Hospitality and Promise

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Today I’m trying to tie a number of things together, in a few short minutes… covenant, or promise, hospitality, and Treaty Day.

Yesterday, I heard a story about a woman who was concerned for her husband during the hurricane. They had lost power and he was dependent on a CPAP machine. She said she prayed and prayed and prayed and suddenly the power came back on. She went on to say that she knew that Jesus had answered her prayers and that he had made the power come back on so that her husband wouldn’t die.

Now, I am the last person to dismiss the power of prayer, but it usually isn’t a transaction. We can’t pray for something and expect it to occur, to me that indicates that prayer is a transaction and that if we say the right things in the right order, we will get what we pray for.

What about people like those in Newfoundland whose houses were swept away, I’m sure some of them were praying quite fervently! We can think of countless examples, from close to home to all around the world where prayer is not answered. Bad things happen to good people. It’s the reality of living in an imperfect world.

On the surface, this passage from Genesis, sounds like a transaction, so we have to explore it a little further, lets listen, in Chapter 18, verses 1-15, and then the first three verses of chapter 21:

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. 2 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. 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[c] 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.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid.  He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

21 The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.

We hear of Abraham’s encounter with three strangers… When he sees them, he runs out to meet them… and offers them shade, rest, food and drink. Of course after offering them these things, he then gets Sarah and the servants to make it happen!

Hospitality in the ancient eastern world went beyond offering food and shelter to those who were in need; it was a matter of survival for all travelers. In a world in which it was not possible to purchase temporary accommodation, reliance on the households of strangers was the custom for those who traversed the land. But hospitality in this world also went beyond survival; it was recognized as a sacred duty.

Christian hospitality built on this understanding and expanded it. There are numerous hospitality stories in the gospels and it is revealed in different ways. There is the hospitality of a shared meal, there is the hospitality of a welcome into someone’s home, and there is the hospitality of restoration of the person’s place in community.

The Hebrew tradition of hospitality, which the gospel writers would have been familiar with, was bound up with their understanding of themselves as being “a stranger, an alien, a tenant in God’s land.”[i]

To provide for the stranger was a moral responsibility, “it was associated with God, covenant and blessing.”[ii] 

Christian hospitality becomes distinctly different and throughout the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as both gracious host and needy stranger, both giver and receiver of hospitality.  Hospitality is evident in the ordinary things of life: food, shelter and community; these basic necessities of life are also at the heart of Jesus’ ministry; and what is more inhospitable than being left without friends and food or a place to lay one’s head?

What prevents us from practicing Biblical hospitality and welcome? When I have posed this question over the years, some of the answers I get are: fear, risk and the unknown. There are many of us who are very comfortable in our corner of the community and world and do not want that changed in any way. There are those of us who are so time constrained with work, family and other responsibilities that to add the ‘task’ of hospitality and welcome to already overburdened people is contrary to the gospel teachings. I have come to believe that it is the fear of change which underlies our unwillingness to be hospitable.

Jim Sinclair, the former General Secretary of the UCC, tells a story of a small church in Ontario which when the pass the Peace of Christ, look at each other and add, “I am willing to disrupt my life for you.”  You’ve heard me tell that story before. These words have echoed in my ears ever since I read them several years ago. These words seem to be the essence of what hospitality is about.

Many of us instinctively know that if we are in relationship with those who are not like us… if we expose ourselves to new ideas that these people bring…if we open our hearts and minds to the spirit that is within the stranger… we will become changed ourselves.

And as we mark Treaty Day, which was yesterday, as many of us are all decked out in our Every Child Matters t-shirts, I wonder, ‘Are we willing to disrupt our lives in order to honour the Treaties of this land, to call our governments to account and make the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a reality?

We will be celebrating communion in just a few minutes. I made Bannock bread yesterday to break… and I learned a lot about the history of Bannock and Indigenous people. It’s a complicated history, bound up with Scottish settlers and the introduction of flour, which was one of the rations delivered to reservations, providing Indigenous people with needed carbohydrates. For those of you who receive an e-copy of my reflection, I’ll include a link for further reading.

As you come forward for communion, I invite you to think of the covenant that God made with us, stretching back through thousands of years, promising to be with us.

I want you to ponder hospitality and what it means today, in Canada, in North Dartmouth.

I invite you to wonder how you can be part of living out our Treaty.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of pondering those questions, amen.

[i] Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) p. 16

[ii] Ibid. p.17

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-3

October 2, 2022 – SMUC

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