Hospitality: A Primary Value for God’s People
Text: Genesis 18:1-15
How do visitors feel when they visit your church for the first time? Before you answer that think about a time when you visited another church, or some other gathering of people where you were the stranger. Perhaps you didn’t know where to stand, what to say, whom to look for; people may have been moving all around you, probably for the most part ignoring you. In my role as minister of evangelism, I have often visited churches unannounced. I purposely stand in the middle of the lobby to see what kind of welcome I’ll receive. In most cases I’m disappointed. Often not one single person comes up to me, introduces himself or herself, and welcomes me to the house of God. This has happened in churches that are of different denominations, large and small, urban and rural, and in every geographical area of the country.
One notable exception was a downtown church in Phoenix, Arizona. When my wife and I walked through the door we were perplexed as to exactly which way to go for worship. An alert man standing near the door immediately came up to us, welcomed us, identified himself, and said: “Can I help you with some directions?” While carrying on a friendly conversation he took us through some hallways to the place where the service was about to begin and even ushered us to a seat. This experience stands out for me because it was such a departure from the indifference that I encounter more frequently. That should not be the case in the house of God.
Of course, all churches think of themselves as “a friendly church.” And they are friendly to each other because, to a greater or lesser extent, they are an extended family. Families are busy. Families have things to do, good things. And when everyone is together it is time to talk to each other about family things. But what about the newcomer? What about the person no one knows? What about the alien, the foreigner, the visitor? What about hospitality in the church of God? How important is it to God, to others, even to our own community of faith?
Over the next thirteen weeks we will be exploring this vital subject throughout both the Old and New Testaments of Scripture. Beginning today with Genesis, we will look at books of the law (Torah) like Leviticus, books that are the source of much of what Jesus quoted from the Bible. We’ll look at what the wisdom literature and the prophets say about hospitality, too. Finally, we’ll examine the subject of hospitality through New Testament readings, including some that show the perspectives of Jesus and of apostles Paul, Peter, and John.
Today’s passage teaches us that a primary value for God is the hospitable attitude of his people toward others who are not one of them. Here in the details of the daily life of one of God’s chosen people, Abraham, we are being taught what God expects in terms of hospitality. This is not an isolated story, but one of many illustrations throughout Scripture of a characteristic value God requires of his people. We find hospitality referred to frequently in the law, e.g., in Leviticus 19:33:
When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Other passages from the law that require similar behavior include Leviticus 24:22, Exodus 22:21, 23:9, and Deuteronomy 10:18, 19, 26:12, and 27:19.
Today we begin our study with chapter 18 of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Abraham is sitting in the heat of the day at the entrance of his tent, hoping to feel a gentle breeze to soften the heat of the desert sun. Three strangers appear, and immediately Abraham welcomes them and prepares a meal for them so they can be refreshed.
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way–now that you have come to your servant.
This is partly the behavior of Bedouins who know the importance of hospitality in the middle of a long journey across a wilderness. But it is also the natural reaction of a man who is aware of the graciousness and hospitality of his God, and his need to reflect that spirit in his own life. He has learned to treat others the way he would have others treat him. And so within moments bread is baking and the fatted calf is being roasted, and the strangers are soon refreshed and strengthened for their journey.
Then the surprise: these strangers then bring the Word of God to their host and hostess. One of them tells Abraham that the next time he passes by, a year from now, Sarah will be pregnant. The “word of the Lord” came through the strangers who appeared at the home of one of God’s people. We can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Abraham would have given them the cold shoulder, been indifferent to their needs, and simply pointed them toward Sodom. Centuries later the writer of Hebrews put it this way:
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).
When has the Lord come to us in the presence of strangers, passers-by, sojourners, and visitors? Did we go “out of our way” to welcome them? Did God speak to us through them? Did we find good news by welcoming someone with whom we were strangers? Or did we miss it because we were preoccupied with our own concerns, good though they may indeed have been?
It is very clear that in God’s eyes the way the faith community treats people (especially those who are strangers) is extremely important to him. In fact, it is clear from Scripture that hospitality is a moral obligation and an expression of gratitude for God’s graciousness in accepting us. God may indeed use opportunities of hospitality to speak to us. What would God think if he visited our church? What does God think when he doesvisit our church in the presence of someone we don’t know, or someone who is different than we are: strangers, sojourners, refugees, and visitors?
A church in California has realized the importance welcoming strangers so much that they have provided a place at the end of their worship service to actually fulfill God’s commandment through what is called “The Five-Minute Rule.” For the first five minutes after the benediction no church business is allowed to take place. Instead, everyone is asked to seek out someone they don’t know, or haven’t spoken with for some time, and visit with him or her in the gracious spirit of Christian hospitality. Is this not in the spirit of Abraham, and the teaching of the law?
- Describe a situation in which you were the stranger. Was it a good or bad experience for you? Why?
- Who are the strangers in your church’s neighborhood? Who is welcome and who is not in our community of faith?
- How could you and your church show strangers hospitality? Can you name three specific suggestions?
- Think of ways in which you and your family can make newcomers feel welcome when they visit your home, your church, your community.
- When has God used a stranger to bring a “Word from the Lord” to you?
- Have you ever been the stranger to a faith community and brought a word of good news to them? Describe the experience