Can I ask an indelicate question? Who here is in their 80’s? Or 90’s? Anyone older? Today we have that wonderful picture of the 3 visitors who come to bring startling news to Abraham and Sarah. Well, more to Sarah actually. The news is that within a year, the 89 year old Sarah will become pregnant and have that long-awaited, long-promised child. I’ll just let that sink-in a moment.
We don’t get to hear her tone of voice – but we’re told that Sarah laughs. Is it a giggle or a snigger? A laugh of surprise or pleasure? Incredulity or derision? We don’t know. I’ll leave you to think about which of those is most likely if you were in her place!
Are you keeping something from me?
But this wasn’t the first time the promise had been made. By her reaction you wonder perhaps if Abraham hadn’t told her about the previous time, which is related a chapter earlier?… It was Abraham’s turn to laugh then. Had it seemed so unlikely that he didn’t want to pass on such foolishness? At their time of life had he not wanted to raise her expectations only for them to be shattered?
So, was God making sure the message was really delivered this time? I can imagine Sarah giving Abraham ‘a look’ when she realised she was the only one laughing at such nonsense. But I wonder if sometimes we filter out God’s word and only pass on what we think people need to hear – or what we think is safe for them to hear?
Often the visitors are portrayed as angels or even the Holy Trinity. The conversation between the lead character and Abraham only really makes sense if it’s Yahweh. Many of you will know the Rublev icon, called The Trinity, or sometimes the Hospitality of Abraham, which depicts the scene. One of the many telling things that marks the icon out is that it focusses on the guests and not the hosts. Abraham and Sarah are nowhere to be seen. And, indeed, the question can be asked – who is hosting who?
But it’s called the Hospitality of Abraham. Not the Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah. And I think we need to stand up for Sarah and right a wrong here.
Do we go out of our way?
Credit where it’s due. In good Eastern tradition, Abraham falls over himself to be welcoming to the strangers. It’s the middle of the day, it’s hot and he’s running around like a 3 year old. It’s even more remarkable when you remember that he’s actually 99 years old and had been lying there recovering from just circumcising himself…
And I think we need to reflect on how welcoming we are when we have visitors. Do we disrupt our routine and perhaps even cause ourselves a certain level of discomfort? Or do we just expect them to fit in with whatever we happen to be doing?
A marvellous spread
But back to Genesis and Sarah is part of this hospitality too. They’re a team. It’s a poor reflection on us that she’s so often overlooked in this scene.
Between Sarah and Abraham their hospitality to their guests is extra-ordinary. We don’t tend to consider the spread of food that they put on together but it’s of truly heroic, epic, ‘Four Lane Ends’ proportions.
In the hot, middle of the day, Sarah makes bread from 3 selahs or 3 measures of flour. A measure is about 12 pounds. So that’s 36 pounds of flour – about 36 loaves of bread. For just 3 guests…
On top of that there’s curds and milk. Oh, and a whole calf, tender and good. For three of them… because Abraham stands back to let them eat.
Maybe the 3 guests stayed there eating for a week before dropping the bombshell about the impending pregnancy? Or maybe Sarah was giving them something extra to put in their back-packs for their journey onwards? Perhaps the couple realised they had divine beings in their presence and assumed they had really big, enormous appetites? It was over the top in its generosity.
And we often think of the extravagance and abundance that God shows us. There’s the wedding at Cana with the water into wine – where 6 stone jars of 30 gallons each works out at 1100 bottles! There’s Jesus’ feeding of the thousands with 12 baskets of food left over. Then the catch of fish that almost broke the nets.
There’s also the parable told by Jesus in Luke where the Kingdom of God is like the woman who hides yeast in the dough. And yes, it’s 3 measures. 36 pounds. Exactly the same quantity that Sarah used. Perhaps Jesus had Sarah in mind when he told the parable?
So, isn’t it refreshing to see a story where we are being extravagant back, even if Abraham and Sarah are perhaps unaware of exactly who it is that they’re entertaining at this stage?
And shortly after in Genesis we read of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose real undoing was their absence of hospitality.
Mary and Martha
It’s perhaps not too surprising that our reading is paired with Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus in Bethany. Martha’s doing an ‘Abraham & Sarah’, running around trying to get a meal together. Mary is at Jesus feet. Jesus here doesn’t seem too concerned about being fed. He’s more bothered about being listened to, about delivering a message. But maybe, being part of the Trinity, he’s still making his way through those 36 loaves that Sarah made?
If you think ahead though, it’s Mary who shows that wildly over-the-top but intimate gesture to Jesus, pouring a pint of perfume on his feet and wiping them with her hair, a week before his crucifixion. She somehow understood what was to happen, even when no-one else seemed to.
Home from home
So, I wonder if an aspect of hospitality is being open to someone else’s agenda and not your own? Martha was busy ‘doing’ when Jesus visited. Mary listened and much later was extravagant in her response. But she listened first. Do we, I wonder?
In Luke’s Gospel, it’s from Bethany that Jesus ascends into heaven. Perhaps he chose to go to his heavenly home from a place where he’d been made to feel so at home on earth?
The smell of cooking
There’s a Jewish legend that Sarah’s tent was always open to visitors, that her dough miraculously increased and that the presence of God in a pillar of cloud rested over the entrance. Indeed, there’s a fable that God so loved the hospitality of Sarah and the smell of her cooking, that the Tabernacle that he later established with Moses in the desert was to remind him of her tent. The Tabernacle was to be a place where God could always be a next door neighbour to the children of Israel as they wandered through Sinai.
Listen and learn
So, maybe we need to think about how we can be unstinting in our welcome and in how we entertain visitors? How to be over the top and extravagant in making them feel at home. But to be quiet and listen to them too.
Who knows what surprising news we might hear from any strangers that drop by? What fresh insights they might have for us. And we may be astonished if we knew the real identity of our new neighbour next door… Amen.
[This was delivered by Ian Banks at Four Lane Ends Congregational Church on July 21st 2019. It’s based on Genesis 18: 1-15 and Luke 10:38-42. For his next talk, on Hebrews 11 and faithfulness, please press here. For more by Ian please follow this link. For a lot more on Rublev’s icon take a look at this site: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/whos-who-in-the-trinity-icon/]
Abraham and Sarah at Mamre
The sermon was followed by this wonderful poem by Malcom Guite:
Abraham and Sarah at Mamre
They practice hospitality; their hearts
Have opened like a secret source, free flowing
Only as they take another’s part.
Stopped in themselves, and in their own unknowing,
But unlocked by these strangers in their need,
They breathe again, and courtesy, set free,
Begets the unexpected; generosity
Begetting generation, as the seed
Of promise springs and laughs in Sarah’s womb.
Made whole by their own hospitality,
And like the rooted oak whose shade makes room
For this refreshing genesis at Mamre,
One couple, bringing comfort to their guests,
Becomes our wellspring in the wilderness.
The poem is used with the kind permission of the author and it comes from ‘Parable and Paradox’ published by Canterbury Press. Available in all good bookstores!