Angels, Dorm Rooms, & Hospitality
Hebrews 13: 1-8. 15-16
God has a long, strange history of showing up in disguise.
Abraham was minding his own business in the shade of some oak trees one hot day when three strange men approached. He offered his wife’s cooking and a place to rest from their travel and found out later that he hadn’t just been “entertaining angels” but had offered hospitality to God (quote, Hebrews 13:2; story, Genesis 18).
Jacob was out alone at night in the desert, preparing himself for his big (and possibly violent) reunion with his brother Esau. Years earlier Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright and run off someplace else to start life and accumulate wives, children, livestock, and servants. Then, as he was preparing to show his face back home again, God shows up in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night and challenges him to an all-night wrestling match, only letting Jacob go at the crack of dawn with an injured hip and a brand new name (Genesis 32).
Then there is the most, or maybe the least, obvious. God in the form of a defenseless, hungry, cold, newborn baby, born to a poor, unwed teenage mother. Born in a stable amidst the animals with only a star out to light the cold, dark night.
We worship a God with a strange sense of humor, don’t we? From these family stories of ours, how can we possibly know what to expect next?
The grown up Jesus himself gives us a big clue, telling us to look for him in the naked, the hungry, the poor, and the prisoners. And he says that not looking there means we’ll miss the opportunity of a lifetime. One Christian who picked up on that clue, Mother Teresa, said about her work with the poor and outcast in Calcutta, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”
Last week the New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, wrote an article directed at new college students (“Don’t Send In the Clones,” The New York Times, August 10, 2010). She wrote that she had seen news reports that students are using online roommate matching programs to ensure good, compatible living situations. Maybe some of you have done this or heard of it but it was news to me.
According to Dowd, college students are trying to “avoid getting paired with strangers or peers with different political views, study habits and messiness quotients” and says the weeding out questions include things like “How often do you shower? How neat are you? How outgoing are you? What’s your study/party balance? Is it OK for your roommate to use your belongings?” I can see how some of these are questions you’d be dying to ask a new roommate but, interestingly, Maureen Dowd claims that living with weird and snarly roommates prepared her for the working world: “Choosing roommates who are mirror images may fit our narcissistic and microtargeted society, but it retards creativity and social growth. This reluctance to mix it up also has been reflected in the lack of full-throated political and cultural debates on campuses (as opposed to ersatz debates on cable TV), replaced by a quiet PC acceptance of differing views or an obnoxious stereotyping of anyone different.”
Before your mind starts to reel, if you or someone you know has used one of the matching services it’s OK. I am not saying that this is why the world is going to hell in a hand basket. (I’m not even saying that’s where we are going.) But the cool thing about loving, knowing, and worshipping a God who enjoys showing up in disguise when we least expect it is that nothing is off limits. This means that all of life – the good, the bad, the stuff we love, and the stuff we can’t even understand – all of it is “material” for observing our own faith and actions and for hoping to know, love, and worship God more fully.
In the case of the roommate matching services, I completely get how awkward and never-ending it seems when you are really ill-suited to someone you have to live with for the whole year. I am truly amazed every single year at how you all make it through! But I have to wonder about our attempts to sanitize and normalize and downsize our expectations and the parameters of our daily lives. If we live with someone who shares every interest and never gets on our nerves and we take classes with only the students in our own narrow discipline and in our extra-curricular activities we only speak with the Republicans or the Democrats and have no real interest in what the other side thinks or feels or believes – and insist on seeing each other only as demonstrations of a “side” rather than as people through who God can visit even us…..If these are the parameters we try to erect around our daily living, then when will we – here at UVA – meet the naked person, the hungry woman, the man in prison? Where is there room for the wiley God-in-disguise to elbow into our small, homogenous world?
Unfortunately, the church has a hard time with this same tendency. The United Methodist Church has an inspiring slogan we’ve been using for a few years now: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” But saying this and living up to and out of this are two different things, aren’t they?
My husband, Woody, came with me once when I preached in another church. We were both visitors that day but I had the benefit of a specific seat up front next to the pulpit. Once we got there Woody was left to fend for himself in the pews and on the way home we were sharing our experiences of the morning. He told me that he chose a pew and sat down and began looking through the bulletin and, after he’d been there a while, an older woman was escorted in by a friend. They stopped in the aisle, right at Woody’s pew, and the friend asked what the older woman needed. She said, plainly and loudly, “I want to sit here,” motioning to exactly where Woody was sitting.
Well, because he has a great temperament and he’s traveled with me to several churches before, Woody sized up the situation, realizing he was sitting in “her” pew, and offered to move. It wasn’t a big deal to him. We were only there that day, visitors, because I was preaching. But discussing it on the way home we wondered how a real visitor would have felt in that interaction. These women didn’t actually know that he wasn’t a “real” visitor – he had not introduced himself as the preacher’s husband. For someone new in town and looking for a family of faith or for someone at the end of her rope and desperate to meet God in worship that day or for a family with small children already distracted by trying to wrangle them into the pew – for a real visitor looking for God and for people who know God, how would that interaction feel?
Is there room for something or someone out of the ordinary? Or have we chosen our pew (or our roommate, our politics, our hobby) so that when a stranger shows up and God may be challenging us to entertain an angel, we are distracted and upset because we’re in the wrong pew and this isn’t how we planned for it?
Whether this is your first semester or almost your last, expect to see God in disguise around here. In roommates and housemates and friends and the less than friendly. In professors and pewmates. At Methodists with Muscles and over pancakes with the Muslim Student Association. Expect to see the shining face of God where a minute or a month ago you saw only a stranger. Give up on setting parameters to try and “catch” or “tame” these moments and be on the hopeful lookout for God in all of your overturned expectations and unexpected encounters.
This is not on any syllabus you’re getting at UVA but believe me when I say that God is everywhere you look and just waiting for you to notice. Here at Wesley we know a God who has a funny sense of humor and an endless array of disguises. We call this a place to be and become, to remind ourselves that there is room for everyone and there is room to become more of who we each are created to be. We know the church is not a place for the people who have it all figured out already. We know God goes with us and before us and that God has probably sent some angels right into this room tonight. It’s great to meet you!
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis