Harrowing Of Hell
July 2, 2023

Iconic Hospitality

The Rev. Pam Tinsley

To watch the sermon click here.

This morning I pick up where Lex left off last Sunday with his sermon on the hard sayings of Jesus. Today, I’m inviting you to follow Jesus’ most difficult teachings. I’m asking you to pray for the IRS! Yes, to pray for those faceless bureaucrats whose job, it sometimes seems, is to take our last dime. The same people who audited my husband Dave when he was a grad student making less than $3200 a year!  

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had two telephone interactions with the IRS. The first one was regarding a non-profit that I’m the treasurer for. I needed help obtaining written confirmation of the organization’s name and address changes. I’d been trying to take care of this by mail for close to two years, when finally – in late April – a letter from the IRS was miraculously forwarded to me. After I filled out paperwork for the changes, I waited and waited. So, finally, with a bit of trepidation, I picked up the phone and called the person whose name was on the letter. Yes, to quote Glennon Doyle, I can do hard things! Within 20 minutes the changes were implemented by an incredibly helpful and gracious IRS representative. He ended our conversation with, “May God bless you.”

Yes, the IRS!

My second call was personal. The IRS had disallowed a portion of our 2022 tax refund. After our accountant hadn’t jumped on contacting the IRS on our behalf, I decided to save on our accountant’s fee and – perhaps bolstered by that recent experience – made the call to the IRS myself. Lo-and-behold, I ended up with another super helpful and gracious IRS rep who thanked me each time she had to put me on hold. She sorted everything out, corrected a filing error, and assured me that we’d see the refund in a reasonable timeframe. And, she thanked me yet again for my patience!

Neither IRS rep was intimidating! They were not uncaring bureaucrats! They were professionals who were able resolve these two problems for me. And throughout our conversations, they repeatedly thanked me.

What they probably saw as routine actions made a deep impression on me. They made me feel as though I’d received a cup of cold, refreshing water – just like the cup of cold water Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel.

As I was re-reading our lesson for today, I kept coming back to these two interactions. Then, I began to reflect on hospitality – hospitality in the Bible and also what hospitality means for us, today, both to give and to receive hospitality in our daily lives.

When you think of biblical references to hospitality, if you’re like me, the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three strangers – angels – might come to mind. You know, the angels who visit the elderly couple by the Oaks of Mamre and tell them that Sarah will conceive and bear a son. It’s one of my favorite Bible stories.

And, in fact, a print of Rublev’s icon, the Trinity, the Hospitality of Abraham, hangs on our dining room wall. It’s the stunning depiction of the three persons of the Trinity with angel’s wings, sitting at table with a cup upon it, the oak tree, Abraham’s house, and a mountain – Mt. Moriah – in the background. They are seated in such a way that the viewer – you and I – are invited into relationship, into communion, with the three at the Table.

The icon reminds me of God’s presence in our lives, that God is the ultimate host, the Holy One from whom all blessings flow, and that all of us are always welcome at this Table. The Trinity bears witness to God’s extravagant hospitality.

The icon also reminds me of the verse in the Letter to the Hebrews, to “not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.” And, although the guests in our house are far more likely to be family or friends, the icon encourages us to welcome all who enter our home. And, yes, I do believe that we have entertained angels!

As Jesus’ disciples, when we show hospitality, we welcome others to the presence of Jesus. We offer a glimpse of what the fullness of God’s Kingdom might look like.

The thing is – especially with my encounters with the IRS – hospitality doesn’t need to be elaborate to bear fruit. Even the hospitality shown by Abraham was straightforward. He was open to the presence of the strangers and welcomed them into his home. He didn’t need to run out to the store – or the equivalent in his day – to lay out a fine spread. And he and Sarah certainly didn’t have time to tidy up. No, they simply honored their guests with their presence and with what they had on hand.

So, when I began to think about how I practice hospitality, I realized that most of my opportunities are simply part of my daily or weekly routine.

Take, for example, our 4-year-old granddaughter Sienna. I’ve shared with you all how we host this spitfire every Thursday afternoon. When I pick Sienna up from preschool, I make sure that I put a handful of animal crackers – actually, bunny crackers – in the cupholders of her car seat. Dave has already set her place at the dining room table with her Winnie-the-Pooh plate, cup, and bowl. We have her favorite foods on hand: smoked salmon, blue cheese, and pita. She can choose which books she wants us to read with her from her special shelf, and “her” closet holds an array of toys from her Puppenvilla to Playdoh to the box of her dad’s childhood Matchbox cars. When we clear the coffee table for coloring – and Playdoh – our living room is transformed into a child’s playroom, and our guestroom with her buddies (Snoopy, Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet) becomes our story and nap room. Then, at the end of the day – and almost as easily and as quickly as a snap of Mary Poppins’s fingers – our home is restored to normal!

This is the simple cup of cold water we offer to Sienna each week, and any time she comes over – her special “Omi-G’Dad” time!

And next month, our welcome will be expanded to include her baby brother Briggs!

We also recently discovered how a home project could lead to unexpected hospitality. Over the past five years, we’ve been remodeling our house of 35 years: kitchen, bathrooms; solar panels.

One of our more arduous projects – seven grueling and disruptive months! – was driven by a desire to replace our earthquake-vulnerable chimney with a propane fireplace and included enlarging two front living room windows to provide more light. For a personal touch, we added a front porch. We envisioned relaxing with a cup of tea, a good book, Dave playing his mandolin, and our faithful basset hound lounging at our feet.

However, we experienced an unexpected “front-porch blessing.” Our porch and yard became a place for us to connect with our neighbors and to deepen relationships with one another, especially during the pandemic. And as Dave and I recognized this blessing, we embraced it as a ministry of hospitality. Our porch is the perfect spot to greet and to interact with people walking by. Last summer our next-door neighbors would come over with their little kids and a couple of beers and simply hang out. Then just this past Sunday, we had sat down with our dessert, when our neighbors from across the street invited us – hound and all – to see their new kitchen. An hour later, we returned home. In the meantime, we’d covered all sorts of topics, from what’s happening with our kids, with our neighborhood, and our respective faith lives.

The cup of water they gave us was a blessed time of mutual hospitality – with each of us giving and receiving from the other – because of a front porch!

Sure, adding the front porch was a big deal, but that it became a sign of welcome – and not merely for our enjoyment – was totally unexpected. It now feels as though the porch belongs to the neighborhood, not to us!

Or, think of our sign outside of Epiphany: We’re helping make our neighborhood feel like home.

And hospitality doesn’t rely solely on expecting others coming to us. My calls to the IRS are examples. I went to them, and they blessed me with welcome and hospitality. I received their hospitality and also reciprocated.

It was like the reciprocal hospitality expressed in Rublev’s Trinity icon.

As Jesus’ 21st-century disciples, we bear his presence to whomever we find ourselves with, whether it’s at home, at work, at the gym, in a restaurant, or even on a service call. And we do this through simple, everyday acts of kindness.

  • Because each simple, everyday act of kindness – of hospitality – embodies God’s love for our neighbor.
  • Each simple, everyday act of kindness – of hospitality – bears witness to the extravagant welcome of God’s kingdom.
  • Each simple, everyday act of kindness can grow and spread and lead to something greater – to more – when we offer it in Jesus’ name.
  • Each simple, routine act of kindness can begin to transform our broken world into a world more attuned to God’s will for us and more aligned with God’s Kingdom values.

So, when we practice hospitality – welcome – even in the simplest of ways; when we give a cup of cold water to someone, we are emulating Jesus himself – God incarnate – who compassionately welcomes all of us, all of humankind. It is as if we are being invited to take a seat at the Table with the Trinity.

Because we are!