Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 6/18/2017
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.
The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.” (Genesis 18:1-15, CEB)
In July of 2014, I went on my first mission trip to Managua, Nicaragua. I was part of a young adult group at my church in Circleville, and that church has a partnership with Tesoros de Dios, a Nicaraguan ministry that works with physically, mentally, and emotionally disabled kids and their families. It’s the same place you as a church sent me a couple years ago.
So when we took the trip that year, our first day was spent visiting several client-families of Tesoros de Dios in their homes, led by a staff-member from Tesoros. We visited several homes and brought groceries and a mattress given to each family by Tesoros de Dios. But we didn’t just drop them off and leave; we stayed and sat with them for a while, having conversation through a translator.
We visited several homes, but I can remember one specifically. The family living there family gave us a lavish welcome and invited us in. They were so glad for us to be there, glad for the privilege of hosting us.
They offered several fruits and nuts that we’d never had before – they only grow in Central America. And they were all delicious. We found out later that the grandmother in this family had run out to the market when they found out we’d be visiting that day to get all of this food just for us.
We experienced a perfect model of a radical kind of hospitality. We were complete strangers to the family, we didn’t even speak the same language. And it was obvious we as a mission team would only be in Nicaragua for a very short period of time – They’d had experience with U.S. mission teams. But the family showed such great gratitude for the humble gifts we brought – the food and the mattress. But besides that, they were thankful that we ourselves were there. They needed our gifts, but it seemed like the gifts were just an excuse to welcome us in and visit with us.
This was the definition of hospitality. We were strangers, but this family welcomed us in as if we were already friends, family even.
I hope that all of you experience a welcome as lavish as that family’s, hospitality as generous as that. I’m sure many of have, in one way or another – an experience of hospitality and welcome where someone went out of their way welcome you in.
I know several of us have been a part of mission teams which have journeyed outside of the US. And if that’s you, I’m sure you can think of at least one experience where you know the locals went out of their way to welcome you and provide for you, and went out of their way for joy.
But if you haven’t experienced that, I’m sure we can all think of similar experiences of hospitality and welcome. Maybe you’ve had some car troubles and someone went out of their way to pick you up and drive you wherever you needed to go.
Maybe you had money troubles and people helped you out with getting the food you need, or watching your kids while you find a job, or even helping you get a job.
I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of generous, radical hospitality; an experience where you not just welcomed as a visitor. Because that term ‘visitor’ implies that you’re still a stranger. I’m talking about an experience where you’re welcomed as a beloved guest who is no stranger. You have a place in the home which welcomes you, and they are overjoyed to see you and have you in their home.
That kind of hospitality – that’s what we read about in the passage in Genesis a few minutes ago, and that’s what I want to talk about today. But first, I need to make sure we’re on the same page. What is hospitality?
We all have our own ideas and our own experiences of what that word means. But I want to propose a working definition for today. It comes from an author named Christine Pohl in her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. She said “Welcoming strangers into a home and offering them food, shelter, and protection were the key components in the practice of hospitality.” [pg. 4]
Welcoming and offering food, shelter and protection to strangers. Specifically, to people without a place. With hospitality, strangers no longer feel like strangers. Hospitality gives them a place.
Now there’s a problem here. The term ‘hospitality’ has gotten so loaded down with all of our own boring and safe definitions of it. We think of ‘hospitality’ as an industry – hotels, hospitals, etcetera. Or we think of it as inviting friends and family over for lunch. In church, we Christians in the U.S. usually limit it to greeters on Sunday morning and a coffee pot in the back. I have nothing against the coffee, hear me, but we’ve restricted hospitality to a very safe, non-radical concept.
But hospitality was exactly what Abraham practiced in that passage from Genesis when he was sitting outside his tent and saw the three men. I think this story can give us a deeper understanding of hospitality.
There’s a specific kind of hospitality that Abraham demonstrates for us – missional hospitality. This is the kind of hospitality that involves going out of your place; going out of you comfort; going out to where other people are, literally or metaphorically, and offering yourself and your home to them. Missional hospitality is going out of your way to welcome a stranger, to welcome a person without a place.
In that story, Abraham went beyond what we today normally think of as hospitality and entered into that world of missional hospitality.
In Abraham’s world, there were a lot of travelers, nomads, immigrants, and refugees. There were a lot of people without a place and they all needed food, shelter, and protection.
Abraham, as a man of his own time, knows what travelers need. So he sees those three men who he doesn’t know. He assumes they’re travelers or immigrants without connection, needing food, shelter, and protection.
Abraham doesn’t wait for them to come to him and request his assistance. Instead, Abraham gets up from his seat by his tent and runs out to them, offering himself, his home, and his possessions to these wandering strangers as hospitality.
That story about Abraham reveals to me the heart of God. You see, our very existence depends on God’s hospitality.
Last week, we were at the very beginning of the Bible talking about Creation. God created the cosmos and in the cosmos God created the earth and on the earth, God made a place for humans within God’s glorious creation. And God continues to make a place for us.
If we believe in an all-powerful and all-sufficient God, then God didn’t need to create anything. There was no requirement. But God did create. God went out of God’s way, went above and beyond and created a place for us humans. And it wasn’t just a physical place on earth; God created humans in God’s own image so that we would have a special place in the whole of the cosmos. We are no strangers in this creation. This is our home because God welcome us and continues to welcome and provide for us.
So that’s the big picture of this missional hospitality, that’s where it all started. But let’s zoom in on the picture here. We – each one of us – we depend not only on God’s hospitality, but on other people’s hospitality, other people’s welcome.
When I had my seizure and traumatic brain injury back in December, I wasn’t able to drive until just last Sunday – if you’re friends with me on Facebook, you might’ve seen the FB Live post about that.
Now this whole not-driving-thing was an issue for a lot of reasons. But the biggest reason was this – my seminary is an hour-and-a-half drive from here. And I couldn’t make that. Luckily, one of my friends, Alex Wiles, is also a student at the same seminary, lives nearby, and had class at the same time as me. So every week, Alex would give me a ride down there.
This was a perfect picture of what we’ve been talking about – missional hospitality. Alex was literally going out of his way to offer me the hospitality of his car every single week. That’s what this looks like.
God’s hospitality to us is mediated through other flesh and blood people. God created a place for us in the cosmos from the beginning, and the truth of that is made so immediately real for us through the welcome and hospitality of others.
Now a lot of us might have a problem with this, whether we admit it or not. Because we in the US pride ourselves on individualism. We are self-sufficient, we can take care of ourselves, we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We might accept someone’s hospitality because we want to, but we don’t really need it.
To be honest, I think that view is so incorrect. After my seizure, I couldn’t ignore my dependence on the hospitality of others. If I was going to do anything besides stay in my house all day, I needed the missional hospitality of others going out of their way to drive me.
But while that was my own present and specific need, it made me think wider. Are any of us really self-sufficient? Do any of us really possess in our own Selves everything we’ll ever need? I don’t think so. In some way, we need and depend on meaningful human contact.
When God created humans in the Garden of Eden, God said “It’s not good for them to be alone.” Now this goes beyond marriage – God didn’t create us humans to be on our own. God pronounced everything else that God had created as ‘good’ – everything except for the lone human without any other humans. That means we absolutely need others to let us into their lives. We are absolutely dependent on the missional hospitality of others.
And that means the opposite is true as well – other people depend on our hospitality. So our waiting around for ‘them’ to come to us is not enough. Just like we are dependent on the hospitality of others, other people are dependent on us going out to them and offering it to them.
This is not just needy people needing our money. All humans were created needing other people to live a full life. That means we need other people and other people need each one of us.
Someone else needs you in their life. They probably don’t need you in the way you think they do, because hospitality can only be accepted on their terms, not yours. But they need you in their life in some way. And you need them.
So this calls us to go out and offer that hospitality.
Let me point you back to the story in Genesis. Notice how eager Abraham is to offer this missional hospitality. He goes out and actively offers it to them.
He sees the men and doesn’t walk but runs out to them. “Please, don’t just pass me by. Let me bring a little water so you can wash. Rest under this tree and let me bring you some food.” It reads like he’s almost begging these men to let him welcome them and care for them.
And Abraham goes beyond even what offered them. He said “Let me bring you a little bread.” But then he goes and tells Sarah to make the bread, slaughters a calf, and takes the butter, milk, and the calf and brings it all to the three men.
You see, Abraham’s missional hospitality extended far beyond going out and offering a snack. When the three men accept his invitation, Abraham lays out an impromptu feast for them.
This is what we’re called to do. But there are a lot of barriers that keep us from stepping into this, aren’t there?
Let’s be honest – sometimes, we just don’t want do this. We know we’re supposed to be welcoming and hospitable and going out into the world and welcoming the stranger. But what if they’re not the ‘right’ people? What if it’s not the ‘right’ time? What if we don’t feel like we have enough to offer? We say “They look different, they act different, the dress different, they think different. Now if they look, act, dress, and think like us, then I’ll definitely welcome them. But not until then.”
But maybe we’re genuinely welcoming to all. But maybe we say “Fine, I’ll practice this missional hospitality. But only this much.” And we put limits on our hospitality, limits on our welcome.
Now some limits and boundaries are good. Because true missional hospitality can get us into some different and dangerous territory, and we need some limits or boundaries so we can be safe and keep going. But let’s be honest – we set so many other unnecessary limits on ourselves.
These limits often revolve around us not wanting to go out to others. We’d rather to wait for others to come in to us. We in the U.S. church still operate out of a “Field of Dreams” mindset: Build it, and they will come. So we just open our doors and think “We’re here. People just have to come here, and we’ll welcome them.”
Now I guess that’s a form of hospitality, a pretty tame form. But it’s certainly not missional. We’re not going out to people who are not among us in here to meet them in a neutral space, on middle ground. We aren’t speaking to others in terms they would understand or meeting them on their terms or offering ourselves and our resources to them. We put conditions on it all – First they have to come to us, then we’ll welcome them.
God extends grace, mercy, and love through the hospitality of humans. So if we don’t offer true, missional hospitality, then we’re refusing to extend God’s hospitality, God’s grace, mercy, and love. And if we refuse to accept and receive hospitality for ourselves, then we refuse to receive all of that from God for ourselves.
So that puts a question before us. How can we be missionally hospitable?
The good news is that this church has already started down the path of missional hospitality with building our Community Outreach Center. The whole vision behind the project was missional hospitality. This church building we’re in has been here for over 100 years. So the people in Village of Alger who are not in here today probably won’t come in here.
So the thinking was “Let’s build a sort of neutral ground out in the community that would be more welcoming to our village.” It’s handicap accessible, it’s not what we would call a church building, and it’s much more adaptable to what the community needs. So with that building, we’ve already started down that path.
But we have yet to take a step down that path in another area of our community – the Windy Knoll apartment complex on the other end of town. My perception of the apartment community is that they’re pretty segregated from the rest of the village. It’s a really transient population and they’re not truly integrated into the life of the village. And we as a church have been almost completely absent from Windy Knoll. There’s a certain perception that is tacked onto apartment complexes like Windy Knoll and it often keeps other people away. So as I see it, because of that perception that I’m sure many of us have, we open our doors and expect ‘them’ to come join us, instead of us going out to them, meeting them halfway, and proclaiming the Gospel in terms that they will understand. We have expected them to take the initiative and join us instead doing the work to make them feel like they’re wanted here.
Let’s name the obvious: I have six more Sundays here as your pastor before I move to the United Methodist Church of the Messiah in Westerville to serve as an associate pastor there. I don’t have much time left as your pastor here, which means that I can’t actually do much besides preach, visit, and help with the transition. But, God willing, maybe I can also plant a seed here and pray God does something with it.
Windy Knoll apartments is an unreached area in our village. The mission of God calls us to reach all the people within our community. And the call to missional hospitality calls us to lavishly welcome even those we don’t like, even those people who we don’t know, even those suspicious people, and especially those people who are very different from us.
If we claim the Christian faith as our own, then the Gospel calls us to a high standard. Following Jesus leads us to a different way of life than anything we know about; different from anything we would choose. Jesus’ way of life led him to the cross, the grave, and finally resurrection. This is different from anything else we see, so it’s ok to be scared of this way of life. It’s ok to be uneasy about this concept of missional hospitality and what it calls us to do, how it calls us to change.
But we must remember that we are not alone. I say that so often in my sermons because we all need to hear it – we are not alone. Each of us are a part of the worldwide body of Christ. We are all, each of us, members of that body. None of us are self-sufficient. We all need each other. I need you. You need me. Each of us needs each other.
The mission of God cannot be accomplished by any of us on our own. But the good news is that we are never on our own. So let’s see what God can do with us.