gracious hospitality to strangers

Pentecost +2 18-6-2017 Gen 18 1-15 & 21 1-7, Ψ116 1-2 & 11-18, Rom 5 1-11, Mt 9.35 – 10.8

Have you ever turned down an invitation and later on wished you’d gone? The invitation I most deeply regret not accepting was from a Bedouin shepherd in late 1987. I used to teach at the YMCA vocational school in the refugee camp outside Jericho. To get there, I’d take the regular bus down from East Jerusalem. The bus stopped on the way to pick up school children and day labourers from the Bedouin camps. One of the dads invited me to come and stay with his family in their tent for a few days. In the time before mobile phones, I couldn’t contact Vicky to let her know, so I reluctantly declined.

Bedouin hospitality has always been offered in this generous, impulsive way; it still is. The invitation home is pretty well the first thing they say to you. And it’s quite literally a no-questions-asked hospitality. These gracious people are so respectful of their guests’ privacy that they won’t even ask your name until after your third night staying with them.

This is the very gracious hospitality to strangers that we saw in today’s story from Genesis. Hundred-year-old Abraham, gently dozing in the heat of the day, started up to the sight of three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to greet them, and invited them to come, refresh themselves and eat. And you’ll have noticed that he offered them the best of everything he and Sarah had to give – water first, to wash; such a costly gift in the desert. He had no idea who it was at the beginning. We get told, but it’s only later on that Abraham and Sarah discover their visitor’s true identity – because, of course, they wouldn’t do any visitor the discourtesy of asking.

Part of the loveliness of this story is that their gracious impulse to hospitality is in no way diminished by their great age. It’s as fresh as ever it was.

That surprises me and it delights me, because several times now, God has promised them a child, but now Sarah is ninety years old, Abraham a hundred, and still there are no children. Childlessness was, and is, a terrible grief and shame in traditional societies. But they don’t come across in any way as embittered or discouraged by this crucial, terrible disappointment in life. Their hospitality to strangers shows us that they stick by the values they’ve always held. And this hospitality of theirs has become proverbial, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us. 13:Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

What’s all this got to do with us? Our culture doesn’t seem to have quite such a hang-up about childlessness. Our culture’s not so fanatical about hospitality to strangers either. And many people think that’s a good thing with all these terrorists and criminals apparently flocking to our front doors. Our media and our pollies are forever telling us to be more careful; not to be so trusting. This is something that separates us culturally from Sarah and Abraham. And some of our cultural differences cut us off from learning the lessons their story is meant to teach us.

The presenting issue for them is not their childlessness but the ticking clock. Years earlier, God had promised Abraham and Sarah as many descendants as there were stars in the sky, and Abraham believed God. (Gen 15.4-6) And yet now, here they were another twenty years on, and still no child. There could be no rational hope now that a child could come. So when Abraham was ninety-nine, and God told him again that he and Sarah would have a child, Abraham fell to the ground and laughed, delighted and incredulous that it might yet happen. So God told Abraham then that the boy must be called Isaac – יִצְחָק – s/he laughed. Today Sarah laughed too, just as bemused by this amazing promise.

The child came and he was duly named Isaac – s/he laughed. Sarah’s and Abraham’s moments of incredulous laughter had turned into a joyful laughter which would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The lesson for us is this. God’s time is not like our time. God makes promises, and God will fulfil those promises. No matter how much longer we have to wait than we think is reasonable, … how pessimistic our life circumstances might threaten to make us; … how inadequate the resources might seem for the promise to be fulfilled, as God’s servants, we must never forget that it is God who has promised what will come, and it will be so. So no matter how old and worn out we might feel, it’s never time to down tools. We are to respond to God’s call to be a light in the world, as long as any darkness threatens.

But how are we to be a light to the world? The example we’re given today is hospitality. Hospitality calls for very special qualities in us. At its most basic level, the call to hospitality is a call to us to welcome strangers into our lives. And that begins with a smile; a smile of welcome to the stranger; a smile of hope to those who need it; a smile of encouragement to the fearful; a smile of joy to celebrate another’s happiness. This demands that we cultivate very important qualities in ourselves and in our community. The first is instinctive grace – kindness. What this means, eg, for our care of refugees is crystal clear.

My personal demon is mistrust – I automatically wonder about the true motives behind a stranger’s cry for help. It’s something I’ve learned from a very few experiences of betrayal, and I’ve wrongly generalised from them to doubt anyone in need. I now have to make a conscious choice to trust; to be generous. So Abraham and Sarah are a light in the darkness for me, and, I hope, for everyone who reads their story. Let’s always remind each other of that child, Isaac, and make the right choice; laugh first and trust in God. Amen