Congregational Hospitality: God’s Welcome

August 3, 2014 (Ordinary 18)

Genesis 18:1-16
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Matthew 14:13-21

 

18: 1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. (Genesis 18:1-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Did you notice in the midst of the story of Abraham and Sarah receiving news that they will have a child that something else was going on?  It is often overlooked. Abraham and Sarah may be the first example of offering hospitality in the bible. Standing at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day he sees 3 strangers walking toward him and he and Sarah offer them hospitality.

 

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, hospitality to strangers is never a random act.  Ever since we human beings became wanderers, we have had to rely on the goodness of others for survival.  We have had to learn to be both guests and hosts to one another providing for and receiving from others the necessities for life.

 

Throughout the Bible, story after story teaches this practice. Beginning with Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden we have been a wandering people. Then Abraham and Sarah, then their descendants, then the Israelites who moved from being slaves in Egypt to their long years of wandering in the wilderness. The biblical story is one of a journey and in this journey the people of God had to rely on the hospitality of each other for survival.

 

The New Testament is much the same as Jesus and his followers were dependent on the hospitality of others for survival.  Story after story as the disciples traveled they were welcomed and nourished by the goodness of others. But perhaps the most important act of hospitality took place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal when he was gathered in the upper room with his disciples and he invited them to share in his body broken and his blood shed.  The ultimate act of hospitality Jesus gave of himself so that we might have life.  So, we, like the disciples, are still invited to receive the hospitality of Christ.  But times have changed.

 

Hospitality is no longer a necessity in our world.  We seem to believe that we can live on our own and get by on our own strengths and abilities.   So much so that this biblical sense of hospitality is lost on us and it has been replaced by a whole industry that makes money and lots of it off of offering hospitality to those with the means to afford it.  This became clear as I began putting together this sermon series: our common conceptions of hospitality are something very different than what the Bible describes as hospitality.

 

There are so many different images of what we call hospitality.  There is a whole cottage industry built around our concept of Hospitality from popular magazines devoted to home and garden, food and drink, and even television networks like HGTV and the cooking channel that pump up or sense of hospitality.   They display homes that are beautifully decorated, with everything tastefully chosen and perfectly in place.  The tables are stunningly set, the cuisine exquisite, and the wine a perfect complement to the meal.  The gardens are lush and colorful. These are the images that fuel our current definition of Hospitality.  Our definition of hospitality been taken over by fine food and furnishings that it is impossible to live up to such high standards. No longer can a simple meal, on a plain table, served with loving hands, and a genuine heart, be a true representation of genuine hospitality.  Hospitality has become so over the top.  It must surely have some deeper dimensions than what we see on the front cover of Southern Living Magazine or I guess I should say Mid-West Living or when we are welcomed at Wal-Mart by the greeter.

 

So, I would like to go back to our scripture lesson for today as Abraham and Sarah welcome these three strangers and offer them Hospitality.  It will set the foundation for what I see as a biblical definition of hospitality.  My working definition of biblical Hospitality: is a life of openness to the presence of God and, unconditional openness to every human life.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God pervades the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  To be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human life.

 

Most of all of the stories of biblical hospitality take place in ordinary places with ordinary people.  Abraham is at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Lot is sitting by the city gate in the cool of the evening when two strangers arrive.  Gideon is at work in his wheat fields when a man sits down under a nearby oak tree.  The mother of Samson is sitting in the field when an angelic man approaches her with a message.  These stories begin in ordinary places, but end with extraordinary messages that ordinary people need to hear from God who enters into these ordinary scenes.  What the biblical sense of hospitality insists is that God may come to us at any moment in our lives.

  • Who knows when you may come upon someone who is bearing a message from God for your life or mine?
  • Who knows what experience may be a revelation of God in my life. All of this, sounds wonderful, such pious sermon speak and spiritual terminology, but how do we do it?
  • If we are to treat every person we come in contact with as if they are God in disguise, isn’t that going to be exhausting?

 

So what does this mean for the church the gathered community of faith? Does this mean that every person who walks through the doors and into the sanctuary is God in disguise? I sure hope not.  What are we to do with the undeniable truth that every church is made up of all kinds of people, some of who are impossible, others are just plain odd, or weird, others are pure phonies, and many of them you don’t really want to be friends with? Do you? How are we supposed to be hospitable to people like that?

 

I recently read the words of C.S. Lewis, written in 1942, from his essay entitled, The Weight of Glory, in which he talks about how we should live our lives with this Biblical understanding of Hospitality in mind.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may be a messenger of God…It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the alertness…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our play must be of that kind which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption…Next to the (Blessed Sacrament) Holy Communion itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

 

There are no ordinary people. Because of God’s love in Jesus Christ this is true.  Every life has extraordinary possibilities because of the presence of Christ in our world.  True hospitality, unconditional openness to every human life is based upon that truth and, once we accept that truth, the world will become full of opportunities where we can encounter the divine in each other.  At any moment, something wonderful may happen.  Carry that truth with you into the week ahead.  Let the truth of God’s welcome transform your life, your home, your friendships, your work, our church, and our world.

 

We are a month away from kicking off another church year, September 7, with Rally Day it is a wonderful opportunity to invite someone to church and practice our hospitality. I remember you just never know who you might be welcoming.

 

Let us pray: Life-giving God, heal our lives that we may welcome your wonderful deeds and offer hospitality to those we meet. We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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