Sermon for Pentecost IV (Proper 6), June 16th 2002.
By The Revd. J. Michael Povey firstname.lastname@example.org
at St. James's, Cambridge, MA.
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7; Psalm 116; Roman 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35 10:23
When Susan and John married each other, they invited about twenty-five people to the ceremony and to the reception. Most of those who were invited were members of their families, together with a few of their closest friends. I was included at the reception as the Priest who presided at the ceremony. John and Susan had been unusually thoughtful about the reception. They eschewed the enormous galas which have become all the rage, in favour of a quiet dinner at a lovely restaurant; a dinner at which their guests ordered from the menu; and at dinner at which John and Susan spent time in conversation with each and every one of their guests.
John and Susan understood that hospitality has nothing to do with show and ostentation; but that it has everything to do with the way in which the guest is welcomed, and made to feel comfortable and at home.
I wonder, if given a choice amongst many spiritual gifts, which of us would choose the gift of hospitality.
Would we not rather in responding to the needs of our friends request the gift of healing;
or in responding to the needs of our country request the gift of prophecy;
or in responding to the needs of a parish community request the gift of pastoral care.
And yet...... and yet the cardinal virtue, the cardinal spiritual gift, in the biblical record is the gift of hospitality. The bible is the story of the welcoming table.
We catch a sight of this in the gospel reading when the twelve are sent out in the expectation that they will receive hospitality. So they are not to take money or baggage, but they are to be entirely dependent on the hospitality of unknown hosts. Those who show them hospitality will be given the gift of peace; and those who refuse hospitality will be accounted as worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Do remember, if you will, that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with in-hospitability.
Sodomy is the sin of locking the door, barring the windows, turning the pantry into a safe, and looking at the stranger with cold and fearful eyes through lovely lace curtains.
We tend to think in this parish that hospitality is a task for women. At least, that's how it seems when we see who is in the kitchen most Sundays - many gracious women and one good man. Our hospitality committee is second to none, and they are an image to us of something that should be true for the entire parish community.
Hospitality is not only food.
It is the welcome by the usher;
it is the loving embrace of the visitor sitting with that person, showing her a way through the maze of our books, assuring her that we want her to receive spiritual food at the altar, and physical food at coffee hour - and walking alongside her to the Altar and to the Parish Hall.
Hospitality is the teacher here before his students arrive;
the croaking frog being made welcome in the choir;
the exchange of peace with someone we do not know;
and perhaps even the tearing down of gates.
Above all, hospitality is the way in which God's people do more for the stranger than they might do for their dearest friends. For God often comes to us in the guise of the stranger.
Avraham, wily old character that he is, begins to realise this in the part of his story we read today. Up until this part of the story heıs not done too well in his journey of faith. Avraham has more failures than successes. He loves to repeat his mistakes. Twice he lies to save his skin, and twice he lies about his wife. First in Egypt where he tells the royal officials that Sarah is his sister, and she is taken into Pharaohıs household as a potential concubine. Later he tells the same lie to King Abimelech. Avraham twice treats Sarah as disposable goods.
Avraham twice fails his servant Hagar and his son Ishmael, by acceding to Sarahıs wishes and allowing them to be driven into the wilderness. Once is not enough for Avraham. Twice Hagar and Ishmael are cast out.
(But God has other things in mind, and the promise God has made to Avraham "that he would become the father of many nations", God also makes to his beloved Hagar with regard to her son Ishmael.)
Oh, Avraham, the father of the faithful is no paragon of virtue. He should be de-frocked, but God is wiser, more patient, more gracious than we, and he allows Avraham to make his mistakes, and never takes away his promise to be faithful.
Like we, Avraham also has the moments when he "gets it". Avraham shows that he is "getting it" when he knows that God's way is not driving servants into the wilderness, but Godıs way is welcoming strangers at the table.
And so, three days after he has circumcised himself, in the heat of a very hot day, Avraham shows hospitality, he shows hospitality to strangers! Despite his pain he had been ready to do so - "he looked up" to see the strangers, he was prepared for a time such as this.
The strangers are indeed messengers from God, and they bring with them a reminder of God's faithfulness. Ninety-nine year old Avraham, and post-menopausal Sarah will have a son. God will keep Godıs promise, for "is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" Well, yes, some things are to wonderful for the Lord, and God will not keep promises he has never made. There is no point in praying when you buy a lottery ticket. But we can demand that God should keep the promises he has made.
And sometimes we just have to laugh about it all. Avraham twice sins the same sin twice. Sarah laughs twice. Here in the narrative, as she hears the conversation outside the tent, she laughs to herself at the thought that she will have sexual pleasure at her old age. She has to deny her laughter, but I do not think that Sarah laughed because she doubted God. I think that she laughed because she doubted Avraham. Would this old husband who had treated her so badly now give her pleasure?
And Sarah laughs again when the promised son is born. This is the side-splitting, tears running down her cheeks laughter of a woman who in her old age re-discovers the faithfulness of her husband, and the faithfulness of God.
This is the day to share in that manner of laughter. For this is the day of God's hospitality. This is the day when God's welcoming table is spread for us.
Are we here because God welcomes friends? That might be true, but chiefly we are here because God welcomes strangers.
This is at the heart of St. Paul's proclamation of the Gospel that those who are not heirs of Avraham by their own blood, are made heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ through the blood of another. "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" It seems not. "For God proves Godıs love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us".
Or to paraphrase: "God proves God's love for us in that while we were still strangers Christ died for us".
Christ died for the strangers, not for the home-boys.
Laugh your way to Godıs welcoming table, set up this day for people just like us (sinners) and not a bit like us (strangers).
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