Trees have taken on a new level of importance over the last couple of weeks. Have you noticed how they’ve come into their own? I overheard a conversation in Camberley between two mums, “I’m helping on a school trip. We’re going to a farm,” said the first one, “are there any shady trees?” asked the second. And then again the next day, trees came into a conversation I had with a teacher. “We've got sports day tomorrow” he said, “It’s gonna be unbearable… there’s no trees out on the field”! It’s strange how we can shift our focus so easily from the big event – from the day out, from the sports day, to the trees!
Abraham knew a thing or two about trees and big events. In the Middle East you watch out for the trees. They signal that water might be nearby, they act as a reference point on the horizon, but mostly they provide shade from the relentless sun. Abraham made his home near some big oak trees. In the account in Genesis the writer gives us details so that we can almost picture and feel the place, especially given the weather here over the last few weeks; Abraham’s sitting at the entrance to his tent, near the oak trees, in the heat of the day.
Now Abraham’s, well to put it bluntly, no ‘spring chicken’. He’s been a wanderer but at 99 years old, as you might expect, he’s more settled now. He’s done well since God told him to leave his country, his people and his father’s household; God’s blessed him and made him promises; he’s made a special kind of agreement or covenant with him. God’s promised him descendants (as many as there are stars in the sky) and he’s promised that his descendants will be a great nation, and he’s promised land to him and his descendants for ever. But Abraham’s still waiting … waiting for the big event; to be a great nation, to colonise land, you need descendants. To have descendants, you need a son, and they are still waiting for theirs.
Maybe that’s what he was pondering as he sat in the heat of the day – who knows,
but as he’s sitting, he looks up and sees three strangers standing nearby and as soon as he sees them he hurries to meet them. Can you imagine hurrying in the midday sun? He gives them all his attention and bows low to the ground to honour them as if they were of a higher rank. “If I have found favour in your eyes”, he says, “Do not pass me by”. What he means is, “if it’s ok with you to accept my invitation, then I would be honoured to serve you.” He offers the usual desert hospitality for travellers, a little water so they can wash their tired, dirty feet, a chance to rest in the shade of a tree and something to eat. Then in a whirlwind of frenzied activity, he hurries to his wife Sarah, tells her to quickly make a large amount of bread with the best flour, then he runs to the herd of cattle to choose the best calf, so that the servant can hurriedly prepare the food. The food is more than just ‘something to eat’, it’s the best he has - and this 99 year old man, who has been relaxing in the heat of the day, hurries, runs, and moves quickly to provide for his guests!
Martha would understand Abraham’s actions. She too offers hospitality to her guest;
she opens her house to Jesus. And she too is busy in the preparations. But Abraham does something else; he does something Martha doesn’t do … as the strangers accept his hospitality, as the meal is set before them, he stands nearby under a tree. Not sitting, not in the tent with his wife Sarah, not clearing away or fussing or worrying, but standing. It would be easier for an old man to sit. It would be easier to get a servant to watch the guests, but no, he stands attentively, ready to respond. And as he stands attentively, the strangers ask him a question, “Where is your wife Sarah?” they ask. And he replies immediately and without hesitation “there in the tent”. Then all is revealed – one of the strangers is the Lord God. And he announces the big event, “I will return next year” he says, “and your wife will have a son”.
If Abraham had been distracted like Martha, been worried about what the servants were doing, been upset about many things like she was, he might have missed it – the one piece of news he needed to hear – the announcement of the fulfilment of the promise – the announcement they were expecting a son.
In providing attentive hospitality to his guests, Abraham encounters the Lord God and hears what God has to say to him. Abraham doesn’t give hospitality in order to get a son back in return; God has already promised him and Sarah a son before they even entertain the strangers. No, this is about responsiveness, paying attention, encountering God in offering hospitality to strangers. And in the encounter, the roles are reversed - Abraham and Sarah the hosts become Abraham and Sarah the guests because God welcomes them into the joy of the special (covenant) relationship he has with them; the announcement of a son welcomes them into the future events when the promises he has made to them will be fulfilled. The hospitality of welcoming strangers is not a social event, but a holy event.
But who are the ‘strangers’ in our society? We don’t normally have people wandering by in the heat of the day. Who do we welcome? Hospitality is at the centre of Jesus’ ministry. He of course eats with friends like Mary and Martha and the disciples, but he also eats with strangers. He has conversations with those no one else will and he gets close to people everyone else is trying to avoid. He welcomes those without a voice in society, those with no social standing, the outcasts. One writer describes how this translates into modern day living, she says as Christians we are called to welcome and offer hospitality to “the materially disadvantaged or spiritually starved in a world hungry for success at any price…to those seeking for the elusive ‘something more’ that often they themselves cannot name.” (Verna Holyhead – The Gift of St Benedict). As a church community, how do we do that?
Like Abraham, we can honour strangers with friendly, inviting words; we can welcome with food and provisions; we can offer a relaxing, healing space where people can pause and take shelter from the busyness and pressures of the day and we can offer an attentive listening ear, ready to respond to the needs of our guests.
And as we offer attentive hospitality – as we listen and respond to the needs of others – we too participate in a holy event – one where we might hear what God is saying to us – one where God opens his arms wide to us, where we become his guests. A holy event where maybe we can ‘Encounter God and grow in him’ .
Questions For Discussion
1) How does our understanding of ‘hospitality’ today differ from Abraham’s or Jesus’?
2) Can you think of an example where you or someone you know offered hospitality to a
stranger? In Camberley, who might the ‘strangers’ be? What are the challenges and ‘risks’
of offering hospitality to these ‘strangers’?
3) Have a look at the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15 – 24. What does the
Parable tell us about the Kingdom of God? About hospitality? (You might want to look at
the few verses before as well.)
4) As individuals and a church community, how can we be more open to “the materially
disadvantaged or spiritually starved in a world hungry for success at any price…to those
seeking for the elusive ‘something more’ that often they themselves cannot name”?
5) What does it mean to you to be “welcomed by God”.