Monday, November 23, 2015

Kingly Expectations--a sermon for Christ the King 2015

Rev. Teri C Peterson
Kingly Expectations
Isaiah 5.1-7, 11.1-5
22 November 2015, Christ the King, NL 2-11, Harvest 2-6 (Characters of Faith: Justice & Awe)

Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
   but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
   and people of Judah,
judge between me
   and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
   that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
   why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
   what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
   and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
   and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
   it shall not be pruned or hoed,
   and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
   that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
   but saw bloodshed;
   but heard a cry!

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Here we are: the end of another liturgical year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year of telling the story of Christ, from waiting to birth to life and death and resurrection, to sending the Spirit to the church and sending the church into the world to be his body.

Though when we follow the Narrative Lectionary, it can feel like September is the start of a new year, because it’s when we start telling the story from Genesis—“in the beginning” all the way through the history of God’s people, the prophets and their calls to live according to God’s word, Jesus as the Word come to live with us, and the Spirit doing a new thing.

However we count the time, whether beginning with Advent the way it has for thousands of years, or in September the way it does in our schedule of weekly scripture readings, the point is the same: to help us be immersed in God’s story, to see how God has been at work so that we are better able to see how God is still at work now. It’s about organizing our lives on kingdom time, centered on God’s word, rather than all the other ways we could organize ourselves—by billable hours, chronological age, grade, salary schedules, or national holidays. All of those are secondary to our life lived on God’s time, which is why we follow a calendar that orients us to that different cycle.

We walk through these seasons, with symbols and colors that remind us and teach us, directing our attention always back to the source—the word of God, that was in the beginning and is now and ever shall be. And at the end of them all, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, is today: Christ the King Sunday.

As a liturgical holiday, it’s fairly new—it was added to the calendar as a way to cap the year in 1925. Part of the reason for its creation was concern in the church about the rising tide of nationalism, which was dividing people and loyalties, creating hostility and violence. As the world fractured into nations that each had to be the best, that meant citizens of those nations had to find ways to see themselves above others, and political leaders were pushing simultaneous bravado and fear-mongering to maintain their own power in this new world of national pride—whatever the cost.

Into that moment, the church spoke with a new feast day: Christ the King Sunday—a day when we are explicitly reminded where our loyalty as God’s people lies, a day when we affirm our allegiance to God’s kingdom above any earthly nation, and we remember that neither we nor our political leaders have any say in who else God brings in to that kingdom.

And this is the day when the lectionary gives us this text from Isaiah—a word from God, spoken through a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah during about the same years that Hosea, whom we heard last week, spoke in the northern kingdom. The northern kingdom was about to fall to the Assyrians, but the southern kingdom still had a hundred years to try to get it right. Isaiah speaks in God’s voice, a love song to a people for whom God has done everything—planted and pruned, nurtured and watered and tended. Every way that the people could be provided for, God did. Every way they could experience God’s care and love, God did. And still, in spite of their experience of God’s love and generosity and grace and care and compassion, they did not bear good fruit. God expected sweet grapes, but got rotten grapes instead. God expected them to do justice, and they spilled each others’ blood instead. God expected them to have right relationships with one another, and all that rose to God’s ears were cries of distress.

The people, God’s treasured possession, recipients of amazing grace, still acted as if they were their own ultimate authority. They sought their own gain, they used people for profit, they trampled the poor and ignored the orphan. And worst of all, they neglected hospitality. Where they should have been a refuge, a vineyard garden that provided for all who would come, instead they worked only for themselves. The blood of others did not matter to them. They basically invented the phrase “collateral damage”—seeing people as expendable as they built more prosperity for themselves. Their relationships were unequal, they regarded themselves above others, and maybe even above God, if they ever thought about God at all in relation to their lives outside the Temple. They had no sense of awe and wonder, no understanding of a right relationship with God…and once awe is lost, justice follows close behind, because without awe of God then we are prone to elevating ourselves, our desires and our rules. We become so attached to our own kingdoms, we can’t see God’s.

And God is fed up. Just like last week, when we heard God’s exasperation, here it is again: “what more should I have done for my vineyard? why did this happen? I expected so much…now let it be broken down, overgrown, and trampled.”

God’s sadness permeates every word. “I have given you everything…I love you…I provide…why then do you act as if we’ve never met? How can you take what I offer, but then not offer it to others? I showed my face, I whispered my voice, I poured out my heart…and you just looked after yourselves.”

It isn’t hard to look around our world and feel God’s heartbreak. The very earth is groaning, and the people are crying out in distress, and justice seems far off. Many are concerned about their own well-being, even at the expense of others. Blood soaks the earth, and nations protect themselves with bravado and fearmongering, and the voice of God whispers and thunders and cries and prays: if you love me, love your neighbor as yourself. We need Christ the King Sunday today more than ever, reminding us that our human-made nations are not the kingdom of God, and are not the way God sees or judges.

In the midst of the destruction the people brought on themselves, in the midst of the disappointment and pain of our King’s expectations running up against the reality of human sin….”a shoot is coming out of the stump – there is growth again where something was cut down. The well-tended vineyard failed to produce righteousness and justice, but this little shoot, in an unexpected place, will embody God’s vision. God doesn’t need the whole vineyard – this shoot of new growth will do.”[1] 

Our King doesn’t need fancy pomp and circumstance, Christ our King needs only a seed. New life is always possible. Even when it feels like the destruction is inevitable and there is no hope of justice, even when we are so mired in our own reality that we can’t even see God’s reality and we would rather not let our kingdoms go—even then, a shoot can grow from a dead stump, a hint of green in a dark world, a word can be made flesh.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

This is the One to whom we declare our allegiance, this is the One to whom we are loyal. He is the One who transcends our earthly borders and shows us a more excellent way—a way of faith, hope, and love. When all seemed lost, God worked with a tiny new vulnerable thing—a child, who would lead us all to true justice as he fled government violence, grew up poor, ate with sinners, gathered the outcast, called foreigners to follow him, died at the hands of the state, and turned the religious, political, and economic system upside down. Here is our King, loving, serving, and caring for the world with every breath. May we let our kingdoms go, so we can be faithful to his call.


[1] RevGalBlogPals Nov 17 2015, by Mary Austin

Thursday, November 19, 2015

hot and cold, new and old...

This year I have spent an inordinate amount of money on my house. In the past 12 months I have needed (due to breaking or danger): a new washer & dryer, a new water heater, a new furnace/air conditioner, and new floors. It's a little out of control.

Of course, now basically my entire house is new and beautiful. My floor is amazing and I still, 9 months after it was installed, walk in every day and sigh with happiness (and relief). My water heater is not leaking and is in no danger of flooding my downstairs neighbor. My washer actually runs a whole cycle without me having to advance it myself, and it has different temperatures of water, and it doesn't leak from some mysterious place underneath! The dryer dries clothes without burning them. And I can control the temperature in my house via an app on my phone (the fancy thermostat comes "free" with a new furnace/ac unit)...and turning the heat on will not lead to CO poisoning.

All a win, if not for the checkbook.

In addition to those new things, I also got something so lovely yesterday. I opened a package from my grandma, which I anticipated held a bunch of recipes. It did...and also a super soft and warm and adorable fleece blanket with a kitten pattern. It has made me so happy for the last 24 hours.

And now, apparently, I'm done with that. Time to turn up the heat and look for a scarf, because the decidedly not-new cats have claimed the blanket, and the old blanket, and basically the whole couch.

This is my life.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Advent Candle Liturgies 2015

2015 Advent/Christmas Theme: Giving Voice to God’s Promise

Each week begins with a bit of the psalm for the day. This should be read by someone other than the person leading the “one” part of the candle liturgy. It is also perfectly okay to leave the psalm out if necessary or desired.

November 29 (Advent 1—2 Kings 22.1-10, 23.1-3: Listen // hope) Psalm 25.4-5

Reader: Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, 
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

One:    In the beginning was the Word—
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
All:     Listen and hear—
God’s promise is true!
One:    The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
All:     Eternal and near at hand,
Already and not-yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
One:    Listen!
            Hear the covenant anew, giving voice to a future with hope.
~candle is lit~
   ~sung response~

December 6 (Advent 2—Isaiah 40.21-11: Speak // peace)  Psalm 126.2

Reader: Then our mouth was filled with laughter, 
             and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations, 
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

One:    In the beginning was the Word—
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
All:     Speak it loud and clear—
God’s promise is true!
One:    The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
All:     Eternal and near at hand,
Already and not-yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
One:    Do not hold back!
Speak out, giving voice to God’s peace that passes all understanding.
~candle is lit~
   ~sung response~

December 13 (Advent 3—Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13: Persevere // joy)  Isaiah 12.5-6

Reader: Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

One:    In the beginning was the Word—
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
All:     Persevere in hope, keep the faith—
God’s promise is true!
One:    The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
All:     Eternal and near at hand,
Already and not-yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
One:    Keep going!
Persevere in joy, giving voice to God’s presence yet again.
~candle is lit~
   ~sung response~

December 20 (Advent 4—Luke 1.5-24a, 57-80: Trust // love)  Luke 1.44-45

Reader: “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

One:    In the beginning was the Word—
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
All:     Trust the good news—
God’s promise is true!
One:    The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
All:     Eternal and near at hand,
Already and not-yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
One:    Trust in God!
Wait with faith, giving voice to Christ’s love for all.
~candle is lit~
   ~sung response~

December 24 (Christmas Eve—Glorify)  Psalm 96

Reader: O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.

One:    In the beginning was the Word—
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
All:     Glorify the Lord with me—
God’s promise is true!
One:    The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
All:     Eternal and near at hand,
Already and not-yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
One:    Glory!
The Word is made flesh, giving voice to God’s promise yet again.
~candle is lit~
   ~sung response~

Friday, November 06, 2015


I am one week into the second decade of living without my mother.

This is my one-thousand-sixty-third blog post since she died.

I don't even know how to do any of that.

Ten years and one week later, it is just as hard as it was the first week. Harder, maybe, because the first week was so busy with details--flying home, having a visitation, family everywhere, scattering ashes, sorting and donating clothes, being sick. Now, ten years and one week later, it's regular life (and well past the time when we're all supposed to have figured it out and gotten over it) and it turns out that sometimes that's much harder without a mom than doing all those immediate post-death things. Sure, I hated sorting through her clothes knowing she would never wear them again. But now I have to cook, and make decisions, and buy my own clothes, and have experiences she will never hear about.

Ten years is a long time. A lot changes in ten years. There are so many things I wish we could have done.

I never exchanged a single text message with my mom. I wish we could text. It would be hilarious.

I have very few photos, because cameras had film and phones didn't have cameras. Usually phones were attached to walls. (heh.)

We never stayed up late posting stickers into Facebook messages.

She never saw me wear that geneva gown she bought me.

Neither of us ever said to the other "you can google that."

We never went wine tasting together, though we both love(d) it.

I will never know *for sure* what her Enneagram number is (though I have a pretty good idea).

We never got to discuss the relative merits of kale (and how gross kale chips are).

She never got to see me actually do something almost sporty, after all my years of complaining about how I didn't like things I couldn't read while doing. (13.1 in 2:57)

She never got to read my book.

We never binged on a Netflix show...never talked about Dr. Who or Downton Abbey.

She never came to my house.

We never used hashtags to offer commentary on our conversation.

She never saw affordable health care (such as it is, still....), and I think that is part of why she's dead now.

She never knew President Obama, or marriage equality, or lots of other things.

It's bizarre, really. I'm not convinced the second decade will be any easier...more new things she never got to experience, more of my own life I have to do without her. And yet...onward. Because life. (a "sentence" construction she never used.)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Monastery Day, attempt the first

Jan, when she was a parish pastor, used to make a regular practice of "Monastery Days"--days when she was outside her usual workspaces, reading and praying and studying and people-watching. I think she often had her Monastery Days at a Starbucks in a neighboring town.

I have decided that I need something like this if I'm ever going to think a thought all the way through. I have lots of days when I work from home, or from the Starbucks at the train station, or in my office...and all of those are good. But there's something about going elsewhere to read and think and pray that somehow makes things more clear.

So a friend/colleague and I agreed to try these, on the first Monday of each month. We wouldn't do it together, exactly--but we'd do it at the same time on the same day, to hold each other accountable to actually doing it.

Naturally, this first month we were to try it, I had a complication. Namely, that I'm supposed to be facilitating an adult education class on Monday nights. oops. ( would think I would have learned to use a calendar by now!)
So I moved to Tuesday.

Tuesday was bright and sunny, with blue skies to offset the remaining brightly colored leaves as well as the stark empty oak branches. It was a gorgeous day to walk and sit and read and eat and ponder by a I went to Lake Geneva. The good ol' LG never lets me down (except that one time when Kilwin's was out of my favorite flavor of ice cream...omg).

In the long tradition of solvitur ambulando (it is solved by walking), I rambled along the lakefront path, looking at light playing on water, shadows of fish, enormous houses, changing leaves, and remnants of bygone days. I prayed and thought and spent some time clearing my mind while my body was moving. It was gorgeous.

The only not gorgeous part is that my right knee hurts like you would not believe.*

So my Monastery Day was interrupted, if you can call it that, by a trip to the doctor's office. I'd gotten a call in the morning that if I was willing to drive to Rockford, I could get in that day (filling a cancellation)...otherwise I would wait two weeks. I'm glad I went because I would really prefer to be walking and running without constantly thinking about how my knee hurts. I need that time to empty out and think about other stuff!

While I was walking, I decided to try to pay very close attention to details. This is usually not my strong suit, so I think it's a good practice for me to try for the next month. This is a time of year when things change rapidly, and it's easy to miss the little things.

I don't know that I solved anything while walking yesterday, except for some of the clutter in my mind and heart. I replaced that with beauty, at least for today.

the only piece left...

just a little lakefront cottage...with matching playhouse

the path

this may be one of my favorite photos ever. There's just something about it...

*really, you wouldn't believe it. My pain tolerance is *very* low, so it's entirely likely that if it was your knee, you wouldn't even feel it, while I am over here acting like I'm dying. I swear, it hurts a LOT. For me.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Friday Five: fall books!

I haven't played the FF in a long time, but today I can't help myself. I've been daydreaming about books, using my library card more than I have in a long time, and today is the kind of sunny breezy autumn day that makes me want to curl up under a blanket next to an open window (yes, I'm that girl) with a stack of books.

This desire is not mitigated by the fact that I really need to do some other things (some work, deal with the apples I picked last weekend, etc).

So I'll play the Friday Five instead, because it's about books! And then I can pretend that I did something, while thinking about reading. ;-)

Share with us some of your favorites:

A cookbook....well, I confess to rarely using recipes, because I find them kind of restrictive. lol. But I do have a couple of favorites that I go back to for different things. Of course there's the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, full of standards. And the Teen Vegetarian Cookbook, which has a chart of nutrients and three different columns of how to get them (i.e., "don't like this? try this. Don't like that either? try this.")

A novel...Just one favorite novel? oh my. Let's go with relatively recent reads...Most of a year later, I am still gushing about The Undertaken Trilogy, which may be the best fiction I've read since The Goldfinch (which was amazing). Don't be fooled by the young adult label, this is a book(series) for all ages.

A nonfiction book...I always have a hard time when asked about nonfiction. Once I responded to someone with "I don't really read nonfiction" and they stared incredulously at my office bookshelves. I had to say "oh, I mean...besides church books." I don't really read non-theology/churchy non-fiction.   If pressed I would probably say something like the Lonely Planet guide to whatever next place I'm going....or maybe the book I co-authored, since it needs some promotional love! :-)

A well-thumbed book to which you turn often, or with affection, used in your profession...besides the bible or hymnal? I just yesterday got out Christianity for the Rest of Us again, to use the hospitality chapter in the new member class. That book gets a workout for sure.

An author you recommend frequently to others... After myself (heh), probably Jane Austen. Because I come across a SHOCKING number of people who have not read Pride and Prejudice, and I just don't think that's okay.

Bonus: what are you reading now? ...Goodreads says I have 7 books going. haha. I am most invested in Original Blessing at the moment, plus We Make The Road By Walking for our current adult-ed class, and also Emotions and the Enneagram. I have plans to stock up on novels for an upcoming vacation though!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Talking to Strangers--a sermon on Genesis 18

Rev. Teri Peterson
Talking to Strangers
Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
20 September 2015, NL2-2, Harvest 1-2

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He 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. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let 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.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then 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.
 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then 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. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

One Sunday during my first Easter season as an ordained pastor, I was sitting on the floor of the sanctuary with a dozen or so children seated on the steps in front of me. We were talking about the story of Jesus’ disciples walking to Emmaus, and being met by Jesus along the way, though they did not recognize him. At some point, as I was talking, I realized that I had painted myself into a corner. Over the edge of the communion table, I saw the head of staff realize it at the same time, and his poker face was briefly interrupted by one slightly raised eyebrow. I kept talking, trying desperately to think of a way out, but there was nowhere else to go. The only thing I could say to these children, ranging in age from 3 to 9, was that they should talk to strangers because they might be Jesus.

I rushed the words out and tried to cover with something about how on the first day at a new school, everyone is a stranger, and then I ended as quickly as possible and hoped no one had noticed. Even 8 years and hundreds of children’s moments later, I still get nervous when stories like this one appear in the lectionary.

Because, unlike what we teach our children, scripture is full of stories that essentially say that you absolutely should talk to strangers.

These three strangers arrived at Abraham’s place at just about the most inconvenient time possible—the heat of the day. Midafternoon. The lull time, nap time. The only worse time would be the middle of the night. And yet Abraham runs out to greet them. He runs to Sarah and tells her to get baking—three measures of flour is about 22 pounds, so Abraham seems to expect a full complement of breads and cakes, not just a few finger sandwiches. Then he runs to the field and tells a servant to kill the fatted calf and fire up the grill.

What started as “let me bring you a little bread” has become a feast of epic proportions. Why would Abraham kill the fatted calf—the best and most celebratory meat—for strangers? Why bake so furiously? Why so much running during the hottest part of the day?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, reflecting on this story, says it gives a clear lesson: “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13.2)

This seems like an awful lot of hospitality, though. Surely just offering them water and whatever he had handy, easily accessible leftovers, would have done?

Granted, it turns out to be God visiting Abraham and Sarah’s tent. So maybe the welcome is just enough after all.

The text doesn’t say that they knew it was God. Sarah seems to realize, just at the end of the story, but by then they’ve been hanging out in the shade of the oak trees for hours. These were just three guys, dusty from travel. In some neighborhoods, they would be called a gang. In others, their sitting under the tree might be called loitering. Many of us would hesitate to open the door to three strange men who come up the front walk. Today we might wonder if all three of them would make it to the doorway alive, or if they’d become a statistic and a hashtag. But Abraham rolls out the red carpet and pulls out all the stops. He serves them a feast on the fine china—and he stands by, ready to refill their cups and offer them seconds, to attend to every need.

It seems ridiculous to us. We have become so used to not really looking at people. We are practiced at suspicion-at-first-sight. We like our personal space and the private enjoyment of our things. We’re perfectly willing to give what we have left after we’ve made sure we have enough for ourselves. But in scripture, especially in the desert but also in town, hospitality is the most important practice there is. Any traveler was to be welcomed and cared for, no matter who they were or where they came from.

Every traveler.

Some have entertained angels…or even the Lord himself.

More accurately, everyone who has shown hospitality to a stranger has been in the presence of God—Jesus says whenever we do it to the least of these, we do it to him. Every person is made in God’s image, every breath comes from the Spirit, so everyone, stranger or friend, is a chance to welcome God in our midst.

Part of what makes this difficult, for us and for Sarah and Abraham, is that an important element of hospitality is not just food and water and a place to rest, but also making room for the person and their words to enter our lives. You never know what the strangers might say or how they might touch your heart or change your life.

In this case, the strangers bring news that defies the limits of imagination. After all these years, following a promise and fearing she might never see it fulfilled, all these years waiting and hoping and being disappointed, Sarah will have a son. It is almost cruel, to tell a woman who has tried so hard that she needs to try again. I hear Sarah’s laugh in my mind as that nervous-and-incredulous laugh that is an attempt to defuse tension and mask pain. But the words of the stranger have entered the house, and there’s no shooing them out now. Just as Abraham made every effort to make them comfortable and welcome, now Sarah will have to make every effort to accommodate these words, ponder them in her heart, and make space for Abraham in her bed.

Sometimes the words of a stranger are as disruptive as their physical presence. They demand things of us—expanding and shifting our mental space the way we add leaves and more chairs to the dining room table.

No wonder we prefer to be afraid of strangers.

This week I heard the political leader of one of the European nations that is refusing to allow refugees say they could not take them because too many non-Christians would change the Christian character of the culture. The same was once said of the Irish Catholics coming to this country. It is true, when we welcome the stranger, we also make room for the ways they are different. When I think about how often our ancestors in the faith migrated for one reason or another—most notably to Egypt to escape famine, and out of Egypt to escape leaders who were needlessly afraid of them—and then I hear this story of Abraham’s family in the midst of migrating and still offering extravagant welcome, and think of the least of these Jesus talks about, and hear the strong words from Hebrews: “Do Not Neglect to show hospitality to strangers”…I can’t help but think that we are replaying this same story. Do we, with Abraham, see the image of God in the face of the stranger? Are we willing to offer our best in welcome? Will we go out of our way to bring them in? Or are we too unwilling to make both mental and physical space for people who are different?

Sarah and Abraham extended themselves, their resources, and their emotional lives to offer hospitality. And ultimately, that changed their lives. They had to then make even more room, this time for a baby…a baby named laughter, to remind them always of that day they talked to strangers, and saw the face of God.

May we follow their faithful example.