Genesis 18:1-8 NRSV
Last week I said that the first four stories in our Bible are stories that are considered to be pre-history, that is before the call of Abraham and the history of God’s people. The story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel teach us some very important characteristics about who God is and how God relates to our world. They teach us that our God is a gracious, loving Creator who is committed to suffering with and for all people, people of every nation, race, color and creed.
The stories that follow in Genesis teach us what should be the very important characteristics of the people who claim to worship and serve this God.
Verse one of chapter eighteen is one of the most loaded verses in the entire Bible. “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.”
When you worship the Lord, the creator of all that is, the one who graciously loves and forgives, the one who is compassionately involved in the creation, stirred by it, moved by it, then you never know when the Lord may appear. It could be the most ordinary of days while you are doing the most ordinary of things, like sitting on your front porch in the heat of the day. You may or may not be in the right frame of mind to recognize the presence, but the presence is nonetheless real and nevertheless powerful.
Abraham is minding his own business in the middle of the day when, out of nowhere, three strangers appear on the street. Next, Abraham simply does what the Bible says the people of God do for others, he very welcomes them with a generous hospitality.
When he sees them, he does not safely call out to them from a distance. He does not cautiously walk over to them. And he certainly does not practically ignore them and allow them to walk on by. When he sees them, the scriptures say that he runs to meet them.
And when he encounters these strangers, he does not stand arrogantly over them, above them, but humbly bows himself to the ground before them and speaks to them like a servant.
“Please do not pass me by. Let me get some water and wash the dust off your feet. Let me make a place for you to rest in the shade. My wife, Sarah, bakes the best bread. Come and allow us to serve you. Then, you can continue your journey, refueled and refreshed.”
When the strangers agree to stay a while, Abraham can hardly contain himself. He runs back inside, “Hurry, Sarah, prepare three cups of choice flour, knead it, and bake a delicious cake. He then runs out back to the field and takes the best looking calf of the flock and has his servant prepare a delicious dinner. He brought it to them under the shade tree and waited on them while they ate.
And as verse one suggested, we later discover that these three strangers were actually angels, messengers from God. When we welcome the stranger, the Bible tells us, we may be welcoming God. When we welcome others, the Lord appears.
We also see this very clearly in the New Testament. In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel we read the following words of Jesus to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Mark 10:40-42). In the previous chapter we read where Jesus took a little child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37).
And in Matthew we read Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Do you see the pattern here? Jesus said that when we welcome others, we are welcoming Jesus. And Jesus said when we welcome him, we welcome God.
When we open the doors of the church wide, when we invite others in, when we let them know that we are glad that they are here, we are welcoming the Lord himself.
There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times. The order was dying out. There were only five monks left, the abbot and four others.
The monks feared that the monastery would have to be closed. In their desperation, they went out and sought counsel from a wise man they knew who lived in a hut in the woods that surrounded their monastery.
The wise man agreed to a meeting to talk with the abbot regarding the fate of their monastery. The meeting was very brief. The wise man said that he really did not have any great advice to give them, but he could say this: that the Messiah was among them.
The abbot returned to the monastery, where the monks were waiting eagerly to hear what the wise man had said. “Please tell us! What do we have to do to save the monastery?” “Well,” the abbot replied, “the wise man was rather cryptic. He simply said that the Messiah is among us.”
“The Messiah is among us?” All of the monks scratched their heads. How could the Messiah be among them? As they pondered the meaning of these words, the monks soon began to think of each member of the order as a possible Messiah. They started to treat one another with tremendous respect and kindness. And when people came to visit, they treated each of them as if they could be the Messiah, too.
People from the surrounding area often came to picnic on the monastery’s beautiful grounds, to walk along the paths, and to pray in the chapel. The visitors were amazed by the welcome they received from the monks. There was an aura of respect and love that filled the place, making it strangely attractive, even compelling. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently, to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit talked more and more with the old monks, and they began to join the order. So before long, the monastery had once again become a thriving order, and a vibrant center of light and love for people all over the realm.
When I first joined the conversations you were having a year ago to renovate our windows, to remove the stained plexiglass and replace it with a clear plastic so the windows could be seen from the street, I said that the need was not only aesthetic, as they looked horrendous, but it was also theological. To keep this beauty, the beauty of our Lord and Savior, inward, only unto ourselves, inside these walls was simply a theological travesty.
I have said recently that our education building needs to be renovated or at least refurbished. And like the windows, the need is not only aesthetic, it is also theological.
We have a great building and grounds committee; however, they cannot do it all by themselves. Our buildings are too old, have too many needs for just one committee to do it all by themselves. To be good stewards of our property, to make this a warm, welcoming place, we need to have many more work days like the one we had yesterday in the basement. I want to encourage you to walk through the education building, do it today if you have time, make sure you go upstairs, and ask yourself: what would you do to the building if you knew the Messiah was coming for a visit? Would you paint the walls? If so, what color? Would you paint the windows? Would you replace the ceiling tiles that are stained? Would your replace ceiling tiles that are missing? What would the plaster in this room look like? Would it be chipped, stained, faded, discolored?
I want us to work hard in these nine months to finish the basement, and make it a place of welcome for children; renovate our education building, and make it a warm and inviting place for all children; put up a playground right off of church street and make it a sign to the community that this church welcomes children; not so much because we want our church to look nice and pretty, not so much because we want to be proud when we invite over 100 children and their families here next June for the community Vacation Bible School, but because we take the words of Jesus very seriously when Jesus, holding a child in his arms, says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37).
Fred Craddock, one of my favorite preachers, tells a story about going to church when he was a boy. He said that every Sunday morning, his mother took him to church with his sister. When the service was over, he said they followed their mother like little ducks out of the church. As the preacher stood at the door greeting folks, he would always say, “Mornin’ Mrs. Craddock.” Then he would address the kids, “Good mornin’, Sonny. Good mornin’, Honey. The next Sunday, “Good mornin’ Mrs. Craddock, Good mornin’, Sonny. Good morning, Honey.” Every Sunday, “Good mornin’ Mrs. Craddock, Good mornin’, Sonny. Good morning, Honey.”
Then one day there was a new preacher. After he had been there a few weeks, as the Craddock family filed out of church, he said, “Good mornin’, Mrs. Craddock. Good mornin’, Fred.” And Fred Craddock said, “He was the best preacher we ever had, because there’s a big difference between Fred and Sonny.”
What a difference a genuine welcome makes. We all long for a place to call home. We all long for a place of welcome. Where we look around and it is obvious that someone cares about us, wants to know our names. Even the walls say they care.
As Disciples of Christ, we do not have a creed we follow. But we have a statement of identity. Part of it is on our church sign today. More than anything else, I want it to be the identity of this special place on the corner of Church and Main. I want it to be clear to all, not only through our actions and our words and our living, but also through our bricks and our mortar: “We welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”
So let us commit ourselves to welcoming all, for when we welcome others with all that we are and with all that we have, we are welcoming God in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.