Rev. Teri Peterson
June 15 2008, Ordinary 11A
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 favor 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.’
As many of you know, we here at RCLPC are in the middle of a summer of Scripture reading—we’re reading the Bible in 90 days. Each day we read about 12-15 pages, and each day I write some reflections about the reading on our church blog, and then each Wednesday we gather for an hour to talk about what we have read, to share our questions and insights, and to learn about some of the background. We are 15 days in right now, and today we’ll finish Deuteronomy. In 15 days we read the entire first five books of the Bible, often called the Torah, meaning law or instruction, or the Pentateuch, meaning five books. You may have figured out that that’s a lot of Bible reading!
While I will admit to having some moments of confusion as I thought this week about Abraham and Sarah but read from Numbers and Deuteronomy, I have to say there is something really intriguing about this process. It has helped me make connections I might not have made otherwise. Sure, there are lots of names and numbers, but there are also a lot of stories and a lot of talk about what it means to be a community of God’s people. Granted, in the ancient near-eastern culture that was expressed by rules and regulations…and more rules and regulations…and then a reiteration of the rules in case you missed them…but still, I am intrigued by this idea. I also began to think about the fact that these books are called Torah, instruction, and they include so many stories like the one we read today. Clearly these stories are designed to tell us something, to show us how to be a community of God’s people.
So we head back to the story—Abraham and Sarah, in their tent, somewhere in Canaan. It’s the middle of the day. It’s hot. Sarah is stuck inside cleaning up and thinking about dinner. Abraham is sitting outside where it’s cool when suddenly he looks up and sees three strangers getting some rest in the shade under the oak tree a little way off. He jumps up, runs over to them, begs them to stay a little while, runs back, orders a servant to go wash their feet, orders his wife to bake bread even if it is 100 degrees in the tent, runs to the herd and chooses the best calf and orders a servant to kill, clean, and cook it…Abraham’s household prepares a whole feast of barbeque for these strangers, all from scratch!
This is a whole new level of hospitality from what we are used to. Normally if we are going to entertain, we plan ahead, invite people over, then prepare most of the meal before our guests arrive. If someone stops by unexpectedly, we offer a beverage, perhaps, but probably not a whole meal. The one similarity between my experience of hospitality and Abraham and Sarah’s is the part where Abraham stands by the guests while they eat. That sounds suspiciously like the way my grandmother and mother would always take the seat closest to the kitchen, and then would invariably get up to grab things for people throughout the meal, sometimes allowing their own food to get cold. I have had one experience, while I was living in Egypt, where my hostess set a table just for me, and then literally stood by, not eating herself but ready to get me anything I wanted and to serve me seconds, all the while commenting on my appetite and demeaning her own fabulous cooking skills. I can’t remember being so uncomfortable in any other situation—it felt so awkward to me. But that’s what extreme hospitality seems to look like, at least Abraham-style!
In our culture we have, I think, lost a little of the art of hospitality. We’ve turned it over the Hospitality Industry, to restaurants and caterers and hotels. A study done a couple of years ago found that Americans only entertain in their homes an average of 8 times a year, including holidays and family visits. That’s not a lot, really, and is significantly lower than at times in our past and compared to our sisters and brothers elsewhere in the world. So I wonder what this story might have to say to us? A simple “welcome the stranger” or “feed the hungry” isn’t going to cut it for us—we need some practice as well as the case study.
One place that we practice, I think, is right here. In worship we experience extreme hospitality—especially at the communion table, where Christ welcomes every single person, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what we look like or how much money we make or who our family is or even how strong our faith is. When we come to worship, everyone is welcome. We have the experience of hospitality and we also practice extending hospitality to others. I would be willing to bet that there are people here today that you don’t know well. Take a moment to look around—sure, you see some friends and family, some long-time members too. Do you see anyone you don’t recognize? Anyone whose name you can’t remember? Anyone you’ve never seen before? Anyone you’d like to get to know better? We’ve all been welcomed here by God, now we practice welcoming one another.
You may be wondering how worship is a place where we can practice this most central of Christian disciplines—after all, isn’t it the other way around, with life being practice for worship? I don’t think so—I think worship is where we practice for a life lived with God, for an integrated, whole, and truly real life. And we practice in worship in several different ways. It’s where we practice prayer so we can pray whenever need arises. It’s where we practice praise so we can praise with our lives and our words when we’re outside these walls. It’s where we practice community so we can live like God’s people out in the world, building community across boundaries, breaking down walls. It’s where we practice peace so we can make peace in a world of violence. And it’s where we practice hospitality so that when we are actually confronted with a stranger or just someone who’s strange, we can offer hospitality and welcome just as we have learned it here. In short, it’s where we practice loving the way God loves, so we can love all the way out the door and into the world.
Take a moment to think about our worship service—can you see the ways we practice together? Worship isn’t only about being filled up and feeling good, it’s about learning and practicing being people of God so we can walk this journey together. After all, practice makes perfect, right? When Jesus says, “be perfect as God is perfect,” he knows that we can’t be perfect. He’s telling us to practice for it anyway!
Today we have been baking bread here in the sanctuary, letting the smell of hospitality permeate our worship. Perhaps it’s what Sarah’s tent smelled like as she prepared dinner for unexpected guests who turned out to be God. The bread will be sent out with our bread-basket ministry this week, offering first-time visitors who leave us an address a sign of hospitality and welcome, a sign of new friendship, of God’s love for all. And as we leave today, we will borrow an ancient Celtic tradition of taking our practice of hospitality outside the sanctuary walls. When you leave you’ll be offered a bagel—in the Celtic tradition it would be an oatcake, but we’re in the Midwest!—and invited to break it in half and then share half with someone you don’t know well. Consider it a sign of hospitality and love taken outside this place and shared with the world that God loves.
Thanks be to God.