Our scripture from the Hebrew Bible opens with Abraham sitting in the shade in the entrance of his tent. With the first light of dawn, Abraham probably had gotten up, said his morning prayers, kissed his wife, went out to check on the goats and sheep and consulted with the herdsmen, checked the water level of the well, did all that needed to be done.
But now it is midday.It is hot. All work has stopped and people have retreated into the shade to wait out the heat of the mid day sun. So Abraham is sitting there at the entrance catching any breeze that would grace him, his mind wandering perhaps, his eyes growing heavy.
Then, there they are! Three figures emerge out of the ripple of the heat waves on the sand.This visit is not at all what Abraham would have expected. No one would be out in the heat of the day. But as surprised s Abraham may be, he does not hesitate for a moment. He jumps up and runs out to them, he bows down and honors and then says “If I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.”
So let’s hit the pause button for a moment. If this happened to you, would you respond as Abraham did?
Unfortunately, I don’t have to speculate because I actually know what I did in what was almost an identical situation. It was when Mark and I were living in El Salvador. He and I had retreated inside our little mud brick house in the heat of the day to catch a nap. We had after all be up very early, hiked to a nearby village to check in with the health promoters and bring some teaching and supplies. We had just made the trek back to the house and now exhausted by intensity of the noon day sun were lying back with our minds wandering and our eyes growing heavy.
Then you guessed it, there was a knock on our door and the call of a familiar voice. It was Trini, a health promoter that lived an hour or so walk beyond our village up in the hills. He was returning from the capital, had taken a long bus ride that had let him off in a town up the river. He had walked 45 minutes down the pathway and was now knocking on our door before climbing the winding pathway up into the hills that would lead to his home in the little mountain town of Plasualas.
Trini knocked because it was past noon and he had not eaten and he knew perfectly well that we would be more than happy to whip up something for him in no time. Cultural expectation mandated nothing less. And so he knocked, we rose from our rest and as Mark sat with him on the outer porch of our little house, I fired up the propane stove and prepared some food for him. And I confess that at this point I looked a lot more like Martha than I did Abraham. For was I delighted to see Trini, thrilled for this opportunity to open my home to him? Not at all. I looked at him and saw intrusion. Something that was costing something of me, costing me my precious rest and renewal. I saw him, I am sad to say, as a hassle. Just one more thing that was being asked of me in an already draining day. I am telling you my own story here not to beat up on myself but to throw open the door for us to think about what constitutes hospitality.
We know it is something we value and something we ought to do what but is it exactly? In all three of these stories, that of Abraham, of Martha and my story, guests may have been fed, but there was more hospitality going on by the oaks of Mamre, then in the house of Martha or our little house in Hacienda Vieja. Or if there was hospitality in Martha’s house and mind, it had more to do with what Mary and Mark were doing than what Martha and I were doing.
Why? Because hospitality is more than just opening the flap of one’s tent or the door of one’s home. Hospitality is first and foremost opening the door to one’s heart.
The starting place of hospitality is not obligation or politeness. The starting place of hospitality is what we see in Abraham — this open hearted going out from one’s self. Abraham’s first action was to run from the tent entrance to meet them (remember the other biblical elder who dared run at an unexpected figure emerging on the horizon line? The father in the prodigal son story right? He runs out from the door of his house, he honors the son by putting a ring on his finger and then welcoming him into a grand banquet.)
What we see metaphorically in Abraham rushing out of his tent, of the Father rushing out to the returning wayward prodigal son, is this open heartedness, this going out from one’s self, one’s own self preoccupation – going out from where I dare say most of us spend most of our time – that place of self absorption caught up with and concerned by our own needs. It is this going out from oneself that is the first movement in hospitality.
The second movement of hospitality is “bowing” down. It is honoring the other. Seeing them not as a need or a burden or a threat but seeing them as Martin Buber says as a Thou not as an it.
And the third movement that we learn from Abraham is the invitation, the offer to put one’s self in serve to the other. Not as an obligation but as a favor, that the visitors would be doing Abraham a favor, giving him a gift by coming in. Listen again to Abraham’s remarkable words “If I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant, Let me bring you bread.” Please, do me the favor of letting me serve you. Pretty extraordinary.
So where does such a heart of hospitality come from? If that open hearted impulse does not come from obligation or politeness then where does it come?
In the remarkable memoir, God’s Hotel, Victoria Sweet a physician in the Bay area writes about her work at Laguna Honda Hospital. Laguna Honda is a chronic care hospital that was an alms house for the poor, and sick for people that couldn’t take care of themselves. Dr. Sweet takes up the offer to practice at Laguna Honda and the entire book is about not so much the remarkable medical cures that do happen but instead about a deepening understanding of what it means to heal and be healed.
At one section well into the book she has a kind of epiphany when she discovers that the word Hospital and hospitality share the same root word which is hospes, which means either “guest” or “host.” With that she realized that at this point in her life she was the host welcoming in a guest a patient and offering that person care.
But she fully realized that there will come a time when she is the guest and the patient and will need to rely on another host to welcome her in and to care for and the healing she will need. And she goes on to say that she learned that the first hospitals in Europe came about in Medieval times and were monasteries that opened their doors to everyone, to rich and poor, to travelers, pilgrims, and the sick, to Muslim and Jew. In fact the old French word for hospital was Hotel-Dieu, or hostel of God. The reason for it was that Matthew in the New Testament who had quoted Jesus as saying: Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me. Which was interpreted by the monks to mean that any guest was welcome in the monastery because any guest could be – and therefore was – Christ.
I think it is this sense of reciprocity, after all Abraham knows what it is to be a stranger in a strange land, and this ability to see the spark of the divine in the other that threw open the doors of Abraham’s heart.
This kind of open hearted orientation towards those around us is not easy.It is not easy to live expecting to meet the Christ in every person. Instead we tend to be protective of our time and resources. We are boundaried. Watchful. I cannot help but think that the outcome of this proposal to turn Engine 6 building into housing for persons who were homeless and even the encounter that night in Florida between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin would have played out differently if those involved could have seen with the eyes of Abraham. Could have expected to encounter in the other the spark of the divine, the light of Christ.
In reflecting on the altercation that led to Trayvon Martin’s death, Rev. Frederick Davie Executive Vice President, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York put it this way. “As a believer in the good news of scripture, an ordained clergyman, a seminary leader, and a black man, I am engaged in an enterprise that holds the stranger and the other as precious, sacred commodities of the Creator, as opportunities for expressions of welcoming, inclusion, hospitality, love and co-creation. Do we always get it right? By no means! But as a stranger in my own right, I hear the call of the Great One to give myself in solidarity with others to create welcoming communities as a bold counter narrative to the one played out in the Trayvon Martin courtroom and in many courtrooms and communities across this nation and the world.”
I think perhaps the most important thing that we try to do in our life together is to cultivate a heart of hospitality. I think that the most important thing that we can do is to make of this place a welcoming community as a bold counter narrative, to make of this place a house of hospitality, a house of healing, a Hotel-Dieu – a hostel of God. And when we do,when we are able to see the stranger at our tent flap not as a threat or a nuisance then we may like Abraham be surprise by what God in God’s grace gifts us with.
For Abraham and Sarah it was a baby.A future, new beginning when they had long thought that door was shut to them. Who knows what the stranger met with the hospitality of our hearts has in store for us? And just to remind you, the expression of this kind of open hearted hospitality does not have to be in the form of something extravagant.
I have to tell you every day during the week here at the church I am met with this open hearted hospitality. Every day during the week at some point, I will open the door to the office. And when I do, Luisa, our office manager, will stop what it is she is doing. She will turn put down the phone or take her hands from the key board. She will turn her chair to face me, and will hold me in complete attention. Hospitality, beautiful, healing, life affirming hospitality. As simple as that. So let our hospitality not be that of brittle politeness, or socially sanctioned obligation. But let our hospitality be open hearted. Let us see the one in front of us, not as a burden but as a gift who by the grace of God may very well gift us with exactly what it is we most dearly need.
And by the way, it was probably no more than a week after unexpected visit, that Mark and I found ourselves hiking home in the mid day heat.We had visited a village in the far mountains and underestimated how long the round trip would take. So it was mid day when we were hiking down through Plasualas back to our home in Hacienda Vieja below when we heard our names and saw Trini hurrying out to us. And you guessed it. He implored us to come into his home to have some lunch and to rest until the heat of the day had passed.