host or entertainer at all. You just have to have some passion about making the world a better place.
The Shunammite woman felt that this person she met was a holy man of God. He connected with her sense of spirituality and inspired her to act with generosity—so much so that she built a guest room for him.
It reminds me of someone I got to know in Orange County, California in 1987. I wish I could remember her name. I was doing an undergraduate internship at a church in Costa Mesa, and one of the ministries at the church was a weekly meal that they served to homeless people. As I recall, it was every Tuesday at lunchtime, and one of my jobs as an intern was to attend the meal and engage with the people who came.
Homelessness was just emerging as a major problem in the late 1980s, and the little operation at that church would probably be considered quaint by today’s standards. We would have 20 to 30 people every week—almost all men—and most of them were pretty chatty and relatively cheerful when I would engage them.
Anyway, the whole reason this church had this ministry was because of this one strong, courageous woman whose name I can’t remember.
Her son had died in Vietnam, and she learned that one of his Army buddies was homeless in the area. She immediately went to the elders of the church and announced that she was going to start a weekly lunch for the homeless. She didn’t ask permission; she just let them know she’d be using the kitchen. She bought all the food herself and recruited a couple of friends to help her cook. By the time I was there, she had been doing that every single week for two years.
Toward the end of my summer internship, there was a contentious elders’ meeting in which some of the elders wanted to force an end to the weekly lunch.
Of course, the reason they gave initially is that they were concerned for the safety of this strong, courageous woman. Then they worried that there would start being graffiti on the church property, or the bathrooms would be trashed, or things would be stolen from the church—none of which had actually happened in the two years they had been in operation. The church’s business manager worried that someone would trip on the sidewalk and sue the church. And the guy who was originally worried about safety finally said, “We haven’t gotten a single baptism or financial contribution out of this ministry.”
I was 21 years old at the time, sitting in a room with the 40-something pastor and a bunch of old men who were the elders of the church. I noticed that several elders weren’t really saying anything—and I also knew they were the ones who had more affinity for this ministry. So I spoke up.
I said that as I had gotten to know this woman, I saw that this was her passion in life. She wasn’t worried about her own safety, and I had not seen anything all summer that made me worry for her safety either. I said, “This ministry doesn’t cost the church budget a dime. If we can’t offer basic support and encouragement for a ministry that one of our members feels passionate about—and that helps people—we’re probably not going to have a lot of new baptisms to report anytime soon.”
Some of the other elders spoke up after that, and the matter was tabled for a future meeting after I would be back in Texas for my senior year. This was before the days of social media or even email, so I never heard how that subsequent meeting went.
A decade or so later while I was pastor at the church in San Leandro, our church leadership started talking about getting a website—something that churches were just starting to do in 1997. So I spent some time looking at websites of other churches and stumbled onto a website for that church in Costa Mesa. It was a really high-tech website for the time…you could even download and listen to the weekly sermons.
On the list of sermons that could be downloaded, I happened to notice a guest sermon by Paul Thomas, who was the pastor there when I was an intern but had moved on a few years later. Of course, I downloaded it and listened to it. Paul talked about some of the great ministries that church had done over the years and mentioned the homeless lunch—which apparently continued another five years or so after the summer I was there.
And I was floored by what Paul said next. He said that he had met the executive director of the biggest homeless services nonprofit in Orange County, and learned that he used to be a regular at those Tuesday lunches. And he cited the kindness of the people he encountered there as one factor that helped him turn his life around.
It was totally random that I heard that sermon…I was just researching a church website. But it closed the loop for me. The ministry continued, and at least one person was deeply blessed by it. And I may have broken bread with this man whose life was so profoundly changed. As the writer of Hebrews said in today’s reading, some have entertained angels without knowing it.
We at Southminster are probably entertaining angels without knowing it. Through Family Promise, our connections with two different mosques, the Somali Bantu families, the LGBTQ community, our advocacy on immigration issues, and so much more. I have no doubt that we’re encountering angels all over the place.