Elizabeth O’Connor in her book, Cry Pain, Cry Hope tells this story of her experience as a volunteer in a shelter for homeless women: “It was a very cold night and the women began to arrive early in the evening. The rooms reserved for them were behind the sanctuary of the church and were used for other purposes during the day. Foam rubber mats were laid over the entire area in one room. Many of the women chose a mat as soon as they arrived. Some had very little with them, though most of them had the bags that gave them the name of bag ladies. One carried her possessions in a child’s wagon, and another, more affluent, had hers piled dangerously high in a supermarket cart. The conversation was disconnected, but the atmosphere was warm and peaceful. Each one was given a bowl of stew, bread, and tea….
When morning came the peaceful atmosphere inside the shelter turned hostile. Distraught women – some of them worn and sick – could not comprehend why they were being ‘pushed out’ into the streets. We who had received them so warmly the night before were the very ones hurrying them along, benefactors so soon to become enemies.
In the narrow hall where the women were having breakfast, an old woman with a gentle face kneeled to pray. She was in the way of another woman who taunted her, ‘Get up woman. God don’t hear your prayer.’ The praying woman did not respond and her taunter said again, ‘God don’t hear your prayer woman. God don’t hear your prayer.’
I asked myself, ‘Does God hear her prayer?’ Then I remembered. God is in me and where I am God is. The real question was, ‘Did I hear her prayer?’ What would it mean to hear her prayer?
Our reading today from Genesis, which continues the story of Abraham and Sarah, points us to consider several things. One thing to consider is: What is the nature of God? Another thing this reading asks us to consider is, “Who are we?” And lastly, “How does who we are impact what we do?”
Following on the reading from last week in which we heard God call Abram and Sarai pick up and move we get this reading that shows us some of the transformation that has taken place since they followed God’s call. For one thing their names have changed to Abraham and Sarah which represents the work of God in their lives.
Now in this reading they encounter a trio of strangers who have shown up at their door. Clearly this is something to think about. What would you do if a trio of strangers showed up at your door? I know what I would do and it’s not what Abraham and Sarah did.
This story pushes us to think about a key issue for God, hospitality. Our Bible is filled with stories like this one, stories of people offering hospitality to strangers. Jesus speaks of it: When did you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, offer drink to the thirsty? Who ever does this to anyone, does it to me. And Paul reminds us that by entertaining strangers we just might be welcoming angels.
Offering hospitality is one of the primary commandments God calls us to live. Hospitality is a major component of what it means to love God, love self, love neighbor.
So, what is hospitality? On the one hand hospitality is offering food, drink, shelter to the stranger in need. It’s a difficult thing because we do live in a dangerous world. I know people who have been killed in their own homes because they offered hospitality to a stranger. On the other hand we don’t want fear to rule our lives. How do we need to find balance to live as God calls us?
It helps to remember that hospitality is so much more than offering food or shelter in our homes. Hospitality and its counterpoint hostility are not just what we do. Each is a reflection of what is in our heart. Both hostility and hospitality are learned.
Hostility is grounded in fear. And when we allow fear to rule our lives we limit what we can do. When fear rules our lives we become blind to other people. Fear can be a healthy response to some situations but we need to be careful not to let fear rule our hearts. Take for example the women’s shelter in my opening illustration. It was clearly just fine for this space to be used as a shelter at night when no one would be inconvenienced by the presence of the women. But in the process of clearing out the women to make room for the day work the act of hospitality became an act of hostility. How might this have been different? How might they been able to move the women, share the space, and maintain that sense of hospitality. I am sure there was a way, it only needed to be embraced at the level of the heart and the head. That is part of what I think O’Connor was pondering when she wondered about “hearing the prayer.”
Hospitality grows in our hearts when others care for us and as such it is an attitude that can be cultivated and nurtured with in us. Our scriptures are full of examples of God caring for humans, humans caring for other, and Jesus showing how, just in case we wonder what God means by hospitality.
There is an ancient Chinese story about a farmer who went out to cut wood and could not find his axe. A few minutes later he looked up and saw his neighbor walking down the road carrying an axe. Oh, thought the farmer, my neighbor has stolen my axe. Look how he walks…like a man who is guilty and has much to hide.
Later that night the farmer was rummaging through a pile of wood on his porch when he found his axe. Clearly his neighbor had not taken it. When he saw his neighbor the next day he saw a man who walked tall and confident in a friendly open manner.
The point of this ancient Chinese story is that we humans tend to project on to others characteristics that match where we are in our lives. The attitude of our heart is something we cultivate. We can cultivate fear, anger, hostility. Or we can cultivate love, hospitality, and generosity.
The women at the shelter all had differences of the heart: one was hard and hostile. One was trusting and hopeful. One was struggling to understand how her own heart could be a place of hospitality one minute and a place of hostility the next. The important part is that she asked the question and over time I imagine she might have an answer and a change of heart. I imagine her heart became a place of greater love.
Abraham had received from God all that he ever wanted, land and wealth and stability. God had blessed his life and from that place of generosity and abundance Abraham was able to give back, give to perfect strangers, the same kind of generosity God had shown him.
Sarah had not yet known the depth of God’s generosity and so when God says that she will bear a son Sarah laughs. She can only express what is in her heart and her heart does not know the fullness of God’s love. God, knowing this, does not abandon her, but showers her with love in the form a child, new life.
Each of us has a choice as well. Will we hear God when God calls out to us? Will we actively work to cultivate hearts of hospitality? Will we hear the prayers the broken people in our world? Will we have the ability to open our hearts and share the love of God? And most importantly, will we share generously with all those we meet, friend and stranger alike?