Abraham was sitting in his tent in the middle of the wilderness during the heat of the day when the Lord appeared to him. However it seems Abraham does not know that it is the Lord appearing to him, he looks up and sees three men, not three Gods. In the south, especially in the summer, we all know that the heat of the day is when life moves slow and we might even shy ourselves away from lots of activity. Yet Abraham in the heat of the day unselfishly goes out of his way to provide generous hospitality to these unexpected visitors.
An act of hospitality towards visiting strangers was very common in Ancient Middle Eastern life, in fact it was a cultural expectation. A kind of expectation that would put southern hospitality to shame. You were expected to offer food, water, and shelter not only to neighbors and strangers passing by your home, but also to your enemy. Abraham had no idea he was tending to the Lord. He believed that he was just faithfully doing what was normal and expected of him; offering hospitality to those who might be in need.
FOUNDATION OF IDENTITY
This particular story has become part of the foundation of the identity of Jewish traditions and Christian traditions, especially in the early church…as the letter to the Hebrews proclaims you welcome someone because you never know when you are entertaining angels. Because this story is vital to our Christian identity in regards to welcoming people into our lives, I am drawn by two significant actions of Abraham. The first is his action of looking up and looking out and noticing those around him. For someone in the wilderness in the heat of the day you could have easily had your attention elsewhere but he had his eyes looking up. The second action that was significant in the story is what he did after he looked up and noticed strangers, he ran to them and served them generously. He could have easily ignored what he saw, but he went out of his way to encounter those who might be in need. Today’s text reminds us that hospitality requires looking up and outward, and and going above and beyond to serve those whom we encounter.
Hospitality is one of our church’s lenten practices from our Lenten series A Way Forward. While we might feel like this is something we do well, from our dinner parties to our ingrained southern culture, I wanted to lift up some theological perspective about the lenten practice of hospitality.
First of all hospitality begins with God. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth and everything in the earth, God provided an earth full of food, shelter, water, and resources for all of creation. While this is amazing, God’s hospitality did not stop with creation, God’s hospitality became even more clear through the incarnation revealed through Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John tells us “In the beginning was the Word and Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” This is the Good News that God goes out of God’s way as an amazing host to provide grace, truth, and love through Jesus Christ.
Our two readings this morning affirms even further that our Triune God is not only near but is present in those moments when we welcome and offer compassion and hospitality to one another. “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
RULE OF ST. BENEDICT
Sixth Century monk St. Benedict made this text from Mathew’s Gospel the primary basis for his identity in his own discipleship in following Jesus Christ, as would many other monks who would carry on this spiritual disciplines after he died. One of the primary rules of St. Benedict was that “All guests should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger, and you took me in.’”
Centuries later Reformed theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would also lift up that Christ is present in all whom we encounter. He argued that Christ is present holding the community together in the spirit of our relationships. Christ is present in our relationships, guiding us to love one another as we share in the sacraments, breaking bread together, remembering the claiming waters of baptism together, and Christ is present as the community of faith is instructed in the Word of God. Our relationships and how we welcome each other matters because when lived out lovingly they will be the source of Christ’s encouragement for God’s children and for the church.
HOSPITALITY OF THE HEART
For us as Christians, it is not just about hospitality but hospitality of the heart. Hospitality of the heart means that we believe that Christ is present in every relationship and is present in every person we encounter; so we give our empathy, our compassion, and our concern for the total well being of God’s creation. Hospitality of the heart means we look up and outward with humility and go above and beyond to serve one another and to serve Christ.
When the pastors of this church challenged this congregation to use hospitality as a lenten practice a few weeks ago we never imagined that we would have to rethink new ways of hospitality away from the traditional hospitality you might show at home and at work. During this temporary period of social distancing our relationships have not stopped, we might have to stand 6 feet away from one another and use phones and other technology but our calling and identity as Christians to be hospitable has remained the same.
You might have your own story or have read stories in the paper or online of how people have attempted to be hospitable to their neighbors and strangers in new ways over these last few weeks. Maybe you are like me and you have found yourself talking more with your neighbors who before all this you might have slightly acknowledged with a wave. We all have been craving more face to face time even if it is only 6 feet away. Then there are the stories of neighbors checking on one another or younger generation tending to an older generation.
I came across this story out of New York City, a city struggling with the pandemic. In the days after the outbreak two 20 something year olds, one a son of a local doctor, decided they wanted to rethink how to keep a social distance and provide hospitality for the elderly who are struggling to get food and medicine. At first just the two of them did their part but in a matter of 72 hours they used social media and technology to organize 1300 other people to provide care, food, human contact, and comfort at a safe distance for those in need. They call their new organization Invisible Hands. The volunteers chose this name for their vigilance in maintaining social distance from the people they serve, and their meticulous care while shopping and delivering throughout the city.
Our hospitality even at a distance still matters and can help others find welcome in moments of wilderness. The other day I encountered someone and as we stood at six feet a part and I asked them a simple and routine question. How are you doing? The response was not what I was expecting. Instead of the usually, ok, I saw the expression of the person’s face change and they began to share some very emotional difficulties they were facing in their life. While our conversation did not resolve their difficulties, it did provide a welcoming space to share their burdens and feel empathy, compassion, and concern. It was a reminder that our conversations whether they are in person, on the phone, or through other technology matters. My guess is you all have had similar encounters over these last few weeks.
As we continue through our lenten journey may we all remember our calling to look up and go out of our way to welcome all of those whom we encounter. May we remember that our acts of hospitality are rooted in God’s hospitality towards us in Christ, the hospitality we offer is rooted in a God whose giving knows no ending. In response to our amazing God and host, may we share our own gifts of compassion, concern, empathy, and love with all of God’s creation. As we encounter the world may we remember that Christ is present in our relationships. May we remember that our relationships and our hospitality for one another matters because when lived out lovingly they will be the source of Christ’s encouragement for God’s children and for the church. Amen!