A Story of Three Strangers

This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on March 23, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

One year, many years ago, my dad and his siblings decided to throw a surprise birthday party for my grandma.  My parent’s house ended up being the site for the party.  So in the weeks and days leading up to the party, my mom and dad put me and my sisters to work cleaning the house, making food, trimming hedge, washing the porch, and mowing the lawn.

Finally, the day of the party arrived and we were soooo excited!  Family members started arriving, hiding their cars in the back of our house and gathering on the back porch.  I was nervous and excited—not only was I happy that my family was gathering, but the day had required hours and hours of preparation.  I couldn’t wait for my grandma to arrive.

As the time approached, I peered out the window; I pretended to play basketball in the driveway; my sisters and I told our family members on the back porch to be very quiet.  Finally, we saw the car pulling in the driveway.  I ran out to meet my grandma!!

If I remember correctly, my parents had told her we were just inviting her over for dinner on the back porch, so as soon as my immediate family greeted her in the driveway, we ushered her around back for a big surprise and a bountiful feast!

When I reflect on this story now, I can see that my whole family gave my grandma a radical welcome that day.  We stretched our arms wide and embraced her with the fullness of ourselves, celebrating her wonderful life and all of the things she had taught us.

In a way, this radical welcome story reminds me of another story; the story of Abraham that we read today.  The difference is that my story was A Story of My Grandma; Abraham’s story is A Story of Three Strangers.

Listen!  This is what happens.

Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  It’s not quite clear from the story whether he and Sarah have been tidying up the tent earlier in the day; but it seems unlikely that they have spent weeks preparing for a party for three strangers that they did not know were coming.

Instead, as he’s sitting on the front porch (so to speak) enjoying the view, he looks up and sees three men who he does not know.  Now, most of us would just keep right on sitting and enjoying the view.  But Abraham is different. When he sees these three strangers, he is just as excited to see them as I was when my grandma’s car pulled into my driveway.

Abraham jumps up and runs from the tent entrance to meet these three strangers.  He bows down to the ground to show them respect and begs them to come to his tent to be refreshed.

I have to interject here to say that I notice several things that he does not do.  He does not ask them where they are from or where they are going.  He does not judge them because they are dirty from walking through the desert.  He does not ask them if they have legal papers to be in his tent’s territory.  He does not worry that his tent isn’t clean or that the food isn’t ready.

He simply runs to meet them and urges them to come to his home.

Wow.  That is pretty radical.

What may be even more radical is that these three strangers are just as open as Abraham is.  They say yes!  Okay, thank you.  We’d love to come in and eat and rest a while.

Again, notice what they do not say.  They don’t say, Woah, we don’t know you.  You are a stranger.  They don’t say, we aren’t coming into your home and eating your food!  They don’t say, Oh no, we couldn’t impose.  We’ll just walk to the closest inn.

They simply say yes.

Wow.  That is pretty radical.

Just in that brief encounter without even touching one another, both Abraham and the three strangers have opened their arms and embraced one another fully in radical welcome.

So, Abraham runs to ask his wife Sarah to help him extend this radial welcome by making cakes for the three strangers.  Let’s remember that even in our modern day with a Bette Crocker cake mix, making and baking a cake takes a few ingredients plus 45 minutes—and this was not the modern day.  Making cakes would take Sarah some time and cost them some precious food resources.

Abraham also goes and chooses a calf to kill and he asks his servants to prepare it.  Again, this was no small task—they couldn’t run to the store and buy a ham or chicken that was precooked and just needed to be heated up in the microwave.  We’re talking about the slaughter of an animal, the building of a fire, and the slow roast of outdoor cooking.  Again, offering this gift of hospitality and food would cost Abraham’s family time and precious food resources.

When the feast is ready, I imagine that it was a bountiful as the one that we made for my grandma.  I can just see Abraham smiling as the milk and curds are presented, as the servants bring out the meat and as Sarah offers the three strangers her cakes.  He stands nearby watching them (and maybe smiling!) while they eat.

The work that is required of Abraham and Sarah to offer a radical welcome to these three strangers is immense.  It would have been easier, cheaper, and more relaxing if Sarah had stayed inside the tent and Abraham had let the three strangers pass by with a friendly smile and a simple wave of his hand as they continued on the journey.

But Abraham doesn’t do that and what is interesting is the motivation that propels Abraham to run to meet them.  He doesn’t know them.  They are not his relatives and he and Sarah are not planning a surprise party.  Instead, he seems to simply be moved by compassion for these three travelers and desires to offer them rest and food so that they are refreshed for their journey.

Surprisingly, in the verses that follow the part that we read today, the strangers have a gift that they share with Abraham and Sarah—the promise of a child, even in old age.

I have to tell you, this story rolls around in my head and challenges me, just as the words of Stephanie Spellers in the book Radical Welcome challenge me.  Stephanie writes that following Jesus means that we will not hide from the brothers and sisters that God places near us.  Instead, we are to “actively go out to meet them and draw them to [ourselves], even if it is risky, even if it makes [us] feel uncomfortable.”[1]

I think we all would say that Christians are supposed to be kind, charitable, and serve the needy, but in a way all of these fall short of the kind of hospitality and welcome that God has in mind for us to do.  God’s way is more like Abraham’s who is outside his tent, watching for someone new, runs to greet three strangers and throws open the folds of his tent, his pantry, and his very life.  This is like God’s way.  God is going out, leaving the house, ignoring dignity in order to meet the tired, the lost, the hungry, the rich, the poor, the lonely, the frustrated, the busy, and the burdened and to bring them to the table that God has prepared for them.

This story challenges us, both personally and communally.  What could this radical welcome look like in our lives?  What could this radical welcome look like in the church?  What could this radical welcome look like in this church? 

How are we being called to throw back the folds of our tent and run out to meet the strangers walking by?

I don’t have all the answers and neither does Stephanie Spellers, but she does offer us some signs for what it looks like to be a radically welcoming congregation.

First is the mission and vision of the church.  She says that the mission and vision must be clear and compelling and incorporate radical welcome of the others.  It is essential that the mission and vision guide the continuing development of the community’s identity, ministries, leadership, and worship.[2]

Second, she writes that the identity of the church is key.  The identity must be strong enough that the church is self-aware of their history and foundation and that they also cultivate openness to new people and new ideas, especially those in the neighborhoods around them who are not yet part of the church.[3]

Third, ministries and relationships must be thoughtfully organized to reflect and fulfill this radically welcoming mission and vision.  Community ministries must reflect mutuality and a desire for empowerment and mutual transformation of self, other, and community.[4]

Fourth, leaders should be intentionally recruited from distinct groups within the congregation and there must be transparency regarding decision making.  Different cultural and generational styles of leadership must be understood and creatively accommodated.[5]

And finally, worship style and make-up of the community is reflective of the surrounding community; there may be more than one service in order to accomplish this.  Worship must be lively and reflective, rooted in tradition, yet open to fresh expressions.[6] 

This Radical Welcome Lenten journey invites us into a deep self-reflection about where we are at now, both personally and communally.  There is a lot to talk about here, so I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to remind you that there are several opportunities for small group discussion and it’s not too late to join a group. 

Come during Sunday School and discuss with Bonnie Muren.  If you are a young adult, join us at the Bread Co. on Sundays after church.  If evenings are better for you, come Tuesday nights at 6:00 pm.  For people who are too busy to make a weekly commitment, try the upcoming discussions that Mark is leading on March 30 and April 6.  Choose a time that works for you and don’t miss the opportunity to talk about these challenging topics with your church family.

All of us are invited to live into this thing called radical welcome.  If we let God work in our lives, God will open and renew our hearts, our behaviors and our convictions.  At the same time, it cannot stop there.  It might feel more comfortable for the transformation to begin and end within our hearts; “But radical welcome has to go deeper, into the very marrow of [our] congregational life.”[7]

Radical welcome has to transform us as individually as well as our communal life. 

Truthfully, this journey will not be easy.  It will require work, time, and resources.  It will be scary sometimes and uncomfortable sometimes.  But, here’s another truth: it is a way to be faithful as followers of Jesus Christ.  And it will be worth it.

[1]{C} Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, by Stephanie Spellers, Copyright 2006 by Stephanie Spellers, Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. 38.

[2] Ibid. 76.

[3] Ibid. 76.

[4] Ibid. 76.

[5] Ibid. 76.

[6] Ibid. 77.

[7] Ibid. 97.

Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali