We’re in the midst of a series of sermons on Sacred Community; we’ve been talking about the characteristics that help a community to feel, not perfect, but sacred—authentic and meaningful.
Today’s marks are driven by a great story in Genesis 18 about an encounter Abraham and Sarah have with God—and the marks of sacred community are hospitality, and laughter, and imagination…
Let’s start with hospitality, which unfortunately is too often associated with the Courtyard Marriott breakfast buffet or the maître’d at a restaurant—something that you pay for and assume you deserve in return; but instead, the Bible talks about hospitality less as a transaction and more as a constant means to an end—hospitality is a way we create sacred community; hospitality helps people to feel welcome and valued and less alone in life.
Let’s dig into the story; it’s from Genesis 18; this unique encounter with God has great hints of superhero and spy novel woven together in a story where God shows up in a unique
Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when three strangers appear off in the distance. The reader of this story figures out pretty quickly that the visitors are God coming to see Abraham and Sarah, but for the couple, it is not so obvious. In that superhero/spy movie element of the story, God puts on some kind of mask or cloak and is suddenly disguised as three men, traveling through the Middle Eastern desert and stumbling upon Abraham’s oasis in the heat of the day.
Abraham is the consummate good host, rolling out the red carpet for these three men. It’s not uncommon for churches who are doing a hospitality training for their ushers or Deacons to make use of this story. The men who come to see Abraham are total strangers. They arrive in the heat of the day and at first sight, Abraham runs from his tent to meet them. He greets them with respect, calling them “Master,” he draws water for them to wash their feet, he leads them out of the burning heat and under the shade of a tree. He calls to his wife Sarah and asks not for day-old bread, but for fresh bread, made from their best flour. He calls to a servant who minds the herds and flocks and asks for one of the best cattle to be slaughtered that they might prepare to eat. All of these actions are explicitly described in a way reminiscent of the return of the Prodigal Son and his celebration, but this is not Abraham’s long lost son—these are three perfect strangers. And when congregations use this passage to talk about hospitality, you can imagine the question that is the culmination of the exercise: What would it be like if every visitor that walked through the doors of our church experienced this kind of a welcome—the eagerness, the excitement, the care, the willingness to share the best of what we have with one whom we have only just met and know nothing about? Of course, they would want to be part of such a community. How do we make it happen?
The fact is, this kind of extravagant hospitality is not just the stuff of Bible stories; I saw an act of incredible hospitality when I was writing this sermon. I was in a coffee shop last week, writing this sermon. It was hot and humid, and a woman, quite elderly and walking slowly with a cane, approached the door. It was not the woman who caught my attention at first, but the barista, who suddenly got up from her stool, and hurried to the front door. She opened it and immediately the other barista was there too, helping the woman up the step and in the door. By the time they got to the table, a cup of coffee, a cinnamon roll, and a fork and napkin were already there. The barista helped the woman to be seated and helped her take off her mask as they talked about how poor the air quality had been outside. And as soon as she had finished cashing out the next customer, the barista proceeded to sit down with the lady as they talked in animated tones about the week, and work, and family. Obviously this woman was not a stranger, but in every other respect, I was seeing Genesis 18 literally played out before me at the very moment I was writing a sermon about it—and it was beautiful to behold; and it was easy. And if sacred community can happen in a coffee shop, we should certainly be able to make it happen at church. So that seems like our first challenge from this story: how do we see extravagant hospitality as something that is not just the stuff of Bible stories but that can happen all around us—how can you be part of making someone’s life beautiful, today?
A second thing in this story that is really worth talking about is the laughter. There is laughter in this passage, mentioned multiple times, and with great intentionality on the part of the storyteller, and that’s a good reminder that God has a sense of humor, and that part of the life of faith is remembering not to take ourselves too seriously!
Returning to the story: Abraham has finished rolling out the red carpet for these three strangers, and they’re reclining with a belly full of fresh bread and fatted calf, one of them casually says to Abraham, “I’m planning to be back by this place a year from now, and your wife will have a child.” Sarah, overhearing them, nearly falls out of the tent with laughter. Now you have to imagine it wasn’t exactly a delightful belly laugh, probably more of a snear. Ha, snears Sarah. Sarah has been praying her whole life for a child; and it is way too late. She is too old; so is Abraham. They gave up on that dream long ago. So laughing at the cruelty of it all, Sarah falls out of the tent.
We often laugh when things are painful, or difficult, or uncomfortable—don’t we? Think about jokes, and stand up comedy. We laugh at the challenges of aging, as in this story. We laugh at references to bigotry and racism, suffering of various kinds, the things that embarrass us about our bodies or our families or our bad habits. Through jokes we get these things out in the open when we don’t know how to talk about them directly. Who knows how many times Abraham and Sarah might have failed to talk about their infertility in any kind of nurturing or constructive way, or maybe they did, but the pain was still there…so she laughs…because sometimes laughter makes the hard things in life bearable.
Here we have to be careful how we interpret the story—Bible stories aren’t the best source of wisdom if we apply them incorrectly, and I’ll be the first to admit that the Bible isn’t a great place for wisdom regarding infertility. Modern folk know that some women and men are not going to have biological children—and many adopt or foster, or find completely different ways to make significant mark on the world, because there are so many other things that are as important as being a parent. But the ancient world was pretty laser-focused on fertility as a means of survival. So we have to be careful because if we adopt that worldview into 2023, these ancient stories can be cruel and unhelpful.
But if we look past that, we see that the laughter in this story is a gateway to a third idea that marks sacred communities, and that idea is imagination.
Returning once more to the story: when Sarah laughs, the guests (God) are listening, and they follow up, asking, “Why did Sarah laugh…and Sarah denies it, saying, “I didn’t laugh…” and in the moment where we really find out that these strangers are God in disguise, truth is spoken when they reply: “Yes, you did laugh.”
This is the exchange that ushers us into the third mark of sacred community—imagination. When God asks Abraham and Sarah, “why did you laugh?” the meaning is clear: Can you not imagine that things might be different than the way they are? Imagination gets a narrow definition in common language–usually as a synonym for naïve or childish. But biblically or theologically, imagination has much more to do with grown up people being able to see the potential for things to be different than they are. When I think of biblical imagination, people like Harriet Tubman or Steve Jobs come to mind—people who are unwilling to settle for things as they are and have a natural ability to ask what possibilities exist far beyond what most of us accept as normal and possible. Imagination is vision. This ancient story has fertility at the center of its plot, but it might equally have turned on another way in which life had disappointed Abraham and Sarah, and they were invited to imagine the future differently.
Can you imagine change in the world—or can you imagine changing in response to the world around you? Can you be a changemaker like Harriet Tubman or Steve Jobs because you think that the woe and hopelessness around you are too small? Can you shift your response to the world around you because, sure, you may not be able to change the reality of your boss, or your ex, or something in your past, but you may be able to imagine an alternative way of responding to that reality, so that you do not lose your future. Imagination is a gift of sacred community.
And one more word about imagination, here on Fourth of July weekend. Imagination, conceived in this way, is a lot like freedom. The reason civic freedom is worth celebrating is because it is a blessing enjoyed by people who do not have to allow oppressive governments determine their future, but can imagine—and achieve, something different and better for themselves. We live our faith when we give thanks for the blessings of freedom and the hope it provides—and when we demand those same blessings, not just for ourselves, but for every one of God’s children.
So we read stories like this one in Genesis 18 because, like other stories throughout Genesis, it teaches us what sacred communities look like. Sacred communities are places of hospitality—where we go out of our way to welcome one another and experience that welcome ourselves; where we laugh together when life gets hard and its all we can do; and where we have an imagination together—where we have a vision of a life that can be different and better for ourselves and others, and we work to make that vision a reality.
In the next couple of sermons, we’ll begin to look at places in life where sacred community fails and how God is present in those places as well. For today may we seek hospitality and laughter and imagination wherever we may find it, and to God be the glory. Amen.