18 June 2017

Choosing Welcome

Genesis 18:1-19

Second Sunday after Pentecost

When Abraham saw the three mysterious guests arrive, unannounced, he did what any self-respecting, other-honoring Middle Easterner would have done: he welcomed them.  He really didn’t have a choice.  He was obligated to care for his guests.  Abraham is an “exemplary dispenser of hospitality.”[1]  Abraham doesn’t know who they are.  He doesn’t need to know who they are, doesn’t care to know, in order to be generous.  They are strangers.  They are guests.  And he has an obligation toward them.  That’s all he knows; that’s all he needs to know.  When he sees them, he bows—bows down to the ground.  “Please, Sir, how may I help you?  Maybe some water to quench your thirst or to wash your dusty feet?  How about a place to rest?  Here, let me get you something to eat to regain your strength. I don’t want to detain you.  Rest for a while and then, when you are ready, you can be on your way.” So they said, “Do as you have said,” which translated, might read. “Why thank you, kindly.  That would be great.” 

So, Abraham goes into action.  He runs to Sarah and sends her into action.  She puts the oven on and starts cooking.  Abraham runs out to the herd looking for a calf, slaughters it, and gives it to a servant to prepare it.  Then Abraham sets this feast before them to it.  Did you notice that Abraham went off to the side?  He didn’t join them under the tree as they ate.  This is desert hospitality.

Then Abraham discovers who they are.  They want something more than food and rest.  They are on the way to some place, pilgrims to be sure, but they’re about to implicate Abraham and Sarah in their plans. They are divine messengers and they come with a word for Abraham—and Sarah.  Sarah, although up in years, will have a son.  Abraham running with excitement and disbelief, tells Sarah. And then she laughs at the thought.  Laughs at Abraham.  Laughs at the messengers.  Laughs at God.  And God is all over and through this story.  Next, we hear Yahweh speaking, not the three guests.  Yahweh says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”  Then we have one of the most profound questions found in scripture: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”  Sarah denied laughing. But God said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Hospitality.  Welcome. They're essential practices for people of faith.  It’s not a new subject or theme for us at CPC. Still, we should be striving after new ways to extend hospitality, to deepen the experience of welcome and inclusion. Over the years, we have worked to be hospitable, welcoming the stranger, making space for the marginalized, creating a community where everyone feels at home.  Both of our capital campaigns, several years ago, were all about hospitality and improving accessibility into creating a place that is welcoming, warm, cool. Thank God for air-conditioning and a furnace that works.  There’s no doubt about it, the physical space, both inside and outside, is much more inviting and welcoming.

As we know, this is only the beginning. Scripture calls us to embody hospitality in every aspect of our ministry.  Genesis 18 is a classic text of this, but there are so many other texts in scripture.  Hospitality or welcome is more than just making people feel at home, it’s a matter of going out of one’s way to make one feel at home.  Deeper still, it’s about honoring the other—whoever the other is. It’s about welcoming his/her presence.  It’s about remembering that this person bears the image of God.

Years ago, my friend Michael Koppel became full professor at Wesley Theological Seminary.  We became friends at Yale Divinity School.  Michael lived in China where he learned the importance of the bow in friendships and relationships.  His inaugural lecture at Wesley was on the theological aspects of the bow, which is often associated with the Buddhist greeting, Namaste.  Namaste, a Sanskrit word, means “to bow” or “to adore” or “to worship.”  It can be translated: “The Buddha in me bows to the Buddha in you.”  “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”  Or, with a Christian twist, “The Christ in me bows to the Christ in you.” When Michael passes the peace of Christ he bows.

When we take on similar postures toward the stranger and toward one another, when we gesture this way toward the stranger or pilgrim or traveler among us (and who isn’t a pilgrim or traveler?), our outlook begins to change.  We begin to see them they come into focus instead of remaining invisible to us.  This, then, changes how we treat them, how we avail ourselves to them, how we open the doors of our tents and churches and homes and welcome them as bearers of a message from God.

This open-door practice was found in the early Christian monasteries.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547) is generally known as the founder of Christian monasticism.  He wrote a guidebook for the monks in his community, The Rule of St. Benedict; it’s one of the most influential texts in Western Christendom.  Think of it as an early Book of Order.  While it is true that the Reformation did away with monasticism in the Protestant church, there are still, obviously plenty of monastic orders within Roman Catholicism, orders that have much to teach the children of Luther and Calvin.  At the center of the Rule are guidelines for receiving guests to a monastery or abbey. Benedictines continue to be known for their hospitality.  In the chapter “On the Reception of Guests,” Benedict wrote, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).  Without knowing the identity of guests, the nationality or ethnicity of guests, without knowing what was needed or what they believed (or didn’t), without knowing their past or their intent, they were to be received like Christ, welcomed as if Christ himself walked through their doors.

The Rule continues: “In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown.  Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who is indeed received in their persons.”[2] This is a great way to run a monastery.  It’s also a great practice for a church.  

Practicing hospitality requires intentionality.  It doesn’t just happen.  We must choose it.  But, as we all know (maybe especially these days), choosing welcome is often a risky venture. There are countless (often good) reasons to be suspicious of strangers and fearful of mysterious guests at the door.  There are plenty of examples these days of people acting out of fear of the stranger, the other, the refugee.  Some want to deny entry, build walls and barriers to keep out undesirables.  There are even churches that want to hire their own militias to protect its members.  Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a 4,000-member PCA congregation in Birmingham, AL, wants to have its own police force.[3]  (This is sickening.)

Yes, intentionally choosing welcome is often a risky venture. Abraham and Sarah extended hospitality to three mysterious strangers, sent by God. That act of generosity, however, changed their lives—for the good.  It opened them up to receive God’s gracious will that poured into their lives and overflowed into the following generations of God’s people, right down to you and me.  We are the spiritual heirs of the blessing that Sarah and Abraham received.  So, what happens when we withhold welcome, when we fear the stranger, refuse the guest?  We miss out on the blessing, we miss out on holy encounters with God and with God’s people, we forfeit our role in God’s redemptive plan to save and to care for God’s children.

It’s time for us to deepen our commitment to hospitality at Catonsville Presbyterian Church.  Let us pray, and talk about it, and choose ways to embody God’s welcome as an essential expression God’s good news.  What do we mean by hospitality?  It’s more than being kind or nice.  It’s much deeper.

The Greek word of hospitality is philoxenia.  The word combines philos, the love or affection expressed toward friends, with the word xenos, meaning stranger (as in xenophobia, the fear of the stranger). “Because philoxenia includes the word for stranger, hospitality’s orientation toward strangers is more apparent in Greek than in English.”[4]  Hospitality is love toward the stranger or the strange or the different, the other.  It’s a love that welcomes the other in the name of God, the God who is always Other to us.  It’s also a love that welcomes God! Are we hospitable to God’s presence—the God who always remains a stranger to us, and mysterious, the one who appears on the thresholds of our lives, whose calling and message to us is almost always strange (as Sarah knew).  Are we open to God showing up, unannounced, into our lives?  Or are the flaps to our tents tightly secured, tied shut?

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), the Dutch theologian and priest, said, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by divided lines.”  This is our vocation, he explains, “to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free space and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”[5]

These acts of hospitality and welcome require intention, they require choice. Last week, Session approved a request of our Peace and Justice Committee.  We acted. The Session endorsed participation in the We Choose Welcome campaign of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  #WeChooseWelcome is the rallying call from Presbyterians across the U.S. expressing our commitment to welcome refugees of all nationalities and faiths.  This phrase comes from former Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, who urged Presbyterians to “choose welcome, not fear” in response to growing cries of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiments.  This effort is part of a larger interfaith ministry focused on three important goals: [1]“to demonstrate welcome through our actions with refugees, asylum seekers and the broader community; [2]to promote more generous and welcoming refugee policies, including countering anti-refugee messages and policies; [3] and to promote efforts to end the conflict that cause refugee displacement.”

All of this is timely since Tuesday, June 20th, is World Refugee Day.  We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  60 million people are displaced from their homes. 85,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in 2016 and that number will likely drop in 2017. The highest number of refugees, 16,370, came, not from Syria (as one might guess), but from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Syria was second, with 12,587 refugees.)  46% of the refugees are Muslim; Christians make up 44%.[6]  And, despite what we might hear in the press, the background screening done by the U.S. is extensive.  As Susan Krehbiel has shared with us on many occasions, refugees being resettled to the U.S. undergo the strictest level of scrutiny and security checks of any individuals seeking permission to enter the country. The process takes a long time.  Refugees have already been outside the U.S. for months or even years before they even begin the refugee resettlement process.  On average, the background screening takes 24 months from the time a refugee is referred to the U.S. government. For Syrians hoping to resettle here, the wait is even longer.[7]

You will start to see this banner/tagline: We Choose Welcome.  And we will begin exploring ways to put faith into action.  Several projects are already in the works, but what do you want to do?  How is God calling you to be involved?  Think about it; pray about it. 

Both the Mission and Peace and Justice Committees are committed to this work.  Yes, this is important work for the Church today.  Yes, this is politically-charged work—even partisan, but it doesn’t have to be.  We are called to act, to choose welcome, because that’s what God’s people do—plain and simple.  We welcome God’s children—we choose welcome.  Why?  Because God welcomes us.


A Reflection on the Image: Our attitudes, responses, postures are rooted in how we imagine God being hospitable to us.  God welcomes us into God’s life.  A marvelous expression of this is the Russian icon by Andrei Rublev (b.1360s, d. 1427 or 1430), originally called the “Hospitality of Abraham,” later modified and renamed “The Trinity.”  Some see the “three messengers” who appear to Abraham as the three persons of the Trinity.  There’s a lot going on in this icon, but what is so striking is its spaciousness.  Four sides of the table, but the fourth side is empty, open, free space—for you.  Imagine yourself sitting at that table in the presence of God, welcomed at his table, receptive to God’s reverence and God’s generosity.

[1] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton &Co, 2008), 86.
[2] The Rule of St. Benedict. “On the Reception of Guests,” is chapter 53.
[3] Matt Ford, “To Protect and Serve (and Pray),” The Atlantic, April 21, 2017, 
[4] Christine Pohl, Making Room, cited in Brett Webb-Mitchell, Practicing Pilgrimage: On Being and Becoming God’s Pilgrim People (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 86.
[5] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Image Book, 1986), 55, 66.
[7] Frequently Asked Questions about Refugee Resettlement, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Church (USA).