“Let a little water be brought for you to wash your feet. Rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread that you may refresh yourselves.” Genesis 18: 4
When I was a young boy growing up, I can remember a frequent occurrence at our house. It happened most often on hot summer days when the windows and doors of the house were open and only the screens divided the outside from the inside. There would come a knock at the back door and maybe a voice calling through the screen, “Anybody home?” My mother would answer from another room, “Come on in. The door’s open.” She’d invite the person in without even knowing for sure who it was.
One time on a very hot August day, a man came up to our back door caring a small, battered suitcase. He knocked and my mother came out of the kitchen to greet him. The man asked if he could do some work for a meal. My mother told him that if he would sweep out the garage and weed the garden she would give him lunch. I was told to show him where the broom and hoe were kept. Later, the man came back in the house and sat at the kitchen table, eating baloney sandwiches with my mother, myself and three brothers. After he left, we asked our mother about him. She explained he was a “hobo” – a word you rarely, if ever, hear anymore – and that he needed something to eat so it was nice to be able to help him out.
On another hot summer’s day, long, long, ago, Abraham was sitting in the shade of a grove of trees near the door flap of his tent, when suddenly, out of the blue, three strangers appeared before him. He exchanged greetings with them and next thing you know, Abraham is making arrangements for them as though they were invited guests. In minutes, a large bowl of water was brought so they could wash their dusty feet. The smell of cooking meat was in the air and the table was set. Abraham welcomed his guests generously, extravagantly really, and the three men sat down to a sumptuous feast. In the ancient world, hospitality was almost a universal code. For the Greeks, hospitality was a sign of civilization. For the Egyptians, being hospitable was part of what was required to secure a favorable existence in the future life. Among Romans, entertaining strangers was considered a social obligation. And in the lands just to the east of the Mediterranean Sea where Abraham and Sarah lived, hospitality was not only a social responsibility, but a sacred duty. These nomadic peoples lived and moved around in arid lands where hospitality was elemental. In the searing heat of the desert, it could mean the difference between sustenance and starvation, life and death. There is among Bedouin Arabs still today an understanding that one is to provide hospitality to the stranger who shows up at your door, and that that hospitality should be offered for three days without question.
Abraham asked no questions of the three mysterious strangers. He simply did what good hospitality requires and attended graciously to their needs and comfort. Neither he nor his wife, Sarah, had any inkling that these strangers were angels, messengers from God. This early episode in the Bible is the first of many biblical incidents in which God makes an appearance in an unlikely, unexpected way. From this point on, hospitality to strangers emerges as one of the grand themes of the Bible. Again and again in Scripture we encounter open doors, generous hosts, gracious welcomes, invitations to dinner parties, strange guests, and the promise of a great banquet to come. In the Old Testament, the importance of hospitality is embedded in Israel’s identity. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” the children of Israel are taught in referring to the patriarch Abraham. (Deut. 6:5) After the Hebrews settle in their new land across the Jordan, hospitality is written into their holy law: “Love the sojourner,” says the Book of Deuteronomy, “for you yourselves were once sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:19) The theme of hospitality continues on in the New Testament. Eleven times in the gospel accounts, Jesus receives hospitality from others. One of Jesus’ more memorable teachings emphasizes that hospitality is an act of devotion and faith in serving God: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt. 25:35) And, as we heard earlier today, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The Book of Hebrews references the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah saying, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
The late Dutch theologian and priest Henri Nouwen once commented that “if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is hospitality…hospitality that means the creation of space where a stranger can enter and become a friend.” (Reaching Out, pp. 47-51)
In a sermon a couple of years ago, Dr. Gil Bowen told a story about a family extending the kind of authentic hospitality that Henri Nouen describes. “Theologian Minnie Pearl, that Grand Old Opry trooper, gives us a wonderful picture of what true community is all about. She tells a story out of her childhood in the Tennessee mountains. She vividly recalls the night her father got caught in a storm. He could see thunderheads rolling across the sky. He was out on his horse far from home. And so he went to the first farm house he saw and asked if he could find shelter. The people who lived there took the stranger’s horse to the barn, and then invited him in to share their supper.
“No sooner had Minnie Pearl’s father stepped inside than the heavens broke open in a tumultuous storm. They sat down to the meal, and they sat in an awkward silence for a time. Finally the woman of the house spoke…in an effort to make the stranger feel welcome. She looked out the window and said, ‘Sure is raining hard outside.’ And then her husband, in his only word during the meal said, ‘Let it rain. Everybody’s in.’” (October 1, 2006)
True hospitality is characterized by a spirit of openness and generosity. In our church, we create a hospitable space every time there is a memorial service and the family’s friends are invited to the Culbertson Room where the Memorial Guild has prepared homemade sandwiches and cookies and set them out on a table with a silver coffee and tea service attended by a hostess. Hospitality is lived out by members and families of our church serving meals from the Night Ministry street bus and at the Good News Community Kitchen. Our church also shows its hospitality to the wider community every summer on Rummage Day. And hospitality is quietly shown when someone approaches a person standing alone in the Culbertson room and introduces themselves, making that stranger feel more welcome.
“I did not laugh,” said Sarah to the stranger outside her tent. And with what I imagine as a twinkle in his eye, he retorted, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” I love that small interchange. The stranger, who was welcomed so readily, now makes space for Sarah to feel welcome by kidding her. Hospitality does not flow just one way; at its best it is reciprocal. There are social scientists, however, who point to the fact that hospitality has met with hard times in our modern world. In the forward of a book entitled, Close Relationships, one author makes the observation: “What chills me about the future is a general sense of transformation of our society from one that strengthens the bonds between people to one that is, at best indifferent to them; a sense of an inevitable fraying of the net of connections between people at many critical intersections…Each fraying accelerates another.”
As lamentable as that fraying is, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that there is risk in showing hospitality to strangers. We warn our children about strangers. We are cautious about strangers ourselves. It is only prudent. But there is another kind of hidden risk involved here. And that is, in being too careful about greeting the stranger we may well miss something. For when we extend hospitality by opening the doors of our church, our hearts to a stranger, it could turn out to be angels in human form…like the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah; like Jesus who openly shared meals with folks that his society labeled as sinners, not worthy of opening the door for.
Benedictine monk, Daniel Homan and free-lance writer Lonnie Pratt conducted a survey of the ways hospitality is practiced in our society today. In their book entitled Radical Hospitality, they state, “Hospitality has two meanings for most people today. It either refers to hotels and cruise ships, or it is connected to entertaining friends and family…One model makes it an industry…The other model relegates it to then domain of entertainment and housekeeping.” In our culture, hospitality has been “turned into a social grace that neither disturbs nor transforms.” The fact is, welcoming the stranger can do just that – disturb and transform – as illustrated beautifully in a story told by Fred Craddock. (adapted from Craddock Stories, p. 83-84)
Fred Craddock, a celebrated preacher, was once invited to lead a preaching seminar up in Winnipeg, Manitoba one October. As a southerner, Fred was wary of places as far north as Canada, but his hosts assured him that is was normally pleasant in Winnipeg in the fall and that he didn’t even need to bring winter clothes. A windbreaker would do just fine. So he flew up to Winnipeg the day before the conference. They put him up in a downtown hotel, and, of course, that night a blizzard blew through southern Manitoba.
Craddock says, “The next morning when I got up, two or three feet of snow had fallen. The phone rang and the host said, ‘We’re all surprised by this. In fact, I can’t come and get you to take you to any breakfast, the lecture this morning has been cancelled, and the airport is closed. If you can make your way down the block and around the corner, there’s a little depot, a bus depot, and it has a café. I’m sorry.’” His apologetic host gave him directions: “three, four blocks down and a block over, but do dress warm, it’s bitter out there.” This from the guy that had suggested all he would need is a windbreaker. So Craddock put on the windbreaker and zipped it up tight. He put a baseball cap he had brought along and put it on his head before stepping out into the teeth of an early Manitoba blizzard to find himself breakfast at the bus station.
Four long blocks down and one over, frozen to the bone, Fred says he stumbled into the bus station and found the dining room, a sorry excuse for a restaurant. But the place was crowed with people fleeing the cold, a strange assortment of humanity sitting together in the warm. The room fell silent as he tromped into the room and found a chair at a nearly full table. He ordered breakfast, but was told that there was only soup. Fred said he would have the soup. It came, the same soup everybody else was eating, and it looked and tasted, Fred said, for all the world like dirty dish water. But it was warm.
As he debated whether or not to eat it, the door opened and the icy wind blew in as another person stumbled out of the blizzard into the dining room. “Close the door,” somebody yelled to a bedraggled woman, poorly dressed, looking half frozen. The room fell to silence as the newcomer found a seat. The proprietor, an ill-tempered waiter-cook in a greasy apron wandered over to the woman. She said she had no money and could she just stay in the dining room for a while to get warm. He said, no, she had to order something. She said, well, could she have a glass of water. The guy with the greasy apron said, “Lady, you’re going to have to leave.” Without a word, the woman stood up, wrapped herself tightly in her coat and headed for the door. But as she did so, the most amazing and gracious event unfolded in that seedy bus station. Without a word, everybody else in the dining room began to stand up in solidarity and got ready to leave with her. The guy with the greasy apron saw what was happening and repented, “Okay, lady come on back, you can have some soup.” Again without a word, the crowd shuffled back to their seats.
Craddock asked the guy next to him, “Who is she?” The man said, “I never saw her before.” Craddock silently thought to himself, “How I do wish that had happened in church.” After everybody was back in his or her place, he returned to his soup. And all of sudden, he said, that gray, watery soup tasted for all the world like something else. It tasted just a little like…bread and wine.
“Hospitality means creating a space where a stranger can enter and become a friend,” said Henri Nouwen. That space can be in a tent under a grove of trees in the desert, in a home, a church, or even a seedy bus station restaurant. Hospitality is finally a matter of the heart as we extend ourselves to make strangers feel welcome. Abraham and Sarah said, “Come on in, the door’s open,” and nothing was the same again. They did not miss a revelation from God that brought laughter and new hope. I would like to think that most everybody in this room has had the experience of being welcomed as a stranger, of having a door opened, of coming in and receiving hospitality. May we so welcome and bless others.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.