Why do we listen to stories of old? Not just the Jesus stories, but the stories before his time. What do we do with them? Well, Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere. The older stories lie behind the Jesus stories; and they greatly enrich our understanding of his life and ministry. And so when we hear these older stories, we do well to use our imaginations: to listen to the story, yes, but also to wonder how it relates to or echoes or emphasises or reinterprets other stories that we know. And because we are Christians gathered as a worshipping community, our lens will always be Christ: we will always be seeking pointers to Christ, with whom and in whom we are gathered. With this in mind, let’s turn to tonight’s story.
It tells of a time that Abraham and Sarah received visitors. There are a number of themes; we will focus on hospitality. Here we see it offered to strangers, when God shows up at Abraham’s tent. Of course, at first Abraham didn’t realise it was God. He just saw three strangers. They were passing through, but he longed to offer them hospitality. And so Abraham ran towards them in the most undignified fashion and said, “Please. Please let me serve you.” They accepted, and he offered them baths, and organised a feast. He told his feisty wife Sarah to whip up some fresh bread, and quickly! Then he chose a fat calf, and had it slaughtered and prepared as he made a yoghurt sauce.
Abraham’s behaviour is extreme. He’s not giving them a scraping of yesterday’s hommous. He is running towards them, drawing them in, bathing them, and throwing a feast. And this recalls other stories. For example, it reminds me of a story Jesus told, which we know as the Prodigal Son. The father in that story didn’t wait for his wayward son to sneak in the kitchen door and grab a bowl of cornflakes. Like Abraham, he too was extravagant in his welcome. When his son was a long way off, he saw him. He ran to his son and threw his arms around him. Then he took him home, bathed him, dressed him in the finest robes, and prepared a feast. Can you hear the echoes with Abraham’s welcome to the strangers?
In the same way, Jesus accepted and offered hospitality in the most extravagant fashion. He sought out Levi, son of Alphaeus, a tax collector, a hated person—and ate with him. He sought out Zacchaeus, another tax collector, and ate with him. He sought out and ate with foreign nationals and traitors and sinners; in fact, he was accused by some people of being a drunkard and a glutton. His eating and drinking and welcoming everyone to the table upset the entire social order, and it enraged the authorities. But Jesus never stopped. He continued to show extravagant hospitality right to his death for, hanging on the cross, he welcomed the thieves beside him into Paradise.
After the resurrection, some of his disciples encountered a stranger on the road to Emmaus. Embodying the hospitality of their beloved teacher, Cleopas and his companion urged the stranger to eat with them; and as they shared food and drink they suddenly recognised the teacher himself: the Risen Christ. Their grief and confusion turned to blazing joy: life in place of death; presence in place of absence; hope when all hope seemed futile.
Even now Jesus seeks us out and draws us in, that we may eat his flesh, and drink his blood, and become his body: the body of Christ. And as we participate in this body, his Spirit fills us with abundant gifts: gifts of hope, and life, and laughter. And now let’s go back to where we began, at the first story. After Abraham’s guests have eaten and drunk, they ask Abraham where his wife Sarah is. Once they are assured that she is in the tent, and can hear every word through the thin walls, they speak. They bring surprising, impossible news: that she, a woman who could never have children, and is in any case now well past the age of childbearing, will have a son. Life, presence, and future hope, where once there was none. Of course, Sarah can’t help herself: she bursts out laughing. It’s too ridiculous for words.
But it was true. The God of life, for whom all things are possible, had been welcomed as a stranger, and brought a blessing. In due course, Sarah had a son. She named him ‘Isaac’, which means ‘he laughs’, and the whole world laughed with her: at the gift of a child in her late old age—a gift of hope, and life, and laughter. It’s a great story, and it points to many other great stories. But what does it have to do with us?
Let’s look at more of the themes which appear in the story of Abraham and Sarah, and which pop up here and there in the others. First, God may be encountered in the stranger. But we might have to go out of our way to meet the stranger, and urge them to eat with us. In doing so, we might look ridiculous. That’s fine. Second, the stranger may be bearing gifts, but it may take a long and extravagant meal, and a long and lingering conversation, for these gifts to emerge. Third, any gifts will not be what we expect. They may overturn our assumptions about the way the world works. They will always be about God’s passion for life and God’s faithfulness, and will not be brought about by our own efforts or constrained by our limitations. Finally, these gifts will bring hope, and life, and laughter to places we had thought barren.
If we listen as individuals, maybe this story doesn’t have much to offer. We live down private access roads, we work from home, we work long hours, we work in other cities, we shuttle children to activities most nights of the week. Encountering strangers and welcoming them into our homes is difficult for most of us. But perhaps we can listen, not as individuals, but as a congregation; perhaps it is to this table, the communion table and the meal afterwards, that we need to invite others.
For here we are, a group of people gathered together each week, invited by the ultimate host, Jesus Christ: the one whose hospitality knows no bounds. In his life, and death, and life beyond death, he welcomes everyone to the feast, no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done. But there’s a catch: Everyone who feasts with him is told to go out into the world, and bear witness to this abundant and life-giving hospitality. And that includes us.
So who do you see on the road? In your workplace, your schoolyard, your neighbourhood, your mothers’ group, your casual chat at the shops: who do you see who needs to be invited to the feast of love? Go to them and, like Abraham, like the father, like Cleopas and his companion: invite them. Invite them on behalf of our extravagant host, who longs to share his own self with stranger and friend; and who is simultaneously outside, hungry and needing to be fed, thirsty and needing a drink, and waiting only for an invitation to come in and eat.
Every Sunday, you are welcome and all are welcome at the feast: to be nourished by the body of Christ through singing and stories, bread and wine, prayer and fellowship, potatoes and soup. And after the meal, in that lingering conversation with a stranger, a newcomer, a visitor, who knows what gifts will emerge? Who knows what life will break forth in our midst, heralded by their words? Who knows what laughter will be ours, when we hear of God’s plan for us? Who knows? — But let us be open to the possibilities. Let us be open. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 18 June 2017 (AP06). Image shows The Visit of the Three Angels, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46190 [retrieved June 18, 2017].