Showing Up For Each Other

Hospitality was serious business in Abraham’s setting.

It would not be too dramatic to say practicing good hospitality was life or death.

Located right between Asia and Africa, the land of Canaan was a major thoroughfare for travelers. In a time when life was already fairly touch-and-go and a new, unknown face was not typically reassuring, strangers were transformed into allies and friends in the offer of hospitality. Even when offering a substantial outlay—a fatted calf was major in those times—both parties got something out of it. The guest received a safe place to stay and food to eat; the host received blessings on his home, and news of the place the traveler had come from.

From Near East studies fragments, scholars have deduced that there were some guidelines: the guest should never ask for anything; the host should offer. Nor should the host ever ask more details about their guest; the guest only should offer. And while the initial offer may be modest, the host should offer the very best he had. [1]

Notice, Abraham offers these strangers a foot bath, and a small morsel of bread. One responds, yes, do just that. But Abraham runs into the tent and asks Sarah to take a huge amount of flour to make some baked goods, and then gets really lavish and brings a prepared fatted calf, butter, and milk for the guests.

So why on earth did Abraham and Sarah do this? Because that was the understanding of people who lived pretty close to the bone. In this land, there weren’t even ramshackle inns. There weren’t a lot of resources, weren’t a lot of sure things, so the one thing you had to count on was trusting one another. You took care of each other. Even if you weren’t friends or family. You knew that you took care of others, because there would be a time when you needed strangers to take care of you as well.

And this is a season of our public life together where it is important to look for ways we can take care of each other. We see a lot of valuing being right over being in relationship. A lot of people acting out of a sense of scarcity. There is this felt sense that there’s not enough power, money, resources, to go around. As if fullness of life is a zero-sum game.

So it is important to uncover ways we can offer water in the desert, if you will; ways to make what can feel like a life of struggle a little more bearable, a little more hopeful, a little more laden with grace.

I see the importance of needing each other today.

I see this story of hospitality in a place of scarcity offering hope and humanity into our current moment. This is an invitation from God into hospitality and tending to one another.

And this is a vital part of human life together.

Vital enough that stories like this show up across traditions. Abraham prepares this unexpectedly lavish feast—for the ones who are God and guest at the same time. This story is recorded in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

And none of these traditions stutter for a moment: when you welcome the stranger, you welcome God. Jesus reminds us of this quite explicitly in Matthew 25, saying that feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger are doing the same things to Jesus himself.

Loving neighbor and caring for stranger alike is directly related to how we welcome God into our lives.

Creating spaces in which we acknowledge how much we need one another is important now more than ever.

 

The image on your bulletin is a rendition of this story of these three travelers who are also God. It is by Ric Stott, a pastor in Sheffield, UK, recalling Rublev’s icon called “The Hospitality of Abraham” or just the Trinity. But he didn’t do it with fine woods and paints and gold leaf. He made it with a sodden slab of wood he found in a ditch. He said, “Communities are messy. This piece I made recently begins to capture the dirty ambiguity of being in community. I found the wood by the side of the road on my way into Sheffield. It was heavy and sodden in the rain, encrusted with mud, dead leaves and the grime of the city. Hauling it into my car I couldn’t help but get filthy.”[2]

By painting this image of the community within God of the Trinity on this messy medium, he gets at the heart of what real hospitality, real community, is: it may get your hands dirty. When we truly open up to engage with others, It’s bound to be imperfect. And I hope that’s freeing, that it will be imperfect and messy, but it is still good and beautiful and a reflection of the divine.

This icon shows God, the source of all that is, portrayed as three people sitting down together at a table in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment of one another.

Let me say that again—God is a group of people sitting down at a table to share a meal together.

How does that shift how we see one another?

In the Rublev trinity, the divine persons bow to one another, in reverence and love. The reverence we might have for one another, even and including the ways we frustrate or disappoint one another.

Because with imperfect people, things won’t always go the way you expect. But the reason I think church is so good is because when you stick around, you experience the grace that breaks in as well.

We had Ken’s memorial service yesterday, and I know that memorial services aren’t supposed to be the bastion of hope for communities, but the way this church gathers and shows up for one another—that service and its party were just sheer tenderness and joy. Ken had said, I had a good life. Don’t mourn me at my service; celebrate the wonderful life I had by loving the people I loved. Have a good party.

And in our world that is so quick to enrage, shift blame, exclude, and tear down, what better image for salvation than being welcome at the feast? The Table is, as Richard Rohr says, salvation and reconciliation so good we might doubt its goodness—it’s good beyond our understanding.[3]

Embodied practices, like gathering for a feast together, whether in worship at the Communion Table, or in dinners shared with one another, or lunches over justice education, help us grow in love and as people.

It’s easier to do these things together. In a community of practice. In church.

At Evensong this week, Gwenn asked the group, Why do you come to church?

I heard someone share, “I come because we inspire one another. Here, we are reminded we are equal in God’s eyes. And we care about each other in a different way than other organizations. There is a sense of being in this together.”

We are at a point where there is some critical, vital work in the world, friends.

Work of carving out space for each and every person to belong.

Work of knitting the fabric of our moral lives back together that has unraveled.

Work of riding, as Seamus Heaney says, a Longed-for tidal wave of justice to rise up, so that hope and history can rhyme.

And this church can be, already is, and needs to be part of this work. As I heard as people reflected on why church,

“People are in. it. here.”

So please, commit your time, commit your resources, invest not in this building or this church as an institution, but invest in the people here and the life-force and love-force we create when we cohere our energies together.

I can’t imagine being a Christian alone. I need a community of people to be in this together. The postures and practices and teachings of following Jesus take a lifetime to live into. And a practice I regularly fall short in, but find new inspiration to keep practicing in you.

Practices that make a difference are easier when we share them.

I have a much deeper, more challenging, and more rewarding yoga practice if I do it with other people in a class. By myself, I can decide “meh, I’m done with this yoga video” or “I’m going to take a break and let this keep going”. But when I do it with others, I deepen my practice.

So too is the practice of a spiritual life deepened when we can share it with others.

The ultimate theme undergirding the text for today is how vital it is to show up for one another. These are weird times, friends. Decency, compassion, justice, can feel few and far between.

But this is a place where we can remind ourselves of the other side of these stories. That there truly is grace and love and beauty and truth and justice, and these are the ultimate forces of our world. They will prevail. And it is important to have a community of people to live into this until it is true. And until we help it be true.

 

[1] https://www.theologyofwork.org/old-testament/genesis-12-50-and-work/abraham-genesis-121-2511/abraham-and-sarahs-hospitality-genesis-181-15/
[2] https://iaskforwonder.com/2014/04/16/a-dirtyholy-week/
[3] In lecture at the Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, NM, November 9, 2018.