Monday, July 19, 2010

Why such good service?

Scripture Texts for Sunday, July 18th

Genesis 18:1-10a

Luke 10:38-42


I’d like you to think for a moment about the warmest greeting you ever received. Who were you visiting? Where were you? How did they greet you? What did you feel like when you knew they were happy to see you? Hold on to that thought.

Rob and his wife Vickie were in Portland to visit friends. Though Rob and Vickie led a church back in England, they were not what you call prototypical churchgoers. Rob sported numerous tattoos, often wore black rock t-shirts and typically sported a Mohawk. Needless to say, they often received strange looks when visiting a church. One Sunday morning, they were running late and arrived at their friend’s church while the service was already in full swing. When Rob and Vickie slipped in the back, there was no telling the greeting they might receive. When they walked in, their friend was in the midst of playing drums for a praise song. As soon as she saw them walk in the door, she immediately dropped her drumsticks in the middle of the song, ran down the aisle and greeted them with a huge hug.1 Never had they been made to feel so welcome.

Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever walked into a room and instantly sensed that you shouldn’t be there? How did it feel to be so rejected so thoroughly? What did they do to make it clear your presence wasn’t desired?

A young woman who was on the fast track toward a business career decided she wanted to put off her business plans so that she might work with inner-city young people. She was hired by a church where the ethnic mix was challenging, and within a few weeks was working with gang members who she successfully convinced to attend a bible study. A few weeks later, the pastor accidentally interrupted one of the Bible studies. He sat down and spent a few minutes talking with the gang members. As he left, one of the guys said, “Hey, I like that guy. Let’s go to church this Sunday.” The youth worker decided to seat them in the balcony rather than with the congregation downstairs. When the minister came out and announced the giving of the peace, one of the gang members spontaneously stood up and yelled, “Hey, dude, you are cool!” The congregation turned around in shock. After the service, the youth worker was told not to bring the gang members back to the church until they learned how to behave inside a church. When she insisted on the need to reach these youth where they were, she was subsequently fired.  (Messy Spirituality, 60-61)

Two churches. Both confronted with people radically different from them, and yet seeking to know God. One church helps them along on their journey, another slams the door. I’d like to say the first story is more typical then the second, but sadly churches are sometimes no better then the rest of society at welcoming the outsider. Though we may think welcoming people is easy; experience says that it is one of the most difficult things for a church to do well. It can at times be a painful process that stretches our generosity to the limits, shoves us out of our comfort zone, and can cause us to make sacrifices having no idea of the outcome.

Today’s reading from Genesis demonstrates the great lengths that Abraham went to to show good hospitality. There could probably have been no worse time for the guests to appear outside Abraham’s tent. Scripture says they arrived in the heat of the day. Since this story talks place in the midst of the Sinai desert, it would have been north of 100 degrees. Think of sitting on your porch in the middle of august…. and now add twenty degrees. Furthermore, Abraham is just recovering from surgery. In the previous chapter, he had just finished sealing his covenant with God by circumcising himself, his boys, and all of the male servants. And yet, despite the heat, despite the pain, when three guests come across his tent, he immediately runs, bows at their feet, and offers to provide food and drink. What could cause him to be so kind to these strangers?

First, Abraham was following the customs of his culture. Abraham and his family lived in tents so they could move with their herds as they grazed in the desert. Nomads in the Middle East then, and still today, rely on each other’s hospitality to survive. Because you never knew when you might find yourself wandering in the desert dying of thirst, you were expected to care for all others who came across your path. Being hospitable was a survival strategy- if all only cared about themselves, few would likely survive.

And yet, Abraham goes far beyond custom with his actions. Though he would be expected to offer bread and water, he delivers far beyond expectation: he tells his servants to prepare the best flour to make bread, and he slaughters one of his best calves for the guests and serves them milk and curds. Now- let’s remember he is in the desert there is no wal-mart that he can go to to restock- he is giving something precious up. His hospitality goes beyond what anyone could expect.

Why would he be so exceedingly generous? The text doesn’t say, but if we look deeply we might be able to get some insight. One answer would be if he immediately recognized whom he was serving. If we knew we were serving God, wouldn’t we be on our best behaviors? The text does say that when the three approach, Abraham addresses the leader as “My Lord.” Furthermore, the three individuals may make us think of the Trinity. Could it be that Abraham thought all along that he was serving God?

Actually, probably not. If you have a Bible near you, pull it out as I want to point something out. First, it was actually the custom of the people that day to greet their guests in that fashion. It would be as if I said “Good day, Gentle sir” to every person who walked in my door. Ok, a bit odd to us, but unremarkable to Abraham. Furthermore, the word he uses does not appear to be the Hebrew word for God. Take a look at verse 1, do you see how it has the word LORD in all capitals? That is the way in which scholars translate Yahweh. But in verse three, the same word lord appears in lowercase. This is the way in which English speaking biblical scholars differentiate between the godly use of the term Lord and the more general use.

Furthermore, the presence of three makes it unlikely that the author would be referencing God. Though thinking of God as trinity may be commonplace to us, the authors of Genesis would never have envisioned God that way. The idea of the triune God was not worked out until long after Jesus as scholars tried to understand how both God and Jesus could both be divine while saying there is only one God. Since Jesus had not yet been revealed, the presence of three people or spirits wouldn’t be the authors’ way of hinting that it was God.

Well, if he didn’t know it was God, might he have a different reason- could he of hoped for a reward? Notice that after receiving the hospitality, the visitor tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child. Now this is exactly whom Abraham has desired, and it is what God had promised. But, there is no evidence that Abraham knew it was coming. In fact, in verse 5, Abraham says that after serving his guests, he expects that they will pass on. He is expecting nothing from those he serves. They won’t join his community; he’ll likely never see them again. He doesn’t know how they will use his generosity- he doesn’t even know if the “deserve it.” He simply gives because that is how he was raised, and because that is who he has become as a follower of God.

We had the opportunity to do that this week. On Tuesday night, we hosted a group of youth who were participating in the Reach Out camp. Now, we as a congregation know reach out because some of our members went to it as kids, sent their kids, or served as adult staff for one reason or another. So, unlike Abraham, we obviously knew something about the people who were coming. But, like Abraham, it is likely we may never see or hear from the students we hosted again. What did we gain? Nothing tangible from serving them. In fact, we probably will pay a touch more for our electricity, and many generous people gave food. But, we had the opportunity to serve those who had been out working in the heat of the day helping our neighbors up in Cleveland. Who knows what will become of these youth? We served them not because we expected a reward, but because that is who God has raised us up to be as a people.

Often times when we talk about hospitality at church, it’s in conjunction with trying to boost attendance. We want to be hospitable because we want people to join our church community. Now, there is nothing wrong with trying to make visitors feel welcome; and there is nothing wrong with hoping people can find a church home amongst us. In fact, the outreach committee has been working on a comprehensive plan about how we can make our visitors feel welcome and how we can express our desire for them to come again. That is part of the reason we’ve been pushing everyone to wear their nametags and to sign the attendance book- its just one more way to make someone who is new comfortable.

But, we make a mistake if we are gracious hosts to people in order to increase attendance. In many ways, I might be the most prone to this mistake- since my role is to help lead this church and to seek the ways in which God is calling us to serve this community. I too can get caught up in seeing things through the perspective of numbers. I can talk about, and I have talked about, being hospitable so we can get new members.

But, my friends, this can be a path fraught with danger. What happens if we become the most welcoming place in the world, and yet people don’t join our church? Will we become frustrated with going through the difficult process of always being welcoming and nice? Might we resent those who we are nice to but fail to respond by joining? If we launch a major effort toward welcoming and don’t immediately see the results, will we abandon it entirely? I’d like to think I’m better then that, but I know its too easy to feel frustrated and give up.

We must instead be welcoming people because it is part of our core DNA. We must welcome people not because we expect a reward or because we think that they are special, but because we know that God is calling for us to be kind and to love each person as they come into our midst. We must show this kindness, open our doors, because that is who God has raised us up to be. We must care and listen for people simply because we want to be with them, right there in that moment. I think that is what Jesus was getting at when he told Martha he wouldn’t rebuke Mary for sitting with him. Martha was thinking of all the things she needed to do to prepare for Jesus. Mary just wanted to be with Jesus; to sit with him, to listen. Though Mary and Abraham did it in different ways, both were motivated by a sincere desire to love and serve their guests. Abraham’s guests needed food- Mary’s a listening ear. May we be bold enough to be like Abraham and Mary- taking time even when it isn’t convenient, finding out what the other’s need, serving even when we aren’t sure we have enough; simply because of the love God has shown us, and because we want to be able to show that love to others. Amen.

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