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Sermon for Matins: Hospitality

Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian

Sunday, 9th July 2006

On the night of October 22, 1707 the fleet of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was shipwrecked on the Isles of Scilly. In a great storm, through a simple navigational error, four of his five ships foundered on the rocks and some two thousand lives were lost. Bodies continued to wash onto the shores of the small collection of isles for days afterward, along with smashed wreckage from some of the finest warships afloat. Legend has it that only two men reached land safely, one of them being the Admiral himself - but when he reached the shore, he was beaten to death by a woman who wanted to steal his emerald ring. We don't know. Shovell's body was brought to Westminster Abbey and you can see his memorial by the South Cloister door.. Incidentally, it was this tragedy that led to the setting up of the prize for anyone who could come up with a means of accurately determining longitude at sea - the prize won by John Harrison, who is commemorated in the nave, but that is another story.

Shipwreck was an ever-present danger for sailors when they did not have accurate charts and could not determine their position accurately. The inhabitants of islands like the Scillies and like Malta were quite used to ships being dashed ashore on their dangerous rocks. On the Scillies there were 'wreckers' who would entice ships onto the rocks, so they could plunder the contents. What we heard about in our first lesson was a very different reception for Paul and those on the boat with him. Last week's reading told us how the boat hit the rocks, and how the passengers and crew made their escape, swimming or clinging to bits of wreckage, so that none of their lives were lost. This week's reading tells how they were received by the people of the island with hospitality. The word used for the islanders is the word 'barbarians' - rather as we might use the word savages', but what they showed was a virtue respected in all the major religions, the virtue of hospitality.

When the survivors were cold and drenched the barbarians showed pity on them. People who are soaked do not have access to fire, but the locals brought fire, and built up the fire so the survivors could dry off and get warm. At first they didn't know what to make of these people who had been cast up on their shore, especially of Paul, who seemed to be their leader. When a snake attaches itself to his hand, they say he must be a bad man who is now about to receive his just deserts; when Paul shakes the snake off his hand into the fire and is unharmed they say he must be a god. The locals probably knew nothing at all about the people who had been washed up on their beach - whether they would bring them good or ill - but their hospitable welcome is recorded for all time. To these people who had lost everything they showed simple human kindness and generosity.

As did the leading local landowner, a man with a Roman name, Publius. Whether his hospitality was just for just Paul and his companions or more of the ship's company isn't clear. The story tells us that in so doing he brought blessing on his house, because Paul cured his father of an illness, and then word got around so that other sick people came to Paul and were cured. In this way the inhabitants of Malta, who showed kindness to Paul, brought blessing upon themselves. The way Luke tells the story is as a deliberate echo of the ministry of Jesus (cf. Luke 4:41-2). Without knowing it, through their hospitality, the inhabitants of Malta have been visited by Jesus.

The Christians at Rome have more reason to be hospitable to Paul and his party when they arrive, and so they are. Here they are invited to stay for seven days. It is natural to them to welcome a brother in Christ and Paul, we are told, was 'encouraged' by the welcome he received.

The situation that lies behind the first lesson that we heard is rather different. The whole book of Deuteronomy, from which this is taken, is one long sermon telling the Israelites how to behave in the land which has been promised to them by God, the land of God's blessing, the land flowing with milk and honey. They have a clear choice: either they can follow God's way and prosper way there or they can follow their own way and take the consequences.

God's way is set out in the reading we heard. It is to be hospitable to others, remembering that God has been hospitable to them in giving them the land. They are to make space in their society for the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. If, because a poor person has nothing else to give as security for a loan, they give their blanket, this is to be given back at night time so they have something warm to sleep in. Poor people are to receive their wages daily so they do not starve. People are to be punished for their own wrongdoing not for the wrongdoing of their parents or children - something which has a contemporary ring, given what is happening at the moment in Gaza. When a field of grain, or an olive grove, or a vineyard is harvested, something is always to be left for the poor. There is to be nothing grudging about this care for those who have little or nothing. Twice, even within the passage we heard, we are reminded why this is. The text does not say, 'Your ancestors were slaves in Egypt'. It says, 'You were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.' This is what it means to belong to a people: the experiences of the past become the experiences of the present, with the power to change attitudes and actions. As far as the Israelites were concerned, this inclusive hospitality for the poor, the needy, for widows and orphans, and this humanity towards strangers, was not an option. It was a command from God, a command which Christians have also taken to be a command for us.

The earliest Jewish Christians were told, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 'Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.' It's an allusion to the time when Abraham entertained three strangers who turned out to be angels (messengers) from God. Abraham was showing the hospitality that is cultivated as a virtue amongst people who know who they need food and drink and protection when they travel, and how reliant they may be on the generosity of others to meet these basic human needs. For the Israelites, there was a specially good reason to be generous to others: because God had been generous to them when they were slaves and exiles. For the inhabitants of Malta - those barbarians - we do not know and it does not matter why they showed kindness and generosity, but, like Abraham, they found that their kindness was repaid through the kindness of God. There is a delightful mutuality about hospitality. At times in our lives we find ourselves in deep need of such hospitality - one has only to think of our complete dependence on a mother's love and provision as we enter this world. At other times we are in a position to give such hospitality, and at those times we must remember how much we have received.

The word hospitality has a Latin root. In Latin a hospes can be either a host or a guest. The same is true of the French word hôte. You have to look at the context to see whether the emphasis is on the giving or the receiving. In our first reading it was make clear that the inhabitants of Malta gave generously and received generously; in the second it we saw that because they inhabitants of the Promised Land had received generously they were to give generously. In all the major religions of the world hospitality is a key virtue. To be hospitable we have to be filled with gratitude to God for his generosity to us; then we can surely welcome others with the same spirit of generosity that we have experienced. Sometimes it works the other way round, perhaps as with the inhabitants of Malta. Either way, we are talking about the one generous spirit of hospitality and that is the Spirit of God.

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