Sunday, June 18, 2017

God visits His people in strangers

My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant… since you have come to your servant.”  Genesis 18:3,5

I picked up Sarge just outside of Oneonta, and told him I was only going as far as Cooperstown, but he was welcome to the ride.  He was familiar to me, a fixture of the Otsego County landscape, but we’d never spoken before.  Sarge was maybe 75, a thin man with leathery skin and squinty eyes.  He always wore a garrison cap and an olive-green army uniform, with a few medals sprinkled across the chest.   No one was quite sure if he had actually earned them or if they were just window dressing.  But in patriotic upstate New York, Sarge could hitch his way from one end of the county to another by just putting on a good show. 

He began talking the moment he sat down and kept it up for a solid half hour, a rambling discourse mostly about old cars, and the evils of politicians.  Looking over after about twenty minutes, he noticed I was a clergyman and launched into a discussion of true Christians and hypocrites.  Sarge had been to most of the churches in these parts, he assured me, and he could certainly tell the difference between them.  Catholics wouldn’t give a man like him the time of day, and would you believe that they once ran him out of a Pentecostal church because he stood up to speak his mind during the service.  But Methodists—they laid on the best spread for coffee hours, and sometimes the fellas would even slip him a few cigarettes. 

It did cross my mind as he opened the door to go his way that Sarge could well have been a kind of messenger.  I was a little relieved that he didn’t seem to know anything about Episcopalians, so he hadn’t turned up in my congregation and discovered that we came up short.  Wouldn’t it be just like God to separate the true believers from the false ones by the way they responded to a mysterious stranger?

There’s no reason to assume that the three visitors who appeared at Abraham’s camp in the heat the day wore olive green and smelled of Methodist Pall Malls.  But they were clearly there, in part, to test the patriarch.  The scene just before this in Genesis is a dramatic one.  God had given Abraham and his wife new names, promised him land and offspring, and instituted the sign of circumcision.  Jewish theologians often reckon that experience as the foundation of the nation of Israel.

God had chosen Abraham’s family alone.  He had separated them out for a unique purpose.  Lavish blessings had been promised for their future.  But paradoxically, that future relied on the way Abraham and his wife greet outsiders. 

In a masterful treatment of this passage, Jewish ethicist Leon Kass sees here the origin of the Old Testament law’s consistent emphasis on the respect and honor due to strangers.  “Hospitality toward strangers,” Kass writes, “recognizes the importance of moderating, even while preserving, the distinction…between one’s own and the alien…Sectarian communities, if they are to be decent and just, depend radically on acknowledging the existence and dignity of the broader human community.[1]

Abraham is “decent and just,” God’s faithful servant, because he extends hospitality to strangers, who turn out to be the Lord himself in disguise.  The strangers bring good news, that Sarah’s withered body will yet become the source of life.  There is a future for Abraham’s family because he welcomes the stranger.

From the beginning of the story, the narrator has told us that the Lord has come in the persons of the three visitors.  We know what Abraham must still discover, and the story’s dramatic tension lies in Abraham’s dawning recognition of who actually sits before him.  

Abraham isn’t just warm and generous, he is reverent.  He speaks to the men in a way that amplifies the distance between them.  He repeatedly calls himself, “your servant” and pretends that they need only a crumb of bread when he is actually preparing a great feast.  The meal he prepares, a young calf and cakes of fine flour, these are precisely the foods that would be offered to God in sacrifice in Israel’s temple generations later.  Ancient commentators often emphasize that Abraham does not sit down to eat with the three men, but stands attentively by their table.  He is host and servant, like a priest at the Altar. 

Perhaps the penny never really drops for Abraham until the spokesman among the visitors announces that Sarah will bear a child, for nothing “is too wonderful for the Lord.”  But Abraham’s reverence is exemplary.  He is showing us what a true Israelite does.  Abraham is the father of a people called to worship God with reverent speech and generous offerings.  He is the first of the chosen people, whose calling becomes evident as they turn to the face of God, and to the faces of mysterious strangers. Because often, it seems, they are one and the same.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus sends out his apostles into unfamiliar territory.  They are to wander through the villages of Galilee, announcing the kingdom in words and deeds of power.  But there are no hotels in ancient villages.  They pack lightly for the trip.  Those who hear their message and receive it in faith must first welcome these strangers into their own homes.  “Eat what is set before you,” Jesus tells them, in St. Luke’s version of the same story.  This is practical advice that also points back to Abraham and the three visitors.  The Good News of Jesus comes as a word on the mouth of a stranger.

We stand before the Lord this day like Abraham, a people chosen by Him, charged to live in faithfulness and justice.  In a few moments, I will read to you the Exhortation, a solemn reminder that we should approach our Lord with “penitent hearts and living faith.”  We stand in need of God’s grace.  The gifts of His table must be greeted with reverent attention, gratitude and joy. 

But our readings also remind us that something of the same spirit should mark our encounters with strangers. For they may also be channels of God’s grace, instruments for revealing truth that gives life, and that leads us in the direction He intends.

I’ve been noticing all the “for sale” signs around town lately.  The next few months will be high season for strangers around Potomac.  If God is gracious to us, maybe some of them will cross our threshold in the coming days to sit in the shade with us.  Maybe a few will come after experiencing your own kind words and gracious hospitality. Invitations to God’s house usually work best when addressed to people who have first been seated at your own table. 

I wonder how it would change things if we didn’t just think about these visiting strangers as potential customers for what we’re already selling, or as new recruits for the tasks we’re already busy doing. 

What if, like Sarge, the strangers are meant to test us, to sort out if we really mean what we profess?  What if, like Abraham’s visitors, they are agents of the change we really need, change that will bring us closer to what God wants us to become?  What if we greeted them like those Galileans who welcomed Jesus’ apostles, as messengers bringing good news we’ve never heard before?  God visits His people in strangers.  Could you join me in praying that God will send a few our way, and that when He does, we will know how to receive them?

[1] The Beginning of Wisdom; Reading Genesis.  New York: Free Press, 2003., 318.

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