Refugee week Sermon by Rev Dr Phil Wall
Readings: Genesis 18:1-10, 16; 19:1-11
On Monday past, a number of us gathered in the Victoria Room to watch and then discuss the French drama ‘Of Gods and Men’. I think it’s a great film but not an easy watch – it takes its time to tell a challenging true story about faith and doubt, peace and violence. And one of its most moving scenes comes near the end of the film when the monks, facing almost certain death, gather together to share a simple meal and glass of wine. Echoes of the Last Supper are clear as they eat and drink, laugh and cry together, all to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s Grand Theme from Swan Lake, playing on an old tape machine in the corner. Their love for one another and for God is tangible as their share this final meal with one another. And as I watched this, I remembered the words of Lawrence Moore, the URC minister who led our teaching on minister’s summer school last week. “Our dinner tables,” Lawrence suggested, “might be a foretaste of the kingdom of God.” In his unpacking of Luke’s gospel, Lawrence suggested that the way we order our dinner tables reflects the way we order our world. Do we feast lavishly in our dining room whilst the poor man starves at our gate? Do we break bread with all of God’s children or make the sinners wait outside? Do we keep the best seats and give the first helpings to the more important guests, or do we heed Jesus’ warning that the first shall be last and the last the first?! Who we eat with and the hospitality we offer might reveal our hearts, he suggested.
And for all their talk of visitations from God and the depravity of humankind, the stories of the guests passing by Abraham and journeying into Sodom both centre around a dinner table and the hospitality that was shown to guests. So this morning, as we consider the plight of the refugee, I would like to suggest that the tale of Abraham and the strangers and their treatment in Sodom have something to teach us about the way we order our dinner tables and our lives, about the hospitality we might give and the guests we must welcome.
First then to the mysterious visitors. Do the words ‘stranger danger’ mean anything to you? I was brought up with those words ringing in my ears, being told not to talk to strangers, to stay clear of those I didn’t know – to turn my back and run away. The fear that the stranger might be dangerous, might attack or kidnap children meant that some of my generation grew up likening every stranger to the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the way that some people are voting today might suggest that this picture has never really changed.
And things weren’t so different in the time of Abraham, when fear of the stranger was rife. As a small, nomadic group, Abraham’s family were open to attack from passing thieves and robbers but, unlike today, strangers couldn’t be kept at arm’s length. They couldn’t build bigger walls or border posts so instead, in the ancient Near East, the stranger was to be transformed from being a possible threat to becoming a friend through the offer of hospitality. Potential hate was to be immediately defeated by an act of love. At a time when food was scarce and life was hard, it was both your duty and a wise idea, to welcome the stranger. And boy does Abraham do that! He runs and bows to the passing strangers, he honours and invites them, he refreshes and serves them…offering the choicest calf and finest flour and then, after conversations are enjoyed and relationships formed, he walks beside the strangers, now friends, and helps them on their way. Abraham, the great man of faith, reveals his worldview around the dinner table, he demonstrates his love of God and neighbour, as strangers are welcomed, refreshed and fed with the very best he can give.
Compare this, then, with the welcome the guests receive after their next journey. Now confirmed as angels, two of the men arrive at Sodom and are fed and housed by Lot. So far, so good. But then it all turns bad for we are told that before the angels went to bed, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we might rape them.” The strangers who were treated as guests of honour by Abraham are then viewed as playthings, less than people, by the men of Sodom. They were there to be abused by many in the streets. In a scene which bears horrific resemblance to stories of rape against women and children in conflict today, which makes refugees of the most vulnerable, the strangers in Sodom are threatened with sexual violence. And whilst Lot’s…shall we say ‘tricky’…comments about his daughters cause us difficulty which we will have to consider another day, his plea to the attackers, that they do nothing to these men for they have come under the shelter of my roof, reinforces the focus of the importance, and Sodom’s absence, of giving hospitality to strangers.
Over the years, many in the church have used this story to prop up their own prejudices about homosexuality, missing the whole point that the message in these chapters isn’t about sex but about hospitality, not about whom we might exclude but whom we must host. Abraham welcomes the visitors and is reminded of God’s blessing; the people of Sodom want to violate the visitors and so face God’s judgment.
And this is, by no means, an isolated text. Throughout scripture, we are reminded of our duty to love our neighbour, to welcome the stranger, to invite all to our tables. The book of Hebrews tells us to show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it…whilst, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus goes even further by suggesting that there will be some of the self-professed faithful who will face judgment for, Jesus says, ‘I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me and in prison and you didn’t visit me’. In showing hospitality, welcome, love to our flesh and blood sisters and brothers, we are showing hospitality, welcome, love to God.
Of course, neither being nor welcoming the stranger is always easy and the tales of the angels with Abraham and at Sodom remind us that even more than showing hospitality, we must be prepared to make sacrifices for the stranger. As Abraham, we must give of ourselves to our guests. For Abraham laid his body before the visitors, bowing to them, showing respect. He sacrificed – literally – the best that he had for his guests, offering the most tender calf and choicest bread at the table. He gave his time, standing near them, tending to them as they ate, walking alongside them on their way. Then in Lot’s treatment of the visitors at Sodom, we are reminded that in welcoming the stranger, in standing up for the rights of the foreigner, we may even have to sacrifice our own security for in his sheltering of the angels, Lot put his very life on the line.
And history is littered with thousands of saints, some professing faith, others not, who have sheltered the foreigner, aided the refugee – from escaped slaves and political prisoners to expelled Jews and persecuted Palestinians. Today, perhaps, here in Ponty, these individuals aren’t so easily identifiable but they are there. So what might we do? What might we sacrifice in our quest to invite the stranger to our table, to love our neighbours in our context? Well, let’s start right here. In this building. As we gather here on a Sunday, let’s continue to give a smile, shake a hand, speak words of welcome to those we know and those we don’t. Let’s willingly give up our chairs to those who might only be here for a one-off. Let’s consider what we might need to sacrifice in order to encourage others to be welcomed to our table.
And in this community, let’s consider and identify who are the persecuted, the ostracized today. Let’s welcome them into our community and into our homes and seek welcome into theirs, laying our time, bodies, gifts before them, making ourselves vulnerable to both rejection and blessing.
Then in this country, as part of the whole of God’s creation, let’s speak up on behalf of the voiceless. Let’s say no more to children drowning every day in their attempt to flee persecution and cling onto hope. No more to stories in newspapers which make asylum seekers out to be spongers and scroungers. No more to the exclusion and ill-treatment of the 50 million plus women, men and children around the world every year who are forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives. Instead, let us welcome the stranger, strive for justice for the refugee, invite the asylum seeker to our dinner table. To a table where strangers become friends. A table of service and sacrifice.
Does that remind you of anything? In the encounter with Abraham we are told that he welcomes three strangers to the table yet when they get to Sodom, there are only two. Did you notice that? In case you didn’t, or you did and have been wondering why, the third visitor that Abraham welcomed and who went his way after the meal, was said to be God Godself. In other words, in breaking bread with strangers, Abraham encountered God. Well this morning, we are invited to do just the same. To gather with friends and strangers to taste God’s grace, to drink in God’s love. And we’re not only welcomed to do this on a Sunday morning with little glasses and pinches of bread but at every meal. This week, I have encountered God sharing cheese, crackers and a glass of wine late on a Monday night; have heard God’s whisper when catching up with two fellow ministers for a pub lunch; have felt God’s blessing whilst munching on cheesecake and sitting with friends in a drizzly back garden on a Saturday evening.
God is not restricted to bread and wine or to the pious and holy. God is here, to be invited and embraced as a stranger. God is here to love and be loved as guest. God is here to feed and refresh as host. How we order our dinner tables does reflect how we order the world…and at God’s table, all are welcome – the old and the young, the housed and homeless, the stranger and refugee. God welcomes us all, every one a sister or brother of Christ, every one a beloved child of God.
So as we mark this refugee week may we be reminded of our duty and privilege in welcoming the stranger. May we reaffirm our commitment to strive for justice for, and show compassion to, all of God’s children. And may we come to God’s table with joy and thanksgiving, for the table is spread and we’re all invited. Amen.