Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Welcoming the Stranger, Welcoming God

Genesis 18:1-16

 I think we usually read this as a story about the power of God.  It’s one of several “miraculous birth stories” in the Bible.  And maybe that’s all we think of it as:  God can do the impossible, even giving a child to a couple in their 90s, unable to have children.  And it certainly is that.  But it’s also the first and maybe the most important story in the Scriptures about hospitality.  

 It begins with Abraham camped near the great oak trees of Mamre.  Mamre was in the hill country of Judea, which would be the only place where oak trees would live in Canaan.  It was near the town of Hebron, about 15-20 miles south of Jersualem.  The note about where Abraham was is probably included to emphasize that Abraham has not left the Promised Land.  He went to Egypt earlier, but he’s back.  His nephew Lot went to live in Sodom, but not Abraham.  He’s staying in the land of God’s promise now.  

 It was during the heat of the day, and he was at the door of his tent, relaxing in the shade, when he saw three men.  Right away, we Christians might wonder:  Since this is God appearing, and since there are three men, could this be a representation of the Trinity.  Well, maybe.  But it’s not something we should get hung up on.  

 Abraham did not know that this was an appearance of God till later.  Yes, he does greet God with the typical word for God, “Lord.”  But lord could also just be a generic term of respect.  He doesn’t know at first that this is God visiting him.

 That’s important.  Abraham does not welcome the stranger because he knows it’s really God.  Rather, Abraham is blessed with the presence of God because he was willing to entertain the stranger as his guest.  When we welcome the stranger, we allow God to be present and active in our midst through the stranger.  Hebrews 13 makes this very argument:  We should welcome the stranger because Abraham did and was blessed with God’s presence.  The same might happen for us.  

 And I would add to that:  If we are unwilling to welcome the stranger, then we are also unwilling to welcome God, because God is a stranger.  God is holy, different, set apart from human beings.  We welcome God as a stranger; one who is different from us.  The whole story of the Gospel can be understood as a story of hospitality.  God comes among us as a stranger in Jesus Christ.  If we are willing to welcome him as a guest in our lives, then he will welcome us to his home in eternity.  

 Abraham and Sarah receive the blessing of a son Isaac through their gift of hospitality.  It begs the question:  What if they had not welcomed these strangers into their midst?  Would that have stymied God’s plan?  How would God then have given them the blessing of a son?  I don’t

think there’s any way we can answer that question.  But this is how God chose to do it.  God chose to bless them through hospitality and come into their presence and give his message through the presence of a stranger.  Is it too much for us to think that God might do the same in our lives?  

 Is there a risk?  Of course there is!  Hospitality involves risk.  It’s a risk to welcome the stranger.  And this is probably the biggest hang-up in our society to genuine hospitality.  We have rampant, unfounded, unreasonable fears about “strangers.”  That’s not to say that the “stranger” never intends harm.  But justifying our inhospitality by saying “Well, some people are up to no good,” is not a very Christian response to God’s call to hospitality.  And every generation has said that hospitality was “easier in the good ol’ days.”  Martin Luther, in the 16th century, said that hospitality was easier in former times because in his day there were “so many scoundrels.”  So it’s not like we’re the first people to say things like that.

 We also have a society that no longer places high value on community.  We have rampant individualism.  “Every man for himself or every woman for herself” seems to be too common.  “Why should I look out for so-and-so?  Let them take care of themselves.” 

 But without the risk of hospitality, how can we be blessed by hospitality?  And how can we be a blessing to others?  

 A few years ago I did a day backpacking trip up in north-central PA, on a trail called the Donut Hole Trail.  It was a terribly named trail.  I never found a single donut, and I really could have used one!  On the second day of my hike, I met a fisherman named Mark.  We got to talking and he told me he had a cabin just a mile off the trail, about 30 miles away.  He invited me to come and stay with him the next night.  I did.  A risk?  Yes.  But also a blessing.  He gave me a good dinner and a good breakfast and a comfortable bed and good conversation.  And I’d like to think I was a blessing to him, too.  He had been raised in a Methodist church, but had married an Orthodox woman, and found Orthodox Christianity didn’t really suit him.  Eventually he dropped out of the Church altogether.  And we talked a lot about that.  And I’d like to think that maybe that our conversation helped him to move back to God.  I think both of us were blessed by his gift of hospitality.  That’s how it is:  Hospitality becomes a blessing to both the recipient and the giver.  It may be “safer,” but it is less rewarding to be inhospitable.  

 What did hospitality mean for Abraham?  Let’s look at his hospitality, especially since he is lifted up in Scripture as a model of it.  

 First, he sees the stranger.  That might seem pretty obvious, but how often do we see the stranger but choose not to pay attention to them?  It is always easier for us to ignore stranger in our midst?  

 Next, Abraham rushes to greet and honor the stranger.  He shows great respect.  He asks for the privilege of showing hospitality.  He is not asked to be hospitable. He takes the initiative in offering hospitality.  Hospitality means more than just helping the stranger when they ask for it.  It means actively seeking out the stranger and seeking the privilege of helping.  

 And then Abraham serves the stranger in his midst.  The specific forms of service are very much what was expected in the culture of the ancient Near East.  He offers a shady spot to rest from the heat of the day.  He offers water for drinking and washing feet.  He offers food; a lot of it.  He offers bread made from 20 quarts of flour.  That’s a lot of bread.  He also offers the meat of a fattened calf, and that would be a significant gift.  People did not eat meat daily in that world.  Animals were a precious commodity, usually only butchered for special occasions or religious festivals.  The convention of the day was that you were to offer food to your guests, and then you were to exceed what was offered in what you actually gave.  

 And all throughout, Abraham is attentive to the needs of his guests.  He hurried to serve them, and as his guests ate, he stood by, ready to attend to any need.

 You may notice that Sarah is not present at the meal.  The reason is that in that Near Eastern culture, women did not eat with men, except for their own family.  

 By all outward standards, Abraham is a highly respected person. He has great wealth.  He has powerful allies.  He was respected by his neighbors.  He had a large number of servants, but he did not ask them to serve his guests.  He served them personally, as much as possible.  And I think that’s a model of hospitality.

 And finally, when his guests leave, Abraham gives the hospitality of his companionship.  He travels with them.

 All throughout, we see that Abraham gave his best.  He treated the stranger as a friend, which is the very meaning of the word hospitality.  I think that we have a mixed up understanding of hospitality today.  We think that welcoming our friends is hospitality.  That’s not hospitality.  That’s just friendliness.  The word hospitality in the New Testament is PHILOXENIA, and it literally means to love the stranger as if a friend.  

 Hospitality was considered a vital part of Christian piety.  It was through hospitality that the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus in their midst.  Inhospitality is one of the specific things that Jesus mentioned in connection to the final judgment.  And several times in the New Testament letters, we are commanded to be hospitable.  

 But what about today?  What has become of hospitality in the Church today?  

 Unfortunately, hospitality has become “domesticated.”  We’ve redefined hospitality to mean being friendly to our friends, rather than to strangers.  Or we turn it into a “church growth strategy,” as in “Let’s be friendly to visitors so our church will grow,” rather than, “Let’s be friendly to strangers because God commands it.”

 There are things we should do in our churches to be hospitable.  First we need to see the strangers.  We shouldn’t ignore them.  We should rush to greet them.  We should ask for the privilege of serving them.  “Can I help you with something?”  We can go beyond the minimum; we can go the extra mile.  If someone visits our church, we can invite them out to lunch.  And we can give companionship.  If you’re coming into church, and you see someone you don’t know, invite them to come and sit with you.  In short, we can treat the stranger who just walked into our midst for the first time just as well as we treat our best friend that we’ve known for 20 years.  Because that’s the meaning of hospitality!  

 Have you ever been a stranger in a church where you don’t know anyone?  I’ve been there several times.  And most often, it hasn’t been a pleasant experience.  People ignore you.  They don’t go out of their way to help you.  I’ll give you a homework assignment:  Some Sunday, drive 30 miles away and go to a church where you don’t know anyone.  If you are warmly welcomed, then do the things here that were done for you there.  And if you were not warmly welcomed, remember that experience the next time you see a stranger here.  Generally speaking, we don’t know how to give hospitality until we have received hospitality.

 And of course, we’ve only talked about hospitality in the church.  What about the neighbors who live around you but you don’t know them?  What about the person who just moved in?  Or the person who just started work with you?  What about the person you see for the first time in a store or restaurant?  How will you be the presence of God through the person of a stranger in their life?  Or maybe, could they be presence of God through a stranger in your life?  

 If you don’t take the risk of hospitality, you’ll never know.

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