A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 21, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Genesis 18:1-8 and Hebrews 13:1-6
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

             Back almost two decades ago, back in the days before cell phones, I was serving a church that was very involved in the outdoor ministry program of the Washington North Idaho Conference.  Actually, every church I’ve served has been involved in the outdoor ministry programs of their respective Conferences – but I digress.

The Washington North Idaho Conference has a wonderful campsite on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene.  Having that wonderful aquatic resource, they ran (in fact, they still run) aqua themed junior and senior high camps.  The big attraction was water skiing – which meant that each summer, they needed to recruit volunteers and powerboats.

A member of the church I was serving had a powerboat; another had a pickup truck they could be without for a week; and I was going as a counselor.  So I ended up driving this pickup with a boat on a trailer to a week of camp.  And when the week was over, I drove it back home.

On the drive home, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere-eastern-Washington, on what was then a two-lane state highway, the trailer started to sway behind me.  I nursed the truck to a stop on the shoulder, go out, and tried to figure out what has going on.  It turned out that the nut on the bottom of the ball that attached the ball to the bumper had come off and the tongue of the trailer had lifted the ball out of the bumper.  The trailer was suspended on the safety chains I had dutifully attached.

I lifted the tongue of the trailer and put the ball back into the bumper – but I still didn’t have a nut to secure it.  I went back into the cab of the pickup to try to figure out what to do.

Someone eventually pulled over.  I asked the to call the State Patrol when they got to the next town, but I knew that would be at least an hour – and then an officer would have to come find me – and even then, I’m not sure what he or she would have done.  So I sat in the cab.  Dusk came and I turned on the boats running lights to help it show up.  I didn’t want to run the truck’s lights and wear the battery down.

Suddenly, as I’m sitting there in the cab of the pickup, trying to keep the terror at bay, not really focusing anywhere, I heard a rap on the passenger window.  Startled, I looked over to see a Burlington Northern railroad employee.  The next thing I know, there are three or four Burlington Northern service trucks pulled off the road onto the area that is the no man’s land between the shoulder and the neighboring field.  The bunch of us are back there diagnosing the problem and these guys are rummaging around in their trucks and one of them finds a nut that fits the threading on the ball in the bumper.  I happened to have a wrench that fit the nut.  And, voila!  I’m back on the road, headed home.

Whenever the theological conversation turns to angels, I think of these guys – these men I’d never met before and haven’t met since.  I am convinced that sometimes, angels wear hardhats.

In our first lesson, we heard the story of three visitors coming to visit Abraham and Sarah.  We’re told at the beginning of the story who these visitors are.  “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”  Somehow, these three visitors are Yahweh.

Tradition quickly changes the visitors from being God to being messengers from God.  The Greek for messenger is angelos, from which we get the word angel.  They bring a message from God, one that they deliver after the portion of the story we heard today – that Sarah will, in fact, give birth.

And there is a Jewish tradition that says that the miracle here is not that God came to Abraham, not even that angels appeared to Abraham, but that Abraham recognized the presence of God in a very human situation.[1]

But the part of the story that interests me for today is not a deciphering of who these three strangers are, nor is it the message these strangers brought.  No, the part of the story that interests me today is how Abraham reacted to these strangers suddenly being out in the wilderness, by the oaks of Mamre.

Abraham asks them to stay and he offers them “a morsel of bread” to eat.  Then he runs of to Sarah and tells he to knead up some bread – three measures of flour’s worth.  Then he picked a calf and had a servant prepare it for a dinner.  Isn’t that nice?

Actually, we miss something in the story.  The three measures of flour is probably the equivalent of about 28 cups of flour.[2]  Now, I’m no baker, but even I know that you’re going to get a lot of bread from 28 cups of flour – certainly more than enough for three strangers.  Abraham is offering an extravagant welcome to these strangers.

A Midrash – a Jewish teaching on this story – says that Abraham had is servant assist him in preparing the meal for these visitors in order to teach the servant about the importance of offering hospitality.  This Midrash even suggests that, because the Hebrew word we translate “servant” means lad or boy, the servant who receives this instruction is none other than Ishmael, the child Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s servant.[3]  So Abraham isn’t just teaching a servant about the importance of hospitality.  He’s teaching his son.

This value of offering hospitality ran deep in Jewish culture and ran deep in the early Christian community as well.  We hear the value echoed in our second reading.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews tell his audience, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Now, showing hospitality to strangers just on the off chance that you might be entertaining angels – well, I suppose that is worthwhile.  But I can’t help but wonder how hospitable that really is.  I’m going to welcome you, not because I care about you, but because I won’t want to neglect an angel if you happen to be one in disguise.

I don’t think that’s the point the letter writer is trying to make.  I think the letter writer is suggesting that we should show hospitality to strangers, period.  We should be like Abraham and when strangers show up, welcome them and care for them.  If you don’t literally wash their feet, do it figuratively.  And you just may discover that God was in your midst all along.

And this isn’t just about well-dressed strangers.  Think about the people Jesus hung out with.  In John 4 we read about Jesus hanging out with a Samaritan woman at the town well, chatting her up, making her feel like a whole person.  To do that he had to cross ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries.

In Matthew 8, Jesus actually touches a leper and heals him.  Then he heals the servant/lover of a Roman centurion.  I could spend 15 minutes explaining how, yes, Jesus not only fails to condemn the relationship between the Roman soldier and his companion, but offers some level of approval in healing the companion and complimenting the soldier’s faith.  Suffice it to say for today, Jesus even cares for an occupying soldier and his family.

In Matthew 9, Jesus shares a meal with tax collector and sinners.  In Luke 19, we read about Jesus going to the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector for dinner and a theological discussion.  And in Luke 10, we read about Jesus spending time in the home of Mary and Martha.  And let’s not forget the wedding feast in Cana in John 2.

Time and again, Jesus expresses God’s extravagant welcome to the outsiders, to the marginalized, to the rejected.  And look at what happens when Jesus does this.  Jesus goes to a wedding feast as a guest and becomes host, transforming water into wine.  Jesus visits Mary and Martha as their guest and helps Martha understand that being a host is more than being busy making your home Martha Stewart ready.  Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house as a guest and Zacchaeus’ whole life is transformed.

When Jesus is at the party, it’s hard to tell who is host and who is guest.  Lives and roles are shifted around.  Outsiders become insiders.  The marginalized find love at the center.  Jesus expresses God’s extravagant welcome in a way that transforms the rejected into the beloved.

Friends, we are heirs of this legacy.  We are stewards of God’s extravagant welcome.

Time and again, with all sorts of different age groups, kids say that one of the big reasons they love going to church camp, the big reason they love participating in the outdoor ministries of our Conference and Region, is that camp is a place where they can be themselves.  How sad that 4th graders can feel like they have to hide their true selves from friends at school and on sports teams – and maybe even at church.  How wonderful it is that there are places they can go and experience that life-transforming, extravagant welcome.  How wonderful it is that at camp – and maybe even at church – the people around them recognize their holiness and love them into wholeness.

We are stewards, here in our church and out in the rest of our lives, of the life-transforming love that says in every action:  Truly, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.


[1] W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 125.

[2] Ibid, 122.

[3] Ibid, 125.

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