In our parish hall, we have had a banner hanging on the wall with a quote from Hebrews 13:2:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
We have many strangers who wander through the doors of St. John's. Some are homeless. Some are seeking a spiritual home.
Some are the Governor of Florida.
It was a bit of a shock to everyone on Sunday to learn that the most divisive Governor in recent Florida history had decided that he would be attending the 9am Palm Sunday service. I had arrived at church early to set up the outdoor sound system in Eve's Garden for the Procession of the Palms. That's when I was told that we would have a "special guest". And I knew what that meant. Looking to the heavens, I repeated three times, "Thank you, God. I'm an 11:15er!!" My Christian charity was being put to the test... just as it would be for others at our downtown parish.
One thing most everyone in this city knows is that our Governor and state legislature are promising a budget that will cause enormous economic hardship to our community. They are talking of lay-offs of more than 600 state employees, increased health care costs and retirement contributions resulting in a take home pay cut to state workers who are among the lowest paid civil servants in this country. The economic forecast is an overall loss of at least $30 million dollars to the local economy. As you might imagine, this does not make the Governor a popular man... with the churched and unchurched alike. With so many in the St. John's congregation employed by the state, or serving the needs of state employees in the private sector, the idea of entertaining this particular angel was difficult to say the least.
One member, a person who works for a bureau slated to be closed under the Governor's budget, saw him and looked crestfallen.
"It's one thing to have to deal with him during the week, but not on Sunday. Not in 'my' house!" I gave her a hug and assured her it was OK. And then I made my jokes about changing the lines of the Passion Gospel to be "Hail, King of the Screw!" to get her laughing.
I did not stay for the 9am service, but I did see the discomfort. People refused to speak to the Governor. They huddled at one end of the parish hall as far away from him as they could get. I understand that no one from the nine o'clock congregation sat with him, his wife and their handlers. And there were those who, upon seeing the "special guest", walked away and found themselves going into the Presbyterian church a few blocks down the street.
All of these actions are understandable on a gut level. And it was an illustration of the alienation many in this city are feeling and our perception of the "special guest": a Governor of the quality of the other Governor depicted that morning in the Passion gospel named "Pontius Pilate".
It also is a moment for me, as one who had a visceral response of revulsion about the Governor's presence, to take pause and ponder the call to be Christian. I am expected to welcome the stranger in the same way my Jewish friends remembered in their seders last night: be charitable toward the stranger for we were once strangers in Egypt.
Even when I find the stranger to be a bastard?
How was my unwillingness to welcome the Governor even with a simple handshake and "Good morning" any different than those African Primates of the Anglican Communion who refuse to go to the Lord's Table with our female Presiding Bishop? When we are gathered as the Church, we are gathered as the Body of Christ. And the various members of the Body are not all alike, and they don't necessarily get along.
In welcoming strangers, we are not only possibly entertaining angels; we may encounter a few demons. And even demons, at one time, were angels.
This is a tough thing to remember. Knowing who is hurting, being aware of the callousness of those who are drafting these budget plans and their willingness to intentionally inflict harm on a city out of spite or jealousy makes it very hard to resist the tempter that wants to shun a Governor like this one. And yet, it really is inherent in the commandment to "love one another as I have loved you" that I must still love him.
Now, that's not to say, "Go ahead; allow yourself to be a doormat." But rather, we have to remember that the real retribution is in the hands of God and God, despite what we may think, has not been blind to all that's happening. That commandment tells us to love... because even someone like Governor Scott can be redeemed. To walk out of the church at the presence of the one who we don't like shows a lack of understanding that the love of Christ knows no boundaries. That's part of the tension in being a Christian, and definitely being an Episcopalian. Besides, walking away or avoiding means we have ended the conversation with the other before it could even begin.
Still, I readily admit that I made no effort to engage the Governor last Sunday. The wisdom I had in the moment said that I needed to stay back because I could not be civil. And I again thanked God that I normally attend the later morning service. Perhaps, having been made aware of my own lack of understanding Christ's love, I might behave differently with "special guests" in the future.