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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

What Does the Bible Say About Hospitality

Genesis 18: 1-15

What Does the Bible Say About Hospitality?

Sunday September 4, 2016

Rev. Dr. Susan E. Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port

Our theme for September is Hospitality. Now it may seem to some of you like this is the last thing you want to consider in church in September.  As I settle into this community it seems to me that most of the people who move here have to take a crash course in hospitality. All you need to do is announce to your friends that you have moved to Cape Cod and suddenly you have friends you never knew you had and they all want to come for a weekend every summer. As I get to know you I realize that many of you are juggling guests from the beginning of July right through Labor Day. You are planning meals, and taking folks to the beach, and seeing the sites with relatives, and trying to encourage everyone to use the outdoor shower so you don't have so much sand in the house. When we think of hospitality most of us think of food, drink, clean linen and towels.  We wonder if we should book a ferry to the vineyard or consider how to get everyone to the beach.

Or maybe when you think of hospitality your mind goes to times when you benefitted from it. Perhaps you remember a bed and breakfast  where the homemade muffins changed the morning, or a hotel that welcomed you to meals where you relaxed into easy conversation. Perhaps you have a favorite family member who offers you enough support and freedom when you visit that you can kick back and feel at home. Hospitality is an art. 

As I was thinking about this sermon I started to wonder if this might be the last topic you would want to hear about in worship at the end of summer. As I get to know you I can see that most of you could teach a class in hotel management.  All you need to do is announce to your friends that you have moved to Cape Cod and suddenly you have friends you never knew you had and they all want to come for a weekend every summer. I realize that many of you are juggling guests from early summer right through Labor Day. You are planning meals, and taking folks to the beach, and seeing the sites with relatives, and trying to encourage everyone to use the outdoor shower so you don't have so much sand in the house.

            Most of us have a sense of what hospitality looks like, and feels like. But do you know where the concept of hospitality originates. Like many of our core values it comes from the Bible.  It originates with the story we read today. Abraham had been living in Babylonia in a city north of the Persian Gulf and south of modern day Baghdad. He was prosperous and had lots of flocks of livestock, but he heard God called him to travel to the land of Israel. So he mounted a small expedition and took his wife Sarah and their servants, his sheep and goats and began the trek about 500 hundreds miles across the Middle East.  While they travelled they lived for months in these large tents in the desert.  He was probably following well-established caravan routes, but still it was a lonely expedition. Abraham and Sarah saw few visitors, and had very few social gatherings to look forward to.

So it was a remarkable occasion when three strangers appeared at the edge of their camp. Abraham jumped up and took notice. He asked Sarah to taken enough flour to kneed and prepare three loaves of bread, one for each of the visitors. Then he went out to the pen with the cattle and chose a choice young lamb that had been reserved for a family feast and asked his servant prepare the meat as soon as he could. After organizing this abundant reception for his guests, Abraham returned to his guests. Do you ever wonder why he went to so much effort? No one would have noticed if he ignored his visitors or invited them in but given them leftovers. No one would have been the wiser, really. Let's take a closer look at the story and see what we can learn about hospitality from this story, for our lives today.

            In the first place the Bible says that strangers are a gift from God.  Once the strangers had rested and eaten their fill they told Abraham that Sarah would have a long-awaited child. Apparently that had been their mission all along. They came with a gift of good news for Abraham and Sarah. You may remember that when God called Abraham and Sarah they were not spring chickens but God told them that they would have children and descendants as many as the stars of the heavens. It seemed preposterous to a couple with no children, but they journeyed on in faith, for many years. Though they did everything they thought God wanted them to do as the years past they had pretty much given up on having a family. As they grew old together the dream of a family slipped from their grasp with each passing year. Now it seemed impossible because it would take a true miracle at their age.

Yet after dinner their visitors brought them the news they have longed their whole lives to hear.  Bible scholars often refer to these three strangers as angels or messengers from God. Others see them as stand-ins for God himself. There is something about the act of opening your home and your heart to a new guest that brings with it a gift you cannot find anywhere else. Maybe you make yourself more receptive just by inviting folks in. But often when you sit back and think about it you discover that welcoming guests is a process in which you gain as much or more than you give. Somehow it opens you to God’s goodness.

            This month I am suggesting that people read a book about hospitality. One I like was a popular story several years ago – Dinner with the Smileys. It is the story of a mother in Maine whose husband served in the U.S. Navy and was frequently deployed. Sarah Smiley was living in Bangor with three small boys when she learned that Dustin would be deployed for a year to Iraq. She dreaded these deployments and when her children started to talk nervously about missing daddy, she decided to do it differently. One night while one of the boys was sad she announced that they would be inviting a new person to dinner every week during the upcoming deployment and suggested they ake a list of people to invite. At the top of their list was president Obama. She told them that might be a stretch but they agreed to begin with Senator Susan Collins. To their surprise the senator accepted. With humor she recounts that night as the senator’s headlights swept her snowy yard and she worried about her casual house, the lasagna she had prepared and her boys table manners. Then when the doorbell rang she whispered, “No potty humor”, and then welcomed the senator. The senator arrived with all the warmth of a favorite aunt, brought some homemade brownies and took the youngest boy on her lap. One boy carefully picked all the nuts out of the brownies and piled them on the table, but the senator took is in stride and soon Smiley reports she forgot that were in the presence of a member of Congress. In the months that followed they entertained the Bangor police chief, an Olympic rower, a baseball historian, a symphony conductor, a weatherman, a zookeeper, a children’s book illustrator. Practicing hospitality did not bring their dad home, but it transformed his absence from a time of emptiness to something much fuller. It brought a new energy to their home when it would have been easy to hunker down and wait it out. Instead of feeling so isolated, they found the ability to share the hardest time in their life with strangers and enriched the whole community.

            When we live with this kind of Biblical hospitality modelled by Sarah and Abraham and later by Jesus we prepare our hearts to be open to the newness in life. We greet life’s challenges as opportunities to see God face to face. The Bible encourages us to live in such a way that we are open to the possibility that God will send someone to us who will change our lives, and make everything new.

Secondly, hospitality makes the world safer. One of the reasons that ancient people in the desert welcomed strangers they met was because they all recognized how dangerous the wilderness could be. If you got lost or left the well-established routes it easy to run out of food or god-forbid, water. Dehydration lead to confusion and before long it was not hard to make fatal mistakes. If you hit a sand storm you might get turned around. So folks tried to give strangers the benefit of the doubt – to consider whether they were faint or bone weary.

Desert people learned too that the best way to greet a stranger was to start with human kindness. It was the best way to turn a potential enemy into a potential friend. Meet the stranger as a human being in need first. See his human needs before you make judgments.

When we bought our house in Boston we knew that we would be living in a neighborhood that pushed us. It was not uncommon to see groups of young boys walking together and trying to look tough. But I learned that the best way to disarm them was to treat them like any teenager I met anywhere. One Mother’s Day I was walking my dog after church and I was leaving a little park in our neighborhood when three young men in hoodies came toward me. They did look a little forbidding at first, but I had learned that the most disarming approach was to greet them as fellow children of God. So I looked them in the eye and raised my voice with respect and said, “Hello, how are you.” One of them replied- “we’re fine. Happy Mother’s Day.” I thanked them, “What a nice thing to say”.  Liked puppies they practically giggled, before they regained their composure. 

Hospitality is the ability to see every stranger at your gate as another child of God. It may seem counter-intuitive but it does not make us more secure to treat strangers or aliens as potential enemies. Hospitality provides the opportunity to turn a stranger into a friend and to make the world so much safer.

Finally, our world needs this kind of Biblical-based hospitality. We need it especially today. As refugees have poured out of Syria for months, and the people of Europe have had to assimilate large groups of strangers, we need a faith-based approach to the shifting waves of population. We need new ways to act with faith instead of fear.

There was a wonderful story in the Boston Globe August 21 about a soccer team in Lewiston Maine. Many of the boys from refugee camps in Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Ruwanda have found their way to Maine. They have brought a new fire to the local high school soccer teams.  In a town of 36,000 there are now 7,000 refugees and 10 of the 11 starters in the high school team are from Somalia. These boys are devoted to Coach McGraw and together the team has become a powerhouse in New England soccer. McGraw says, “we don’t see color anymore. We see a team that wants to win.”

Throughout our lives God sends messengers in various ways and at various times. They come in different guises and people. They may even come to let you know that God has heard your prayers. God keeps sending messengers and God always will. Maybe if you look back on your life you will see that God has been sending you new opportunities for years, hoping you would welcome them in. 

Posted: Sunday September 4, 2016