A Sermon for June 14, 2020
First United Methodist, Parkersburg, WV
I remember very little about my maternal grandmother, Ruby Mae Arthurs Oliphant. When I was quite young, she suffered several strokes and spent the last five years of her life bedridden, unable to talk or communicate. My mother said that really, she had not been very well even several years before the strokes. My memories of her well are, at best, sketchy.
However, there is one memory that is still very vivid in my mind. It is just a flash, but it is significant to me because it is one of the very few moments that we shared that has stuck with me and because, as I think about it, it says a great deal about who she was and what was important to her.
My family and I had just had a long drive to my grandparents’ home for a very special weekend, which was a rare occurrence for a pastor’s family. It was a long journey, on back country roads, some not even yet paved. It was dark. We were tired. We were hungry.
As we pulled into the vast yard behind the farmhouse, there was a sudden flash of light as the screen door opened and banged shut and my grandmother flew down the steps, arms open wide, exclaiming: “You are here! You are here!” Her embrace, the only one I ever remember receiving from her, was an act of welcome and conveyed a feeling of security.
When my mother was near the end of her life, I asked her to tell me something about how she remembered her mother, about something that her mother would have wanted me to learn. She told me that she remembered her mother’s hospitality, how she welcomed everyone in little comforting ways.
“How?” I asked. My mother thought for a while and then told me that what she remembered most was a Saturday evening ritual. In the summer, when all the work had been completed there would be a table set out under the elm tree in the front yard and a vase of my grandmother’s flowers, particularly her roses would be set on the table. My mother said that it was my grandmother’s way of welcoming the Sunday Sabbath and whoever God might send her way the next day because there were always visitors on Sunday Sabbath afternoons.
Have you ever had an experience of hospitality that was unforgettable? Have you ever offered an experience of hospitality that you hope was unforgettable?
The story of Abraham and his guests is a story that has many layers of importance. One of those layers is an understanding of what it means to offer hospitality.
In this passage we are presented with a picture of Abraham receiving three guests at the heat of the day, at the entrance of his tent. In the text we discover that these three guests are very special. Abraham seems to know exactly who these three guests are, even if we are not certain.
In the early 15th century, a Russian, monk/artist, seemed to know who these three guests were, as well. He wrote an icon depicting the three guests as the Holy Trinity. In iconology, icons are “written” not painted and in his writing of these three divine guests, Andrew Rublev included all the elements of Abraham’s hospitality story: Abraham’s home, a tree—the Oak of Mamre, a mountain.
This “Trinity Icon” invites us to look through it, like a window, to see deeper into the presence of the guests and who they might be. Blue is worn by the guests to symbolize the divine. There is within the icon the chalice of salvation. The whole world—the universe is represented and the eternal—the icon is circular without beginning and without end. The icon invites us to look into the story of Abraham and his three guests to see how we are drawn into the story, as well.
Abraham knew what it meant to offer hospitality. He knew that for his culture, hospitality was more than just being polite. There was a moral expectation, a sacred duty. The understanding was that it was a sacred gift and a delight of all people who belong to God to offer hospitality to all strangers because we all belong to God.
Travel in Abraham’s world was fraught with physical danger and social tension. Inns or places of rest were few and far between, so travelers were dependent upon locals to offer life-sustaining water and food as well as shelter and safety. Hospitality customs provided ways for strangers to be welcomed, treated like family, and depart as friends instead of strangers or enemies. Everyone was expected to be welcomed.
For this process to run smoothly there were certain roles and expectations. There were four phases to hospitality: initial invitation, screening, provision and protection, and departure.
Outsiders were held as suspect and approached cautiously, but to not approach them was considered dishonorable. Many times, there was someone keeping watch and strangers would be spotted long before entering the camp or the home. It was expected for the community or the home to approach a stranger and offer hospitality before nightfall, which included a place of lodging. To do otherwise was dishonorable and was considered an insult to the stranger.
The host assumed the responsibilities of providing food, water, and lodging for the guests and animals. Acceptance of the stranger was shown by washing the guests’ feet and providing a meal. The meal was to be the best that the host could provide.
When it came time for the guest to depart, the host would send them on their way well fed and with provisions for the journey. And they would be sent on their way in peace.
Abraham certainly extended hospitality to the three divine guests in such a way that not only meets all the rules, but is extravagant. Maybe it was because Abraham recognized the divine guests, because he hurried, hastened, and ran to meet them. Four different times in the passage Abraham is described as hastening, moving quickly, running, and hastening again to make certain that the guests were cared for in an important manner. The comforts for the guests were not neglected as water is offered, feet washed, and a shady place offered for rest. The promise of food was offered so that the guests might look forward to refreshing their hearts as they rested.
Maybe it was because Abraham recognized the divine guests that he went over and above expectation of simple hospitality to extravagant hospitality. Abraham spoke to Sarah to see to the food. These guests were so important that not just anyone was left to prepare the food, not just any servant, but Sarah, his wife, who would see that the best was prepared. It wasn’t just any flour that was used but was the best measures of flour that probably produced much more bread than was needed—the best bread possible. Abraham, himself, chose a choice calf, tender and good, and had it prepared in such a way that there was much more than necessary. There were other choice foods as well. It was not just a simple meal. It was a feast. And all the time that preparations were going on Abraham was nearby to make certain that these divine guests had everything that they needed.
After the meal the divine guests spoke to Abraham again of a promise that had been made perhaps decades before, that Abraham and Sarah would have a son in their old age and his birth would fulfill the threefold promise that God had already made to Abraham. There would be land. Abraham would be father of a great nation through the birth of a child. And Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants would be blessed to be a blessing. This promise was not made because of the extravagance of the hospitality. It was a promise that had been made several times before. It was a promise that Abraham and Sarah had grown tired of waiting for, but in this moment, the divine guests made it clear to Abraham that the moment in time was near. That had been the purpose of the guests’ journey to Abraham and the extravagant hospitality that Abraham extended had brought them together in a celebration of life and promise.
The story of Abraham’s hospitality reminds us that as people of God, we are to offer hospitality. Indeed, Hebrews 13:2 tells us:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and goats found in Matthew 25:35-40 takes hospitality a step further by proclaiming that hospitality offered to any is hospitality offered to him:
35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear?39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
So, as people of faith, how do we offer hospitality?
I have spent a great deal of time on my deck these past weeks of staying safe at home. I have become acquainted with the birds and creatures who live in the woods behind of the house. I can tell certain squirrels apart and I have watched as their young have grown this spring. They are quite funny to watch as they scamper across the ground at speeds that are a little too much and they completely miss the tree that they are jumping toward. I have watched cardinal pairs as they wait for each other on the tree branch and as they interact with each other. The red bellied woodpeckers have spent a great deal of time posing for my camera. There has even been a socially distanced encounter or two with a racoon.
At the edge of the woods there is an old and interesting honey locust tree that has taken its role of hospitality quite seriously. The branches of the tree have become a resting place for the birds to gather and wait upon their mates, to check out what is on the menu at the birdfeeders and whether that silly, yellow cat, Harry Potter, is around or not. They are supported and cared for by the branches of that tree. Sometimes, the leaves hide them, providing safety. In the hollow trunk of the tree is space for me to put treats for the deer and the bark provides that constant space and place for the woodpeckers to be hard at work.
When I watch the wildlife in that tree certain words of hospitality come to my mind as I see that this tree is providing a place for the wildlife to be held and cared for in safety. This is hospitality.
The hospitality of Abraham to his divine visitors reminds us that we are called to offer hospitality. The Gospels remind us of this as well and not just hospitality but extravagant hospitality where others can be held and cared for in safety. We are called to offer that to each other and to all of God’s children. Because we belong to God, when we encounter strangers, we receive them as people who already belong to us and we welcome them as also belonging to God.
In the spring of 2018, I spent a couple of months of my renewal leave in Germany. I spent time in my ancestral home of Alzey and I spent time with two different United Methodist Churches who offered significant hospitality ministries to refugees. The two interests were combined because my own family had left Germany as refugees in 1709. Years of war and famine and a particularly difficult winter left my ancestors penniless and starving. It was either leave or stay and face death.
In Bremen, the church invited me to spend the week taking part in as many activities as I wanted to get to know their guests. They hosted around 100 refugees throughout each week in various activities to help them settle into their new home and to meet the requirements that they needed to in order to remain in Germany. There was something going on at the church every day and my week was full. Mostly, the congregation offered to these refugees a place to feel held and cared for in safety.
On Saturday afternoon I was left on my own. There was a cooking class at the church, and I was invited by the group to attend. I was the first one there and I sat for a while by myself in a corner. As the women began to arrive, it didn’t take long for them to surround me and start talking. It also didn’t take long for them to realize that I didn’t speak German and they all switched to English, which they spoke as well as their native language.
I soon realized that it was not a cooking class at all, but a social gathering with food so that the women could practice their German speaking skills. There were refugees from Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq. What they all had in common was that they were forced to leave their homes and make a new life somewhere else. For many, the journey to Bremen and this new life was difficult and not yet over.
As a small group cooked, the rest of the women surrounded me and brought me into their group. They taught me the subtle differences of their languages of Farsi and Persia. They told me stories about their lives in their homelands and what they did there. One was a teacher. One was a nurse. Several were university students.
They taught me songs and taught me dances. We laughed and ate some of the best food that I have ever had. It was a memorable afternoon.
As we said goodbye I asked them to tell me why they embraced me and offered me such kindness. They told me that this particular church, Bremen United Methodist Church, had embraced them even though they were strangers, even though they were different, at the lowest point of their lives. The congregation listened to their stories and thought about ways that they could help to make their transition to their new home easier. Because this congregation had offered such extravagant hospitality to them, strangers in a foreign land, they could offer it to me, another stranger in a foreign land. For this group of women, hospitality was an act of worship and hope.
We are living in difficult times and now maybe more than ever we are called to offer hospitality. It strikes me that in these days, when our country, indeed our world, is engulfed in chaos, when pain is all around us, when our country is so divided by what we think we know, it is important that we offer hospitality in extravagant ways. Offering a place where others along the journey of life can have a place of safety among us means that we share life together. We share stories. We share concerns. We share hopes and dreams, knowing that not everyone has the same hopes and dreams and that if okay. We listen to see how someone may have had an experience, different from ours, that helps us understand a little better and a little deeper. Extravagant hospitality is not just a gift we give to others, it is a gift we give to ourselves as well and it is a gift we give to God as we seek to understand how God’s love unites us all.
I am not going to give you a list of how that is to happen. I am simply going to ask two questions.
How have you received extravagant hospitality in your life?
How is God calling you to offer extravagant hospitality in your life now?
May we all make this world a better place by the offering hospitality to all God’s people. Even a cup of cold water offered in love can make a vast difference in this world.
To God be the glory!