The Old Testament lectionary passages have been following the story of Abraham and Sarah and I’ve been struck by these foreigners wandering around in the wilderness as I have prepared to preach each week.
God called Abraham to leave his home and become a wanderer and a stranger. Abraham knew God was calling him to leave, but he didn’t know where he was going except that it was a land God had promised him. He also knew that God had promised to make him the Father of many nations and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, but he didn’t know how that was going to happen since he was old and his wife was barren.
And so we come to Abraham and Sarah in the desert. They are alone. They are living outside of communities and places they know, but as they have journeyed, they have created high places…places that they have encountered God. Abraham is sitting at one of those high places called the sacred oak of Mamre when suddenly there appear three strangers walking towards Abraham in the desert. For the Israelites who would hear this story, their ear would immediately perk up. Strangers who suddenly appear have the possibility of being divine messengers. And so they would listen to this story of Abraham with great interest as to what he was going to do next. In these types of stories, not just in Israelite texts, but also in Ancient Near Eastern stories, extending hospitality would often result in a blessing at the end of the story.
And in the midst of the desert and the wilderness and the uncertainty of where they are going Abraham and Sarah are reminded that God does not forget God’s promises. God even sends divine messengers to us in the desert when it seems impossible that God’s promise will be fulfilled, but too often we are focused on the next step and we forget that welcoming the stranger might just be entertaining angels, angels whom God has sent in order to remind us of the promises God has made.
If you’re like me than your journey of following God includes some laughable moments. Moments when God calls us to believe in the possible. Moments when God calls us into the desert not knowing where we are going to end up, but just that God has promised to walk with us on the journey. Moments when it is hard to believe in anything but the dust and lifeless we see around us.
And I think sometimes we miss these reminders of God’s promises because, like Sarah, we don’t give way to our desert longing. We don’t give voice to the call God has placed on our life, and we don’t welcome the stranger in order to hear the divine message God has for us.
We don’t invite strangers into our homes expecting or believing they might be Jesus or God. In fact, if we are really truly honest with ourselves, we have a hard time inviting strangers into our churches, a place where we should welcome anyone we see walking our way because we have gotten our idea of hospitality backwards. Instead of being welcomed, we should welcome. Instead of being fed, we should feed those in need. Instead of waiting for strangers to come to us, we should be running to greet and welcome strangers.
If we like Abraham welcomed God into our homes, if we got to know God as we sat around our table as served God supper, then our lives would look considerably different, wouldn’t they. Rather than our being the ones to go to God’s house, we would be the ones preparing and serving God. We would be welcoming God instead of being welcomed by God.
When Abraham and Sarah left their home, they didn’t know what lay ahead. Certainly there were enough threats in the desert that could bring their lives to an end and yet they went anyways. When they welcomed the strangers, they could have been bandits or thieves, and yet they still welcomed these strangers, just like the beautiful community of faith at Emmanuel in Charleston.
We have to get to the point as believers and followers of Christ that we not only listen and study the words, but that the study and belief we have moves us to action. We have to get to the point that we welcome the stranger in the radical, generous hospitality that Abraham demonstrated and the radical, generous hospitality that Jesus demonstrated. The radical, generous hospitality that might ask us to give up our possessions, our homes, and even our lives.
And when we remember that the God of Abraham is Creator God who brings life out of dust and brings life from a barren womb. We are reminded that nothing is impossible with God and as a result we too will offer radical hospitality to the strangers we meet. And when we do, we still start to see a difference in this world full of violence. Instead of hate, we will see love. Instead of hunger, we will see full bellies. Instead of loneliness, we will see fellowship. Instead of helplessness, we will see hope in the faces of strangers we are eating with and fellowshipping with and those strangers might just look a lot like God, once we get to know them.