Sermon for 3 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Gen. 18:1-15
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
William R. White tells the following story: "In a country that honored hospitality and fine horses above everything else, there once was a man who owned the most beautiful thoroughbred stallion of all. It was coveted by all his neighbors. Seldom did a day pass when he was not made a generous offer for the high-spirited animal. No matter what price he was offered he refused."
" Among those who desired the animal was his friend, a horse-dealer. Though the dealer made many generous offers they were always politely refused."
" One day, hearing that the horse's owner had fallen on hard times, the dealer decided to visit. "If I make a generous offer now," he thought, "I will gain the horse and my friend's fortune will be restored."
" As was the custom in that country, the two men ate before any business was transacted. A meal was presented and the two men ate their full."
"Finally, it came time for the horse dealer to make his offer. The owner listened carefully before he replied, "It is no longer possible for me to sell you the horse. Since I had nothing else to serve, we had to kill the horse, thus discharging my obligation as host."
"Though he was deeply disappointed, the horse-dealer understood. Hospitality was more important than business."
The story of God and God's messengers visiting Abraham and Sarah in our first lesson today, is one of hospitality. In this story, Abraham and Sarah honor the ancient Middle Eastern customs and traditions of hospitality. Abraham and Sarah, like the man who served up his prized horse to his friend, knew that hospitality was more important than business. I wonder, if our society knows that hospitality is more important than business? Maybe we can learn a thing or two today from the example of Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham's friendly offer of a shaded place to rest in the burning desert heat of the day, along with the offer of food and drink, make him the perfect Middle Eastern host. The heavenly visitors take up Abraham's hospitality and speak to Abraham in what seems to be in the form of an invitation, by telling him: "Do as you have said."
Abraham then is involved in a beehive of activities: giving Sarah instructions to prepare a generous serving of her finest cakes; giving his servant the responsibility of preparing a tender and good calf; Abraham himself preparing curds and milk. In the story, Abraham comes across as host and servant of the visitors. It was Abraham, we are told, not Sarah or any other servant, who stood by the visitors under the tree while they ate; to wait on them and to see to it that they received proper hospitality.
Abraham knew that hospitality was extremely important. Indeed, hospitality in those days could be a matter of life and death~given the merciless desert heat and other dangers of travelling in those days. In fact, according to Rabbi Gunther Plaut: "The Talmud states that when the strangers arrived Abraham was talking to God (thus the reference to "my Lord"). But when they came he stopped the conversation and offered them hospitality. This is to show that extending hospitality to the stranger is even more important than our private conversations with God."
What can we learn from this story? I believe that we men, in particular, have a lot to learn in this story. Abraham can be a good, affirming role model of hospitality for us men. Abraham challenges and offers an alternative to the patriarchal stereotypes that associate household work with women only. Abraham teaches us men that it's okay, it's kosher for men to do household work; to be busy with the preparation of meals; to offer hospitality to strangers. Such work is not meant for women only.
Perhaps us men could follow Abraham's example by organizing and preparing more pot-luck meals for our congregation in the future, rather than expect the women of the congregation to always fulfill this role. After all, some of you men are good hosts and good cooks~maybe even chefs; why not share these talents more often for the good of the whole congregation?!
Whether we are men, women, or children, hospitality is still a very important gift and blessing for any church. Over the years, as a pastor, I've had opportunity to visit many churches. Some have welcomed me with open arms and couldn't do enough for me to offer their hospitality. Others have been quite solemn, reserved, rather cold and unfriendly, suspicious and, implicitly at least, even hostile. In a lot of cases, the latter churches are dying and failing to attract new members~or they are experiencing a lot of conflict. When I speak with new people joining churches, I often ask them what led them to become members of a particular church. One of the most common answers is that they were offered hospitality by the church members.
Someone tells of a time when they recently moved into a new town and very quickly joined a church there. When asked why he had become a member of the church, he said mainly because of their hospitality to strangers. Outside this church is a sign-board, which reads: "There are no strangers here." He discovered the truth of this message when the parishioners welcomed him with open arms. Would that every church made this message their motto and practice!
What are we doing to welcome the strangers in our midst; to offer them hospitality? It is rather interesting and even instructive that our English word hospitality comes from the Latin hospes, which means guest. If we look at the strangers in our midst as guests, rather than treating them as strangers, then we'll be more likely to befriend them than look at them distantly with judgement and suspicion. When we are hospitable, we set aside our judgemental, suspicious attitudes and become more accepting and serving of others~realizing that the strangers in our midst are brothers and sisters in Christ, therefore honored guests.
Then we, like Abraham, can take the initiative to: look and see, run and meet, bow down and greet as well as feed the strangers in our midst. Who knows? The strangers may very well be God's messengers sent to us with a special message. Or, they might be Jesus himself: "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
May we, like Abraham and Sarah, offer our very best hospitality to the strangers among us~since they are a brother and sister in Christ, like us.
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