Compassion through Hospitality

Genesis 18:4-5 – June 11, 2017

Exod 18 Abraham bends down before Holy Trinity - angelic visitors at Mamre - mosaic in Monreale Cathedral

“Compassion through Hospitality”

Almost everyone enjoys visiting with friends. This can involve meeting for a cup of coffee or tea, going out for a meal, or having friends over at your house. What do you do to make friends or relatives welcome at your table? How do you like to be welcomed, when you go over to someone’s house or apartment?

These are great things to think about. We begin our first sermon of the summer, our Compassion sermon series. Let’s take a look at Genesis and at Abraham, the friend of God. He and his wife Sarah were on a nomadic journey—a very long caravan camping trip that lasted for years and years. While they were traveling, they camped for a time in the land of Canaan near what is now the town of Hebron.

God appeared to him. Here’s how it happened: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” Right off the bat, this bible reading lets us know an important fact. It’s sort of the summary statement at the beginning of this reading, and then the passage explains what it’s all about.

This first verse tells us a lot. Abraham had his tent set up by some big trees. There wasn’t any air conditioning in those days, so he looked for some big trees to provide natural cooling. Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent—a cool place, to catch any little breath of wind drifting by. We also know it was the middle of the day—a really hot time in that semi-desert terrain!

Now that we’ve explained more about it, in your mind’s eye, can’t you just see Abraham sitting there, catching the breeze in the cool shade, at the door of his tent?

What happens next? “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

We are not sure how much Abraham knew about these three men, but he goes out of his way to greet these three strangers. In many places in the world, people give you a warm welcome when you come to their home. It’s certainly true of many people and places throughout the Middle East.

“As a nomad, Abraham and his family lived in tents, as they traveled with their grazing herds in the desert. The few who lived in the harsh deserts of Judea depended upon each other for survival. Visitors were treated very well, for they brought companionship and help for the host. The practice of hospitality was highly prized in Abraham’s time.[1]

“Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to strangers that come to their camp, upon seeing the strangers coming in the heat of the day, it’s suddenly high gear hospitality.  Hospitality would be the duty of any desert dweller of the time.” [2] I mean, really greet you! They give any stranger an extravagant welcome.

Let’s turn to a modern-day example. When our children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews go over to a friend’s house, what are some things that might make these young people feel welcome? Yes, their friend might offer them a drink or a snack. That is great. But, let’s go further. What if their friend goes the extra step? What if their friend lets our children play with their toys? What if their friend lets them pick what show they would like to watch on cable or DVD? How about inviting them to stay for dinner, or even inviting them to sleep over? All these ways of helping them feel welcome in their home are ways of showing “hospitality.”

Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed these unexpected strangers, can’t we do the same thing? Maybe make a special effort to welcome each person into our house—or church, regardless of whether we know them or not? We can help them feel noticed, cared for and safe in joining our group of friends. How did Abraham show these three people they were welcome?

“Abraham said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.”

Let’s play a little game with this bible reading, a topsy turvy game.

What if Abraham did not feel like showing hospitality to the three strangers? What would that have looked like? What might have happened, then? As the three persons came near the tent, Abraham might hide inside and shut the tent flaps tight. When they knocked at the tent door, Abraham could tell them to go away, in an angry voice. If the three persons insisted that they were thirsty or hungry, Abraham might yell that they should go some other place, and freeload off of someone else.

If all that had been true, bible history might have happened very differently!

But, no! Abraham and Sarah were fine hosts. Let’s read more of the bible passage: “Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

As a fellow pastor commented, “There was no Holiday Inn, or highway rest area, there is only Abraham and Sarah’s camp and their herds and their well. So, when strangers appear in the heat of the day, needing a wash and a rest, you tend to their needs. Some kind of host switch has been flipped.  Abraham runs, he hastens, he quickly prepares.  His hospitality seems to go above and beyond – the best of the herd, the best flour and in abundance for the meal.” [3]

Modern times have not changed hospitality. How do good hosts show us their hospitality today? They offer food and drink and try to make us as comfortable as they can.

I remember my dear prayer partner Zhou Hui. She was born in mainland China, grew up in a poor neighborhood in a medium-sized town, did really well in school, and was able to get awarded a scholarship to university. She came here to the United States as a graduate student, and became a naturalized citizen. She lives near here, and her children attend New Trier High School. She is a devout Christian, and a real pray-er. I thank God I was able to be her prayer partner for years.

I bring up Zhou Hui because she always bends over backwards to be a wonderful hostess. She has the spiritual gift of hospitality, and she always offers wonderful food and drink to her guests. I can remember many, many enjoyable meals my young children and I had at her house. That is just what Abraham did here. He and Sarah hurried up and offered their unexpected visitors wonderful food and drink.

Abraham and Sarah not only showed these strangers genuine hospitality, they showed compassion—Godly compassion.

Hospitality is the way we help others feel welcomed and cared for, and that we can do this anywhere we are: for friends at our homes, new students in our classrooms or new neighbors on our block.

This narrative is a beautiful reminder that when we show compassion and kindness to other people, we are showing compassion and kindness to God.

When we read about Abraham, we might think, “How nice! What a good job, showing kindness and hospitality.” I have news for you: Jesus shows us hospitality! Jesus shows each of us kindness and compassion! Does this change the way we see other people in our lives, especially those we don’t know very well? Or, those we don’t even know at all?

How might we show hospitality to others? I know we pride ourselves on our kind, compassionate welcome to anyone who comes into our church. We can show our community that St. Luke’s Church witnesses to the love of Christ, not only with words, but doing what we do best: serving food and showing people a warm welcome.

Hospitality is a wonderful way to show everyone the love of God and show kindness and compassion—the same way God has already shown love, kindness, compassion and welcome to each of us. Let us go out, and do likewise.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/c/16-c/FR-16-c.html “Abraham Welcomes the Lord,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Lectionary Resource for Catholics.

[2] https://seattlemennonite.org/2014/07/27/the-last-laugh/

[3] https://seattlemennonite.org/2014/07/27/the-last-laugh/

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)