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
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