Offered by Joyce DeGreeff on December 16th, 2018
Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 13:1-2
When I was a child, I lived in Ogunquit, Maine, otherwise known as the “beautiful place by the sea”. Many of you might recognize this place as a popular vacation spot with a gorgeous sandy beach. You might have walked the famous Marginal Way path that winds around the rocky part of this coastal town to the harbor of Perkins Cove, or visited the many interesting shops and restaurants in the local village. Well, my family owned one of those shops – it was called The Oxbow Gift Shop – and we lived in a tiny 900 square foot apartment above it. When I say “we” I mean our family of 8 … 2 parents, 4 kids, and 2 dogs!
As you can imagine, I have many memories and funny stories to retell from our life together above that gift shop. But one in particular comes to mind in relationship to this morning’s readings.
On a cold winter day, my parents decided to give an open invitation at church to anyone who might like to come over for a sledding party in our backyard. With very short notice, 37 people thought this was a great idea! Now most hosts, in this situation, would enjoy the party outside and perhaps make a big pot of hot cocoa that everyone should share before calling it a day. Well, not my parents. They decided it would be fun to extend the party and invite everyone inside for a spaghetti dinner. 37 plus our 6 – that’s 43 people in 900square feet…for dinner! Everyone had a great time and no one went away hungry as far as I know, and to this day, people are still talking about my mom’s famous spaghetti sauce. My dad’s favorite part of the story is when he finally got his plate of food, he looked around at the overcrowded apartment and couldn’t find a place to sit – on chairs or anywhere on the floor. Then he had what he thought was a brilliant idea and headed for the bathroom. But when he got there, to his surprise he found two people already in there eating- one on the bath tub and one on the toilet! So he resigned himself to the fact that he would just need to eat standing up.
When both of my parents, and some of their longtime friends, talk about this day (trust me,we’ve heard the story many times!) there’s a sense of joy-filled playfulness and pride in pulling off such an unconventional, and even downright ludicrous,dinner party. There were no cloth napkins or fancy china, no candle light or peaceful music playing the background – just pure chaos, great food, and even better company. As a child I thought it was really crazy and super fun. And now as an adult, looking back, what stands out the most to me is the open hearted hospitality, the generosity, and the pure joy of the occasion.
This dinner party is what first came to my mind when I read today’s story from Genesis 18where three men suddenly appear to Abraham outside of his humble house. Immediately, Abraham offers them water to wash their feet and then goes into his tent to ask Sarah to prepare bread and his servant to prepare a meat offering. These travelers gladly receive the meal and eat it together, with Abraham standing by, under a tree outside of his dwelling place. And then one of them, claiming to be ‘the Lord’, mentions to Abraham that he will“return in due season” and that his wife Sarah will “bear a son”. Sarah overhears this from the tent entrance and begins to laugh. Given the circumstance of their ages, do you blame her?
But the messenger questions her laughter and reiterates his promise:
The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarahlaugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season,and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And he said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:13-15)
You gotta love Sarah – brave enough to bicker with the Lord!
It’s all here…hosptality, generosity, humor, and most importantly the very real presence of God.
In both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, hospitality was highly regarded and very important for those who wanted to be considered “virtuous”. And travelers tended to lean on this “culture of hospitality”, relying on the kindness of normal folks when they found themselves in need in unfamiliar territory. So that they showed up isn’t all that unusual, but their identity and their message is a bit more intriguing. Many have wondered
Who exactly were these three men? Not all agree on the answer.
The Jewish Talmud refers to the visitors as three angels, and although the Torah doesn’t mention the names, the Talmud identifies them as Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel.
Some Christians have interpreted the appearance of the three visitors as a vision of the Trinity – in that all three men, together, represent the one true God.
Neither of these explanations seems to fit the text exactly, though. A more agreed upon Christian understanding is that one indeed was God (given the many references to “the Lord” in the passage) and the other two were angels – partly there for support and partly just passing through on their way to fulfill other missions described later in this chapter of Genesis.
In this case, the visitation represents a “Theophany” or a manifestation of God in human form. Some Christians would take it even a step further and call it a “Christophany” – suggesting a notion of a pre-incarnation of Jesus, a foreshadowing of when God is made flesh through the eventual birth of the Christ child.
Regardless of how one chooses to understand the exact identity of these visitors, it’s clear to me that Abraham and Sarah experienced a “holy moment” – a life-changing and life-giving encounter with the Spirit of God. It doesn’t seem to me that the author of this story is so concerned with proving the existence of heavenly messengers or supernatural beings; rather, what I think is significant is to witness what happens when we offer hospitality and open ourselves up to entertain unexpected guests. Through human connection, generosity, and vulnerability … God shows up! When we show up for each other, the Spirit of Love and Grace that is God, is there too – helping us to find the right words,to show compassion. and even to have a little fun!
As our brief reading from Hebrews this morning reminds us: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for doing so, some have entertained angles unawares.”
These words, commonly assigned to Paul, are likely a direct reference to the Abraham story which, for first-century Jewish writers, would have been considered the premier model of hospitality. I can’t help but to notice the implications of this ancient text for our world today. What if we were to receive and welcome those in need with the same sort of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah, and countless other Biblical characters,offered to fellow travelers? Refugees, immigrants, prisoners and other displaced people come to mind … veterans, people mourning the loss of loved ones, struggling kids and their parents, people who need food, shelter, or maybe just a listening ear and some company? My guess is that we’d often been tertaining angels – and in doing so, experiencing the very real gift of God’spower and love.
I can think of many examples here at WCUC, of the ways in which this kind of hospitality already happens. I remember when Sarah Hindle opened up her home for a day long women’s retreat, and when others in this congregation have hosted Dine with Nine dinner parties and end-of-year celebrations for the staff or the choirs. This year there was even a house party to brainstorm ideas for Congregational Giving!
“Hospitality”, though, isn’t just about opening up our homes…more to the point, it’s really about opening up our hearts and inviting the Spirit to be with us. God shows up in places like this sanctuar yand the downstairs classrooms when we welcome all people with no exceptions. Jesus’ way of healing and inspiration shows up to journey with us when we gather at Walden Pond for weekly walking prayer. And the Spirit often shows up in one on one conversations too, like the ones we had last year as part of our “In Reach” program. Many of us experienced the true joy that can come from simply meeting up with someone we don’t know very well and sharing our stories. In these moments of vulnerable storytelling,God empowers both the teller and the listener to gratefully receive the gift of Love found through genuine human connection.
When youth group parents gather at my humble dorm apartment (Ok, “humble” is a relative term here…we do have more room than the 900 square feet of my childhood, but we also share our building with 31 teenage boys!)… In any case,when we fill our living room for important conversations about the joys and challenges of raising adolescents, God’s Spirit is there.
And when those adolescents arrive for game night with a distinct mix of awkward silence, playful laughter, nervous energy, and authentic presence… there, too, is God.
When we show up for each other, God shows up for us, time and time again. This grace-filled Spirit helps us to step out of our comfort zones, to take risks, and to open our hearts to unexpected possibilities and sometimes even life-changing transformation.
“The angels proclaim You will arrive among us, a joy to meet our longing: Come, O Come, Emmanuel -God with Us”