Will you join me in prayer… “God, you love the poor in spirit. God, you comfort those who mourn. Balm for wounds, the friend of sinners, taking the side of earth’s forlorn. Up from the depths you raised your people, giving them courage for the day. Down through the years the people praise you till alleluias light their way.”1 “God of Abraham and Sarah” by James Gertmenian, New Century Hymnal #20. May it be so.
Today our scripture comes to us in two parts from Genesis Eighteen and Genesis Twenty-One. You might be wondering what happens in between these chapters, and that’s an excellent question with a terrible answer. Between the scriptures that Thom just read, there is one of the most horrifying stories in the whole Bible.
See two angels arrived at the city of Sodom. A man named Lot welcomed these strangers into his home. He baked them some bread; the Bible says he made them a feast.
But later that night, the town of Sodom showed up around Lot’s house like a pitchfork-wielding mob. The town demanded that Lot send the strangers outside so they could rape them. Lot refused! Instead, he offered up his own daughters to the crowd. Now Lot was standing outside trying to broker this deal, when the mob rushed him trying to break down the door. The stranger-angels whisked Lot inside the house; they inflicted blindness upon the crowd so nobody could open the door.
The story gets worse.
The next day the LORD rained sulfur and fire down upon Sodom and some other cities. The angels rescued Lot and his family —most of his family. His wife looked backed as she was running, so poof! She got turned into a pillar of salt. Later Lot’s daughters got him drunk and raped him.
Now you may have heard people say, the sin of Sodom is that men were having sex with men. Well, I don’t buy that for anything! The sin is not that men were with men; the sin was mob violence and gang rape. The sin is when this city should have offered hospitality, it offered ravage instead. Only Lot was righteous. Only Lot welcomed the strangers into his house.
All through the Bible— the prophets and the poets, the law, and the Gospels— we hear a consistent imperative. When a stranger comes to your door, let him in. I’ll tell you, that was definitely not the message of the Nineteen Ninety-Three Campfire Girls Babysitting Training Course. When you’re babysitting and someone comes to the door, don’t answer it, they told us. But the message of our faith is clear: Welcome the stranger because remember, you used to be a stranger. Welcome the stranger because when you do this, you welcome me, says the LORD.
We already know this; it’s not that we don’t know this. The problem is, there’s no way to welcome a stranger and not take a risk. The Campfire Girls understand this. So does everybody in this room. By welcoming the stranger, we could get hurt. Our children could get hurt. You know our kindness could get exploited. Our generosity could get abused. Our own friends could turn on us and become offended by our decision to welcome them.
Plus, what if there’s an even greater risk?
What if by welcoming a stranger, this puts us right in the path of the miracle… As though we might become co-conspirators in changing our own destiny! As though our power to welcome is not just the demand of God. It’s the grace of God.
You know before those angels turned up in Sodom, they visited the camp of Abraham and Sarah in Hebron. Way back when God first called Abraham, she promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as stars fill the sky. But Sarah was barren. In a move that surely inspired The Handmaid’s Tale, Abraham had a baby with Sarah’s slave, Hagar. But Sarah and Abraham wanted to have a baby together, and they couldn’t. Now Abraham is ninety-nine years old and Sarah is ninety.
You’ve got to wonder whether they have settled. Surely by now, they can see the trajectory of their lives. You can live your life longing for a baby, then you can live to see that dream come to an end. Now I know, even though God tells Abraham that he will have a baby with Sarah, even though Abraham believes God —he goes and gets circumcised as a sign of the covenant! Still. You’ve got to wonder whether Abraham could allow himself to entertain the possibility. It would be too wonderful.
So on this blazing hot afternoon, Abraham looks up and sees three strangers standing at the entrance of his tent. He quickly sends for water. He tells Sarah to start baking cakes, and he orders the calf to be butchered. Abraham makes a feast for the strangers; he stands beside the tree while they eat. That’s when one of them speaks up and changes the ending of their story: Sarah will have a baby.
When Sarah heard the stranger-angel say this, she laughed—right at God. And the LORD our God heard her laugh. It’s not just a baby. It’s pleasure! It’s not just pleasure. It’s that nothing is impossible with God. Nothing is too wonderful for the LORD.
You might be old, but you’re not just destined for death. Your life is more than that. Now there are strangers at the door with a promise that will change the path we had settled for. They will turn our trajectory toward the stars. This is what happened to Sarah and Abraham. What if this is exactly what could happen to our church…
This summer, all of us set out with the charge inspired by Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” You’ve been welcoming strangers all summer to lead worship and help lead us to this intersection between the joy of our church and the needs of the neighborhood.
Finding this intersection has been my project too. It might not surprise you to learn that God is calling me to find the meeting place between Church of Peace and those whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. What can our church learn from people who are and who have been locked up? What do they need that we could offer? What can we learn from those who work in law enforcement? What do they need that we have?
Please understand. This is my call. It may also be yours, or it may not be. Either way, that’s okay.
We’ll be talking more about this in our three conversations. In these gatherings, we’ll bring together what we have learned this summer, and we’ll identify what our findings have in common. Then we’ll use these common points as a basis for identifying our Twenty-Twenty mission focus.
As part of my summer study, someone with whom I sat down was Angela Richardson. Many of you know Angela and remember her ministry here. If you were in church on July Twenty-First, you heard her give the message. Angela directs the Advancing Careers and Employment program at the Safer Foundation. This program helps individuals who have recently been incarcerated create a customized plan for their return to the community.
She told me that probation and parole focus on mandates; there are loads of requirements heaped upon people coming out of prison. Alternatively, Safer is the heart. Angela’s work focuses on helping an actual human person with a name, and a story, and a dream.
Angela mentioned that a key principle in her work is that it’s better “to err on the side of grace.” As soon as she spoke those words, I realized I had heard this before —from you. This has been invoked in the Adult Forum as something Pastor Michael used to say. Sure enough, Angela learned this here. She might have heard it from him, but she learned it from everybody.
To err on the side of grace is a hallmark of Church of Peace.
At one level, to err on the side of grace means to give someone the benefit of the doubt. We know there are risks in welcoming a stranger. We could get hurt. The people we love could get hurt. Our kindness could get exploited. We could give to someone who’s not really in need. We could get taken advantage of. Our own friends could turn against us. We could give somebody a second chance —or a seventh chance— only to get burned. This has happened to us before. It might again.
To err on the side of grace means to know the risks and take them anyway. Go on and open the door. Go on and give what we can because if we didn’t, who would we be? Erring on the side of grace does mean offering oodles of chances, seven times seventy, times seventy…. But grace is not just us being nice. Grace is the power of God.
What if erring on the side of grace is exactly the choice that will put us in the path of the miracle, and what if our church can’t afford to miss this miracle.
God has a dream for our life, you know. We might have settled into the path of keepin’ on keepin’ on, but God might be dreaming up bigger plans for us. He might be plotting to bring us back to life. She might show up at our door ready to hand us a baby. Or a problem. Or a project.
To err on the side of grace is not just taking a chance on the stranger at the door. To err on the side of grace means taking a chance on God. So we should be warned. We might be signing up for our own resurrection. We might see our trajectory turn toward the stars. We might hear ourselves laugh at God—only to discover God is laughing too.
When Sarah gives birth to Isaac she looks at her baby and just cracks up. She says it like this: “God has brought laughter for me; now everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Our hymn says it like this: “Praise is the healing, praise the glory, praise is the final mystery. Down through the years, let the people praise [God] till alleluias set [us] free.”
|↑1||“God of Abraham and Sarah” by James Gertmenian, New Century Hymnal #20.|