Genesis 18:1-15; Hebrews 8:12-13
I have been eager to begin this series about welcoming. This theme has come up in various ways in recent months and now we have an opportunity to explore different facts of giving and receiving God’s great love in the weeks in an intentional way. I think Melanie’s challenging word to us in May was most pointed in calling us to rise to our identity as a welcoming people, as she spoke of how we welcome and embrace those in the ‘Quiltbag’ community – that is people who identify as part of the LGBTQ rainbow.
It’s only right that we should be challenged. Two years ago we adopted a new congregational leadership structure that highlighted ‘radical hospitality’ and ‘spiritual discernment’ as centering practices in our life together, valued practices out of which we would enact our Christian calling. Radical hospitality, says our proposal for restructuring,
demonstrates an active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ. Radical describes that which is drastically different from ordinary practices, outside the normal, that which exceeds expectations and goes the second mile.
Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to strangers that come to their camp, upon seeing the strangers coming in the heat of the day, it’s suddenly high gear hospitality. Hospitality would be the duty of any desert dweller of the time. Abraham and Sarah do not understand and nor they need to, that these men are God or God’s emissaries. There was no Holiday Inn, or highway rest area, there is only their camp and their herds and their well. And so when strangers appear in the heat of the day, needing a wash and a rest, you tend to their needs. Some kind of host switch has been flipped. Abraham runs, he hastens, he quickly prepares. His hospitality seems to go above and beyond – the best of the herd, the best flour and in abundance for the meal. It is a marked (and intentional) contrast with the story that follows, when the messengers receive not welcome but threat and violence and fury at Sodom.
It is in the context of this abundant hospitality that two things happen. First, fter the flurry of preparatory activity the pace suddenly slows again – slows into conversation and interpersonal interaction rather than frantic activity. And second, attention shifts to Sarah. Sarah has been a partner in preparations, but has until now been invisible in the tent. But because God is God, her existence is known. And because God is God, a promise is made. This is, ultimately an annunciation story. It is the announcement of birth. There are many such stories in the Bible, including, most famously for Christians, the annunciation of the messenger Gabriel to Mary that she is going to conceive and bear Jesus.
Of course, this is God – or at the very least God’s messenger, which is sometimes one and the same that it is YHWH who visits Abraham at Mamre. It’s not just any messenger. As it is pointed out (much much later) to the Hebrews, in our hospitality we sometimes entertain angels. This can be understood as a warning – you better watch your behavior, because you never know who might come knocking – or as an invitation. If we are open to what God’s messengers can bring, we may be opening our door to joy. In the case of Sarah, the message was new life: this time next year, you will have an infant son. How is Sarah to respond to such a message?
Here’s where radical hospitality and discernment meet. When we open the tent flap to God and welcome what God sets before us, we will necessarily need to practice discernment in how to respond to God’s message. Again, from our proposal for restructuring:
Discernment is a prayerful, informed, intentional effort to distinguish God’s voice from other voices that speak to us by seeking a sense of the direction the Spirit is leading in a given situation or decision. Discernment is more a direction than destination. It invites us to a journey and a process with open hearts seeking the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5.
Radical hospitality will mean we need to practice discernment because often sets before us guest and messengers that make us re-think who we are as the body of Christ. Who this congregation has changed radically when we have practiced radical hospitality. When members of this congregation met with and welcomed a man named Walter Thieme – with both his need for care and his substantial financial gift – we (and I really me you – the ‘you’ who were here 20 years ago) were faced with a discernment question: how do we care for Walter, a man ill in body and caring the ghosts and pain of broken relationships. And how do we best put the money to use.
Radical hospitality radically changed this congregation when we began to open our doors to host meals for the people sleeping in our courtyard and, instead of serving them a meal and tossing them out, asking “What would be most helpful to you?” Out of that question grew a program to offer storage and bus tickets and a discernment process that birthed a Community Ministry, and brought Melanie and Jonathan to us – the endowment make possible by Walter’s gift continuing to give to our neighborhood and continuing to make radical hospitality possible.
Twenty years ago, if a messenger had sat down with Weldon – who was pastor at that time – and said, “by the end of your ministry with this congregation, it will have a budget of almost 700,000 dollars” that would have been crazy and laughable. If we had heard, from our volunteers 100 people will be housed, many hundreds of lives will be changed and you will be partnered with dozens of conregations across Christian denominations and faiths. That too might have been laughable.
Sarah laughed. She doesn’t just laugh, ‘to herself’ like the English version says. She laughs in her ‘in-most part.’ She laughs in her very womb because – WHAT? This story says in every possible way that she and Abraham are OLD: withered up, worn out, impotent. But guess what. God has the last laugh. God can turn our incredulous and cynical laughter into the laughter of joy. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord??” God’s decision to bring new life and a future to Abraham and Sarah by providing for them a son has nothing to do with whether they are ready for it or believe that it can happen. In fact they do not believe. A year later, Sarah named her son laughter and her joy was great.
I’ve seen the culture of this congregation change as it keeps trying to live into what it means to offer radical hospitality – not only the discernment of what it means to open our doors to people who experience homelessness, but the week to week effort of welcoming visitors and greeting people you don’t know. Although some of you are naturals at it, I’m an introvert; I know this really can be an effort and can feel awkward.
Embracing hospitality as a gift and a spiritual practice will mean, as it did for Sarah and Abraham, adding to the family. It will mean growth. This puts a real and challenging question before us: do we want to grow? Whether we want it or not, whether we believe it or not, God seems to want it for us – seems to be bringing new and eager friends into our congregation ready to join in proclaiming God’s word and living the Gospel with us. Will we let the hesitant laughter of ‘no way’ be changed into laughter over the table with new friends?
One of the things that is challenging about this is that while we value and proclaim and even try hard at welcoming new friends, we also value intimacy and the family-like nature that small church offers. In this time of transitions and self-examination it’s become clear to some of us in leadership that we are stuck between a ‘family church’ size and a ‘program church’ size. We’ve always been a family church, a church where everyone knows each other and for the most part everyone does everything together.
I wonder what it would look like if we embraced what it means to be a larger church – where we might not know everybody but where we would to find intimacy, connection and spiritual growth in smaller groups and activities, with a centering framework and guidance offered by Spiritual Leadership Team. Where new friends would be regularly oriented, welcomed and invited into covenant. And at the same time, all together, we would be continuing a commitment to the covenant practices of eating together, worshiping together regularly, giving our time and our money to the work of the church, and regularly participating in the discernment processes – like (just for example) choosing and calling and settled pastor.
The best hospitality is full of laughter. Think of times around the dinner table with good friends. A friend of mine has made ‘taco night’ hospitality night every other week for her family. We often join her and it never varies – tacos and tostadas, a glass of wine for the adults, a movie for the kids, laughter and stories and shared life around the table. For her that is a spiritual practice and one she wants to teach her children: opening her home to her neighbors. God is at the table with us on those nights sometimes explicitly as we share our different experiences of faith – her Catholic and mine, of course, Mennonite.
Church should be like that. Open hearts, open tent flaps, open table, open doors. The laughter going back and forth. Sarah wanted to snatch back her laughter after she was discovered in her doubt and disbelief. But, God’s last word to Sarah is ‘Oh yes, you laughed,’ acknowledging that although she wanted to take back her doubt and fear, she was known. And yet nothing was stopping the promise. Isaac – his name laughter itself – is coming. The promise of laughter is out there. God has the last laugh on Sarah and Sarah laughs along the laughter of joy in realizing that after all nothing – nothing – is too wonderful for God. As we embrace the new, the ideas and possibilities that a larger family and new friends bring to us, may God’s laugh be last and lasting and may we be laughing along with God as we welcome the future that is promised to us.