Sermon on Genesis 18:1-14 and Matthew 10:40-42 for Pentecost +4A, July 2, 2017
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 he 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.”
[Jesus said:] “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
When I lived in outside of this country, I often had experiences that I did not expect to have. I expected to have to learn new words for things, but I did not expect the meanings to be different. In Croatian, I learned how to say, “Good morning”, and for over a year I would greet people at the college when I arrived with “good morning.” Finally a Croatian told me that I should be saying “Good day” because “good morning” was only used when people just got up. All that time I had been, in effect, telling the people whom I greeted that I had just rolled out of bed.
I also had the experience of comparing our country to the country I was living in or visiting. There are places of stunning natural beauty all over the world. But other countries have ancient architectural beauty that America, as such a young country, cannot compete with. There are castles, and ruins, cobblestone streets, too narrow for cars, cathedrals that were centuries old before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
Most of the countries of the world are different from American in another way: not only are we much younger, we are different in that we do not have one dominant ethnicity. In most other countries, the name of the country comes from the dominant group. Germany is comprised predominantly of German people, France predominantly French people. Every country has minority groups as well, but the predominate group is obvious. For example in spite of the fact that there are many Serbs and Bosnians that live there, Croatia is still comprised predominantly of Croatian people.
America, by contrast, is a nation of immigrants that completely displaced the native population. Waves of immigrants first came here, from Western Europe, then other parts of Europe, and Asia, and now we have people from all over the globe. Added to our experience is the history of importing slaves from Africa.
Looking at the World
So, how do Americans look at the world? Is it different from the way other people do? I have noticed that almost everyone, in the countries I have lived, in has a way of looking at the world that is specific to their ethnic group.
Part of the way they look at the world is to compare how it is today, to how it used to be. Nearly everyone has an idea of a “golden age” in the past, when things were much more like they “should be” than the way they are in the present. It is called “the myth of the golden age” – and it is nearly universal as far as I can tell.
Of course, everybody who had an empire, and lost it, thinks they deserve to have it back. They still print, and people still buy, maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire. But it is not just true for former empires; every ethnic group can look back on a time when their people controlled the largest amount of territory, and they believe that is how the world should look again. That is how they look at the world.
Many Americans nowadays seem to think our golden age was in the 1950’s when industry was booming, we were still euphoric over winning the Second World War, and we did not yet have any fears of the Soviet Union. It was a particularly great time for healthy, white, heterosexual males in those days.
But even though some aspects of our country were better for some of us back then, Americans are also likely to be forward looking. Most of us believe things could get better. What would that “better America” look like?
How do Christians look at the world?
But this brings up a question. How do Christians look at the world? Or maybe we should ask, how could a Christian look at the world if they were informed by our tradition? Does our faith affect our vision? Where should we look in our tradition to help us see the world authentically?
We start with our origins, with Abraham and Sarah. The first thing we know about them is that they left their land of origin and journeyed to a new land in which they began as strangers, aliens.
The story we read picks up the trail in Southern Palestine. Abraham and Sarah are an old, childless couple, whose tent is pitched “by the oaks of Mamre.” They are there because they believe they have been called by God to take this journey into the unknown, to become strangers.
Not only that, we pick up the story just after Abraham has been promised that his wife Sarah will bear a son in her old age, and his descendants will become a great people, and a source of blessing for the whole world.
The story we read is set in a time of uncertainty. Abraham and Sarah are still foreigners in a land they do not possess, an elderly childless couple. It would take a miracle to make that promise of descendants come true. In the mean time, they wait.
In the heat of the day, when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, Abraham is standing at the entrance to his tent. We read:
“He looked up and saw three men standing near him.”
Three men? where did they come from? Who were they? What did they want, sneaking up and appearing from nowhere? In the ancient world, Abraham could have been expected to react violently to these strangers, but instead of hostility, he welcomed them with hospitality. He put his household into motion to provide a feast for them. Abraham, the stranger, welcomes strangers; it is a miracle.
Then this ancient Hebrew story becomes mysterious. After the meal of hospitality, the three guests somehow merge into one. It says, in the original,
“Then he said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
The three strangers become one. This one is a divine messenger, who reaffirms the promise. The miracle of Abraham’s hospitality enables the miracle announcement of a miraculous birth. God becomes present when a stranger is welcomed. A future is born in the conditions of radical hospitality to strangers.
Abraham’s Descendants and Strangers
So a Christian way of looking at the world begins with Abraham and Sarah. But it does not stop there. Repeatedly in the First Testament the story of the stranger, the alien, the outsider is told again and again. The people who came from Abraham, become the people who repeat his insight that hospitality can be miraculous.
Moses gives the people the Torah, the law for their community. In it he tells them never to forget their origins as wanders. Moses gave them a script to say every year as they bring their tithes of produce to the sanctuary. At the beginning, they were to say,
“My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5)
That is who we are. That is our identity. We were strangers.
These descendants of wanderers keep telling stories that highlight the roles of strangers. A few examples: when they sent spies into the promised land, it is Rahab, a local woman, a stranger to the Israelites, whose welcome miraculously saves their lives.
When there is famine in the land, it is Ruth, the foreigner from Moab who rescues the family line that will eventually produce king David.
They tell the story of the prophet Elijah who was sent by God to a widow in Zarephath, in Sidon, outside of Israel. This foreigner welcomed the prophet, and miracles happened.
They repeat the story of Elisha who’s gifts of healing cured the Syrian Naaman of his leprosy.
They tell of Jonah, the prophet, being sent to Assyria.
The family that descended from Abraham repeatedly encounters God’s grace at work in the stranger and for the stranger who is given welcome.
Jesus and Strangers
As Christians, we look to Jesus to learn most clearly how to look at the world. Jesus, a true son of Abraham, shows that Abrahamic DNA is flowing through his bloodstream.
In the stories written about him we see a Jesus who is not reluctant to minister to Gentiles as well as Jews. He ministers to a Roman soldier, a woman from Samaria, a Canaanite woman, and he feeds thousands of people on the Gentile side of the lake.
It is not just that we see Jesus welcoming the stranger in his actions, his teachings are laser-focused as well. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a stranger to the Israelites, who is the lone one in the story who knows how to show mercy.
In the text we read, it could not be more clear. Jesus calls us to be people of welcome. In his world, every good Jewish person respected prophets and righteous people. To welcome them was to be rewarded by God.
“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous”
It is easy to welcome people who are good, noble, respectable, honorable, and like ourselves. You actually get “cool points” for hanging around cool people. You can just hear it:
“Guess who came to my house for dinner; the prophet!”
But you get no credit in the world for welcoming in the rif-raff. Yet that group is exactly the people Jesus includes, and teaches us to include.
The welcome is symbolized by the cup of cold water given, as Jesus says, to a “little one.”
“whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones… none of these will lose their reward.”
Here, the “little ones” do not mean children, but the ones who are not high up in the social ranking, the ones down on lower rungs of the status ladder. The little ones are the ones without power, the vulnerable ones. Isn’t it interesting how poverty or belonging to a non-normative group puts people into a child-like position? The name “little ones” fits.
Little Ones Among Us
Who are the “little ones” among us?
Literally children, of course, because they are dependent and lack power, but also the elderly, the poor, marginalized people or people discriminated against for any reason – gender, orientation, race, religion, or any other reason.
In other words, the way a Christian looks at the world is through eyes that have seen Abraham’s miracle at the oaks of Mamre, the miracle of hospitality to the stranger, and the blessing that came from it.
We have seen the characters in the First Testament and all the foreigners and strangers among them who were part of the story of God’s blessing.
We have seen, in the life of Jesus, how he was constantly reaching out with God’s welcome across lines of division.
And we have heard his direct teaching, calling us to bear the cup of cold water to the little ones who are thirsting.
I know I am merely rehearsing for us all what we already know and believe. So this is meant as an encouragement to us. We are called to be the allies and advocates for the “little ones” in our day. They are still being un-welcomed. They are still being shut out. They are still being overlooked. They need our voices to join them.
Everything our society and our government does, or proposes, must be held up to this standard. This is not an economic theory or a political agenda. This is a moral calling.
To say that “Jesus is Lord” for us, means that we are duty-bound to live according to the standards he gave us. He has called us not just to do no harm, but to actively and pro-actively welcome the un-welcomed and to bear cold water to the ones who thirst for justice and fairness.
The golden age of our country, I believe, is not its past but its future. Our golden age will arrive when there is truly “liberty and justice for all.” Not for all, except the exceptions, but for everyone.
When there is fairness and equality, when no one is caused to suffer so that others may prosper. When every voice is heard, and when the majority uses its power and assets to bring us closer to fulfilling the ideals our country was founded upon, which still await fulfillment.