“Welcoming the Stranger,” Genesis 18:1-10a and Matthew 25:31-46, July 18, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

Imagine this, it is hot, uncomfortably hot, a day where you could probably fry an egg on the sidewalk if you try. It’s noon, the hottest part of the day. Your house doesn’t have air conditioning, so you are sitting out on the porch in front of your house, trying to at least catch a breeze or two. You are frustrated, because you and your wife are having trouble conceiving and you’re worried that you may never have children with whom to share your life, love, and legacy. You sit, unsure of the future. You see three men walking by your house. They look tired and you know that they could probably use some food and shade. What do you do? Do you invite them to sit on your porch? Do you offer them something to drink or to eat? Getting up and going in your house would take you from your somewhat comfortable porch and if you shared some food you may have to go out to the grocery store later. Is it really worth it to go out of your way to help them? Someone else will offer them something, right?

Imagine this, it’s Sunday morning. You’ve had a tough week. You got in an argument with a friend, you weren’t able to be at your kid’s swim team meet because you had to work, you forgot an appointment and had to reschedule for next month. Your parents don’t understand you. Your kids don’t understand you. You come to church, sit down at your regular table and talk to your close friends. You are relaxed, comfortable. Then, you see three people walk into the Hall. You’ve never seen them before; realize they’re probably visitors, and they look a little unsure of what to do or where to sit. What do you do? Do you invite them to sit at your table? Do you point them to the donuts and coffee? Getting up and greeting them would take you away from your comfortable conversation and inviting them to join you would change the conversation. You might not be so comfortable anymore, and really, you’ve had a tough week and just want to be comfortable. Someone else will welcome them, right?

In our scripture today, we hear of Abraham’s reaction to such a situation. It was the heat of the day. Abraham had plenty going on in his own life for which he needed comfort. He and his wife, Sarah, were worried that they would never have children. In the chapter before this we read of the Lord appearing before Abraham and making a covenant with him that he will make him the “ancestor of a multitude of nations,” but Abraham is 99 years old. As much as he would like to have confidence in God’s promises, he’s still not entirely sure how God will make this covenant happen. In our cultural context, we could completely understand Abraham letting these three men pass by, but that is not what he did.

Abraham bows before them, offers himself as a servant to their needs, and humbly offers “a little water,” and “a little bread.” Then Abraham runs into the house and does not just grab yesterday’s bread and a little bit of water. No, instead, with the help of Sarah and their servants he prepares a quick feast of cakes, calf meat, curds and milk.

Now it does turn out that among these men is the Lord, but Abraham doesn’t know that. Abraham can’t see the halos and the wings that so many artists have given them in their depictions of this event. Abraham is not being hospitable to them because he knows that they’re about to tell him his wife will have a child. He is simply being hospitable, because that is what he knows.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed an emphasis on this kind of overwhelming hospitality, likely because God reminds us throughout scripture that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers.

We have all, at some point or another, been a stranger. Try to remember the last time you were a stranger. Perhaps it was your first day of school, your first day of work, moving into a new neighborhood, going to a new grocery store, joining a new sports team, or perhaps coming here this morning. How did you feel? Were you welcomed? Were you comfortable? Were you able to get to a point where you no longer felt like a stranger?

Hospitality can look like Abraham’s bending over backwards approach, but it can also look like simply welcoming people into our own experience, helping them transition from being the other to being in community. This type of hospitality looks a little messier, because here not everything is behind the scenes as it is in Abraham’s account and as it in another quite famous story of biblical hospitality, the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Follow along with me on the screens: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”[1]

In this passage, Martha, like Abraham, goes out of her way to meet the needs of the Lord, and is admonished for it. This passage can be confusing, and I know it would be even more confusing for people in Martha and Mary’s time and culture. The cultural expectation was for people to entertain their guests, going to all lengths to make sure that their guests were comfortable. But Jesus says that He does not want her to be “worried and distracted” by her efforts of making sure all of his needs are met, but rather to simply be present as her sister, Mary is. We are asked to leave our busy kitchens, or attempts to make everything perfect and enter into a kind of vulnerability, letting go the non-essential acts of welcoming a guest, in order to be hospitable in a more real and direct way.

In the book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren F. Winner, a Christian converted from Judaism, speaks of the practice of hospitality throughout Jewish and Christian history, as well as how we may live it out now. She writes, “To be a hostess, I’m going to have to surrender my notions of Good Housekeeping domestic perfection. I will have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven’t dusted. This is tough: My mother set a high standard. Her house is always immaculate, most especially if she’s expecting company. But if I wait for immaculate, I will never have a guest.” She continues, writing, “The reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests that…we are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining into hospitality.”[2]

This fall, on October 10th, the God Connection team will challenge you to put your hospitality into action by inviting at least one guest to worship and fellowship with us that day in a celebration of Christian hospitality we will be calling “Be Our Guest Sunday.” As we enter into this day of hospitality, we are to keep in mind the words of Lauren Winner and Jesus’ admonishment of Martha, welcoming our guests not as outsiders and strangers who we are attempting to impress by putting on a show of what we think the perfect church should look like, but rather by welcoming people into our community as it is. Because of this we will have, more or less, a regular Sunday, with two worship services and fellowship in between. Worship is a strength of this community, as is our sense of family in our fellowship, and as a church we will be inviting and welcoming others into the community as it is, without much external change, but hopefully with an intentionality in how we open ourselves to others and how we show grace to one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off change that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.[3]

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes, “reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”[4] By showing reverence toward the other, we show reverence to God.

As we read in our scripture today, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The listeners in our passage are confused, asking “when did we do any of those things?” But Jesus, responds ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

There are plenty of opportunities to be hospitable to others in our everyday life. We can let others in front of us in the grocery store line. We can hold the door open as someone enters a building with us. In the life of a church we can show hospitality by inviting people to worship, and particularly the Be Our Guest Sunday in October. We can invite our neighbors’ and coworkers’ children to attend Vacation Bible School and we can welcome others who attend Vacation Bible School throughout this week. When God appears in your life this week as a stranger, will God be welcome?

Amen.


[1] Luke 10:28-42

[2] Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, p. 50-51

[3] The Hermit’s Gift, Adapted from M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 21

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