Come home to Calvary
Today in worship we will be talking about the power of hospitality, both received from others, and hospitality we offer to others.
In receiving hospitality, we receive God’s care for us through the care of others. In offering hospitality, we participate in God’s faithfulness because when we give to others, we model a trust that we have enough to share, that we will be provided for when that time comes, and that we are all connected, one to another.
This weekend, the poet David Whyte was in town, and a few of us from Calvary were there to hear him read. It was great. Hospitality was a theme in a number of his poems, but instead of reading all of them to you today, I’ll offer only one.
Blessing for the Morning Light
The blessing of the morning light to you,
may it find you even in your invisible appearances,
may you be seen to have risen
from some other place you know and have known
in the darkness and that carries all you need.
May you see what is hidden in you as a place
of hospitality and shadowed shelter,
may what is hidden in you become your gift to give,
may you hold that shadow to the light,
and the silence of that shelter
to the word of the light,
may you join all of your previous
disappearances with this new appearance,
this new morning, this being seen again, new and newly alive.
Last week, we left the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve, and Barbie. Ready to face the challenges, struggles, beauty, and joys of life in the Real World.
We skip ahead in the narrative a bit today, bypassing the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, and a few other important stories, and we meet Abraham and Sarah. They are our grandparents in faith. The genealogies of scripture all hearken back to them.
And one of the things I appreciate about scripture is that we don’t just get the stories of when our ancestors do things perfectly and right. Today’s story shows Abraham on his best behavior. But when you read his whole story, it’s complicated. And I hope we always hold the whole complicated mess together in our hands when we’re reading the Bible. Because we live complicated lives too. Some days, the story finds us at our best. Other days, not so much.
If scripture had wasted time cleaning up the narrative to make the characters seem perfect, I don’t know that it would have anything to teach us.
We’ll talk more later about the complicated parts of this story, but let’s give Abraham his moment first.
They are in the shade of their tent on a hot desert day, when he sees strangers out in the glare of the sun. He doesn’t just offer them a bottle of water and a muffin and send them on their way. Which, let’s be clear, seems like more than a reasonable amount of hospitality to offer a stranger. Right?
I try to be friendly and welcoming, but I confess I’m hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve been as welcoming as Abraham is here. He runs to them and bows before them, he washes their feet, and gets them settled under the shade of a tree. Then he tells Sarah to fire up the oven and make some bread while he goes to kill a calf to cook for them.
This is a hospitality that is not uncommon in middle eastern cultures, even today, even if Abraham’s was turned up to 11. I received similar, sacrificial welcome when I was traveling in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel.
Traveling in countries where the language and cultural differences are so big is unsettling enough. And then to receive that kind of hospitality when you don’t have a framework in your head to expect it—it cuts through all your defenses as a welcome in your soul that you didn’t even know you needed.
And I’ve been thinking about Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality this week. I don’t think any of us would have judged them if they had not done so much for these strangers who appeared before them.
If Sarah had said, “It is 100 degrees out there, Abe, I’m not turning on the oven to make bread,” that would have made sense.
If Abraham had thought to himself, “We’ve got a long season ahead of us, I’m not sure I have an entire calf to spare. But I think I’ve got some jerky in the pantry I can give them,” that would have been understandable.
If Sarah had said, “I’ve got tickets to see a movie in an hour and I have that project to finish for work and I don’t have time to make food for strangers” we would have completely recognized her reasons to NOT provide hospitality.
But they don’t say any of those things. They see people they can welcome and they welcome them enthusiastically. They welcome them at the expense of their own comfort, ease, and agenda.
And I realized that hospitality is a mark of faithfulness.
Because Abraham trusted in God’s faithfulness, he was able to trust that what he had was going to be enough for what he and Sarah needed, and so he could share with strangers who were in need.
Perhaps because Sarah had been fed by others before, she was glad to feed someone when her turn came to pay it forward.
Hospitality is a mark of connection. There’s no need to offer hospitality to complete strangers if you don’t believe you’re somehow connected, or you could be connected to them.
Abraham isn’t always confident in God’s faithfulness toward him, if you know his story.
God had earlier come to Abraham, and promised that Abraham will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky or sand on a beach. But it hasn’t happened. Sarah and Abraham haven’t had a child.
And so they take things into their own hands. Sarah has Abraham have sex with her slave Hagar to bear a child for Sarah. There is no good way to tell this story. It’s Handmaid Tale style sexual assault. And when Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, that doesn’t make Sarah any happier. She wants Hagar and her child killed.
God intervenes for Ishmael and Hagar when she cries out for justice and relief. But that doesn’t erase Sarah and Abraham’s behavior.
So as we see them being so faithful with their hospitality to these strangers, let’s remember they did not offer hospitality to people in their own family circle. They trusted God’s promise enough to be able to welcome strangers in the desert. They did not trust God’s promise enough to wait for all their descendants to start showing up.
Humans can be faithful in some ways while being terribly unfaithful in others. And I recognize our tendency in modern culture to cancel people who have done terrible things. And I wonder what we’d do with Abraham and Sarah. Would we kick them out of the Bible? Consider Genesis a banned book? Bryan Stevenson in his book Just Mercy, writes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
I try to remember that when I want to count someone out.
I do think it is important to hold people accountable, especially when their sin has harmed other people. But God doesn’t turn Abraham’s story into a banned book. It helps to know our whole story so we can make different choices in the future.
After Abraham has fed and cared for these strangers who have wandered past their camp, one of them asks for Sarah by name. And as the story continues, the pretext that these are random strangers falls away and the narrator makes it clear that they have cared for God, and God starts speaking to them.
“The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 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.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
I love the fact that when called out on a comment she thought she was making to herself in her tent, she and God get in a bit of an argument about it. Of course, God gets the last word. But I applaud her chutzpah in thinking she could fool God. Aren’t humans adorable?
I wish Sarah had not been afraid and denied laughing.
Here’s what I wish she would have said to God, “Of course I laughed! You come here, pretending to be a stranger, and start talking about how I’m going to have a baby NOW that I’m an old woman after not having a baby all those many years I tried and tried and tried to have a baby! I’ve cried about this. I’ve mourned what hasn’t happened. All that I have left is laughter.”
And we’ve already referred to Sarah’s failure to trust the promise earlier, of her unfaithfulness. But she’s had some challenges along the way too. Abraham tries a few times to save himself by telling strange men that she’s his sister and not his wife. I’m sure that takes a toll on a person in a relationship.
And a woman’s “barrenness” to use scriptural language, was seen as entirely the woman’s fault. We now know that not to be the case, even if I think women still often bear the weight of fertility challenges.
We should also be careful with this story. The authors of Genesis told this story to speak of God’s extreme ability to show divine faithfulness, by a couple like Abraham and Sarah having a child when they were well past childbearing years. The only way for that child to arrive in this case is because of God. They have bypassed biology and medicine at this point.
This is not a story that should suggest to us that faithfulness is a cure for infertility. Because it is not the lesson of this story.
God’s faithfulness is a cure for our unfaithfulness. That’s the point of this story. Sarah and Abraham lose track of the promise because of very human attributes like menopause and old age. Maybe also because they might have control issues just like we do. “Sure, God had promised this, but maybe God meant for us to deal with it our way. Surely God didn’t mean for us to just sit here and not do something?”
Again and again in scripture, we see God’s promises being carried out, but almost never in the ways we would script, almost never in ways we can even understand.
Even the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah is completely counter to the script people expected. He was to be a military ruler to vanquish the enemies, a king on a throne. Instead, he was born in a backwater town to a pregnant teenager, and he enters Jerusalem on a donkey as a pacifist to die as a political prisoner of Rome.
Where have you seen God’s faithfulness in your life? Has it been because you did all the right things and everything worked out great? Or did you see it when things went sideways and you were at the end of your grief and sadness, where all you had left was your laughter?
As some of you have heard before, I was a pregnant teenager in college. It was the reverse of Sarah’s pain but because of what I went through that year, I have always had an affinity for Sarah and her story. Because society blames women for fertility outside of marriage just as strongly as the biblical characters blamed women for infertility inside of marriage. And neither scenario is a story anyone wants to find themselves in.
But now, 35 years later, it is also the story I tell about God’s faithfulness. It is the reason I became a pastor. Because when I felt unlovable, I received hospitality from strangers, and from friends. My college friends and professors are still some of the most important people in my life because of the way they supported me through that time.
This is the story that shows me God’s faithfulness because when I felt unworthy of God’s love, the church showed me hospitality and gave me God’s love. Both by supporting me and standing with me publicly, but also by literally feeding me and loaning me maternity clothes.
I learned how to accept help that year, no matter how wired my personality is to autonomy. Learning how to accept help also helped me know better the power of helping others.
I learned humility that year. That word comes from the word for earth, and means both being brought low but also means to be brought back to ground. When you’re grounded, you know better who you are. I learned that year to hold loosely to the plans I was making for my own achievement and success. I learned it was more important to be a good person now, with the people, the community I am in, than it was to just strive to be an admirable person in some unknown future.
I placed my son for adoption. But I’ve known him his whole life and he is the father of my granddaughter. At the time I was facing the shame and stigma of pregnancy, I would have laughed at you if you were to tell me the goodness of the story I’ve since lived.
And that’s the reminder for me in all of this. The story God is dreaming for us is better than anything we could imagine ourselves.
One more quote from David Whyte, from his poem, What to Remember When Waking:
What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.
We often don’t trust God’s faithfulness because we don’t know the story God is dreaming for us and so we think we can write a better one. And when things don’t go the way we want them to go, or the way society tells us they should go, we lose sight of the promise and try to rely on our own faithfulness instead of God’s.
Abraham and Sarah did that with harmful effect on others.
I’m not saying we’re puppets on a string and God is writing a story we have no agency in. But I am saying that when we find ourselves in a situation we wish we weren’t in, no matter what that challenge, if we can take a longer view of our pain and struggles, perhaps we can follow the thread that will lead us through it and into a chapter we can’t even imagine to write yet.
My grandmother used to laugh when talking about her life. She’d grown up near a logging camp in Maine in the early 1900s. She’d followed her older sister out to California in the roaring 20s, where she met my grandfather, who owned a bus line with his brother. They got married right before the crash, when he lost everything he had and they moved to Washington state, where his family was, and where she’d go to the river to collect water cress to try to sell to restaurants so they could get food to stay alive. Over the years, she had her own fertility challenges, and my grandfather had his challenges with alcohol addiction. They knew struggle and grief too.
But looking back at her life she said she never would have known to even guess when she was a kid in Maine that she’d work for a movie studio in Hollywood in the early days of movies. Or that she’d end up in Washington State, happily watching her grandkids swim in the lake.
Sarah laughed at God because, even though she’d lived a long time, she still hadn’t gotten to the end of her story, and hadn’t gotten through her pain. I suspect she laughed in different ways at the end of her life too, looking back at the way things had turned out.
Wherever you are in your own life story right now, I invite you to both feel free to laugh at God when the promises feel impossible. But then to also be able to laugh at yourself too, when you end up with blessings you could never have known to ask for, from situations you’d never have chosen. I invite you to both offer hospitality to people and to accept it when it is offered. Hospitality is a means through which we know to trust God’s faithfulness.
Abraham and Sarah named their son Isaac, which means “one who brings laughter.”
“Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
It is okay to laugh at God. God’s faithfulness is not diminished by our doubts, our laughter, or our fear. But when we laugh at God, let’s be sure to also laugh at ourselves. And may that laughter bring out the best kind of humility in us, where we know we are grounded in a life where we are always and already loved by God. May our laughter be a sign of the promise.
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. He 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. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 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.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 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.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 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. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 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.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”