In 1985, the summer before my last year of seminary, I was privileged to take part in the Presbyterian Youth Peacemaking Seminar to the Soviet Union. I was at the upper limit of our denomination’s definition of youth, and the oldest “youth” on the trip. We started our trip in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was named at that time. One day, while a few of us were browsing in a book store, a man came over to us, introduced himself as Sasha, and asked if he could speak English with us. He was a private English tutor, and hungry for opportunities to speak English. We went for a walk together in the park and agreed to meet again the next day. At that second meeting, Sasha invited us to come to his apartment for dinner later that week. This was a rare invitation. Our understanding was that foreigners were not invited to people’s homes, and there was a hint of danger to this adventure—not from Sasha, but we had been told to be cautious about our conversations with Soviet citizens, because we did not want to get them in any trouble. But Sasha assured us it would be okay. We arranged to meet him the next day, and he took us by subway to his neighborhood. It was not an area visitors would have been taken to on a tour. It was like the images I’m sure you have seen of stark, Soviet era apartment blocks. Bleak, to our eyes. The only landscaping was dirt and straggling weeds. As we walked along the sidewalk to Sasha’s building he said, “There is a flower up here.” And sure enough, in the midst of the dirt and straggling greenery, there was a flower. “Isn’t it beautiful,” said Sasha. “We will let it grow.” I don’t remember much about what we talked about, but I remember Sasha’s gentle, welcoming spirit and his joy in that flower, in the beauty he had found in such a stark place.
We got to his building and walked up the stairs to his floor. He opened the door to his apartment, and the room was almost completely filled with a table and chairs he had set for us. There was barely room to maneuver between the chairs and the furniture lining the walls. I think that one room was the extent of his apartment. The kitchen and bathroom were tiny shared spaces down the hall. Sasha had prepared a feast for us. Dish after dish. He probably spent weeks’ worth of his food budget feeding us, and he took such joy in it. He had a collection of Russian Orthodox record albums, and gave each of us albums to bring home. When it grew late, he accompanied us back into the city, and we sadly said good-bye, realizing we had been given a great gift in meeting Sasha and being welcomed as his guests.
I imagine many of you have similar stories to tell. I know those of you who have traveled on one of our partnership trips to Zimbabwe have had similar experiences. What is it that happens when hospitality like this is extended and received? We make connections. We share our common humanity. We open our hearts to each other. We learn from people whose lives may be very different from our own, and we form bonds. Once you have broken bread together, and welcomed someone into your home—and been welcomed—it is very hard to think of that person as an enemy or an alien other. Those one-on-one connections and conversations were at the heart of our peacemaking trip. They were not the planned events, but they had far more impact than anything else we did. We had official meetings with various Soviet and U.S. agencies and organizations, but it was our interactions with people we met on the streets or in the churches where we worshipped that made it impossible for us to continue thinking of the millions of people in Soviet countries as our enemy. Once you have shared a meal in someone’s home, and your hearts have been opened to this other person, you can no longer be enemies. Hospitality is peacemaking.
That is part of what lay behind the traditions of hospitality we read about from ancient times. There were strict codes of conduct about hospitality in biblical times. Among the nomadic, desert dwellers, hospitality to strangers was the expectation. That hospitality is still practiced in Bedouin culture today, and in many other parts of the world. In part, ancient peoples offered hospitality, because once a guest had accepted it, they could not turn around and attack you. But it was also a matter of survival for the stranger—they needed water, food, a place to rest, and protection.[i]
So, Abraham, when he sees the three visitors standing outside his tent in the heat of the day, runs to meet them. He bows down before them, refers to himself as their servant and beseeches them to accept his hospitality. He washes their feet, offers them a place to sit in the shade of the oak trees, then enlists Sarah and his servants to prepare a lavish meal—he even kills a calf for them, serves them delicacies of curds and milk, and stands beside them as they eat. Did Abraham know these visitors were divine, that they were the Lord come to see him? The passage is not clear on that. It is also not clear on whether the Lord is one of these visitors, or whether he is present in them collectively. The passage alternates between referring to the visitors in the plural and the singular. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says it is not necessary to solve the mystery of the identity of the visitor. We know this visit is a revelation from God, and that is enough.[ii] We also cannot determine at which point Abraham realizes the Lord is visiting him. When he first says, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant” that is “lord” with a lower-case “l” for a reason. It could be an honorific shown to any guest.
If Abraham at first perceives these visitors as three human strangers, it makes his generous hospitality more meaningful. Who wouldn’t offer lavish hospitality if you knew you were hosting God? But Abraham doesn’t seem to know that at first. Abraham welcomed strangers and unknowingly entertained angels, as the writer of Hebrews later exhorts: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[iii] In welcoming these three visitors, Abraham welcomes God, and he and Sarah are richly blessed in turn. After they have eaten, one of the visitors says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah is listening in the entrance of the tent and laughs to herself. She is far beyond child-bearing years. It is impossible for her to have a child. In the previous chapter, we read this same story, told by one of the other sources of Genesis, and in that version, when God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son, he falls on his face and laughs. They both know this is impossible. But the Lord responds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And if we believe that God is God—unlimited, creator, boundless—the answer to that question has to be, “No. Nothing is impossible, nothing is too wonderful for God.”
Brueggemann says that this is the question “which surfaces everywhere in the Bible,” and is “the fundamental question every human must answer.” He says, if we answer, “’Yes, some things are too hard, impossible for God,’ then we do not really confess God as God. But if we answer, “’No, nothing is impossible for God,’ that” he says, “is an answer which so accepts God’s freedom that the self and the world are fully entrusted to God and to no other.”[iv] Think about that for a moment. If we believe there are some things that are impossible for God, then we are limiting God’s freedom and closing ourselves off into our own “stable, reliable, and hopeless” universe according to Brueggemann. But confessing that nothing is impossible for God means we entrust ourselves and our universe fully to God and to God’s grace, and open our lives for that grace to flow through.
This passage and our faith are about opening our hearts to others and opening our hearts to God. The two are inextricably bound together. Hospitality means living with an open heart, welcoming the stranger, knowing that when we welcome the human stranger, we are also welcoming Christ. Hospitality is the heart of our faith. We are recipients of God’s hospitality—God has created this world and placed us in it, God has extended us grace beyond measure, given us life, and we are called to live with that openness and grace and welcome toward others.
When Jesus sends his disciples out on their mission to proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons, he says, “You received without payment; give without payment.” They are to extend the same grace to others that Jesus has given to them. We find this exhortation over and over again in scripture. In today’s epistle lesson, Paul writes about the grace that has been poured into our hearts—we have been given access to grace through Christ, he writes. We are who we are through the grace, the hospitality, of Christ. Towards the end of this letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”[v] Hospitality is so much deeper than how we commonly think of it—it is at the very heart of our faith. God has welcomed us, and living as one of God’s redeemed, means welcoming others. God calls us to live with open hearts, to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor as we love our self. When we live into that grace, then, as God shows Abraham and Sarah, we join ourselves to the God for whom nothing is impossible, nothing is too wonderful.
We need to live into this faithful hospitality now more than ever. It is commonplace, but true, to acknowledge that we are deeply divided. We seem to live out of fear of the other and a sense of scarcity. Hospitality challenges us to open our hearts and make connections with those we fear, those who are “other”. It challenges us to share what we have, rather than cling to it because we worry that we don’t, or won’t, have enough. Hospitality can turn us, and our society around, so that grace will be our foundation rather than fear; and trust and generosity rather than selfishness.
On Friday, yet another police officer was acquitted of killing an innocent black man, because, as he said, “he feared for his life.” There was no real basis for that fear. Yesterday was the second anniversary of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, by someone whose heart and mind were twisted with a hatred born of fear for an entire race of people who were “other” to him. In spite of all the work that has been done to move toward equality, we still stereotype and discriminate against entire races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and sexual orientations. At its root this discrimination and hatred stem from fear--fear of those who are different. There are deeply entrenched systemic issues that we need to change—and while we need to actively work to make those changes, I don’t think we will ever truly effect change unless we also make individual connections with the “other,” “the stranger,” “the alien.”
When we get to know someone who is different from us, someone whose life experiences are not ours because their race, social status, gender, religion, nationality are not ours, then the stranger becomes known. We recognize our common humanity; we begin to understand who they are and what their experience is, and the “other” is transformed into someone we have a bond with, someone we have shared meals and conversation with, someone we have laughed and played with, someone who is no longer a faceless, feared stranger.
This radical hospitality is not easy. It calls us to take risks, to be vulnerable, to move through our fears to open our lives to someone who is different. But that hospitality is our calling. Welcoming the stranger, sharing who we are and what we have with the “other” is what Christ calls us to. And it is what our world desperately needs. Christ has made us one, broken down the dividing walls between us, yet we work so hard to erect those walls and shore them up. Jesus didn’t call us to build walls to keep others out and keep ourselves safe. He called us to go out into the world and offer to others what he has freely given us.
Abraham showed us what it means to offer this hospitality to strangers. And Christ extends this hospitality to us, every time we gather at this table. Here we remember that Christ is the host and we are the guests, being made new through the nourishment of his presence and sent into the world to offer that same grace, that same welcome to others. May God’s grace open our hearts that we may live a life of welcome. Amen.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pp, 157-58.
[iii] Hebrews 13:2.
[iv] Brueggemann, p. 159.
[v] Romans 15:7.