9/1/19 - Philoxenia - Hebrews 13:1-3, 15-16


Hebrews13:1-3, 15-16

Emmanuel Baptist Church/FOCUS Joint Worship

September 1, 2019

Rev. Kathy Donley


It was 4:00 in the morning. I was in a hotel and I couldn’t sleep.  Looking out the window, I saw people working in the kitchen of a restaurant across the street.  The streets were dark, but the kitchen was lit up and inside it, people were active.   They were preparing breakfast for the strangers sleeping in those dark buildings.

My family and I got to visit  Europe back in May.   We did a lot of touristy things – museums and cathedrals and monuments.   We quickly learned to find the pamphlet racks.  Every major attraction provided printed material to explain and interpret the history or to point out various details about it.  And we learned to look for the English version, because it would be available in about a dozen languages.  On sightseeing busses and canal boat tours, there were guides who spoke English or we were offered headsets translating the narrated guide into our language.   I went to a lot of places.  Places where street signs were often confusing and the money was different and the landscape unfamiliar. My journeys were made easier by the preparations that others made on my behalf.  Preparations that included developing printed materials in multiple languages and  working in the kitchen overnight so that breakfast would be ready when I needed it.

Many people practiced philoxenia on my behalf, although I doubt they called it that.  That’s the Greek word hidden in our Scripture reading today.  It’s in verse 2, but let’s start with verse 1.  “Let mutual love continue.”  The Greek says “Let philadelphia continue.”  We are familiar with Philadelphia, the city of brotherly or mutual love.  The author of Hebrews instructs an early Christian community to keep loving each other, to keep on caring for other members.  In a world which was often hostile to the faithful, mutual support and love was essential for survival. 

Then verse 2 says in English “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers”.  The Greek word, philoxenia gets translated as hospitality to strangers, but it literally means “love of strangers.”   Taken together, the two verses say “Keep on loving each other and don’t forget to love strangers too.”   

“Keep loving each other and don’t forget to love strangers too.”  I was the stranger this summer, in foreign countries and several American cities and also in a number of churches.  And I have to say that it was the churches that seemed to need to hear this the most.  No one was ever mean or even rude, but in several cases, it just did not seem that they had prepared to receive strangers. Often the only person who spoke to me was the pastor and sometimes that happened only because I took the initiative.

When you visit a church, you are keenly aware that you are the stranger. It feels as though everyone is watching you, but few people are talking to you. You are self-conscious about whether to sing or not to sing, about taking communion in the style of this community and whether you will break some unspoken rule that all the insiders know.  It takes a lot of courage to set foot in a church community when you are the stranger. 

It takes a lot of courage to set foot in a church community when you are the stranger.  Some of you know this very well, because you have done it in the last few years, when you joined this church or another FOCUS Church, and we are richer for your presence with us. Some of you may have done it just today, and if we don’t recognize you as a newcomer, its because we think you’re a member of one of the other churches.  But I want to acknowledge how hard this is and how important it is for churches to love strangers. Can we offer a round of applause for newcomers who have had the courage to show up among us?

There’s Biblical precedent for being the stranger. Luke’s gospel records the time when Jesus sent seventy people out of their comfort zones into unknown, sometimes unfriendly, communities to seek welcome there, to be an active part of God’s unfolding love.   What Jesus modelled is this:  “They were not called to welcome the stranger; rather they were to be the stranger seeking welcome.” [1]

Did you get that? The early disciples were to be the strangers, the ones relying on the hospitality of others. We have lost that. Instead now we mostly try to be a friendly church, expecting strangers to come to us.  Becoming the stranger ourselves is not necessarily something we embrace, but maybe we should.

I was the stranger, outside my comfort zone, in need of welcome, when I went to Homestead in June. Homestead, Florida is the site of our largest child detention facility. In June, it held about 3000 teenagers who had been separated from their adults when they crossed the border. I went to bear witness.  I went as one seeking to welcome those strangers, but what I experienced was far more than that.

There are two main areas outside the child prison.  One is a gathering space with two awnings as shield from the weather. In this space, people hang out and talk with each other, or attempt to engage the employees, or hold up protest signs. 

The other area, 300 yards down the road, has stepladders where witnesses stand to see over the fence into the yard where the teens come outdoors. They wave and hold up hearts, never protest signs, in their own effort at philoxenia – sending love across the road and over the fence to those traumatized captive strangers.

On my first day, I took my spot on the stepladders.  For about an hour, it was just Mary[2] and me.  When there were no children outdoors, we talked.  Truthfully, Mary mostly talked and I mostly listened.  But then she got to the part about her Baptist relative who was completely opposed to what she was doing and pretty much everything she stands for.  I realized that I had already told her traveling companion that I was a Baptist pastor.  I figured she would hear it anyway and best to hear it from me. Now, you probably don’t know this, but Baptists as a group don’t always have the best reputation. (Before you laugh too hard, I’ll remind you that Christians as a group don’t either.) 

When I said I was a Baptist pastor, I thought she might fall off the stepladder.  She pretty much thought she knew all there was to know about Baptists and little of it was good. Plus the words “Baptist” and “woman pastor” just did not belong together in her universe. But you know what --  she held back her preconceptions and she asked thoughtful, loving questions and allowed herself to accept me for who I was.  By the end, she shook my hand and thanked me for being “real clergy” and “an authentic follower of Jesus.”  I told her I just keep trying to show up.

The second day, I met Becky.  Becky, was a former journalist who recorded mini-interviews with various people on site on her phone.  Late in the day, on camera she asked me how I came to be there and how it related to my work as a pastor.  When she turned off the camera,  she said, "off the record, would you answer another question?"  She said she grew up in Mississippi and she had heard me say earlier that I was a Baptist pastor, and she was having a really hard time believing that could be true.  So, I tried to give her Baptist history and polity in 100 words or less, assuming that I would bore her to death.  But then she  asked if I would say all that again on camera, because otherwise her friends would never believe her. 

Two days in a row. My only two days there so far.  I might have felt like a true Oddball Baptist, a real outsider, but instead I was invited to be myself.  With love and openness, Mary and Becky set aside their own negative experiences with members of my tribe and welcomed me as an individual.

At the end of that second day, one more thing happened. I had met Susan,  but just briefly.  I was heading for car to go home for the night, when Susan asked if she could have a private word with me. We took several steps away from the rest of the group and she hesitantly asked if I would say a prayer for her.  She said that she had only recently become "open to the Holy Spirit" and since she had heard I was a pastor, was it ok for her to ask and would I pray?  So of course I  did, and what a privilege that was!  I do know that when I pray for someone, it’s supposed to be about them, not about me.  But when I thought about this later, I realized that I had been welcomed to the point that my vocational gifts were also sought after by the community.  Loving the stranger also means inviting and accepting what they have to contribute. 

There are a lot of ways to greet people.  We might say “Hello.”  Or “Good Morning” or “How are you?”  In South Africa,  a standard greeting goes like this:

The first person says “I see you.” 

The second person responds, “I am here.” 

“I see you.”  “I am here.”  Isn’t that just lovely?  When we show up as a stranger, isn’t that what we want – to be seen, to be recognized as ourselves.  And to respond “I am here.”  I am fully present, with all my strengths and weaknesses, bringing my whole self into this place. 

“I see you.”  “I am here.” 

There are always strangers arriving at Homestead, some from the next town, some from across the country, and they are always received with love.  The local witnesses are prepared – they provide cold water and sunscreen and a lawn chair and or a stepladder. They patiently answer the same questions they have answered a hundred times. 

On the 123rd day of the witnesses being present at Homestead, something remarkable happened. About 30 teenagers showed up on a mission trip.  Every single stepladder and a few milkcrates were pressed into service, but still not everyone could see over the fence.

So they climbed up onto plastic barricades that stand in front of an unused parking lot.   The teens on the outside of the fence held up hearts and posters and waved to those inside the fence.  They yelled what the witness usually yell.  In English and in Spanish, they said “We see you.  We love you.”  They wanted to do more. 

One of the chaperones brought their van to the stepladder area and blasted the car radio. Soon youth on both sides of the fence were dancing.  Then some got the idea of climbing on top of the van to dance there.  (These were Presbyterian youth.  Go figure.)

And then this happened. [3]

They are yelling, “No estan solos”  “You are not alone.”

Right after this, it started to rain.  The teens on the inside of the fence knew that they would be moved indoors.  So they rushed to get as close to the fence as they could and they yelled and waved back to the teens on the outside. They were ecstatic at the engagement with people their own age.  The skies opened up and it poured, but the youth group stayed at their posts until everyone else went inside. Then youth moved on to their next appointment, but the local witnesses continued to talk about that morning. 

The story was told and retold to every person who arrived for the rest of the day.  Marty, the very first Homestead witness who spends hours there every week, said, “I now know to a certainty that the daily love and encouragement that we shower on our precious children inside the fence has a positive effect. Those kids came all the way from Colorado just to send love to other kids.” Charley is a young woman who left her job to be at Homestead every day.  Charley said, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever witnessed here.”

The local witnesses had been loving strangers on multiple levels for months.  Some were probably tired of newcomer’s questions.  Some were weary and discouraged, verging on burn-out. But they provided hospitality anyway.  I cannot tell you what a morale boost the presence of those Presbyterian teenagers was for them. It was almost as if they had entertained angels.

Sisters and brothers, let us keep loving each other and don’t forget to love strangers too.  Amen. 


[1] Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, (Cleveland:  The Pilgrim Press, 2016), p. 18

[2] Some names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

[3] (At this point, we played a short video clip. It showed a line of teens and sponsors, standing on the plastic barricades and on the roof of the van, repeating one in line in unison, over and over.)