Entertaining strangers

Sermon at St James, Trinity 2, 18 June 2023

Genesis 18: 1-15

We all continue to be shocked by the war in Ukraine and that is right. We should not allow ourselves to take it for granted. The suffering and disregard for the welfare of fellow human beings is appalling and yet, as with all wars, there are glimmers of goodness and love amidst the darkness. One such event was and is the Homes for Ukrainians scheme whereby the government supported people, who provided a home for Ukrainians fleeing their country, and also those, who found them jobs and taught them English. I know that in some cases there were problems but overall, you have to admire the people who were able to entertain strangers in this way.

Those of us who have had to entertain guests we hardly know or have had someone out of the blue come to stay or others who have outstayed their welcome get a glimpse of the difficult feelings involved.

In the middle east there has always been a great tradition of welcoming strangers in such a way as to greet them with the very best. We saw this tradition at work in the story of Abraham and Sarah in our first lesson. It’s a story that is not very well known and yet it is a powerful parable.

Abraham has set up his tent and gathered his herdsmen and his cattle and sheep on the west bank of the river Jordan in an area called the Oaks of Mamre. As he sits in the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day three strangers walk by and he immediately got up and greeted them offering them a chance to rest and some food and drink. He rushes into the tent and tells Sarah to make some bread and then goes out to find a calf to kill for meat for supper. He himself chooses the best calf he can find, one that is tender and good. In other words, Abraham goes to great lengths to be hospitable. It would have taken several hours of preparation. No quick fix here. Tea and biscuits would have been an insult. So the strangers sit down to a feast.

But then they ask to meet Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and she comes out to the entrance of the tent and one of the strangers predicts that Sarah will become pregnant and bear a son. At this Sarah is so surprised and shocked that she laughs out loud because she thinks herself too old to have a child. Abraham is more prepared to accept the idea and even criticises his wife for laughing at it.

Clearly these three strangers are messengers from God whom Abraham has entertained unawares. Abraham has an open mind to their message, but Sarah has hers closed—she has come to terms with herself as old and barren and will not be shaken out of it. There’s the contrast.

So, what can we take from this story. Is there a moral here?

The obvious one is the virtue of hospitality. We all know that those who eat together come closer to each other as they eat and drink. We grow to understand and appreciate each other and so we should provide the best we can and not hold back. And then at a deeper level we have to expect to meet God in other people without always knowing it. God works in mysterious, unseen ways and speaks through ordinary people, even strangers and passers-by, and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews put it like this:

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.”

The other moral lies in the contrast between Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is trusting, faithful and hopeful; Sarah is sceptical, disbelieving and laughs at the idea of having a child late in life and Abraham criticises her for her laughter.

As Mother Teresa once said: “God did not call me to be successful, he called me to be faithful.”