Hospitality – 1/15/12 – World Fellowship Sunday – Genesis 18:1-8

Call to mind, if you would, a time when you have experienced extravagant hospitality.

Rod and Mary have already shared about their time in China being characterized by the generous, warm hospitality of their hosts.

A time when I experienced extravagant hospitality came in the Fall of 2000 during my semester of studying in the Middle East.  We had been in Cairo, Egypt for most of the time, but spent the last three weeks traveling through the region.  One of the members of our class had a relative who had married a Syrian, and so she had extended family in Syria.  She had worked it out with the program director that we would visit the family and eat a meal with them.

We took a bus out to their very rural home.  We spent time walking around the area, trying to pet the goats and chickens wondering around, playing with the young children, trying out all the Arabic we had been able to learn over the last three months, thoroughly pleased with ourselves that we were able to impress these children with a few intelligible sentences of their language.

When it was supper time we were invited into the small home, where, in the center, on the floor of the main room, was spread an amazing feast of hummus, pita, chicken, and all the best of Middle Eastern food.  We sat around the food in a large circle, the family formally welcomed us, and we feasted in the tent of these strangers.  There was not a supermarket within driving distance and it was pretty clear that the chicken we were eating meant there were a few less chickens roaming around with the goats.  For us it was one in a series of amazing Middle Eastern meals we experienced on the trip, but our director informed us that this was probably one of, if not the biggest feast that this family would eat all year, and that was this part of a genuine culture of hospitality that has existed for centuries in the area.  When guests come, that’s when you slaughter the animals, that’s when you spread a full table, or floor in this case, and give your best, whatever that may be.  Extravagant hospitality.

Another, very different experience, came while at Gethsemani Abbey this past summer.  Being a place of prayer and silence, there were no verbal exchanges that one might associate with hosts being welcoming and hospitable.  But, with every part of the experience, there was an abiding sense of great hospitality to us, the guests.  Simple, private rooms contained everything we needed for a comfortable, pleasant stay.  Meals were served at regular times, just walk through, get what you want, take a seat, eat, and return the trays.  All seven times of daily prayer were open to us, with prayer books provided.  Around the grounds there were chairs placed under trees, along walking paths; spaces prepared to sit, to walk, to pray, to breathe in peace.  And there was no charge.  Just a jar with a sign that said donations of whatever amount were appreciated.  It was the gift of silence.  The gift of space.  The gift of time set to the rhythm of prayer.  Extravagant hospitality.

If we were to collect the stories of similar experiences of hospitality that are represented among us I’m confident it would be a rich collection indeed.

On January 21, 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, a dozen or so people gathered in the home of Felix Manz for Bible Study, as they had come to do regularly.  On this night they especially felt God’s presence with them and one of those present, George Blaurock, asked another, Conrad Grebel, to baptize him.  Baptism was an act reserved for infants by a priest.  Blaurock was not an infant and Grebel was not a priest, but Blaurock was baptized, and in turn baptized all the others present, who committed themselves to being true disciples of Christ.

This is the birth story, the creation story, of the Anabaptist movement – the re-baptizers.  Since that time it has spread around the world.  There are currently over 1.6 million persons affiliated with Anabaptist congregations world wide, members of Mennonite World Conference;  the continent with the largest representation being Africa.  North America is second.  The continent with the smallest representation being Europe, the birthplace.  Just a few months ago, Mennonite World Conference received its 100th member, the Mennonite Church of Chile, which has 14 congregations and 1,200 members.

Every year, Anabaptist congregations are invited to celebrate World Fellowship Sunday close to the date of our beginnings, sometime around January 21.  We are a part of a world wide fellowship of disciples of Jesus who share a common story and a common emphasis on seeking to live as disciples of Jesus.

The suggested theme for this year, which should be rather obvious by now, is hospitality.

Genesis 18 is a story of extravagant hospitality that Abraham extends to three visitors, who turn out to be the very presence of God.  It begins: “Yahweh appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  He looked up and saw three men standing near him.”

From the start, the narrator tells us something that Abraham will only discover in time – that this visitation is from none other than Yahweh.  It’s odd that we are told this, and then told that Abraham saw three men.  Why are they called men?  Why are there three?  Later, two of them are referred to as angels.  Is one of them supposed to be Yahweh, or are they all equally divine?  It was, perhaps, irresistible, for Christians to see in this an Old Testament Trinity, but that’s not what’s in view here in its original telling.

The passage reminds me of Jacob’s wrestling partner in Genesis 32.  First we’re told that Jacob wrestles with a man, then this man says, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob proclaims, “I have seen God face-to-face.”  The following day when Jacob is reconciled to his estranged brother, Esau, he tells him, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  Is Jacob’ wrestling partner a human or God?  Who’s visiting Abraham?  Yahweh, angel, human?  Does it matter?  On the road to Emmaus the stranger is recognized as Christ only after his fellow travelers invite him in for a meal, an act of hospitality.  Who’s that knocking at your door?  It’s God, of course.

The text in Genesis 18 is sure to show the zeal with which Abraham greets his visitors and goes about extending hospitality.  When he sees them, he runs to greet them.  After convincing them not to pass through but to stay and be refreshed, he hastens to find his wife Sarah who hastens to make cakes from the best flour on hand.  Abraham then runs to get a young servant to slaughter a young, tender, choice calf.  This is the heat of the day, remember, and everyone is running and hastening.  This is a mad frenzy of hospitality in full motion.  The servant hastens to prepare the calf, Abraham gathers all these things together, and brings them to the three visitors who have washed their dirty travel-weary feet and have been relaxing under the shade of a tree this whole time.

A few years ago Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  Her original project was to research why large US evangelical churches are thriving and mainline Protestant congregations are dying, herself having been formed in two mainline Protestant traditions, United Methodist and Episcopal.  But as she got into her research she kept coming across all of these mainline Protestant congregations, many of them well over 100 years old, that were thriving.  So she decided to visit a number of these congregations around the country and discover what it was that kept them so vital and alive.  She came up with ten different areas, ten practices, that these congregations are doing, in varying degrees, and the book, Christianity for the Rest of Us  goes through these ten practices and stories from the congregations she visited.  The very first practice that she talks about, and one that she names as always being at the heart of vital Christian spirituality, is the practice of hospitality.  Here is a quote from the book in which she references some of the writings of Henri Nouwen, who wrote about hospitality in the 70’s:

“With the old patterns of village broken down, the Christian practice of hospitality has reemerged as foundational to the spiritual life.  Contemporary Americans are nomads, what Catholic writer Henri Nouwen once called ‘a world of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God.’  In such a ‘world of strangers,’ where fear, anger, and hostility build walls between people and chip away at the communal soulfulness, Nouwen proposed that ‘if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.’  For Nouwen, hospitality is the ‘creation of a free space’ where strangers become friends.  ‘Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place’” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, p. 79).

I love that final quote.  Hospitality is not to change people, but creates space where change can take place.

Hospitality is at the top of the list of vital Christian practices.  The other nine, in case you’re curious, are discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty.  It’s quite a list.

Genesis 18 is part of a literary unit that extends through Genesis 19.  After Abraham extends hospitality to these visitors they repay him and Sarah with a great gift.  Within the next year, the elderly couple will give birth to a son, Sarah’s firstborn.  The elderly Sarah overhears this outrageous promise and laughs out loud, more an incredulous smirk than a laugh of joyful faith.  The vistor hears the laughter and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”  The child is born within the year and bears the irony of this encounter his whole life.  He is named, “laughter,” which in Hebrew, is Isaac.  Genesis 19 continues the theme of divine visitation and hospitality, only this time things work out in an almost completely opposite manner.

Two of the men, now called angels, leave the refreshing tents of Abraham and Sarah and walk into the city of Sodom and are met by Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lives there.  Lot insists that they stay with him for the night, extending hospitality.  The rest of the city, famously, is the epitome of unhospitality.  They bang on Lot’s door and demand that he send his guests out so they can abuse and rape them.  Lot refuses and the visitors are protected.  The visitors also leave a ‘gift’ for these un-hosts.  The next thing we know, Sodom, along with its sister city Gomorrah, is being destroyed, Lot and his family the only ones who are spared.

So here’s what we have:   Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality and it leads to the gift of life, to a miracle of a new generation that receives the covenant of God.  Sodom extends rabid un-hospitality and it leads to death, the entire city destroyed, never to be inhabited again.  The sin of Sodom has very little to do with homosexuality and very much to do with a lack of hospitality to strangers.  The juxtaposition in Genesis of these two very different situations that these divine visitors encounter is quite intentional.  The contrast could not be starker.  God is wandering through the land, through the streets, like a nomad.  Hospitality leads to the unexpected laughter of new life.  The absence of hospitality leads to disintegration and destruction.

Putting this in the light of World Fellowship Sunday, a global context, for us as Anabaptist Christians, we can think of hospitality as one of the most powerful, least complicated, acts of peacemaking that we can possibly participate in.  Welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant.  It’s an act of acknowledging God’s presence in the other, however different they are from us.  When we have received hospitality from another, when we are the foreigner and wonderer, we know that we have been given a gift that we can never pay back.  We can only pay it forward.  When we extend hospitality to another, we extend it not only to the other, but to God’s own self, who always inhabits the life of the other.  And it grows and multiplies, like life itself.

We’re a little ways into the new year now,  but it’s not too late to make a new year’s resolution.  How about if our congregation resolves to be a place of extravagant hospitality.  That welcomes all those who come to us, because they are the very presence of God.  Fortunately, we’re going to have a lot of practice very soon, with Mennonite Arts Weekend right around the corner.  That will be a fantastic, and pretty fun, way to get practicing.  May laughter and joy abound.