Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-22
I want to start off my sermon this week with a little “audience participation.” I’m going to say a word and I want you to shout out its opposite. OK? Are you ready?
We are living in a time of great pluralism and diversity. But, just in the off chance you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, America’s increased diversity has not yielded an increase in tolerance. In fact, political psychologist Karen Stenner reports that, among those who desire oneness or sameness, such diversity moves them not toward their greatest level of tolerance, but rather, to their most intolerant extremes.[i] And sadly, the Christian Church has not presented a counter-cultural perspective. It was April 17, 1960, when Martin Luther King, Jr., on Meet the Press said: “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation – one of the shameful tragedies – that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours – if not the most segregated hour – in Christian America.” And more than 57 years later, little has changed.
What is it about our human condition that causes us so often to gravitate toward those most like us and to so often fear those who are different?
Often sermons must bridge a great cultural divide. Often when I preach I point out differences or distinctions between 1st century Mediterranean culture and our post-modern American culture. But today’s scripture from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is remarkably “on target” for post-modern America.
Corinth was a Roman city. In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar re-founded the city as a colony for veterans, slaves, freed persons and entrepreneurs. Location is everything, as any good real estate agent will tell you. And Corinth was an ideal location. So it grew quickly. By the middle of the first century CE, it was a hub for business, trade, manufacturing and tourism. It was a magnet for those who hoped to rise quickly in their financial or social status. It was the cradle of upward mobility; yet, not everyone made it. There were also many who were poor and struggled to eke out an existence. Corinth was a remarkably cosmopolitan city; yet it revealed tremendous social, cultural and economic segregation. Its way of life encouraged competition and comparison.
And there, in the midst of such social, cultural and economic competition, Paul had come to proclaim the gospel of a Jewish messiah who became savior and lord through something as humiliating as crucifixion… capital punishment reserved for the most despicable criminals. There, in Corinth, in the midst of such social, cultural and economic segregation, Paul had come to proclaim a gospel of equality and unity. And let me tell you, it was not an easy sell.
In this morning’s scripture verses, Paul’s attention has turned to the shameful way in which the church in Corinth is celebrating Holy Communion. In the first century, the Lord’s Supper was set within the context of an entire meal. And dining, in the ancient Mediterranean world, was an extremely segregated and biased practice. Generally, those who were wealthy enough to afford meat and high quality wine only served such delicacies to those who could return the favor and were counted as social equals. That’s why Jesus in his own dining protocol and in his parables is so offensive. He eats with sinners and tax collectors and encourages dragging diners in off the street. Bible scholar Robert Karris writes that “Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate.”[ii] Lucian, an ancient rhetorician known for his satire pokes fun at this practice of culinary belittling, asking of one dinner host: “Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You eat oysters fattened in the Lucrine Lake while I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell. You get mushrooms while I get hog funguses… Golden with fat, a turtledove gorges you with its bloated rump, but a magpie that has died in its cage is set before me…”[iii]
Meals, in the ancient world, were an opportunity to reinforce the social pecking order and that is exactly what the Corinthians are doing. The congregation in Corinth had a few wealthy members and it’s likely those folks didn’t need to work long hours. They would have had nice homes and ample food to eat. But there were others in the congregation who were quite poor, who likely found it necessary to work long hours and couldn’t have afforded a very well-balanced, healthy diet. In those days, there were no church buildings. Christians worshipped in homes and those homes would have, by necessity, belonged to the wealthier members of the church with houses big enough to hold a lot of people. So when the Corinthian Christians came together to celebrate the “Lord’s Supper” within the context of a meal, here’s how it likely played out: the wealthy folks would show up early since they weren’t the kind who needed to punch the time clock. And, right away, they’d start to eat. They’d over-indulge in rich food and meat and a lot of wine. By the time the poorer folks arrived late from work, the best food and drink had already been gobbled up and there wasn’t much left.
But, Paul makes quite clear to these Corinthians, they all belong to the one body of Christ. No one part, no one individual, is more important than any other. All are bound to one another in one body. The more affluent members of the congregation had been seduced by the culture around them to construct a self-affirming, self-centered, affluent version of the gospel; a cultural adaptation that was an aberration, a gross distortion of the good news; one that rejected the lifestyle and teaching of the humble, crucified messiah they claimed to know.[iv] So Paul admonished them to look beyond themselves and their own recognition and honor and to seek the good of others. This Lord’s Supper is the meal recalling Jesus’ sacrificial death, the voluntary pouring out of his life for those whom he loves, and these Corinthians have distorted it into a fancy dinner party designed to draw attention to their social affluence and influence.
But, the Church is never meant to reflect the world’s social groupings and values. If we succumb to such worldly distinctions, we make a mockery of the gospel and disrespect our Lord. The Body of Christ is to be a body of diversity that honors and celebrates and respects our social, ethnic, cultural, educational and economic differences.
In Corinth, in the midst of such segregation, Paul had come to proclaim a gospel of equality and unity. It was not an easy sell and it still isn’t.
Friends; our Centennial neighborhood, the neighborhood in which our church resides, is a diverse community… particularly, revealing economic, social and educational diversity. We have Ph.D. students living in cheap apartments. We have wealthy folks who have purchased historic homes and spent significant amounts of money to restore them to their former glory. We have “urban nomads” who have no permanent housing of their own but sleep on park benches or LUM’s shelter or hunker down with friends. We have women living quietly in the confines of a domestic women’s shelter. We have empty nesters that have moved downtown and purchased expensive, new condos. We have families – a remarkably high percentage of single dads – living in cheap, often sub-standard, apartments or houses – struggling to provide for their children and keep a roof over their heads. We have section 8, government subsidized apartments. We have folks who have selected this location because they go easily back and forth across the river, taking advantage of our abundant cafes, coffee shops, boutiques, community forums and Purdue sporting events. We have folks who have selected this neighborhood because they rely on the public bus, St John’s food pantry, or the 12 step meetings hosted here and at St John’s. If we look around our sanctuary this morning, we have some diversity here; but not enough. We can do better and that’s what our Ready Set Grow plan is trying to address. This summer we started a community garden. If you didn’t have a chance to work in the garden, I hope you will next year. Talk with our garden guy, Mel Shoaf, and he can tell you about some of the conversations he had with folks here in our neighborhood who came to pick fresh, free, healthy produce out of the garden. This summer we had Garden and Grill meals and they brought together on our lawn people who represented different social groupings to sit together around the table and break bread with one another. This month, we’re launching several new small groups and if you think those groups are just about Trinity, that’s a mistake; a misunderstanding. We want you to invite people to those groups, invite them to come with you, to join us. This summer we redesigned our unused chapel to become a conference room and one summer small group already has included people outside our Trinity congregation and that’s how it ought to be. At least once now – sometimes twice – every week, people gather around the table in that conference room to learn, to converse, to plan ministry, to get to know one another; to encounter the image of Christ in one another.
Tomorrow evening at 7 pm, Ruth Smith, our community engagement coach, will offer a community discussion group to learn more about how we can create a stronger, more compassionate community. Starting Sept. 19, Ruth will host once a month dinner groups comprised of folks from our congregation and our community – a diverse group – to talk together about our neighborhood and strengthening and serving our neighborhood. If you want to know more, talk with Ruth or me. Over this next year, Trinity’s primary focus will be on building community; reaching out to new people; finding the courage and learning the skills to strike up dialogue with people we don’t know; walking around our neighborhood and initiating conversations; even hosting training opportunities so folks can learn more about our community’s needs and how to respond to them. Our office is now in the Lily House. Have you sat on the porch there? Do you know how much foot traffic is in the alley between the church and Lily House? Pack a sandwich and come eat lunch on the porch and greet our neighbors.
Friends; we can’t simply say that we will unlock our doors on Sunday morning and warmly greet anyone who crosses our threshold. That’s not enough. That’s not counter-cultural. We have to all – and by all, I mean ALL – begin to gather around the table with people who might not be like us; people whose differences might cause us some anxiety. But that’s OK. Church isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable; it certainly wasn’t for the Corinthians. Church is supposed to challenge us. Church ought to be as counter-cultural and wildly hospitable as Jesus was. And that’s why this building is here; that’s why we’re here: to be the Church in radical, counter-cultural ways.
And this fall as we talk about stewardship, we want to focus your attention on the opportunities we have over the next year to develop new programs, new outreaches; to redesign the space within our building – spaces like our parlor – to become spaces of radical hospitality and fellowship. And that will cost money; that will require generous giving. It’s not about how well this space and our current programs serve us. It’s about how well this sacred space and our programs serve the people outside our walls who haven’t yet walked through our doors. We want to prepare our hearts, our minds, our programs, and our facilities to welcome them and proclaim the radical good news that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians: that social, cultural, and economic segregation may very well be the way of the world; but it is not the way of Jesus and it is not the way of the Church. Paul reminded the Corinthians and he reminds us: the gospel of Jesus is one of humility, vulnerability, sacrifice, radical hospitality and unity amidst diversity.
So this morning I want to end my sermon in a very clear way and be perfectly frank: I am asking three things of you for the sake of the gospel. One: your talents. In just a few moments, Bob Lilly will be talking about our building maintenance team. Our building needs to be safe, well-functioning and hospitable and it takes the skills and efforts of many people to accomplish that.
Second: your time. Please pull out the insert in your program that lists this fall’s new groups. I would ask you to pray over that page and to make a commitment to become engaged in a group AND… AND… to invite someone else to come with you. Offer to pick them up and bring them with you.
Third: In a few weeks, we will ask for your estimate of church giving for the 2018 calendar year. Please begin praying about that now. It will take not only time and talents, but also money, for our church to grow in our ability to reach beyond our walls. I hope, I pray, you find that of great value; of so much value that you will be willing to give sacrificially of your time, your talents, and your treasure so that, together, we might live out God’s vision for Trinity of growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.
Finally, this morning, I want to invite you to do one thing to expand your experience of Christian community today. Look around the sanctuary and look for someone you don’t know; maybe someone who seems a little different from you. And when worship ends, invite them to join you for lunch. Now, they might have somewhere to go right after church so, don’t be pushy; just issue a gracious invitation that they have the freedom to accept or decline. Take them somewhere simple (Pete’s Diner, Panera, Fuel, MCL) because if you keep it simple, you can buy their lunch.
[ii] Robert Karris: Luke: Artist and Theologian; New York; Paulist Press; 1985; p. 47.
[iii] Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians; Ben Witherington; Eerdmans Pub; 1995; p. 242.
[iv] For further discussion of this, see The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1; Abingdon Press; 2006; pp. 743-744.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 28:1-22 (see also Genesis 31:1-18; and Genesis 35:1-15)
The early years of the Christian Church were a time of determining what did and didn’t fit theologically. Although today we tend to think of the Church as easily establishing an identity not “of the world,” it wrestled greatly with the culture around it. For example, while the day of Jesus’ resurrection was celebrated from the start, the dating and celebration of Christmas had a great deal to do with pagan religious ceremonies. Worship of the sun – with a “u” – and “sun god” played a role in ancient cultures from the Egyptians through the Celts. Celebration of the winter solstice was quite a pagan party. And Christians wished not to be outdone, especially in their worship of the Son of God who was deemed the Light of the World.
One of the Church’s earliest threats was a heresy known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism saw little value in the physical world; but rather saw the corporeal as an impediment to spiritual enlightenment. Now, if you think the Church struck down this heresy with ease, think again. Even today, many self-identified Christians believe that the after-life is a purely spiritual concept and have little to no familiarity with the Apostle Paul’s teachings of bodily resurrection. Yet scripture – from the Genesis creation accounts to John’s revelation of a New Jerusalem coming down out of the heavens – all affirm the value of the physical realm. In the gospel of John, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we read his affirmation that those who worship the Father must worship in Spirit and truth. Yet we must also keep in mind that those very words were spoken by the Word made flesh. Jesus, one and the same with God the Father, who took on flesh and came down to reveal God in the physical world.
So, while Christians are clearly NOT to be concerned with acquiring wealth or putting things above people; we are also not to shun encountering God in the physical substance of God’s created world.
This morning’s scripture is a story about worship; it is a story about sacred space; it is a story about the meeting of heaven and earth; it is a story about divine encounter and how that encounter shapes our life’s journey and purpose.
Last Sunday’s scripture was a story about Abraham, the ancestral father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God enters into a sacred covenant with Abraham and his wife Sarah. Though they are an elderly, childless couple, God promises to gift them with a son and proclaims that through Abraham and his descendents all of the nations of the earth will be blessed. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham; so he is an inheritor of that promise. But he is far from perfect. He is a twin and, though he exits the birth canal in second place, he plots with his mother to steal his twin’s position and inheritance. So angered is Esau, his brother, at Jacob’s duplicitous behavior that he threatens to kill him. So Jacob must go on the run. His mother, seeking her son’s safety, counsels him to return to her hometown where he can live with his uncle, her brother.
And that brings us to this morning’s story. Along the journey, Jacob stops to sleep for the night and has this remarkable encounter with God Almighty. Jacob’s divine encounter takes place in a city named Luz. But, when he awakens from his dream, recognizing the sacredness of this place, Jacob renames the city Beth-El, house of God. It is a surprise to him that this is a sacred place. He confesses, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”[i] This re-named city, Beth-El, house of God, will become a sort of spiritual “home” for Jacob. His time with his Uncle Laban is a mixed bag. He prospers there at his uncle’s expense (an uncle who shares Jacob’s shyster tendencies). Yet God continues to work within the life of Jacob and, eventually, calls him to his birthplace. Chapter 31 of Genesis presents an interesting dialogue between Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah. Jacob informs them that he has had another dream; a dream in which God has called him to return to his hometown by reminding him of his encounter with God in that first nocturnal visitation at Beth-El. According to Jacob, God spoke in this most recent dream, saying, “I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now leave this place at once and return to the land of your birth.” And so it seems that God Almighty himself chooses to appeal to the sacredness of this place, Beth-El, and the critical role it plays in the journey of Jacob’s life as he fulfills his part in God’s eternal and universal plan for salvation. That dream was the moment and Beth-El was the place where God first choose to make himself and his purposes known to Jacob and the unique encounter in that time and place will render it forever sacred space. In fact, once Jacob returns home (making peace with his brother Esau), God instructs Jacob to settle in the city of Beth-El. He is to build an altar there to commemorate that moment when God first appeared to him; when God first spoke the promise over his life; when God first laid claim to him. When Jacob returns to Beth-el, once again he sets up a stone pillar, he lays out an offering on it, he anoints it with oil, and he worships God. So the long journey of Jacob is book-ended by times of worship, moments of divine encounter, at this sacred place Beth-El, this earthly house of God.
As Jacob’s dream of the ladder reveals, this is a place where heaven and earth meet. The “ladder” is likely an ancient ziggurat, like the Egyptian pyramids. In the ancient world, holy people would climb the stairs of these ziggurats in order to reach the heavens and to commune with the gods. These ziggurats were considered connecting points between heaven and earth. So this city of Beth-El becomes a sacred place where the connection between heaven and earth, God and humanity, has been revealed in this image of the ladder coming down out of the heavens. As bible scholar Walter Bruggemann writes, “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.”[ii] There is such a thing as sacred space; places where we are reminded, through the acts of divine encounter and worship, that earth and heaven have everything to do with one another.
Brothers and sisters, Trinity is such a sacred place. Last Sunday, we celebrated our heritage. Tommy Kleckner, Director of Indiana Landmarks Western Regional Office, spoke with us during our Celebration Luncheon about the value of our church building. Historically, it is a priceless piece of architecture. But it is also priceless because it is sacred space. Since 1869, our ancestors in the faith have been gathering in this awesome place to worship the God who laid claim over their lives; the God who promised them that theirs was not merely an aimless wandering through life, but that God had a plan and purpose for them that would bring blessing not only to them but to others… including us. As Jacob gave an offering and poured out oil to consecrate the sacred pillar, we have been giving our offerings and engaging in rituals to keep us mindful of God’s faithfulness to us and his presence among us. Each time we celebrate a baptism, all of us reaffirm our commitment to Christ and to the Christian Church and to this church, Trinity United Methodist. From time to time, when we gather in this place, God reveals himself to us in ways we may not have previously understood or known and we too, like Jacob, must confess “Surely the Lord is in this place…” We encounter God here and begin to understand, through God’s interruption of our lives, that it is God who defines who we are and how we are called to live. Finally, the roles we fill outside this place do not name and define us – teacher, businessperson, healthcare worker, factory worker, student. We are named and claimed and defined by our identity as children of God, inheritors of the divine promise given to us through Abraham and, ultimately, through Jesus.
Today we live in a world that sees very little value to corporate weekly worship. Worship attendance in North America is at an all-time low and many factors influence those statistics. In some ways, it is an economic issue, a vocational issue, a scheduling issue. Yet, perhaps it is also – to some degree – that old heresy of Gnosticism rearing its ugly head; whispering into our ears that there is no sacred space or time; that “embodiment” is meaningless; that the physical and ritual are worthless. Yet we confess faith in a God who took on flesh; who chose to enter into time and space. We confess faith in a God who instructed Jacob to establish a monument to give witness to his encounter with God. In this morning’s scripture, over the course of nine verses, the word “place” is used six times. Friends, place does matter. Matter matters. We are not disembodied souls. We live out God’s call over our lives in time and space. Along our life’s journey, we return to this space space on a regular basis to worship, to remember, and to renew our covenant with God. Otherwise, we risk drifting aimlessly; we risk a state of spiritual amnesia in which we no longer know who we are and whose we are, what day it is or where we are going; we no longer remember the purpose of our lives or the relationships that define us. Knowing who and whose we are, knowing how we have been called to live as inheritors of God’s covenant and promises, changes how we live. And even when we stumble, even when we act in selfish or reckless ways as Jacob did, God calls us to return to the place where, in our baptisms, God first spoke to us saying, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you… Know that I am with you…”[iii]
Friends, over these next several weeks, we will discuss stewardship here at Trinity. Stewardship reveals the way in which we exercise care over that which we value, that which has been entrusted to us. This building, this sanctuary, is a sacred and awesome place, a place of divine encounter. Our ancestors exercised stewardship over this place because it was of value to them in their sacred journey. And the baton has now been passed to us. When we give to the church, even when our money is used to pay something as mundane as the gas bill, it is not ultimately about a utility bill. Ultimately, we are acting as stewards over this sacred place; a place of divine encounter; a place to which God calls us to return week after week, month after month, year after year to pour out our offerings, to offer up our worship, to remember and renew our commitments, and to hear again God’s call upon our lives so that, through us, all the people of the earth might be blessed.
[i] Genesis 28:16
[ii] New Interpreter’s Bible: a Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Abingdon Press. 1994. Vol. 1, p. 541.
[iii] Genesis 28:15
Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15
part of the series “Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity”
I come from a large extended family. We had multiple clergy and church leaders among us. Growing up, at family gatherings – for holidays and reunions – as the food was placed out on the tables or counters, the question was invariably asked: “Who’s going to say the blessing?” It was often my dad, a Methodist pastor, or my uncle, also a Methodist pastor; although sometimes my uncle, a Methodist church musician. Blessing the food and giving thanks to God for our family and fellowship was the one moment in those boisterous gatherings when everyone grew momentarily quiet and attention turned toward the unseen guest in our midst; the one who had blessed us with life together and woven us together into this one family.
“Blessing” is a religious word that has long been at home in the mainstream culture. Sometimes people conclude their voicemail greeting with the words “Have a blessed day.” Though initially stemming from superstition, few of us give much thought to extending a “God bless you” to someone when they sneeze. But what does it mean to be blessed? Where does blessing come from and what does it look like?
Blessings are pronouncements that solicit, distribute, or celebrate various forms of well-being such as fertility, good health, safety and happiness.[i] Though blessings come to us through a variety of channels, their source or origin always traces back to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift. From the beginning of scripture, God goes about the work of blessing. In Genesis, chapter 1, there’s lots of blessing going on. God blesses the animals, he blesses the man and woman, and he blesses the Sabbath day. God is in the business of blessing. So this morning’s scripture is a story about blessing.
Genesis chapter 12 marks a turn in our biblical drama; our attention is directed toward a central character, an old man named Abram[ii] (soon to be renamed Abraham) and his elderly barren wife, Sarai. Over the course of six chapters, at least three times God will pronounce blessing in the form of a promised child – an heir – upon this old, infertile couple.
But this morning’s story is also about hospitality and how the practice of hospitality can open us to God’s blessing. One decade ago United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase wrote a book called Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. The first practice Schnase named was Radical Hospitality and this morning’s story certainly gives witness to radical hospitality.
Though we may not relegate it to the religious semantic realm, hospitality – like blessing – is a spiritual concept. Our bible is filled with stories about hospitality. Within our biblical tradition, there is a clear and consistent message that, when we welcome a stranger as a friend and offer them our very best, they, in turn, impart a blessing to us. In scripture, the word itself means “lover of strangers.” The practice of hospitality differed from entertaining friends or family. Hospitality was graciousness shown toward strangers in the hope of transforming them from stranger to friend. Bible stories show us that hospitality is a spiritual practice because God is present in a real, although somewhat mysterious way, when we attend to the needs of strangers. Let me repeat that: God is present in a real, although somewhat mysterious way, through the strangers among us. In the book of Hebrews we’re told: “Do not neglect to show hospitality (to strangers), for by doing that some have entertained angels (or messengers) without knowing it.” In other words, we may find ourselves blessed by God through the strangers who visit us.
But whether or not we receive the blessing they bring us depends on whether or not we receive them in a gracious and open way.
As I’ve already mentioned, Genesis 18 marks the third time that Abraham receives the promise that he and Sarah, old and barren though they are, will conceive a child and that through that child Abraham will become a father to a nation and a blessing to all the people of the earth. And this is a story set in a context of table fellowship and hospitality toward strangers; hospitality so extensive that it seems to demonstrate a passionate love toward these three visitors who turn out to be more than mere mortals.
One of the most interesting things about this morning’s bible story is the ambiguity that surrounds the identity of these guests. Our narrator introduces the story by announcing that it is a story of “the Lord” appearing to Abraham. Yet, when Abraham looks up, what he sees are three men. They appear to be travelers; strangers on a journey. Then, suddenly, in verse 13, they take on the identity of “the Lord” yet again. Even so, as soon as the story wraps up, at verse 16, our narrator explains, “Then the men set out from there.” It is confusing to say the least. Are these men, God incarnate, angels? In the 15th century, Russian artist Andrei Rublev painted an icon of this scene of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors that is sometimes known as the Holy Trinity.[iii] It’s been printed in your program. Now, I think defining these three travelers as Father, Son and Holy Spirit goes beyond what the story itself presents; it’s a narrative stretch. Yet without a doubt, the identity of these three guests is ambiguous and ever-shifting. And that is, I would contend, the most important point. That the eternal Word of God became flesh in the historical Jesus is essential to our Christian faith. Yet we should not assume that the incarnating presence of God began and ended in the first century. As this morning’s story makes clear – as Jesus’ final parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew’s gospel makes clear – God is routinely in the business of coming among us as one of us and distinguishing God from the stranger in our midst is messy and ambiguous and perhaps a rather wasted effort. So it may serve us well to admit that God somehow, in a way beyond our comprehension, incarnates as the stranger in our midst… a stranger who elicits our radical hospitality, yet also bestows God’s remarkable blessing.
But it is, nevertheless, a surprise to us. It was a surprise to Sarah too. The radical blessing these travelers pronounce is so ridiculous she can’t help but chuckle to herself. Having a child at her ripe old age? But she’s not alone. In fact, just one chapter prior in Genesis[iv] Abraham had also laughed. Both Abe and Sarah struggle to accept that something so big, so miraculous, so illogical and wonderful could happen to them. I mean, no offense, God, but this whole idea is a little over the top, right?
You know, we get visitors to Trinity pretty frequently and I think, generally speaking, we do a pretty good job of welcoming them. We’re pretty friendly. We say “good morning,” we thank them for joining us, we tell them we hope they’ll come back. But that’s really not expecting much, is it? I wonder if some of them might be Jesus in our midst. I wonder if some of them might be sent to us by God. I wonder if some might come to bring us God’s blessing. And, if they do, will we receive it? I mean, sure, we’ll be thankful if they come back to worship with us again; or maybe they’ll start to worship with us regularly; or, if we’re really lucky, maybe they’ll even join our membership rolls. But, I wonder. Maybe it could be something even bigger. Maybe God is appearing through them to announce that something brand new and unexpected is about to be born here: a new idea, a new ministry, a new life coming to fruition; something so big that – like the progeny of Abraham and Sarah – it will be more than we can even count or tally. Does that sound silly? Does it make you chuckle?
This summer we had three Garden and Grills on our lawn. We designed them as opportunities for us not only to serve, but to break bread and fellowship, with our neighbors. If you attend today’s luncheon after worship, you’ll see on the program that the combined attendance for those three events was 260 and each time it was nearly a 50/50 split of church folks and community folks. I wonder if some of those folks might have been messengers from God sent to bring us God’s blessing. If you’re here in worship this morning and you attended a Garden and Grill and you had the privilege of striking up a conversation with someone from our community as you sat together at the table, would you stand for just a moment right now? I want to say, “thank you” for the hospitality you extended to the strangers in our midst.
Christianity is all about relationships: our relationship with God through Christ and our relationships with others… and, as this morning’s story reveals, sometimes those two are linked in mysterious and astonishing ways. Sometimes God comes as a stranger among us to bring a blessing. But who will we see? Will we simply see a newcomer and a guest? Will we simply see a prospective new member? Or, will we see that – in this one who appears among us – God may well be making his presence and his blessing known? We can never begin to imagine the ways in which the simple show of hospitality prepares the soil for the sowing of God’s blessings. How do we view one another? How do we view the strangers in our midst? How do we view the numerous and nameless people whose paths we cross day in and day out?
Once a great monastery had only five monks left. In the surrounding deep woods, there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town used from time to time for spiritual retreat. The monks always knew the Rabbi was there when they saw the smoke from his fire rise above the tree tops. As the Abbot agonized over the decline of his monastery, it occurred to him to ask the Rabbi if he could offer any wisdom or advice.
The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot into his hut. When the Abbot explained the reason for his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the Abbot and the Rabbi sat together discussing the Bible and their faiths. The time came when the Abbot had to leave. “It has been a wonderful visit,” said the Abbot, “but I have failed in my purpose. Is there nothing you can tell me to help save my dying monastery?” “The only thing I can tell you,” said the Rabbi, “is that the Messiah is among you.”
When the Abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, “What did the Rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the Abbot answered. “The only thing he did say, as I was leaving was that the
Messiah is among us. Though I do not know what that means.”
In the months that followed, the monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi’s words: The Messiah among us? Could he possibly have meant that the Messiah is one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one of us is the Messiah? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, Elred is virtually always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. Of course the Rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did?”
As they turned the idea over in their minds, the monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, eager to honor and serve one another on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.
Now, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the beautiful forest and monastery and without even being conscious of it, visitors began to sense a change at the monastery. They were sensing the extraordinary respect and hospitality that now filled the monastery. Hardly knowing why, people began to come there frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the older monks. After a while, drawn by their hospitality and kindness, one asked if he could join them. Then, another and another asked if they too could join the abbot and older monks. Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving place, a vibrant center of light and life.[v]
How do we view one another? How do we view the strangers in our midst? How do we view the numerous and nameless people whose paths we cross day in and day out? It may serve us well to admit that God somehow, in a way beyond our comprehension, incarnates as the stranger in our midst… the holy “other” who elicits our radical hospitality, yet also bears God’s remarkable blessing.
[i] See The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible; vol. 1; 2006; Abingdon Press; p. 477.
[ii] See Genesis 17:5 for the story of Abram’s name change.
[iii] For more background on this icon, see Hospitality: The Heart of Spiritual Direction by Leslie A. Hay; Morehouse Publishing; 2006; pp. 37-42.
[iv] See Genesis 17:17.
[v] Story found on the website https://www.cityyear.org/rabbis-gift Adapted from the Different Drum: Community Making and Peace by M. Scott Peck
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
10 Minute Sermons