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.

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