Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2023
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) Commentary
Recently I made a multi-course gourmet dinner for my parents on the occasion of their 64th wedding anniversary. The first step was figuring out a menu and then making a plan to secure the ingredients. I ordered some venison online and picked up other ingredients in at least three other stores for this and that. In the end I made a smoked salmon mousse with crackers as an appetizer followed by a salad course, a fish course, a game course, the main course, and a dessert and various sides for each course. It took me parts of three days to prep the sauces and do what I could ahead of time and then probably a total of 5 hours on the day of the meal itself. That’s how it goes with entertaining and with putting on a good meal. It just takes time to do it right.
That’s why I have always wondered how long the three mysterious visitors to Abraham at Mamre sat around while Abraham and Sarah whipped up a small feast for them. Sarah had to bake bread first off. From scratch. Abraham had to go pick out a calf for the veal course and then it had to be slaughtered, butchered into various cuts, and then of course cooked in some fashion. This all took time. It took energy and resources.
That is how it always is with hospitality. You put yourself out, as they say, so as to provide something good for your guests. In hospitality we make room in our lives for others, we create a space for them to live in if only for a time. It’s not always easy, which is probably what lies behind the wry saying that hospitality is the knack for making others feel at home even when you wish they were.
Why did Abraham do this? Why did he, as the saying goes, “do it up brown?” Did he suspect these men were from God? Did he suspect this just was God incognito? Nothing in the text indicates this to be the case, at least not in the moments when Abraham first encountered these travelers. From the looks of Genesis 18, Abraham saw people in need of food and drink and he extended an invitation for them to receive just that. Later by the time you get the promises about Sarah having a child in one year and then the subsequent story of Abraham’s trying to cut a deal to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, it is clear he knows he may be dealing directly with God here. But if he intuited this immediately, we are not told.
Probably this story speaks to Abraham’s good character. The speed with which he came up with his meal plan and menu and the ease with which it all came together suggests strongly that this was by no means the first time Abraham had done this for strangers he encountered. He and Sarah had been down this entertaining road before. The text makes it sound like they pulled this together in a snap and if so, it was their long experience in hospitality that allowed them to make this look easy.
Small wonder they were God’s choice to get things rolling in his plan of salvation. But their getting caught up in that was not so easy. What we need to remember when we read this story in Genesis 18 is that a whopping twenty-four years have now passed since God first promised to build a mighty nation from these two childless senior citizens. That is a while. A quarter century almost. If you are reading this sermon commentary in June 2023, then just realize how long ago 1999 was and how so much that is common in our vocabulary now—9-11, Obama, Facebook, Trump, COVID, Zoom—was unknown to us then. Even for people who live to be 90 these days, twenty-four years is a big percentage of their lives.
It is also a long time to wait. If the promise of having a baby in her old age seemed unlikely back then—and it was highly improbable already back then—it seemed far more preposterous now. It was so far-fetched that about the only sensible thing a person could do upon hearing it again is laugh. Sarah did. It was an uproarious thing for this visitor to say in the moment such that you could only snort in laughter. Even if you allowed yourself for a half moment to think that it might actually happen, well that is pretty darn funny too! In Frederick Buechner’s memorable characterization of it, what Sarah wanted to ask was “Shall a baby be born in the geriatric ward? Shall Medicare pick up the tab?”
Buechner is also the one who liked to entertain the idea that maybe as Sarah laughed, the three visitors had to suppress their own smiles. Did even they have a slight shaking of their shoulders to indicate a suppressed giggle or two? “Why did Sarah laugh?” the lead visitor asks, like it was not obvious. Sarah then comes out of her eavesdropping hiding spot behind the tent flap. “I didn’t laugh.” “Oh yes you did” the visitor replies. But there is no hint of a rebuke here. Sometimes the things of God are funny.
It all happens one year on, of course, and as a way to memorialize that day in Mamre, Abraham and Sarah name their little boy Laughter. Alas, the rest of his story is hardly a long series of giggles. One chapter after the story of Laughter’s birth, God tells Abraham to take little Laughter and kill him up on a mountain named Moriah. God does not actually have Abraham go through with it in the end but there was nothing funny about that story nor later ones where Laughter gets deceived by his crafty son Jacob, blowing up that whole family for a long time to come.
Under the oaks of Mamre, Abraham and Sarah cleared the necessary space to make room in their lives for some strangers. As some have pointed out, that is what God did for all of us in the beginning. God made room for a whole universe of creatures not like himself. And then after those who most closely bore his own image fell away, God again set out to make room for us prodigals to come home one day even as a certain prodigal in a story God’s Son once told came home to a feast that, like Genesis 18, also involved a fatted calf. And that same Son named Jesus assured us that God is still making room for us. “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms. And I will go and prepare one of them for each of you.”
None of this business involving hospitality is easy. But the seeds of all that and of our very salvation are sown into this story in Genesis 18.
Theologian Neal Plantinga has pointed out that in the Bible, and particularly in the New Testament, the practice of hospitality has a surprisingly high profile. It is not one of the Fruit of the Spirit but as a practice, hospitality is recommended a lot even as a lot of what are the Fruit of the Spirit undergird hospitality. And hospitality is not only about the obvious form of entertaining guests or making a bedroom available to someone from out of town who has nowhere else to stay.
Hospitality can be seen in a myriad of little kindnesses that show thoughtfulness and consideration for others. Little things like speaking slowly when you leave your phone number on someone’s voicemail so they don’t have to replay the message multiple times to keep up with writing down your phone number. Or when you text someone, you say who you are so that the receiver of the text does not have to guess who this is based on a phone number that is unfamiliar to them or not already stored in their phone. Hospitable people extend themselves to others in all kinds of ways that show you are being considerate of them.
Hospitality gets built, Plantinga says, on all kinds of little habits and here are the Top 10:
- When someone shares good news with you, don’t try to top it with a bigger news story of your own.
- In the supermarket shopping aisle, hospitable people keep their cart to the right and don’t abandon their cart in the middle of an aisle while they go check on something somewhere else in the store.
- Hospitable car drivers do not punish pokey drivers by tailgating them. Make room for them to be slow.
- When hospitable people drain the coffee in the breakroom’s coffee maker, they put on a new pot.
- Hospitable people listen well when others talk and they do not interrupt or send the signal “Could you please get on with it and spit out what you want to say!”
- On airplanes, hospitable people leave room in the overhead bins for others to put their stuff there and they don’t recline their seat as far back as it will go so as—quite literally in this case—to give the person behind them room to sit comfortably.
- In conversations hospitable people do not say things that paint other people into corners. “You’re probably getting bored with me, aren’t you?”
- In church, hospitable people make room for seekers and stragglers.
- Hospitable people make room for the mistakes of others and don’t always try to fix everything or correct other people’s every grammatical error. “Oh for heaven’s sake it’s not ‘Between you and I’ but it’s ‘Between you and me’!!”
- Hospitable people help you remember their name. “Hi, I’m Scott. We met a couple years ago . . .”
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