Genesis 18:1-15 – main text,
(First Sunday after Trinity, June 18th 2017).
How do we welcome people? How do we welcome God?
Abraham. He has been promised land and a son. Yet the fulfilment is delayed – he lives by faith – and the land is to come to his descendants. So the crucial promise now, is a son – no son, no descendants. For years he has had to wait to become a father through Sarah. There have been no Father’s days for him and Sarah to celebrate. He has been told, perhaps weeks or months before (Genesis 17), that he will have a son – and he laughs to himself and the Lord declares he will have a son and he is to be called Isaac…
Then three visitors arrive…
As we read this detailed account, it is striking when we read it how much rushing takes place here. The three men appear in the heat of the day – midday – it says,
he ‘hurried from the entrance of his tent’ – he greets them, he bows low, he invites them to stay, they agree,
and then ‘he hurried into the tent to Sarah’ – he says he needs three loves of bread and he needs it now!
Then he runs to the herd, chooses a fine calf, the fattened calf –
and the servant hurried to prepare it…
and then as they eat he stands under a tree nearby… People would say this is typical near Eastern hospitality, but is has a sense of extravagance hasn’t it – Abraham runs here, calls for the food, runs to the herd, the servant runs… and remember two more things. What age is he? 99. I don’t know how fast he moved, probably not like Usain Bolt, he had many reasons not to! And also, remember the Return of the Prodigal Son, how the Father runs – and how scholars note, in that culture, it was not dignified for a respected Middle Eastern man to run…
Yet, Abraham runs, he hurries…
I don’t believe it is because he knows the Lord is present among them. I believe he becomes aware of this later. Instead it because he desires to welcome these three strangers…
Welcoming people. How should we welcome people at All Saints or to any Christian community?
Abraham – is an example of faith (as, for example, Hebrews 11 reminds us), but he also is an example of hospitality. Abraham’s enthusiasm shows he wants to welcome these guests who have come his way. We just get that from the passage. Also he is willing to go to great lengths to welcome them – not only does he hurry, and run, and demand upon his 90 year old stubborn strong wife – ‘I need that bread yesterday’ – he gets the finest flour for the bread and the fattened calf. Costly, an inconvenience, but he chooses to do it. This is important to him.
When people come to All Saints – what is welcome about? There are many possibilities. But just one idea for now. We want people to experience the divine welcome from our God, a God who invites us to draw near. So how can our warm welcome help people encounter the divine welcome?
I remember visiting my parents church a few years ago – Jolanda and I were attending – we were given a prayer book, hymn book, a service sheet, and when we sat down there was a bible in the pew. And the choir and the vicar came in, welcomed, the worship began. Then there was opening statements of liturgy. I knew that prayer book pretty well but I wasn’t sure, where we were or what was coming next – Anglican churches can use liturgy in different ways, different reponses etc. Jolanda didn’t know that prayer book at all, and she was quite lost. You know, what we didn’t know, was there were numbers on the service sheet which explained which book and when etc. Everyone who attended regularly knew that – we as visitors did not and it distracted us from our worship until we worked out where things were and what was next.
You know, when you come in and you aren’t used to something, it can be hard if everything is going on around you, and you feel unsure or uneasy. Perhaps you’ve experienced this on holiday attending another church – the liturgy, what happens with the kids, what book do I use, do I stand or kneel etc?
And what it more, if you are someone seeking, coming to church maybe for first time, maybe never been to a liturgical church like this and suddenly awhole set of actions take place which are unexpected or unexplained. … Some people stay and do get it, others feel, unwelcome because they feel lost and little or no effort seems to be made to include them…
That is one of the reasons I’ll always words or introductions here and there, perhaps the invitation to communion, or page numbers or which book, because my purpose is to think of the visitor, the seeker, the person from another tradition who just needs that bit of help to know where they are at, so they can truly encounter and worship the most high God. To enable them to encounter the divine welcome…
However, you, as members of All Saints, too can help in this. You may sit with someone and you see someone and they don’t know where we are, they are flicking through the pages – why not lean over , and help them?
Or considering all of our worship, a family arrives, perhaps to share with them before or even during the service, a word explaing about our crèche or Sunday School – and that they are welcome for their kids to join in, even if they are only visiting for that Sunday.
Or, I remember Jess – great young lady – who contacted me about coming along to church – she didn’t come from a church background – she came along, a bit nervous but at that moment, as she entered the main door where i was welcoming people as they arrived, I introduced her to Bev, big warm hearted lady who had also just arrived and Bev said – ‘do you want to sit with us’– and you know, huge help for Jess, guided her through the service, and St Johns became her church…
You never know what experiences people have had or how confident they feel…
Abraham sets the example of enthusiastic, costly, warm hearted welcome…
Abraham perhaps began to wonder who was it among them? The Lord had promised him that he would have a son. And here someone speaks the same promise. One the visitors asks where is Sarah – but Sarah has not been among them – how does he know he has a wife, and how do they know her name. And also, when Sarah comes out and denies she laughed, he says she did…
By the way – note Sarah’s laugh suggests Abraham had not told her what he had been told weeks before…
Now, God welcomes us. How can we welcome him?
In our worship we declare that where 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, he is there. Lord is here, his Spirit is with us, we regularly affirm. Revelation 3, in the words to the church in Laodicea, there is painted a beautiful picture :
Here I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in and eat with person and they with me.
Okay, the letter is to a specific Christian community – not to non Christians – suggesting the link between keeping God out of parts of our life, and his desire to be part of all of our life. The church have been challenged as being lukewarm, self reliant, proud. Suggesting they have pushed God of our their lives. But the Lord seeks to come back in. To be fully involved and present in all that they do as a church corporately and as individual members.
Beautiful image: ‘come in and eat’ – but we invite him in. Do we welcome the Lord into all the areas of our life? Are there areas of our life, he is knocking on the door and wants to come in? For some of us, there may be parts of our life which hold great pain or trauma and to let the Lord into those parts, means some great difficulties as we begin to recall or pray through those times. For such areas of life, fellow believers will be an important support.
But for others of us, we perhaps have heard the knocking of the Lord for sometime and we know we need to open that door, but so far, have yet to do so…
I don’t want to cite specific examples because for all of us it is different but it is worth holding in prayer –
‘Lord are there areas of my life, I somehow are keeping you out of?’
Second thought. Manchester United this week signed a new Swedish defender. And as happens all his previous friends and coaches are interviewed to know more about him. One coach said he knew he would get to the highest level because he was willing to do anything in training, no matter how crazy, because he wanted to become better as a player, to reach as high a level as possible.
When we come to All Saints, a suggestion. Shall we before the service, or using the silence before the Collect prayer to not only kneel to give praise, adoration, confession, but also to offer invitation to the Lord, welcome to him. To pray:
“Lord, here I am, I LONG to become more like your Son, and I want to be a witness and faithful disciple this week, so I ask you Lord, as you want, shape me in this service – through a hymn, a prayer, some word in a sermon, a scripture. Make me more like Jesus and equip me mould me to be a witness and disciple.”
Abraham is a model to us of faith. That Swedish defender welcomed the coaches to guide and advise him how he can become a great player, do we add that prayer into our worship to become as close to a likeness as Jesus as possible?
Finally. Welcome. Inviting him to speak. Abraham did not expect the Lord to bring that promise in that moment as they enjoyed the fattened calf. We come to talk to God, but of course he wants often to talk to us, to speak to us. He may desire to speak about the huge or the tiny. I mean imagine you visit a friend, and he only wants to talk about his things and not interested in what you have to say, in fact, he keeps changing the topic when you bring up your thoughts about Father’s Day, Ajax, current Dutch coalition formations etc etc… We are called friends by our Lord. He desires every day to sit and eat with us. And he desires to talk with us I’d suggest.
An example. I have shared that I worked in Hungary, but in my second and final year I sensed God could be calling towards ordained ministry. The first step was to contact my Diocese in Lichfield to show interest. I had had several complaints about being ordained and about the Church of England but over the year, the Lord has showed me I was wrong in my assumptions and complaints. I felt I knew he was calling me. But I wanted to be sure. So I laid a fleece I don’t know if you call that this in Netherlands – I asked the Lord, to speak another time. I was going to attend a conference on urban mission, which focused on working in deprived areas, led by a significant leader from the USA. If you’d asked me, I’d have said, the speaker will say something like ‘we need more ministers in the Anglican church’ or something. I arrived, sat down, there was an opening devotion led by a Hungarian Bishop, and he was using our gospel passage and he quoted:
Jesus words: ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9)
And you know, those verses went straight into my spirit – bypassed my brain – I was struck, and I knew the Lord was speaking and I knew he had answered my prayer – he was calling me towards ordained ministry. Actually those words have also shaped by ministry because it has always been connected with urban ministry and actually deprived area ministry… That is a dramatic example perhaps at a key point in life. But looking back, I didn’t expect it at that moment. But the Lord had other plans, he longed to speak that day.
Perhaps a prayer we say before worship service begins can be :
“Lord, I have many things to say to you, thanks, some pain, some questions but also as I am talking, I invite you in this service to speak. To say the words I need to hear – through someone, through Scripture, deep within my spirit, perhaps in another manner.”
And that is one of the roles of prayer ministry within a church. Perhaps you sense the Lord speaking and you simply want to pray with a couple of Christians, in confidence, who can pray with you and for you, to have wisdom or insight in the ways or weeks ahead…
How we help others to experience the divine welcome.? How we say to God – ‘you are welcome in all parts of my life, to mould me, shape me, form me more like Jesus, as I speak to you, you are welcome to speak to me the words I need to hear.’
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Revd Grant Crowe.