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“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.” ~Hebrews 13:1-2
The above quote isn’t strictly a Christmas text, but it should be. We need to be careful not to tame it, imagining it painted on a tea cozy in a nice cursive hand, but see it for what it is: a call to radical welcome, and risky service. After all, the author of Hebrews goes on to say: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Tough words, when what it means is to pray for violent offenders.
But I didn’t mean to go there. It is Advent, after all, that sweet and spicy time of the year. It’s a time when a lot of us are doing extra entertaining, and being entertained. But what would it mean to make strangers, in addition to loved ones, the beneficiaries of our hospitality? What would it mean to entertain an angel?
The Christmas texts are rife with angels: from the angel of the Lord’s visit to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, on through the heavenly host singing the Messiah over the shepherd’s fields. In almost every instance, the first thing they say to those they visit is “Be not afraid!” What kind of message is this?
We have so stripped angels of any kind of awe-ful presence, so domesticated them with our tchotchkes that we can’t imagine being afraid of one. But who and what are angels actually? What are they for?
Angelos means messenger. Angels are the FedEx workers of God: there to deliver urgent letters and instructions, some welcome, some unwelcome. They also arrive, on occasion, to help or heal, hence the mythos of the guardian angel. They always come unannounced, and do nobody’s bidding but God’s. But Angels are not always safe—don’t forget that Satan was once and is forever an angel. They are strange, and they are strangers.
In New England, strangers ignore each other in public—it’s the polite thing to do. But I’ve seen this: when that rarity, a natural extrovert (usually a Buffalonian) shows up and starts acting all friendly, we’re grateful for a chance to drop the façade, to get to know one another, to bridge the gulf of loneliness and difference and feel that there may be something to this “body of Christ,” “one human family” thing after all.
One thing the angels and the newborn Jesus have in common is this: anyone might be a divine messenger, or Godself, disguised in ordinary flesh, walking around on this planet. That is what “incarnation” means.
During this holy time of Advent, why not try to redefine the normal magazine definition of “holiday hospitality.” Forget about the cute place markers and perfect bottle of wine to accompany the perfect spread of Hors D’oeuvres. Instead try making a connection with a stranger (yes, a stranger!). Say hello on the train. Invite the neighbor you say nothing more than “hi” to for dinner? Talk to the mom who always waits quietly to pick up her child from school. Sit next to someone you don’t know at the senior center. Speaking with stranger is about really believing that YOU are worthy of visitation from an angel—that Someone has a message for you.
I was twenty when I started preaching. I had no congregation, had never studied Greek or Hebrew, and had never heard of the phrase biblical exegesis. I began preaching on the long solitary car rides home from visiting my college boyfriend. He was in law school, I in undergraduate, and I was in love with the limitless possibility of the future. My preaching was impassioned. My sermons were manifestos. I believe, even now looking back sixteen years later, the Holy Spirit was very much present.
I have no idea why I started preaching this way, nor do I remember the first time I “car preached.” Even more amusing: I don’t ever remember thinking it was odd. In fact (I am embarrassed to admit this), I thought about placing a tape recorder in my car so I could preserve my sermons. With a bit of bemusement, I wonder all these years later, “Why did I car preach?”
I know the story that surrounds those car sermons. At twenty, I had discerned that I did not only intend to pursue a Masters in Divinity, but also ordination. Neither my decision to enter the ministry, nor my early desire to preach, were connected to a powerful moment of call. Instead, I had an intimation of the transformative power of preaching.
My boyfriend and I broke up; I found someone much more suited to my idea of life-long partnership. I never, however, stopped preaching. What began during those car rides has become a love affair. Other than three brief maternity leaves and a four month hiatus from ministry as I searched for a new call, I have preached almost every Sunday since I was 25. I think I was born to preach the way my artist mother was born to paint.
My preaching has evolved dramatically since my early impassioned car sermons. As a twenty-two year old seminarian, I was often dismissed by my peers, and even by faculty, as a real candidate for preaching. I should consider associate ministry, youth ministry, or children and family ministry. I was too cute, too young, and of course, I was born with a vagina. After preaching my first ever sermon to a congregation, one woman commented as she shook my hand in the receiving line, “You are so beautiful I couldn’t pay attention to anything you said.” She meant it as a compliment, but I was bewildered. Perhaps if I quit wearing mascara, I could preach the gospel? The next time I preached, I got more serious. I wore a plain blue suit, tucked my hair back, and preached (and I mean preached) the knock you in the gut Gospel. Ironically the only African-American couple in the congregation found me at the end of service to tell me that they had never heard such powerful preaching in that particular church and commended a preacher in the city they thought I should hear. The next day at the church’s staff meeting I was given just one comment: “Your voice is too high.” I went home and wept.
I worked harder. I followed the rules. I mastered researching the social and historical context of any given text and became an expert at using the computer program BibleWorks. I analyzed the original Greek and Hebrew in my sermons. I graduated from seminary and received a call as the solo pastor of a church poised to grow. I worked diligently at my sermons, crafting each word. Every Saturday night I went to the church, laid my notes before me on the pulpit, and preached to the empty pews. For an hour I would mark out phrases, add pauses, change words.
I wish I could say with conviction I worked so hard solely for the Gospel. If I am to be authentic, I think I worked so hard so that someone would take me seriously. I worked so hard to gain authority. My preaching was nothing like my first impassioned, genuine proclamations. They were for others, for the wrong reasons. The Holy Spirit was not palpable.
Mary had no “authority” to bear Jesus. She was a young, poor, uneducated woman who maybe even had a high voice. Mary didn’t own a blue suit or computer with Bible Works. Yet she became the Mother of the Word. Her authority rested solely in the Holy Spirit and her willingness to answer the Holy Spirit’s call.
Recently I have become the pastor of Grace Community Boston, an emergent Christian community. I have no experience with start up churches, no special training; my authority rests solely in the community’s call. Similarly, the community has no denominational affiliation. Our collective “authority” as those who call themselves a church rests solely in the Holy Spirit’s calling us on a new pilgrimage.
What has happened to my preaching in these past two years is profound. I no longer look to BibleWorks. I rarely read commentaries. I do not write down my sermons or even approach Sunday with any notes in hand. My robe and my blue suit are collecting dust in my closet. Instead, on Sunday evenings, I stand up before my community, clad in blue jeans, my hair in a pony tail, and in a woman’s voice I unabashedly proclaim the Gospel I received from the Holy Spirit. I have never preached better in my life. At last, my sermons pour from the very core of my being in the same way my early car sermons did.
I am well aware that I am the product of an excellent formal education and have been blessed by years of biblical scholarship. I have not, and will not, ever throw out files upon files of my written sermons. And I am uncertain if in ten years, my preaching style will be the same. Perhaps I will return to notes or even the latest version of BibleWorks. Also, there are inherent dangers to the way I preach: if my prayer life is pushed aside, my preaching can become more about me, than the gospel. I risk incredible vulnerability.
Yet I continue. I am now acutely aware that my authority does not rest in my education, carefully chosen clothes, voice pitch, personal journey, or theological precision. No—my authority rests in the Holy Spirit who inexplicably called a twenty year old girl-woman to preach.
I am no Mary. If the Holy Spirit called me to bear Jesus, I would have turned the angel Gabriel down. But like Mary, I was called to bear the word, and like Mary, my authority rests in the Holy Spirit. Finally, at age 36, I have embraced my call with the same Spirit I did when I was 20.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.