14 September 2014

Loving the Stranger

Andrei Rublev (1360-1460), the "Hospitality of Abraham,"
 also known as the "Trinity" icon.
Genesis 18:1-15 & Romans 12:2, 9-15

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14 September 2008

It’s tough to tell how many showed up that day.  The text isn’t clear whether Yahweh was alone or had three men, possibly angels, with him, for it says both. Perhaps Abraham’s sight was blurred in the heat of the sun and it looked as if three men had appeared. The first eight verses of Genesis18 move along at a clip. Abraham offers water to wash their feet and allows them to rest. He offers a little bread to provide rest for their onward journey, never presuming that he is the reason for their visit. He does everything to make his guests feel welcomed, unhurried, relaxed. These are all understated expressions of hospitality, but then Abraham throws the kitchen ovens on full heat. Behind the scenes he’s sending everyone off to mix the flour (6.5 pounds worth), to knead the bread and tells Sarah to put a cake in the oven. Abraham runs off to the herd to get a calf—tender and good—and gives it to the servants to prepare it. Then they fetch something to drink. All this flurry of activity is going on in the background so that Abraham can provide an enormous feast for his guests and make it look easy. A feast for Yahweh and friends.


We’re drawn into this text by Abraham’s generosity and welcome. In Abraham’s world hospitality was the primary act of a civilized people. Abraham and Sarah’s actions are in sharp contrast to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, as told in the next chapter in Genesis, who were not hospitable to their divine guests. This turned out to be the real sin of these cities: inhospitality.[1] Not so with Abraham and Sarah.

After eating, the guests wish to speak with Sarah, who was in the tent. Women probably did not eat with men and were kept separate. (I’ve seen this arrangement many times in both Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)  One man says to Abraham that when he returns next year Sarah will be pregnant with a son. Sarah, overhearing the conversation from the tent, begins to laugh to herself about the whole affair. I’m sure she got a really good laugh out of that. But Yahweh wasn’t laughing. Yahweh says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh? At the set time I will return to you in due season and Sarah shall have a son.” Then Sarah comes out of the tent and denies it, “I didn’t laugh.” By this time she was afraid. Then Yahweh said, “Oh yes, you did.”

This is an extremely old story, definitive for the Hebrew people and all those blessed through the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah, both Christians and Muslims. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann makes the strong case that everything in this narrative revolves around this pivotal question: “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” It might even be the fundamental question of the Bible. And it’s God’s question directed right at us: Is there anything too hard for Yahweh? 

What do you think?  Be careful how you answer.  Say, Yes, then God is not God; say, No, then be prepared for amazement.

A lot rides on our capacity to be receptive.  It always does. So much depends upon our ability to remain open. Doesn’t it? A lot depends upon our willingness to welcome, well—God, and all that that entails. In fact, there is a direct link between being hospitable to a stranger and entertaining the presence of God. There is a connection between welcoming God and welcoming a stranger. There’s a link between receiving guests and receiving God and, therefore, receiving a blessing.

Here’s why. This text provides a remarkable window into the custom of hospitality in desert cultures. But it’s about more than social etiquette. It says something about the way we make space for the other, for the stranger, whoever the stranger, the other might be.  Our ability to be hospitable is a measure of how open we are to the presence of God, to those moments when God shows up.  In other words, when God shows up, unannounced and unexpected, in surprising circumstances and people, how will you respond? Will you welcome what God has to say? Will you be ready?  Are you welcoming? 

One way the Hebrews and early Christians prepared themselves to welcome the presence of God was to make sure they were hospitable to everyone. Because God just might show up on your doorstep in the stranger—or the strange. And what is stranger than God, the Ultimate Stranger?  The ever-elusive One who is Wholly Other, whose ways are not our ways, the One known and yet always unknown and mysterious. What are you going to do when God shows us?

In a recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, Diana Butler Bass notes that one of the ten signposts of churches experiencing renewal is its approach toward hospitality. What is hospitality? It’s more than simply having “welcoming committees” or hospitality programs, “where friendliness seems little more than a phony act to get newcomers to join the church.” We’re not talking about a kind of religious Welcome Wagon, that emerged in the 1960s, which, “for all its friendliness, was essentially a way to promote certain stores and products.” And hospitality is not a code word for “promotion,” with the church as the primary product, hospitality isn’t “an instrument used for another end: to sign people up as pledging members.”[2] That’s not hospitality.

True Christian hospitality” Bass says, “is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith—something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself.”[3]  Hospitality is not instrumental; it’s not a means to an end, it’s not something you do to get something else.  It’s an end in itself.

Christian hospitality has its origins in desert, nomadic cultures where each guest was honored, given respect, cared for, fed, sheltered, so that one could continue on their journey. Hospitality was essential in a culture full of nomads, sojourners and seekers, traders in traveling caravans trying to make a living, and religious pilgrims.  We might not be caravan traders today, but all of us nomads and spiritual sojourners and pilgrims searching for home.  Every traveler who crosses the threshold of our space, every pilgrim who crosses the threshold of our lives needs to be honored, given respect, cared for, sheltered, offered food for the onward journey.

And hospitality was practiced by the first Christians because they discovered in Christ something of the welcome of God.  Knowing a similar welcome, personally, in your lives, in your hearts, will make you more welcoming—it just will, naturally. Knowing the welcome of God will free you to be hospitable to the other, to the stranger. In her spiritual classic, Dakota, Presbyterian writer Kathleen Norris wrote, “The classic sign of God’s mystery is to entertain, to make room for the other.”[4]

In fact, the first Christians loved the other, loved the stranger so much that Roman society was puzzled by it and in awe.  Many in Roman society considered Christians misanthropes, that is, inhuman, because they dared to love strangers and care for people beyond the limits of their family.[5]  In Hebrews 13:2 we read, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels unawares.”  And you can see it here in here Romans 12:13. “Extend hospitality to strangers.”  Philoxenos.  Paul is talking about Philoxenos, loving the stranger. (The Greek reads, Φιλοξενίαν.)  What Paul is talking about is the polar opposite of xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. Philoxenos—love the stranger, love the foreigner. That’s what Christians do. That’s what we do. For we all know what it’s like to be foreigners, that is, living beyond the borders of God’s Kingdom, when God’s love and grace were alien to us and we were aliens to God. 

Christians make space for the stranger because God in Christ has made a space for us.
Christians welcome the stranger because we know ourselves welcomed by God.
Christians welcome the stranger because we suspect the face of the other just might be the face of God.

You never know who’s going to show up at your tent flap!

When the Roman Empire finally collapsed amid social chaos and violence it was Saint Benedict (c. 480-c.547), in Italy, who first formed monasteries, in the sixth century. He established places of refuge, communities commissioned to “receive guests as Christ.” To this day Benedictines have to welcome every guest who arrives at the door of their monasteries or abbeys.

Hospitality is not a program or a technique. It’s a way of life that stands at the center of who we are. It shapes how we bear the name of Christ. Hospitality flows from our hearts. This is something we as a church have spent a lot of time talking about over the last couple of years. The renovations back in 2008 were done within the theological context of hospitality and they’re continuing with the reconstruction of the Beechwood steps.

Constructing a building hospitable is one thing.  Forming a hospitable community of people is something else.  This requires constant effort; it’s an ongoing journey for all of us, as our Vision study demonstrated several years ago. There’s always room for growth in this area because there are always new people coming into the church.  We must continually ask: how can we deepen our expression of hospitality? It’s a question for all of us. For, we as a church might think we are being hospitable, but is that how people think and feel when they meet us and get to know us? Do they see Christ in us, in our words, in our actions? Do we see Christ in them? Do we see Christ in one another?

Consider all the people who come through this building and the Church House. Many come as guests for worship. Are those visiting today seeing Christ in us? And there are others who cross our thresholds who are not part of this or any faith community. Do they see Christ in us? Do we welcome them as we would the Lord or are they imposing on “our” space? Consider all the groups that meet here: Al-Anon, martial arts groups, Scottish Country dancers on Monday nights in the gym, the Scouts; presbytery committees; Concert Series guests; the people who come to the counseling center in the Church House. Think about all the children in our Child Care Center and their parents dropping off and picking up their children every day. Or think of the contractors who are on site every day. Sure, we’re paying them to do a job, but who are they? What do they see in us? Do they see Christ in us? Do we see Christ in them? Back in 2008, one contractor came up to me and asked me to pray for close friends who lost a parent, a child, with a second child seriously ill. What an unbearable burden to carry. I said I would pray and that we would pray. And we did.

Love the stranger. Be hospitable. Extend welcome.  Feels risky, doesn’t it? Of course it is. The Christian life is always risky. It means we have to be vulnerable.  And this is scary.  I know.  But what if we started small?  When you find a seat at the picnic after worship today…you can sit down with people you know or you can choose to take a risk and sit by someone you’ve never met before or someone you don’t know well or a stranger who bears the image of Christ, a stranger who might become your new best friend or soul mate. What’s the worst that can happen?

It’s always easier to stay with the known, but the Holy Spirit is always pushing us elsewhere, inviting us to open our hearts, reach out, and welcome the other.  This is how community is formed; this is what the church is really supposed to be about and what it’s supposed to look like, a community full of difference and diversity forged together by the Spirit into a people by the grace of God, united in Christ. Because we’re united in Christ there is space for difference and diversity.  When we’re united in Christ, rooted and grounded in God’s love, only then can we be hospitable and graceful toward people with different viewpoints, different political and cultural values, different races and ethnicities and backgrounds, people you might consider “strange,” people who make you uncomfortable or trigger anxieties and fears or bring out the worst in you.  The psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) once said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”[6]  And, I would add, it’s precisely with this kind of self-understanding, gained in this way, that the life and health of the Church can be renewed. When we know that we have been and that we are welcomed into the church by the arms of Christ we are free to get close to people we keep at arms length.  Without this, how is true community going to take place?

The wise and generous soul, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once said, “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests…. Then…the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of unity.”[7]  In a post-9-11 world, now thirteen years out from that fateful day,  a world filled with greater hate-filled extremism, an ever widening clash between civilizations, insidious political polarization at home and abroad, and vilification of others with differing outlooks, opinions, and experiences, the practice of authentic, risky, Christian hospitality is needed all the more. Wouldn’t you agree?  

God is still calling the Church, expecting the Church—you and me—to model a different way of being in the world, a “still more excellent way,” rooted in love.  The work we’ve been given to do as the Church, invited to share in through the welcome of Christ, is essential today. And I’m grateful, that we get to be a part of this work, to be engaged in God’s work in the world—together.




[1]See James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), an outstanding presentation of contemporary academic scholarship written for non-academics. Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (Convergent Books, 2014) provides a good overview of recent scholarship and how it informs life experience, 60ff.
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2007), 77-87.
[3] Bass, 77-87.
[4] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Mariner Books, 2001), 198.
[5] Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Wipf & Stock, 2003) and Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook (Westminster John Knox Press, 1989).
[6] C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 247.
[7] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday, 1975), cited in Bass, 86.