Sermon: "An Uncomfortable Welcome," September 24, 2017

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

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.’
— Genesis 18:1-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

                Every since I became the Minister at St. George’s. Ever since we started our ministry together just over three years ago. We have highlighted the importance of hospitality as a community of faith. A deep and broad welcome. As deep and as broad it gets. There are no requirements in terms of lifestyle or even faith to come to this place. Or be embraced by the deep love of God.  There’s no sign outside that says “you must be this pious to ride.” Some of you have told me that it may not have been this sense of holy welcome that brought you here. But it’s what made you stay.

                This sense of welcome has been a draw. And yet, I know that this welcome has raised questions for others. In flinging open our doors and offering such a wide welcome, some have expressed worries that we’re giving up on key aspects of our faith. Our core commitments, our deep convictions. About God, Jesus, the Bible. The whole works. Still, some of us may also wonder why we put so much time and energy into appealing to outsiders. In constantly reaching out to newcomers, in broadening our musical repertoire, in making worship more accessible and open to the unchurched. It might seem unfair. After all, we’re the ones who have been around. We’ve done the hard work. We’ve worked, sacrificed, and we’ve been faithful. For some of us it might seem unfair that most of the attention goes to folks who haven’t put in their time, or investment. It might feel unfair that virtual strangers get pride of place. Or seem to, anyway.

                It’s understandable—natural, even. This is the way we work as humans. When we find a group we have something in common with, we bond, we form tribes. Meaning we begin to take care of our own. Which is always a strength in being a community. At the same time, though, it makes us less open to outsiders, to people who aren’t already part of our group. It can be minor, in being unfriendly to outsiders. And it be major, like seeing all outsiders as a threat to be dealt with. It’s just the way things go with groups of people, with tribes. It’s the we think and act as human beings. No matter who we are.

It’s our natural inclination to bind ourselves as groups and look out for our own interests first. But there’s something radical at the heart of the biblical story. Something radically innovative in the Jewish and Christian traditions that undermines this sense of loyalty to our tribe above all else. And our scripture passage for today is the showpiece for this innovation. It posits hospitality, generous welcome, openness and care to the stranger above group loyalties. Even at great risk.

                This week, we have two people Abraham and Sarah. Two old people, nomads without a land of their own to live in. Set up camp in the desert near some shade and a good source of water. One day presided over by the scorching desert sun, Abraham’s cross-legged at the door of his tent. He looks up, and sees three men approaching his camp. If you’re a desert nomad couple, let alone a desert nomad couple who happen to be senior citizens this could go very wrong. No police keeping order, no dialing 911 or even crying out to help. Three men could easily overpower Abraham and Sarah, and take everything they have. It was something that would happen all the time in the desert. It’d be scary.

But when Abraham sees these guys, he runs out to them. He bows to them as a sign of respect. And first, he offers them water for their journey, and a little bit of bread so they can refresh themselves for their journey. Abraham shows no fear of these strangers, instead he shows hospitality. But it’s even more than that. He runs in to the tent and tells his wife Sarah to get their best flour and make some cakes for their guests. Then he runs to his herd of animals, and has his servant choose the best calf. Veal cutlets, maybe. And he brings this all together with some cheese and milk to his guests. And he stands the whole time they eat as a sign of respect. Abraham runs to meet his guests, he runs to get food, he runs to get the triple-A beef.

Where our inclination as human beings is to look out for ourselves first, to put the safety and security of our tribe in the front seat, Abraham and Sarah work against this inclination. They show their guests hospitality, they roll out the red carpet. And not only do they entertain complete strangers, they serve them a feast they would normally save for special occasions. Over the top, offering the best. The hospitality that Abraham and Sarah show, this unconditional, gracious, over the top welcome. This is why we welcome like we do at St. George’s. It’s part of our story, our spiritual D.N.A. Welcoming the stranger like a celebrity guest. Saving our best for the stranger.

                But wait, there’s even more to it. Because anyone could be hospitable. But in being hospitable, in showing the kind of welcome and generosity to outsiders that Abraham and Sarah showed, we believe we’re doing more than just welcoming strangers. Or showing kindness.

                We’re told this at the beginning of the passage, that when these three figures show up it says “the Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.” And later on it says that when one of the three men is talking, it’s actually God speaking. Abraham and Sarah don’t know this. At least not at first. But in entertaining these strangers, in showing them that unconditional hospitality, they’re actually welcoming God himself into their midst. As the church, we often think we’re playing God’s role in the whole thing. That we’ve got a church, we’ve got God. And people come to us to get what we’ve got. But God here assumes the role of stranger, of guest. This is where that phrase “entertaining angels unawares” comes from. We show crazy hospitality because we believe that we’re not just welcoming a person.  But in welcoming that person, we’re actually welcoming God in to our lives. In the New Testament Jesus takes it even further. In Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus says that in giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, and in visiting those who are imprisoned. He said that when we do this for those he calls “the least of these” we do it to him and for him. This is like the ultimate Christian social justice passage.

Not only that God is present to us when strangers knock. But it’s that Christ himself is present to us in those in need. When we welcome strangers with no strings attached, we’re welcoming God. We can’t welcome God without welcoming strangers. We can’t love God without loving strangers, either. And vice-versa.

I recognize that it’s a hard thing. It’s a risky thing. It’s true. But in taking that risk, in opening ourselves and our community to others. That’s when God brings us new life.

I love the second half of this text. Because Abraham and the three strangers are sitting around post-meal. And one of the strangers speaks. And says that the next time he returns, he says, Sarah’ll have a son. Sarah’s off in the tent, and she overhears. And of course she laughs. Of course she does. Remember these are old people. Abraham’s an old man, Sarah’s menopausal. It’s all just absurd. And there’s this funny little exchange between Sarah and God. “Why’d you laugh?” God asks. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And Sarah’s like “I didn’t laugh.” And God’s like “uh… yeah you did.”

Anyway, in lowering their defenses. In welcoming these strangers, rolling out the carpet, offering incredible hospitality, this is when the new life comes. Abraham and Sarah are old, without future, without hope, and this stranger brings a word of new life, transformation, in the form of a new baby.  And maybe I’ve just got babies on the brain. First of all here we have Sarah, then Hannah later in the Bible. Then Mary welcomes the Holy Spirit and then we’ve got Jesus. It seems like every time God gets welcomed in the Bible, somebody ends up pregnant.  But if you think about it, it makes sense. If you think about what a new baby does to your life, that’s hard. We have to adapt our lives to new children. It’s not the other way around. That’s what it’s like to welcome strangers. That’s what it’s like to welcome God.

That’s sort of the way it goes when we welcome people in our midst at church, too. If we welcome new people, it’s going to change stuff. Like welcoming a new baby into our lives, we end up having to give up things we cherish for them to flourish. We end up having to make accommodations, make space. Practice patience, forgiveness. Go out on limbs. It’s difficult. It’s hard stuff to do. It goes against all of our natural inclinations. But our scripture shows us that this risky thing of showing grace, that unconditional hospitality. When we’re welcoming other people, we’re also welcoming the Holy Spirit into our lives. The Holy Spirit who generates new life where we, like Abraham and Sarah, thought it was all lost.

We’ve already seen the Holy Spirit at work in this community of faith in this way. I know it was hard for a lot of us to take risks. To make changes, and difficult decisions. To shift our focus from ourselves outward. There are people who have left the church over some of the changes that have been made. There’s been some pain for sure. But God has brought us way more in terms of new life. In the form of literal children—there were two kids here when I started. But also other children of God. Seekers, pilgrims. Ones who have changed us and our community of faith for the better. We’re the ones who decided we’d make a conscious effort to welcome God. And look what happened. Look around and see. Christ in our midst. We let Jesus in, and ended up pregnant with the Holy Spirit.

                Christ in our midst. This is why we make such a big deal out of welcome, out of hospitality. Because Christ comes as the broken, the weak, the outcast. Christ comes to us as the poor, the widow. The stranger. When someone new walks through our doors, the Lord himself is present to us. When someone nursing a drug problem limps off the street and into our soup kitchen, the Lord himself is present to us. When refugees cry out for deliverance… you guessed it: Jesus. The Lord himself is present to us. And when we open our doors and our hearts to others in hospitality, Jesus comes with them. And when we let Jesus in, he’s gonna turn things upside-down.

                “Behold,” Jesus says. “I stand at the door and knock.” Will we receive him? Will we let him change us? Yes, it can be risky. It can be difficult, it’ll be a sacrifice and cost us some of our comfort. But in doing so, God promises us new life.

And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.