Welcoming the stranger, encountering the divine

Emerging from shutdown is an opportunity to create space and time in our lives: but for whom? (Listen.)

So here’s old Abraham, dozing in the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Sarah’s inside, having a nap. The air is heavy; the afternoon is still. Somewhere, a fly buzzes. And the Lord appears to Abraham and he looks up, and sees three strangers down the road, emerging out of the shimmering haze.

Abraham yawns. Then he registers, blinks, and leaps up. He runs down the road to the strangers and begs them to let him serve them. He offers them a place to wash, and a little morsel of food and drink; then he hurries back to the tent, and sticks his head inside. There, he tells Sarah to whip up some fresh bread, and quickly! Then he chooses a fat calf, and slaughters it, and makes a yogurt sauce, and the little morsel becomes a feast. And they talk and eat and speak words of blessing and the story tells us that God was part of the conversation. We don’t know if God was one of the three strangers, or all of the three strangers, or separate to the strangers: but we do know that God was part of the conversation.

This isn’t the only story where people share food with strangers and find themselves in God’s presence. I think of Cleopas and his companion, who encounter a stranger on the road to Emmaus. They walk and talk together, then, as night falls, they embody their teacher’s hospitality and urge the stranger to eat with them. And as they share food and drink, they recognise the teacher himself, the Risen Christ, and they are filled with joy.

I think also of Zacchaeus, called down from a sycamore tree to host Jesus for dinner. I think of a young boy who gave his lunch to Jesus and saw it turned into a feast for thousands. I think of the disciples out fishing, who see a stranger on the beach and scent breakfast. And no doubt you can think of other stories, where a meal with strangers turns into a heavenly banquet and a celebration of God’s kingdom come.

But why is hospitality so important in the Bible? Why this focus on sharing food with strangers?

Let’s go back to Abraham, the father of our faith and renowned for his hospitality. All around him, people bowed to idols. They bowed to sun, moon and stars. They bowed to statues made of stone and wood; they bowed to phallic poles and temple prostitutes and sex. They bowed to kings, and they bowed to power and wealth. They bowed to the slave drivers of Egypt, and they turned away from weekly rest.

Yet as the Psalmist cries out, to bow down to anything other than the one true god has deathly consequences for people. They have eyes, but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear; mouths, but cannot speak; and by implication, their hearts have turned to stone (Ps. 115:4-8). In other words, they lose their humanity, and that is a terrible thing.

As we heard last week, God made people in God’s own image. Even so, over time people become like the things they worship, the things they pay attention to, the things they serve. So if we pour most of our time, energy, and capacity for relationship into sex, power, money, work, consumption or frantic busyness, we will gradually lose our humanity. We will lose sight of what is important to God; we will become mere shadows of who God is calling us to be; and some of us will be content with this.

But others of us are seeking to enter the fullness of life, to become more fully human. And this means pouring our time, energy and capacity for relationship into the one true god; and we do this by prioritising the one thing which God placed their image upon: that is, other people, whether male or female, friend or foe, neighbour or stranger.

For a loving focus on other people orients us to God and refreshes God’s image deep within us; and so we look into the face of the stranger because, as Abraham shows and as Jesus teaches, to welcome the stranger is to welcome and serve God.

During shutdown, many of us had our usual activities cancelled. As restrictions ease, however, things are quickly ramping up again. ‘Keeping busy?’ people are already asking me. ‘Super busy!’ I’m supposed to reply, because that’s the expected and normal thing. In our world, unless we are busy, we are made to feel worthless. Idle hours are wasted hours; and just sitting around is seen as a sign of laziness, unpopularity, even failure. At least, these are the pernicious lies of capitalism, the lies we have internalized and which drive us to spend every waking minute working, studying, shopping, driving, cooking, cleaning, improving, participating, catching up on that unmissable show, visiting with family and friends, engaging in endless extracurricular activities … or just pretending we are extremely busy.

It’s easy to go along with the flow and live this way. Many of us have demanding jobs; regular visits with parents and in-laws; very busy and active children; various interests and activities; lots of friends and reasons to travel; and multiple faith communities. Coming out of shutdown, we’re tempted to pick up all the relationships, restore all the activities, reactivate all the networks. We’re tempted to jam pack the diary and get back on that treadmill and start sprinting once again. And that is a choice we can make.

But Abraham was just sitting in the shade when strangers came wandering down the road. Cleopas and his friend were out walking. Zacchaeus was perched up a tree. The little boy was roaming a hillside. The disciples had gone fishing. Not one of them was doing anything much when a stranger walked by, the kind of stranger who turns your life upside down and shows you the meaning of blessing.

And I wonder: The next time a stranger crosses your path, will you invite them in? Will you put on the kettle, prepare some food, and enter into a potentially unsettling conversation? Will you be curious enough to look deeply into the stranger’s face and seek the image of God? Will you be open to surprises which make you gasp or laugh, and which change everything you thought you knew about the world?

Or will you be too busy, too important, too distracted to even notice the stranger? Will you simply brush past them as you race down the road, heading to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next? Emerging from shutdown is a chance to recalibrate and change your priorities: to stay slow, to say No, to savour Sabbath rest, to recognise the abundance of enough, to make space in your life.

Don’t let God stroll past your door. Make room, and be ready to invite the stranger in. Ω

A reflection on Genesis 18:1-15 given to Sanctuary on 14 June 2020 (Year A Proper 6) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

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