Visitors, Viruses and Vulnerabilities
This past week, as students and teachers across Wales counted down the days until half term, our sisters and brothers across the Severn were already enjoying theirs and what better way for my friend Rachel, goddaughter Naomi and her brother Jonah to spend the week of freedom but to pack up their most prized possessions and catch numerous trains into dragon country?! So sheets and towels were washed, favours asked, sweets and crisps ordered all in preparation for their visit and I’m pleased to say that they had a fab time. Highlights included fun in the park, a great evening with new friends at Kids’ Club and playing hide and seek in the church, this latter of which, I’d like to think that I was something of an expert, as this photo demonstrates. I thought I was practically unfindable, but apparently not!
We had a lot of fun though. Such that when Lynda kindly came to pick up my guests and take them to the station at the end of the trip, many tears were shed. By the kids, anyway – I was too shattered to do anything other than wave for welcoming three visitors into your home can be quite the exhausting experience. And that’s friends who you’re expecting – welcoming strangers who turn up out of the blue can be all the more challenging! Well in the first of two stories that we’re going to hear this morning, Abraham and Sarah are provoked to do just that – to show hospitality to three strangers who turn up by their tent…
Reading: Genesis 18:1-10
So, last week, we heard God tell Abraham and Sarah to pack up their things and head out on an unknown journey and this week, after some shenanigans in Egypt, a few covenant and circumcision conversations and the birth of Ishmael – more on whom next time – we join the couple as they enjoy a short rest by the oaks of Mamre. Their encounter with the three strangers who just happen to be God and two angels is a familiar one to many of us and its message about the importance of hospitality to strangers is, I think, central to our identity as a church. Indeed, the words of Hebrews 13 – ‘do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’, these could well be the St David’s motto, alongside our ‘All are Welcome’.
Yet when we reflected about such things in one of our advent services last year, one member asked me that next time I preach about taking in the stranger, could I please acknowledge the extra work it takes. And they are right, of course. Welcoming the stranger can be challenging. In fact it can be difficult, disruptive, and downright draining! Take Abraham and Sarah – there they are, enjoying a break on their epic odyssey, perhaps coming to terms with the tricky family dynamics that the birth of Ishmael has stirred up, and suddenly up they have to jump, serving three potentially dangerous strangers, hoping to turn them from possible threat to friend through the offer of hospitality. Abraham sorts the choicest calf; Sarah gets on with some baking; there’s bowing, foot washing, making sure the guests get on their way safely – I’m sure the two of them were exhausted when their three visitors left. I know I was this past week. Down on sleep, no chance of quiet time and then given the lurgy by the cute little germ-factories, I was wiped out and finding it hard to concentrate on work and generally feeling pretty pathetic
So, apart from acknowledging what a brave little soldier I’ve been this week in coping with my man-flu, what might we learn from the hard work of hospitality? Perhaps some of us here will simply welcome the acknowledgement that welcoming the stranger is our calling but is also hard work – and that we shouldn’t take for granted the hospitality that others show us. Perhaps some of us here will want to point out that through the welcome of the stranger, we are blessed in return – just as Abraham and Sarah were when God came to tea and they glimpsed again their hope of having their own child…or as I was though hugs, “I love yous” and a Kids’ Club pancake last week.
For me, though, the thing that I was most reminded about in welcoming my three guests was of my own vulnerability. They say an Englishman’s home is his castle and for this Englishman, that’s definitely true. Just like Superman, my home is a Fortress of Solitude – the place where I can relax and recuperate; where I can ensure that I get enough sleep, rest, exercise and nourishment that I might face the rest of the day with the joyful assurance that I can take on whatever life throws at me. But then when my quiet time is filled with noise, when my sleep is stolen and my health takes a hit, I become grumpy, tired and concerned that I’m not doing my best. Suddenly I feel imperfect, vulnerable and human, which, of course, I am!
Welcoming the stranger, giving hospitality and time to others, opens us up to new experiences, dialogue and worldviews but perhaps it also grants us clearer vision about who we are in in our magnificent yet mortal frames. For it can be so easy for some of us to become independent, self-contained and supposedly strong that we forget God’s call for us to be inter-related, self-sacrificing and vulnerable. It can be so easy for us to rely on our strengths that we forget that all our strengths and abilities come from God. It can be so easy to keep working hard to be our very best, perhaps keeping friend, stranger, even God at arm’s length, rather than inviting them in; finding strength in community; and relying not on our limited abilities but on God’s overabundant grace. Perhaps, then, when we open our homes and hearts to others, we might learn something of the vulnerability of us as host.
But what of the vulnerability of the guest? Why did God seek Abraham and Sarah’s welcome by coming to them in the hidden and risky form of a human stranger? After all, if God wanted to reveal something to Abraham, if God wanted to bless him, teach him or admonish him, God could have flexed God’s muscles and appeared to Abraham with fire and lightning and the very best special effects – or God could have simply sent some angels to do the work instead so why would God come to him in the form of a human stranger, whom Abraham could have simply mistrusted or ignored?
It’s a question which has been asked throughout the centuries of course and one that’s more usually associated with God coming to us in another human form – as a baby born in Bethlehem, a criminal on a cross, a friend on the beach – as Jesus of Nazareth. In the words of chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, why would God humble Godself and come to us in the vulnerable form of a human? Priests and poets have come up with various different answers to this question over the years including, appropriately enough for the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, the following love story…
The story there of a King who so loved a maiden that he gave up his Kingliness to meet her in more lowly form, so not to force her to love him but instead to be open to her love or rejection. This is the vulnerable guest we meet in Jesus. The guest-God who does not accost us with power and might from on high but with parables and poetry on the street; the guest-God who does not overwhelm us with neat answers but encourages us with challenging questions; the guest-God who does not demand that we come to the Heavenly Host crawling on our knees but who came to us as a suffering servant, who still comes to us as the hungry and the thirsty, the sick and the stranger.
If, like me and the kids this week, you sometimes feel like you are playing hide and seek at church – that God feels far away or hidden from you, we’re reminded that perhaps we’ll glimpse God as we serve those in need; perhaps we’ll meet and eat with God as we welcome friends and strangers to our tables.
Today then, it is our great pleasure to do just that at this table of grace. For, as we break bread and share wine with one another, our vulnerability is laid bare in our deep need for God’s forgiveness, in the way that we must serve and be served by others. God’s vulnerability is revealed here too – in the story of the King who took on a more lowly form for love’s sake; in the tale of the Saviour who was exposed to rejection and death even as he came to bring us love and life; and in the good news of the risen God who welcomes us all as guests to this feast of abundance.
For strength in vulnerability; for love in community; for God in our midst – thanks be to God! Amen.
When has God ‘turned up’ in your life? What parts were ordinary? What parts extraordinary? Did you know that it was God, and how did you respond?
Influenced by this story, Benedictine monastics welcome all visitors to their monasteries as Christ. How might we incorporate this approach into our everyday lives?