When I was a student at the Seminary, I had the blessing of working for Rev. Dr. Charles Marks. He was the Seminary Chaplain, and I was one of four student chaplain assistants. Under Charles Marks’ leadership, together, we planned the almost-daily worship at the seminary – four worship services a week. We learned as we worked.
As we worked, Charles had a checklist for creating and implementing a worship service. It had all the questions you might expect for planning worship:
· What is the scripture (or scriptures) that will ground the worship experience?
· Is there an image or theme that might hold the experience together?
· What is the mood of the service?
All the questions you’d expect. But there was one question of his that has always fascinated me – one I probably wouldn’t have thought of on my own. It was this: What does hospitality require of us?
In his way of looking at things, Charles taught that, in church, we are hosting people for an experience that we hope will nourish and feed them – that will equip us all for the journey and then send us on our way with a blessing. And so he insisted that we ask, every time we opened the door: What does hospitality require of us?
And I watched Charles – the little things: He’d get there an hour early – make sure the temperature was right. He’d go through all the hymnals, and make sure they were all turned the right way up. He said that was the first glimpse that a guest had when they arrived. The hymnals arrayed in the pews. He said that having them just-so said, “We knew you were coming; we have been thinking of you as you made your way here; and we are ready.”
And, more deeply, according to Charles Marks, hospitality meant that we think about things like this: What are the words we are using? Do they welcome or exclude? Are we welcoming a wide range of abilities? Are we thinking of the needs that those who gather might bring in from their day?
What does hospitality require of us? It’s a question for planning moments like this. It’s a lovely question for life – as we encounter each other on the way. Anyone you meet: In this moment, what does hospitality require of us – of me? It’s a great question for this morning, as we encounter these two stories, and as we continue our conversation about what it might look like to accompany a refugee awaiting asylum.
The first story takes us into the heart of the Old Testament hospitality we talked about last week. Remember, we said that Scripture is, from beginning to end, the story of people on the move. And in the Hebrew Scriptures, again and again, we find the moral imperative to welcome the stranger – Welcome the stranger in the midst of you – love them as yourself – for you, too, once were a stranger in a strange land. We get a glimpse of that here.
Abraham and Sarah (and their family and household) – they are a people on the move. They’ve set up their tents by the Oaks of Mamre – and one day, the story says, God appears to them. Well, actually, three strangers appear. (Now, you may have heard this story told that Abraham and Sarah are visited by “three angels” – but in the text, it’s three humans – three co-wanderers.)
And what we see, as these strangers arrive, is what we might call desert hospitality come to life. Hospitality is an essential part of life in the world of the Bible. They are all travelling through desert or wilderness places, and – in the desert – travelers depend on food and water and the welcome of strangers – for survival – for their life. In the desert, if a stranger arrives and you turn them away, they very well might die. In the desert, hospitality is a matter of life and death.
It’s not surprising then that, here, Abraham and Sarah turn right away to their guests’ basic human needs. First, Abraham greets them and honors them. He follows a protocol of welcome. He bows to them, and acknowledges their dignity and their humanity. Then he says, “Rest here, while I get you a little bread and water.” And that “little bread and water” turn into a feast. Sarah and their servants get to baking bread. Abraham and some servants prepare a calf. What does hospitality require here? That they honor the humanity of the other, that they tend to each other’s survival – that they tend to each other’s life.
Something that Angel said last week has stuck with me. Remember last week we focused on the refugee experience, and were blessed after church to hear from Angel, whom Marin Interfaith has accompanied. (That’s Angel spelled like we would spell Angel.) Angel left his homeland of Venezuela not long after his young son’s death. His son died, related to the economic conditions in Venezuela. And when Angel lamented and spoke up – the government came after him. He fled – as so many are doing – and travelled from Venezuela north. He was attacked crossing through the jungle – arrived with a serious wound. He travelled on something called the Death Train – a train so overcrowded that people rode on top of the train.
Angel told us about all this, and in the Q&A I asked – “We may be hosting someone here in a church – can you give us a sense of what you needed when you arrived, so we can be ready?” He looked puzzled for a moment, and then said, “When I arrived, all I needed was sleep. All I wanted to do, and needed, was to sleep.” Of course. He needed shelter... after all that had happened to him along the way, what he needed... was to sleep. Lynn from MIC said something to him in Spanish, and then Angel added, “And after I had rested, what I needed was a family. I am far from home – and what I needed here was family.”
What Abraham and Sarah do is tend to their guests’ basic human needs. Let me get you some bread and water. Sit and rest. That’s the start. There’s urgency and immediacy. They get to it. And at the same time – as someone on worship team pointed out – the things they do take time. They bake bread. They prepare the calf. It’s just a few words in Scripture – but what we see here, as the guests doze under the Oaks of Mamre – is a long day of welcome – full of preparation – and conversation – and life.
And notice this too, after the strangers have had their rest, after they’ve enjoyed the feast, one of them turns to Abraham (with Sarah listening not far off) and says, “You know, your wife Sarah is going to have a child.” (This is the story where Sarah laughs at that because she is a woman of age – this has been their longing for longer than she can remember.) The stranger brings the news: Sarah will have a child. And not long after that. She does. The strangers, just in from the road, bring a blessing as well. The welcome and blessing are mutual. This is the moment where God’s promise begins to come to life – in this moment of hospitality and mutual welcome.
Do you remember how this story started? It said God appeared to Abraham one day. God. But actually three strangers show up. Now folks have so many ways of reading that: There are some who say – God was one of the three strangers, the one who speaks up at the end. There are some who say that it’s something like the Trinity showing up – that’s lovely, but wildly anachronistic – these are the Hebrew Scriptures. Here’s what I think: God appears to Abraham and Sarah that day in the whole of this experience. God shows up in the welcoming of strangers, in the exchange of blessing and mutual care – in the midst of them.
In the first story, this is what we see: As we welcome and accompany each other, God is creating something entirely new. We accompany each other, welcome each other, and in doing so, we find our way to life.
The second story reminds us that we accompany each other through a world of systems and structures. The first story was about meeting basic needs. This second story reminds us of the systems and structures that can make that possible – or not – the systems we inhabit and navigate together. It’s a story Jesus tells – a parable – and it may be familiar. It’s the story of day laborers and their pay, and it takes place within systems that allocate work, wages, and well-being.
Early one morning, a vineyard owner goes out to hire laborers. They agree to a full day’s wage. It’s a bare subsistence economy – folks are all just barely getting by. A day’s wage is basically what a family needs to survive for that day and maybe the next.
The laborers set out into the vineyard. The landowner hires others at 9 o’clock, more at noon, some at about 3, and then a few more at 5. When evening comes, the landowner tells the manager to start with those who arrived last, and pay them the full day’s wage.
Then, the landowner instructs, do the same for those who came at 3, and noon, and 9, and at the start of the day. Everyone gets a full day’s wage. Everyone gets enough to live on for the day and maybe part of the next.
Both those who arrived first object. Strenuously. They were there first. They should get more. They’ve been working the hardest – who knows where these others have been. It’s not fair. We should get more.
So let’s just cut through this. Remember we are in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is proclaiming a Brave New World that will be birthed in Resurrection, that is coming to life even now. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful. Blessed are all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. That Brave New World is coming to life in the midst of a Crumbling Old Order that doesn’t have those values – a crumbling old order that uses hierarchy and power-over to allocate resources, well-being, and life – privileging some, always at the expense of others.
The grumbling folks who arrived first voice the values of the current, crumbling old order: Those who arrive first should get a full days wage – those who arrive later should get less than what they need to survive. They say, it’s only fair. Because that’s the way the world has always worked – that’s the way the system has always worked. That’s the crumbling old order.
If we are thinking about accompanying folks who are arriving in the United States – who are entirely new to the culture here – we will need to accompany them through systems. That’s what we are learning from our friends and partners at the Marin Interfaith Accompaniment Network.
· There’s the immigration system – the legal system. Angel and others like him are here in this country legally awaiting an asylum hearing. They have arrived and invoked our systems that offer protection to those persecuted in their homeland. The system is complicated enough, and we know that our immigration system is broken.
· There are the economic systems. Those awaiting asylum hearings can get work permits, but there’s a complicated process for that and you’ve got to survive somehow until the permit comes through. There are the food-distribution systems. Figuring out American grocery stores, and the patchwork of supports folks have put together to fill in the gaps. And of course, there are systems for securing housing and shelter.
· And, there’s the healthcare system in all its complexity. Angel arrived with a wound. His first days and weeks here involved navigating our healthcare system.
Imagine arriving in a new country and having to navigate legal, healthcare and economic systems all at once. If we are thinking of accompanying folks as they arrive in this country, hospitality requires that we accompany them through systems.
Maybe that’s what the landowner in this story sees. The landowner goes out again and again throughout the day. The vineyard owner sees the dignity of each worker – sees the totality of their human need – and each person gets what they need to survive the day – to really survive – and maybe some for the next day, too.
In the brave new world of the gospel,
everyone is included;
everyone finds the work that is theirs to do;
everyone has enough.
The folks in this gospel story – they are accompanying each other into and transforming the systems they inhabit.
So we have these two stories. In the first, we get a glimpse of desert hospitality – of folks welcoming the stranger – welcoming each other – and tending to each other’s basic needs. In the second, we get a reminder that we accompany each other through systems – systems that allocate – but that can sometimes frustrate – access to the resources we need for life.
In both stories – in all that – what we see is God creating something new. As we accompany each other, what we see is God creating a world of welcome, where everyone is seen as fully human and everyone has enough.
As we hold all that in this moment, in our moment, we have this question to carry with us: What does hospitality require of us? I don’t have a full answer to that – just a few glimpses.
· For more than a year, I’ve seen Peter, Royce, Ron, and Dave meeting every Thursday morning in the Memorial Garden or (on colder days) the Patio Room, talking about how this dream might become a reality. Doing the research. Doing the work. And now inviting us into the conversation.
· I can think back, and see this community gathered back in the days of the REST Shelter – preparing a meal for those who were otherwise unhoused on a winter’s night – and I can hear Jo Gross reminding us, “We put out the cloth napkins and the good dishes for our guests. And we all eat together.”
· And as if it were just yesterday, I can see Charles Marks – in quiet morning moments in Montgomery Chapel – going through the pews, hymnal by hymnal, turning them rightside up -- making sure everything is just so; thinking all the while of those who will arrive at the door – so that they might know:
We knew you were coming.
We have been thinking of you as you made your way here.
And we are ready.
Welcome. There is a place for you here.
© 2023 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text, see Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. i(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), pp.462-65; Valerie Bridgeman, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16-3/commentary-on-genesis-181-10a-4 ; Lisa Davison, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16-3/commentary-on-genesis-181-10a-5 ; Samuel Giere, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16-3/commentary-on-genesis-181-10a-2 .  See Fretheim, p.463.  See Bridgeman, supra.  See, e.g., Fretheim, p. 463.  For background on this text and the Gospel of Matthew, see id. and M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp.387-396. See also two insightful devotions by Barbara Brown Taylor in the 2023 Upper Room Disciplines.  For more on the Gospel of Matthew generally – and the Brave New World/Crumbling Old Order paradigm– see https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/a-brave-new-world-matthew-5-1-12-4th-sunday-of-epiphany
Photo credit: Natalia Mok, used with permission via Unsplash