Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Welcome Home

This sermon was preached at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS on June 18, 2017 – Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7  
Read text here.  
Listen to the sermon here.
Today is Father’s Day. I’ll bet a lot of dads are hoping their children are thinking fondly of them and remembering the wise things they’ve said.  I spent a few moments trying to remember some wise things my dad said.  My dad is a very wise guy – and sometimes a wise guy - who has said and done a lot of wonderful things, but what I came up with in that moment were the words dad used whenever we were getting out of hand and needed to stop.  He’d say, “Let’s not and say we did.”  We, of course, had a wise reply.  “But dad, that’d be lying!”

Another dad – or at least I assume he was a dad; I don’t actually know if he had any children – who said something you’ll probably recognize was a man who lived way back in the first century in Rome named Pliny the Elder.  He’s the one who first said, “Home is where the heart is.”[1]

Home is where the heart is . . . which could be a problem if you’re the one singing that song, “I left my heart in San Francisco…”

Home is where the heart is.  In our story for today from Genesis 18, we see Abraham working very hard to make three travelers feel at home.  He offers them extraordinary hospitality. 
1.    He runs to greet them and bows down to the ground before them.
2.    He begs them to come into his camp and let him serve them.
3.    He offers them foot-washing and rest and food.
4.    He hurries to get the food preparation going.
5.    He has Sarah use the best flour, and chooses a good and tender calf to roast.
6.    After he serves the food, he stands by waiting in case they need anything.
This is a description of excellent hospitality.  Treat people with respect, give them your best, do things promptly, be attentive.

I don’t think many of us would argue about this.  It’s good to treat people well and be hospitable, and Abraham does a marvelous job of it.  For the rest of the Bible, and even outside the Bible, Abraham is held up as the ultimate example of excellent hospitality.[2]
As I was pondering these verses about Abraham’s exemplary hospitality, I got to wondering, What makes us feel at home?  What make us feel welcome somewhere?

So I posted those questions on Facebook. You may have seen this.  Some of you posted answers.

Some of the responses are what we might expect – friendliness, smiles, food.  One that came up several times that surprised me a bit was humor.  Laughter is welcoming.
There is laughter in our story from Genesis.  Sarah laughs when one of Abraham’s guests says that he will return in about a year and by that time Sarah will have a son.  She laughs because it sounds like a joke. 

To get the joke, it helps to know their history.

In Genesis 12 we read about God calling Abraham and Sarah to leave the land where they’d been living up in Haran, in modern day Turkey, and go to a new place that God would show them, which is how they end up where we find them in Genesis 18, in Canaan, what we now know as Israel. They were nomads, only staying in one place as long as their herds had grass there to eat.  The life of a nomad was hard.  It was in tents.  …They lived in tents.

When God called Abraham to go to Canaan, God made Abraham a promise.  God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2,3)  It’s a beautiful promise, but there’s a problem.  Abraham and Sarah have no children.  Sarah is barren, and she’s 90 years old.  I love how it’s put in our reading for today, “…it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” (Gen. 18:11)

In Genesis 16, we find that Abraham and Sarah have gotten impatient about waiting for God to give them children, and so Sarah has Abraham spend time with her slave Hagar.  Hagar conceives and has a baby named Ishmael.[3]  But God says that although he will bless Ishmael and give him many descendants, God will still keep his promise to give Sarah a child.

Which brings us to the part we read today.  It’s been 25 years since God first promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation, and now here is the promise again.  “When I come back to visit you next year, Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah laughs.  Surely the man is joking.  But he isn’t….and apparently he heard her laughter, even though she was only laughing quietly to herself.

I love the next line of the story.  “Then God said, “Why did Sarah laugh? . . . Is anything too difficult for God?”   …Good question.

Sarah, realizing she’s gotten herself into hot water, denies laughing.  “I didn’t laugh.”  And God, who of course would know, says, “Oh yes you did laugh.”

That’s some good comedy there. Sarah gets caught being real.  And that’s why I like Sarah’s part of the story the best.  She’s authentic.

In my informal research on Facebook, sincerity and authenticity were some words that showed up in several of the responses to my question about what makes us feel welcome. One person said, “people seeming genuinely interested in me, as opposed to being politely interested.”[4]

That makes hospitality more challenging.  We can know the right things to do to show hospitality, but to do them with a sincerely welcoming spirit is harder.
For some of us, this is not hard.  Some people are just naturally good at hospitality.  I’ve seen this from many of you already.

I saw this in action the first year that we lived in Seneca, SC.  Rob’s aunt and uncle invited us to their house for Thanksgiving.  We didn’t know them very well because we had lived most of our lives on the opposite side of the country, in California.  We discovered that we had very different expectations of the kinds of food that should be at a thanksgiving dinner, so we brought what we were used to, and they prepared what they were used to.   We lined it all up on the counter, filled our plates, and sat down to dinner.  And then the doorbell rang. In the few months that we had lived in Seneca, we had met several other families that were relatively new to the area who had also come from California, and we developed a camaraderie with them.  I don’t remember how this happened, but someone got the idea that they should all join us for Thanksgiving dinner.  Rob’s aunt answered the door.  She didn’t know these people, and she didn’t know they were coming, but she welcomed them like they were old friends.  I was so impressed with her amazing hospitality.

That’s what we probably most often think of when we think of hospitality – welcoming people into our homes and serving them food.  According to the responses on my Facebook question, food is a big factor.  There was even a whole conversation that came up about bacon.  It seems that bacon is good for hospitality.

Writer Henri Nouwen suggests another way to think about hospitality.  He says that hospitality is about offering space.[5]  That could mean inviting someone to share your space, but sometimes it might mean being sensitive enough to someone’s situation to know when to give them their own space.

There was a women who needed space after her mother died.  She got through the funeral and then went home and fell apart.  After a couple of days her refrigerator was getting empty, but she was too sad to get to the store or ask for help. A friend who knew her well sent her a text that said,
“I’m going to the store to buy groceries for you. I’m going to deliver them to your kitchen door, and once I’ve done that I’m going to get back in my car, and when I’m in my car I’m going to text you and let you know that they are there. Text me the things that you need.”[6]
The friend gave the woman space to be alone until she was ready to face people again.

Hospitality, making people feel welcome, doesn’t always look the way we expect it to look. Sometimes it’s more about helping people feel accepted and safe.  On Facebook, one of the responses was, Being able to relax and be myself without fear of failing to meet expectations or being judged.”

I met a man at a homeless shelter in Galveston that had recently come from San Antonio.  The shelter director asked him what it had been like in San Antonio.  The man said that it was very hard to be homeless there, and he told us with tears in his eyes that he had asked someone on the street if they could tell him what time it was.  Instead of answering, the person cringed, looked disgusted and hurried past him.  Not only was he made to feel unwelcome, he felt subhuman.

Home is where the heart is, but there was no heart for that man that day.  The heart of making people feel sincerely welcome is love, and our capacity for that love comes from God. The Bible says in Romans 5:  God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The last few weeks we’ve been talking about the Holy Spirit.  Last week we talked about how the Spirit helps us to be creative.  This week in our email newsletter we invited you to think about how creativity plays a part in being welcoming.  In other words, how does the Holy Spirit play a part in hospitality?

Through the Holy Spirit we can love people with God’s love which goes further than what we can do on our own.  The Holy Spirit helps us to reach beyond our hesitations, to approach people we might not otherwise approach, and to reach out in new and different ways.  The Holy Spirit enables us to respond to people with God’s love which is for all people, rather than with our own which tends to be more partial and prejudicial.

One way the Holy Spirit helps us with this is through prayer…talking to God about everything.  This is one reason the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray continually.

Home is where the heart is.  We find our home in the heart of God, and from there we find the strength, courage, compassion and love that enables us to be genuinely welcoming of others, to welcome one another with the same welcome we have received from Jesus Christ (Romans 15:7).

Remember Abraham? God promised to make him a great nation, but he was old and his wife was barren. On top of that, God had first made that promise 25 years before that visit from the three men that we read about. But in that visit the promise was renewed. One of the men said, “When we return this time next year, your wife Sarah will have a child.” It was so inconceivable that Sarah laughed when she heard it. But God kept his promise.  We read in Genesis 21 that Sarah DID have a son, and they named him Isaac.  Isaac was the father of Jacob, also known as Israel, who was the father of Judah, and so on, down to Joseph who was the father of Jesus.  Through Abraham and his descendants, all the nations of the earth were blessed.  Through Abraham and his descendants, we are blessed to have the grace and forgiveness and welcome into the family of God through Jesus Christ.

God challenged Abraham and Sarah with a question. “Is anything too hard for God?” (Gen 18:14) Loving and welcoming people can be hard.  God has promised us that he will never leave us.  Through Jesus, God’s love lives in our hearts, and the Holy Spirit helps us to find ways to show people that they matter to us and to God.

Nothing can separate from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 8:39).  Home is where the heart is.  When we trust God with our hearts, God says, welcome home.

[2] Arterbury, Andrew E. "The ancient custom of hospitality: the Greek novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18." Perspectives In Religious Studies 29, no. 1 (2002 2002): 53-72. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 16, 2017).
[3] Abraham was 75 when God called him to leave Haran (Gen. 12:4) and 86 when Ishmael was born (Gen. 16:16).  Covenant restated in Genesis 17 and Abraham is 99 (17:1) and Sarah is 90 (17:17)
[6] Lauralee Farrer in Story Table: Hospitality by Fuller Studio https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/story-table-hospitality/


  1. As I re-read your sermon (to refresh my not-so-good memory), something jumped out at me that I thought I would share. You mention that writer Henri Nouwen suggests that hospitality is about offering space. What I actually read, or what came to my mind, was that hospitality is also about offering grace. Even more to think about now!

  2. I think it's very true that space is grace. I wish I'd said that!