Rebekah McLeod Hutto
(Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Romans 5:1-8)

Soon after it was published, I read a book of stories by one of my clergy friends from Duke Divinity School, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Jonathan and his wife Leah live together with their neighbors in an intentional, Christian community called The Rutba House in Durham, NC. They live in an area of Durham called Walltown, a neighborhood unfortunately best known for its poverty and crime, with its roots in segregation and the historical racial divisions of Durham. Welcoming the stranger and offering hospitality in Rutba House has led Jonathan and his family to intense and beautiful encounters with their neighbors—drug addicts, former convicts, the homeless, wanderers, and those fleeing abuse. But what they’ve found is that the people they welcome into their home teach them about Christianity’s radical belief in hospitality: the importance of welcoming the stranger as Jesus among us. In his book, Strangers at My Door, Jonathan shares these stories from their years in Rutba House. Over and over again, the stories of those who come inside their doors open their eyes, and reshape their perspectives, in particular as they navigate the complicated history of race. As Jonathan says, when you open the door you “welcome a world that you know will change you.”[1]

Well, after today’s encounter with God under the oaks, Abraham and Sarah could write their own version of Jonathan’s book, called “strangers at my tent.” This story in Genesis is a story of great hospitality, guests that are greeted with full service and generous gifts in the heat of the day. It feels strange to share a story of a dinner party at a time when we aren’t able to host such a thing ourselves; regardless hospitality is a dominant theme of this story. For example, hear again all the actions of Abraham: seeing, running, meeting, honoring, inviting, refreshing, washing, preparing, and serving, not to mention that Abraham bows when he sees them. Travel in that time, and maybe even in ours too, was dangerous; there were numerous threats travelers could encounter. Therefore, Abraham and Sarah’s display of hospitality for these strangers creates a beautiful moment of welcome, ushering forward some incredible news for them both.  By opening their tent, their world does indeed change.

Before this week, the last time I studied this text was in an interfaith Bible study last June comprised of members of my Presbyterian church in New York City and neighbors of ours from Park Avenue Synagogue. Between their midrashim and our Biblical commentaries, we were reminded of Abraham and Sarah’s gracious hospitality to the strangers that came to their tent.

We learned together that in the Jewish tradition “the Talmud [the Jewish law] teaches that one’s house should always be welcoming and open to strangers. In the Torah it affirms that Abraham always kept all four sides of his tent open, for guests to easily enter. The opening of one’s doors is why at the Seder on Passover an invitation is delivered to the hungry and needy. [During Passover] it is read in the Hagadah, ‘Whosoever is in need let him come and eat.’”[2] In this story, Abraham and Sarah model the hospitality that later became ingrained in Jewish self-identity and the liturgy within their holiest celebration.  

My church members and I, as Christians involved in the study, connected this story from Genesis to two other scripture passages in the New Testament, the first from Hebrews which says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.[3] But the second and most powerful connection to this story from Genesis comes from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ …‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ “[4]

Our Bible study that day led us to see how embedded the practice of hospitality is within our shared faith. Throughout Israel’s history they were commanded to welcome the stranger and provide for those most in need. And we see just how Jesus defines this radical hospitality: whenever we welcome and provide hospitality for a neighbor in need, we are doing it for Jesus himself. When we open our doors, or our tents, to the stranger—life will change. For Sarah and Abraham, their hospitality to these holy visitors results in them hearing the incredible news God has in store for them. After welcoming, bowing, preparing, washing, and serving, Abraham and Sarah receive the news that at their very mature age, they will welcome a son. And not just any son but a child who will give them descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven.

Well after this news is delivered, back in the tent, Sarah responds with laughter. These angelic visitors change the lives of Sarah and Abraham by sharing the news that Sarah who is beyond childbearing age, will finally have a family. So she laughs—you know that awkward, “yeah right,” laughter when something seems impossible. It’s the same laughter we got from Abraham when he heard the news back in Genesis 17—Abraham actually “fell on his face and laughed.”[5] As the story unfolds, their world does indeed change. They have a son, and they name him Isaac. So, the final moment of laughter comes as Sarah and Abraham embrace their baby Isaac, whose name means laughter. When we open the door, life will change, and awkward laughter might just be the appropriate response.

My parents were married almost 50 years ago in Columbia, South Carolina, on February 9, 1973. If you’re from that area that date will stick in your mind because it was the date that a record snowstorm hit—of all places—Columbia, dropping almost two feet of snow in the center of the state.[6] My parents had plans to leave the reception and drive to Williamsburg, VA for their honeymoon. But they never got there; they barely got out of Columbia, making it only to Camden. In an old Ford station wagon, they got stuck on I-95 in a snow drift. After a little while, a woman knocked on their window, having also gotten stuck in the snow, and asked if she could join them. She was cold, scared, and didn’t want to be alone. Although both parties were vulnerable, my parents opened the door and welcomed her in the car. In that car, they shared some wedding cake and wrapped up in coats while they talked. Eventually, all of them were able to knock on the door of a nearby farmhouse and the owners let them in, got them warm, and let them make phone calls. The story ended with a John Deere tractor coming down I-95 to pull people out of the snow, and my parents made their way back to Columbia. If you had told my parents a week before their wedding that they would be spending their honeymoon vulnerable and stuck on the side of the road in the car with another stranger, relying on the kindness of other strangers to save them, I’m sure they would have laughed like Sarah.

A couple who belong to my husband’s former church in NYC decided in early 2020 they were going to take their dream trip—let’s say, a second honeymoon—a cruise around the world. Unfortunately, though, their trip stopped short when they were in the Indian Ocean just as COVID 19 was overwhelming southeast Asia. The ship’s captain spent weeks going port to port trying to find somewhere that would let them dock, refuel, and take on supplies; some place that would give them hospitality. But no one would let them in, and as more communities turned them away, the fear and anxiety in the ship was growing. Finally, the boat arrived in South Africa, and the cruise company struck a deal where the ship could dock, all passengers would be driven directly to the airport, and everybody could fly to the United Kingdom. But this still left these two New Yorkers stranded and vulnerable. But then, former strangers who befriended them on the boat, a couple from the United Kingdom, invited them to stay with them in their home in the English countryside until New York City was safe to return to.  If you had told this couple a week before their dream vacation that they would be vulnerable on that cruise ship for weeks on end, eventually relying on the hospitality of foreigners that they had just met on the boat, I am quite positive they would have laughed like Sarah.  

The book I mentioned at the beginning, Strangers At My Door, comes from Jonathan’s reflections on welcoming strangers into his home, the Rutba house in Durham, North Carolina. But the name of this ministry, Rutba, has its own story. In 2003 Jonathan and his wife Leah were a part of a Christian peacemaking delegation in Iraq, during America’s bombing campaign post September 11th. On a deserted road their fellow peacemakers were nearly killed when their driver hit a large piece of shrapnel in the road. But some locals, strangers to them, picked them up and drove them to a doctor in a nearby town called Rutba.[7] When they met the doctor, he spoke truth to them. “‘Three days ago,” he said, ‘your country bombed our hospital. But we will take care of you.’” Jonathan’s friends, vulnerable and scared, were treated for their injuries, radical hospitality was offered, and American Christians were cared for by Iraqi Muslims in the midst of a war between their two countries.  

In the hospitality of those strangers, Jonathan and his friends heard Jesus saying to them, “Go and do likewise,” from when Jesus told the story of the Samaritan.[8] So when Jonathan and his colleagues founded their home to welcome strangers in Durham, they appropriately named it the Rutba house, after the hospitality shown to them by the people of Rutba, Iraq. If you had told Jonathan and Leah, that in the midst of American bombs hitting Iraq, strangers from Rutba would take them and their friends in, bandage and care for their wounds, they too would have laughed like Sarah.

As Jonathan wrote in his book Strangers at My Door, when you open the door to hospitality you “welcome a world that you know will change you.”[9] Jonathan and his colleagues were certainly vulnerable in Iraq when they accepted the hospitality of the strangers in Rutba, but today they are just as vulnerable when they open their doors and extend hospitality to others in Durham. Nevertheless, they persist. They continue to open the door as an act of radical hospitality. And as they open their doors to strangers, they signify that they remain open to what God will do amongst them…and to what God will do with them…and to what God will do to them.

This morning, I am preaching on Trinity’s property, right outside of our church’s doors. Next Sunday we, as many of us as are able, will gather together for the first time in months under these same trees to worship our Lord. This new normal has forced us outside of our beautiful building these last months, forced us to learn how to be church in a city and country that is in desperate need of hospitality being shown to neighbors. At Trinity, our ministry has a tag line: Growing Together, Welcoming All. And yes, there is a lot of ministry to be done, there is growth to be had, there are neighbors to welcome. Next Sunday, as we gather under these trees—oaks, much like the ones at Mamre where Abraham and Sarah themselves welcomed strangers—let us, too, prepare to welcome neighbor and stranger alike. Let us too see how God will show up, how God will meet us, and how God will change us.

And all God’s people said AMEN.

[1] Wilson-Hartgrove, 22.

[2] Ta’anit 20b, From Rabbi Charlie Savenor, Park Avenue Synagogue, NYC.

[3] Hebrews 13:2.

[4] Matthew 25:35-36,40.

[5] Genesis 17:17.

[6]https://www.weather.gov/ilm/Feb1973Snow#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20greatest%20snowstorms,two%20of%20snow%20per%20year.

[7] Strangers at My Door, pages 1-2.

[8] Luke 10:37.

[9] Wilson-Hartgrove, 22.