Holy Hospitality

by | Jul 24, 2022

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Berry French
“Holy Hospitality”
July 24, 2022
Genesis 18:1-14

Introduction to the text:
Today’s Scripture lesson is from the book of Genesis and picks up in the middle of the Abraham and Sarah saga. God has promised that Abraham will be the father of many nations and now Sarah is well past child-bearing years. Sarah is 90 years old, and old Abe is 99. So quite understandably, Abraham and Sarah have LONG ago given up hope of having children together. Sarah been baren for decades. Abraham and Sarah tried what they could to creatively help God’s promise along over the years, but as any of us would, they’d given up on Sarah’s womb bringing forth life.
I imagine some of us know the feeling of once having hope, once having child-like faith that wondered at the miraculous nature of it all; but no longer being able to hold onto that hope. The media nationally and globally can have a discouraging effect. If we’re honest, I imagine all of us have had at least seasons of asking “Can God really make good on God’s promises?”

A reading from Genesis 18, verses 1 to 14:
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mam-re, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them, and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?”
13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 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.”

Sermon
Thirty of our youth and adults returned yesterday from Appalachian Service Project. ASP, as it’s called, is a service organization that works with the rural poor of Appalachia through long-term community partnerships. Through relationships with local leaders, ASP pairs incoming church groups with an individual family to make significant improvements to their homes, making homes warmer, safer, and dryer. ASP’s sweet spot is that they are often able to make a true and welcomed improvement in individual lives and communities, while encouraging mutually dignifying relationships to blossom with homeowner and volunteer.
I’d like to invite our own Zane Buckner and Ken K to come forward and share their story about the choice flour and tender calf offered to them last week at ASP. As she often does if we pay attention, the Holy Spirit was at work on last week’s ASP trip, even as this preacher was studying biblical hospitality.

[Ken Krzyzewski and Zane tell a powerful story from their ASP experience last week with their “host” Darlene.]

The Genesis story we heard recounts Abraham and Sarah receiving unexpected visitors, strangers who arrived unannounced. In the ancient near east, travelers relied on the hospitality of others, and it was a life-or-death situation. There was no fast food or Holiday Inn. Strangers hosted you, sharing their food and water, or you died. So Old Abe is paying forward that hospitality to these 3 men. Decades earlier, while Abraham was a younger man, God called them to go, and he and Sarah sojourned to an unknown land and certainly depended on the hospitality of strangers.
Now old Abe is sitting outside his tent, in the heat of the day. Heat like the heat that baked down on Chapel Hill this weekend and last week. Heat like that which is threatening human safety in places like Texas and Europe and China. Abraham is at the edge of his tent trying to pick up any breeze, and three strangers appear. As the readers, the narrator tells us right off the bat: “The Lord appeared,” but from Abraham and Sarah’s perspective, they greet three strangers. And Abe and Sarah both rush – there in the heat of the day and in their old age, they rush to host these strangers. They welcome them and share what they have as generously as they can.

Prior to coming to University Presbyterian Church, our family lived on a sailboat for two years. We were … well kind of like nomads. Katie and I had quit our jobs, rented out our house, given away or stored most of our positions, and moved our family of four onto a 43-foot sailboat. We spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, and as you can imagine, things like specific boat parts, or other children to play with, or even eggs to make a birthday cake can be rather difficult to come by in many remote parts of the Caribbean. In the international cruising community, it is an expectation that you help your neighbor. It doesn’t take long to find yourself in a situation where you would be in a bad way, were someone not willing to lend a hand and offer some tangible hospitality. Many a times we found ourselves in need of a Good Samaritan neighbor, but when your home floats your neighbors tend to move at an alarming rate. So you learn to depend on strangers.
Old school VHF radios are still the primary form of communication in maritime travel and in cruising. It became normal for us to call out or hear on the VHF radio:
“We’re taking the bus into the village market today, anyone need anything from town?”
Or “Does anyone around has a spare toilet part that’d be willing to sell or barter for?”
“Who needs their propane filled? We’re getting a trip together tomorrow.” Or that the last ocean passage someone landed a hearty catch and there is more mahi than will fit in the tiny freezer: “Who can come for dinner tonight and bring side dishes?” goes the call over the VHF radio.

It’s more common than you imagine that a sailboat breaks its mooring or drags its anchor and the cruising community races to rescue a vessel whose owner they may not know. We once returned from a grocery run in the Dominican Republic to find our boat on a different mooring ball (as in a different location in the harbor than were we left her). Come to find out there was a massive rescue effort of our boat whose mooring line broke while we were not there, and a half dozen cruisers who we had not met, and who mostly didn’t know one another rescued our boat from the mangroves near shore and safely motored her back to a secure mooring ball. We didn’t know a one of them; they didn’t know us.
A fellow cruiser saw our boat break free, quickly called for help on the radio, and the cruising community immediately sprang into action. All while we were in town buying produce. Without strangers helping, that could have easily been months delayed in the Dominican Republic waiting on boat parts, or potentially ended our cruising all together.
A few months earlier, I had been part of a similar rescue of someone else’s boat.
Somehow the cruising community has learned to trust strangers and rely on their hospitality and generosity. Maybe it starts with borrowing eggs for a birthday cake out of desperation and somehow turns into risking your own safety to help a total stranger. Then before you know it, you come to trust in that level of hospitality from complete strangers … And a load lifts from your weary shoulders.

Abraham knew what it was like to rely on other’s hospitality. Like all their contemporaries, Abraham and Sarah knew providing hospitality to strangers is part of what changes the world. Scripture is clear that Abraham and Sarah are rushing to generously hosts these visitors. It’s not just bread and water. The text says Abraham hastened into the tent to tell Sarah, “Quickly take the best flour we have and make three cakes.” Then he ran and took the best calf, and gave it to the servant to prepare with haste. Then Abraham set the feast before the three strangers, and he stood with them. These three strangers are being HOSTED. Not because Abraham knows these are messengers of the Lord, but because that’s what you do. And later a child is born whose name is laughter.

I worry that in our modern western context the false god of fierce individualism holds us captive and closes our eyes to true benefits of hospitality and community.

Hospitality comes in all kinds of forms, but it always takes a host, a willing guest, and some trust or at least humility. In the dessert, its water, milk, and bread. In the Appalachian Mountains, it’s an invitation to sit on the porch and exchange family stories, or homemade supper fresh from the garden. In middle school, it can be an invitation to sit at our lunch table. In the cruising community, it’s strangers literally saving your vessel.

Katie used to wear a T-shirt that simply said in big letters: “You can sit with us.” I always thought that was great parenting on my wife’s part. Though nothing was said, but I imagine Aubry and Will learned something about hospitality from that shirt.
Before cruising, I served Black Mountain Presbyterian Church. Shortly after we moved away, an active youth parent committed suicide. There is almost nothing to say or do in the face of such tragedy. Through the movement of the Spirit, the spiritual gift of hospitality sprouted threw the ruble of broken hearts.
One family, called to knitting the community back together through simple hospitality, hosted monthly potluck meals in their backyard to gather strangers and friends.
Their goal was simple: to provide the space for individuals to better know and support one another, by breaking bread together.
It’s hard to say exactly how community gets build: how strangers become friends, and friends become dear friends, and dear friends turn into family. No doubt it’s the movement of the Holy Spirit. But I’d say breaking bread together is a good start.
Church, y’all know how to do this. UPC has been committed to welcoming college students for decades. These days through the ministry of PCM down the hall, we’ll feed 40 college students a home cooked meal every Thursday night of the semester and invite them to find their spiritual home with us. We work hard to bring our choice flour to the strangers who come: personal welcomes, really good food, and honest community.
Church, I suppose our call is not unlike Darlene’s catfish dinners or those backyard bar-b-ques in Black Mountain. In some ways it is simple: provide space for folks to better know and support one another, by breaking bread together in the name of Jesus.

May it be so. Amen.