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18th June 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
16 June 2017

Genesis 18: 1-15

The chapter begins by saying that Yahweh appeared to Abraham.  However, Abraham lacks the reader’s insight but his first reaction to the arrival of strangers is to offer hospitality and as a result he finds himself entertaining God.  This finding God in hospitality to strangers is also in Luke’s Emmaus Road incident. Last week we were told that Abraham was seventy-five when he began his journey and age again features in this section. 

Like Abraham and Sarah it is important for us not to get tangled up in the biological plausibility

We must but accept the message that there is a reality beyond ourselves that calls us to achievements we easily allow our past to label as impossible.  Allowing God to speak to us through the Bible requires us to focus on the meaning contained in the story rather than question the happenstance of the narrative.

Matthew 9: 35-10: 8

The closing verses of chapter nine sum up the essence of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching and healing and anticipates the sending out of the twelve by establishing a great need to expand Jesus’ mission. 

The community of the twelve is not like the hereditary priesthood of the time but is given authority by God’s action in Jesus.  The number twelve reflects Israel’s twelve tribes that formed a tribal confederacy marked by tribal self-governance, egalitarian structure, and resistance to oppressive Canaanite city-states. 

Therefore, the suggestion is that this new community will reflect those ideals and be an alternative community of different social patterns, shared resources, and resistance to oppressive structures.  Indeed, they were to proclaim ‘The good news, the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt. 10:7). [1]

The twelve are sent out as apostles which is a Greek military term for an ambassador who, in the days before text messages, had the authority to act on behalf of the general who sent them.  We finish at verse 8 but if we continued to verse 23 we would discover that the disciples are to make themselves vulnerable.

They are not even able to take a staff to defend themselves and must rely entirely on the hospitality of those who will receive them.

Sermon

Our reading from Genesis only occurs occasionally in the three-year lectionary cycle depending on when Easter occurs but it is an important link in the Abraham saga.  It is also important in the vision it presents of meeting the divine in hospitality offered to strangers and, as mentioned in the introduction, that is reflected in the Emmaus Road story in Luke. 

In a number of meetings with angels in the Old Testament the person speaking to the angel finds they are meeting with God.  This is true of this encounter we read about today and what is even more significant is that Abraham begins his encounter by offering hospitality to three strangers, who he then recognises as angels.  He then finds himself talking to God. 

The reader is let into the secret right at the beginning with the opening verse.

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. (Genesis 18:1)  It is important to note that the word LORD is written all in upper case which is the biblical code for the name of God, Yahweh, which in Jewish tradition must not be pronounced aloud.  So there is no doubt this was a meeting with God. 

Last week we focused on the doctrine of the Trinity and for those required to write essays on the Trinity this story is one of the proof texts available because in this story God is indeed met in three persons.  However this is one of those stories where it is important to remember Marcus Borg’s indigenous American story teller who began their creation myth by saying ‘I don’t know if things happened this way but I know this story is true’. 

The truth in this story is that Abraham encountered God in three strangers.  To be more precise he encountered God when he shared lavish hospitality with three strangers.

That truth asks questions about how we might encounter God and how we react to strangers.  Michael Leunig, says there are only two emotions, love and fear. 

Abraham welcomed three strangers with loving hospitality and encountered the divine presence.  But often our reaction to strangers is fear which can lead to all sorts of unfortunate encounters.

If you have been involved on a Pōwhiri you will remember that they start with a very tentative approach from the visitors followed by speeches that identify who everyone is.  Once those formalities are over everyone greats everyone else and then there is a feast.  In the very formal welcome we see on TV the guest, or a representative of the guests, comes into the space between the groups and places a gift on the ground then a single warrior advances with much quivering and submissive gestures.  Then with eyes on the stranger and weapon at the ready, picks up the gift. 

There are similarities in the way Abraham stepped out of the family camp, greeted the strangers on neutral ground away from the camp, then invited them in for a meal. 

Just like visiting a marae the reading tells us that the guests would have to wait while the food was cooked.  Both nomadic cultures and hunter gardening cultures have a different perception of time to industrial and communication age cultures, but the issues of different groups meeting are the same. 

Does this new group come in peace or war?  The approach to new and different people is therefore caution with fight or flight always an option.  What the Genesis story tells us is that amazing things can happen when our reaction to strangers is love and hospitality rather than fear.

Reading the story of the sending out of the twelve from Matthew usually focuses on mission and evangelism but we should also note its connection to Abraham’s hospitality. 

Jesus sent out the disciples without a staff to defend themselves, a change of clothes or food for the journey.  They approached each stranger in complete vulnerability like the lone warrior at the Pōwhiri but without the Taiaha.  If people refused the apostles hospitality they were instructed to simply move on, no getting into arguments. The people’s fear of strangers would separate them from the love the apostles offered.

But where hospitality was offered there were blessings conferred on the host.  The apostles became the angels in the Abraham story and the hosts found themselves in the presence of the divine as their visitors addressed their hopes and healed their hurts.  However, the apostles were not divine, they were disciples, students sent out on work experience and they also felt the divine presence as told in Mark’s episode of the return on the twelve. 

The disciples gathered around Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught. (Mark 6:30)  Jesus then took them away to a deserted place but people followed.  That lead into the feeding of the five thousand which puts a further emphasis on hospitality as Jesus hosts the crowed.  In Luke’s Gospel there is the sending out and returning of the twelve and the sending out and returning of the 70 or 72 depending on the translation.  When the 70 return Luke emphasises their enthusiasm: The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us’. (Luke 10: 17) 

That’s certainly better than a report I read on Face Book where an election candidate said they had been door knocking and met some supporters and lots of big dogs.

Hospitality offers joy for both the host and guest and hospitality shared brings Christ into our midst.  That is what our communion service is all about which is why I stress that everyone is welcome.  The Eucharist is not a special celebration for the ‘in group’ like it has been in the past and still is in some traditions. 

The symbolic shared meal of the communion service is to remember Jesus, but is also a celebration of Christ’s open hospitality.  The hospitality of a last meal with his disciples, breakfast by the lake in the early morning, breaking bread with a couple on the road to Emmaus or a pot luck meal for five thousand in a deserted place.

In our communion service, we not only remember Jesus and his open hospitality but in remembering his presence in the biblical examples of his hospitality we remind ourselves of Christ’s presence in our own lives.

Christ’s presence in our lives makes us his apostles. Makes us Christ’s representatives sent into our world to share Christ's love and open hospitality with those we meet along the way.  In such sharing, we should not only expect to offer Christ’s presence to others but to experience Christ in our lives.

That is what we learn from those apostles Jesus sent out in our reading from Matthew and we read of returning in Luke.  They returned with joy.  When we read the instructions Jesus gave his disciples in today’s reading we can certainly imagine that those who received him were also joyful.  

As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’.  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’ (Matthew 10:7,8)

If the Apostles followed those instructions we could certainly imagine that the households they visited would be joyful because, even without the drama of miraculous healing, they were given hope and whatever demons that threatened relationships in the household would be cast out.  ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ is the way Jesus proclaimed his ministry and people have interpreted it as a prediction of the end of the world and the establishing of a new loving and vegetarian paradise. 

However. after more than two thousand years of Christian history it is much more realistic to see ‘the kingdom of heaven’ or ‘the kingdom of God’ as a now and future realm.  A way of living that, regardless of the exploitation of dominating powers, becomes a reality when people care for each other.  The kingdom of God is a future reality because we still have dominating powers but it is a present reality because people do live as Christ to others and lives are transformed by those actions. 

These readings today tell us that the lives of both the recipients of Christ’s love and those who dispense Christ’s love are transformed.

Furthermore, there is a very important phrase at the beginning of Jesus’ instruction to his apostles ‘As you go’ Jesus’ mission is an as you go mission. 

We act as Christ to others as we go about our day to day live, as we continue our life journey, both in our own life and in our life as a parish.  The angels in the Genesis reading were also meeting Abraham on their way.  They were on their way to do an audit of Sodom and Gomorrah and when they were offered hospitality by Abraham they gave him good news and blessings that transformed his life. 

As we weave our way through the meanings in both these stories we are encouraged to meet and treat strangers with love rather than fear. 

We are sent out by Christ as a parish and as individuals to offer and receive hospitality and therefore find joy and give joy in the transformation such hospitality gives. 



[1] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.230-233

 

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