“Hospitality to the Stranger”-Seeing Christ in our Midst Sermon Series

“Hospitality to the Stranger”
Genesis 18:1-10a
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
August 1, 2021 

Have you ever had to run through an airport? Or see folks racing through an airport? Airport running is a unique kind of running, right? 

I was in the Austin airport in late November 2019. Had gotten through security, picked up a coffee, and walked toward my gate located at the very end of the terminal with plenty of time to spare…and, a bit suspiciously, almost nobody else around. 

Eventually, I pull out my ticket again, and for the very first time I notice that the gate I am looking for is the same number as the gate I am at, but my ticket also has a letter next to the gate number, indicating something I had no idea about… 

Apparently, the Austin Airport has a South Terminal. 

My flight is out of that terminal located a whole 15- minute drive from the main one in which I am standing with my coffee. 

Now, like most in the airport – I am not dressed to run. I am dressed to get off the airplane for a casual-to-nice lunch with family. 

  • Dress shoes. 
  • Button-up shirt tucked in.
  • Coffee in one hand.
  • Carry-on roller in the other.
  • Small over-the-shoulder bag for the computer and a book.

What I have not told you is that this is my flight to Cincinnati, OH for my mother’s funeral. I am meeting Michelle and Leo there as they are flying in from Richmond, VA. 

So, you better believe I do the airport run. Dead sprint in dress clothes and a flailing suitcase and a spilling coffee that gets tossed into the first garage I see. It’s not long before sweat is breaking across my brown, through the back of my shirt. 

You ever had to do the airport run? 

There are times in our life where our hands may be full, our attire is all wrong, we may look a little ridiculous to others watching – but there are times in our life where we will get our bodies in motion as fast as they can go because it’s that urgent, that important. 

There is a lot of running our Genesis 18 passage…and it’s because the passage is underscoring something of central importance to people of faith. It doesn’t start with running, however. A little context… 

At the very end of Genesis 17, we read that Abraham at 99 years old was circumcised. So we are not surprised that Abraham is sitting or reclining at the entrance of his tent beside the oak of Mamre at the beginning of Genesis 18. He’s recovering. We also read this all unfolds “in the heat of the day.” A heavy, lethargic part of the day (not unlike some of these recent afternoons). 

And then on top of this recovery and the heat, we also know Abraham has just been told by God he will be the father of the nations with offspring in abundance, and this seems an unfathomable promise given that he and Sarah are 99 years old and childless. 

And so one has to imagine that as Abraham recovers in the heat he is also pondering some rather weighty matters about what happens next…it’s not an ideal time for guests. 

And yet I remember doing a Virtual Coffee with a number of you this past spring, and the theme for that Coffee’s discussion was “hospitality.” I invited you all to share your thoughts about what that word means, what it looks like, what it feels like. And I kept notes of what you all said. 

Hospitality is… “genuine interest in one another”, “warmth”, “a welcoming attitude”, 

“sharing who you are and what you have.” 

Two different people who grew up a few decades ago in Iowa talked about how if ever their family saw someone or someones with car trouble or something on the side of the road, inevitably their family would have that person or those people in for a meal and if the house was a mess or the meal was rather plain…none of that was really an issue. It was about the welcoming attitude that was not just “come as you are” but “come as we are.” Come, whether or not we planned on it. Whether or not our home is put together. Whether or not we are put together. 

One more person chimed in to say, “I think entertaining…entertaining is ensuring the perfect atmosphere – the decorations and food and music and mood all just right. The cleanliness just so…but hospitality – it can have some of that, but it’s not necessary and sometimes all of that stuff even gets in the way. Hospitality is about the heart.” 

On this less-than-ideal day and time for doing anything much, Abraham sees three men standing near him. And though he has no idea who these men are or any details about them he ran from the tent entrance to meet them… 

Scholars note that there is likely a touch of knowing humor here as the reader considers the 99-year old, just-circumcised-Abraham, running. Then, when he gets to these men whom he does not know he does something equally remarkable, He bowed down to the ground.” Strangers though they are – they are immediately given deference. 

And then, you heard, he offers “a little water to be brought to you…and a little bread that you may refresh yourselves.” It’s a kind, humble offering, and the men agree. But then did you catch what actually happens? “Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Then Abraham himself ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.” 

Hastened, Quickly, Ran, Hastened…and not just to grab a little water and bread, but in fact, they bring forth curds and milk and calf – this is a choice meal of the finest he and his family have to offer…and for strangers. 

There are a few, important things in life that we will run for, no matter how ill-timed or ill-attired we may be. But running, hastening, quickening for unexpected strangers…and yet…I am mindful of a couple, key instances in the Gospel of Luke. 

When Jesus first comes onto the scene he declares quite clearly what he is all about, what his central priority is. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. 

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.” 

And scholars will point out that “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” in the context of Luke and how he uses specific Greek words in his Gospel, it really can be equally translated and understood, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s welcome.” Central to Jesus’ mission is hospitality. And then Jesus makes that abundantly clear in what many consider perhaps his most memorable parable sitting at the center of the Gospel of Luke. 

Do you remember the parable of the prodigal son? The younger son has asked for his father’s inheritance before his father dies, which is essentially like asking your dad to be dead. I want the money. The father gives the money to the son, and the son heads off to faraway land and squanders on ‘dissolute living.” Eventually, a famine hits in that land and this son is starving and barely scraping by…and decides to try and return home because maybe the father will have him back as a servant. 

Now pause for a moment in that parable to consider this: from the father’s perspective…who is this son? In one sense, you would hardly say this younger son is a stranger. But in another sense…how many of us know what it’s like to raise a child or grandchild or great-grandchild and when they grow up and become their own person sometimes it feels like you are not sure who they are. Their choices. Their convictions. 

This younger son and his greed, his selfish decisions, his dissolute lifestyle…surely, at some level, he has become a stranger to the father. And yet…do you remember what happens while the younger son is still a long way off from home? While he is still far off, the father sees the estranged son. And though it would have been considered not right and quite indecent in that time for the family patriarch to run (that is something servants do), the father is filled with compassion and runs to his son. 

And what happens after he embraces the son and gives the son his robe, and ring, and new sandals? The father throws a banquet with the choice fatted calf. Hospitality in abundance. God runs toward the stranger. God runs toward the estranged. And God runs in their direction that God might provide generous hospitality. The kind of open table that makes clear, “you are welcome. You are family.” 

Have you known the gift of God running right to you? Has someone or someones run and hastened in such a way toward you and for you as to express the heart of God? 

When Abraham runs toward these strangers and for these strangers, he is giving expression to the very heart of God. Eventually, this would be codified in the Torah. 

Leviticus 19.33-34 – “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” 

Which is to say…regardless of citizenship, or red/blue, or long-time member or non-member… the one who is the stranger or the alien…treat them as you would a citizen, a member, yourself. Throw the banquet for the one who threw the inheritance away. 

This is what makes our God run – even if it breaks with all that is considered right and decent by most. What makes us run? Even if the timing is wrong, the attire is wrong, the hands are full… what puts us in motion? 

Some of us here are probably saying, “We are tired…we’re always running this way and that. Errands and to-do lists and anxieties and decisions and…we run a lot. Literally and internally.” I don’t imagine many of us gathered today looking to run still more, or yet harder. And I don’t think that is the call, either. 

I am mindful of the insight that Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, offers: “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” Steindl-Rast is not against rest, we all need rest. But he wonders if our deepest longing is not a longer vacation or a few hours of sleep…but wholeheartedness. Giving our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls unto something that matters truly and deeply. Something that matters centrally to God. 

What if some of our runnings were channeled unto hospitality of the stranger? What would that look like as a church? As individuals? Would it be one more exhausting thing to be about…or might it be the space in which we not only discover an antidote to exhaustion but…. Actually, we receive far, far more? Because the thing is – the stranger is never just a stranger. 

Genesis 18 verse 1 tips off the reader about the identity of these three strangers: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” And then many, many years, the author of Hebrews would write to following to the church (alluding to this story in Genesis 18), “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” 

It was as if the author were reminding the church to be sure and honor the stranger with profound kindness and hospitality because there are so many stories written about us in heaven and they begin “The Lord appeared to First Presbyterian Church…” Except we, like Abraham, have no idea that that is the first verse of our story. And then perhaps most famously Jesus himself through that parable in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” 

To welcome the stranger is to welcome Jesus himself. It is to draw near the very God of life who is drawing near through them. 

And once the strangers are at a table with Abraham and Sarah, the promise of God is made known: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” 

Certainly, not every instance of hospitality with the stranger or the estranged will have such a dramatic promise given…but at the same time, there is always something fundamentally generative about true hospitality. How could there not be? The stranger is Jesus. And how surprising and varied are the faces through whom he arrives…just look at us. 

Look at our neighbors. Look at our schools. Look at our community. Who do you see? 

It may be that today we find ourselves with our hands full, a lot of baggage in tow, and for about a dozen very good reasons it’s the wrong time to be running…or running toward anything but what we have going right now. But what if we risk joining Abraham and asked God to help us see who is at the door? What if we risked seeing as the Father has seen us even when we have been so far off? 

What would it look like for God’s body on earth to run and so declare the year of the Lord’s welcome? 

“I was a stranger, and you welcome me.” Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert