Ready to Go
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15
In the movie Just Mercy, based on the book of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his fight for justice for many wrongly imprisoned, there’s a scene that captures a little bit of the Southern hospitality that folks down in Georgia and Alabama pride themselves on. Bryan goes to the meet the family of one of his clients, Johnny D, who is sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. When he shows up to meet the family, it’s not just Johnny D’s wife and kids there - it’s neighbors and cousins and aunts and uncles who show up to find out if there can be justice for Johnny D. The wife of his client sees him for the first time and reaches out to hug him, and says, “Thanks for coming all this way - most lawyers don’t even have time to call.” Once they are gathered around the kitchen table, each time Bryan takes a drink from his iced tea sitting in front of him, one of the neighbors quickly refills his glass to the top.
And as the family and neighbors begin to talk, began to express their anger over what the justice system did to their family member, it’s clear that their hospitality is an invitation to Bryan - they are welcoming this stranger into their lives, some hopeful that justice can be done and others hopeless that anything can change. But it seems an act of faith in the first place to open up their home, roll out that famous sweet tea, and welcome this stranger even in the midst of their doubt.
Of course, if you watch the movie, you know that Bryan famously is able to win an appeal and free Johnny D from death row against a racist, corrupt system there in Alabama, and it all began with a little Southern hospitality.
In our scripture this morning, I want you to notice a similar pattern - how hospitality leads to God doing a new thing.
Abram, who is called the Father of Nations, had been called by God to get up and go to a new and distant land, a land that God was going to share with him. Abram and Sara embarked on what became a long and grueling journey. And as they traveled, it probably seemed like Abram was a little crazy - he and Sara, despite being promised by God to have numerous descendants, still had no children, and their hardships made it seem unlikely that they would ever settle down. They were at that stage in life where having children seemed biologically impossible. Whatever God had meant to Abram seemed a pipe dream.
Finally, on a hot day by the Oaks of Mamre, Abram is sitting on the front porch of his tent, trying to catch a meager breeze to cool off, when scripture says the presence of the Lord came by. While our translation identifies them as men, artists have reimagined this scene as the Visitation. A particularly famous icon has imagines the presence of the Lord as the Trinity - Creator, Son, and Spirit - strolling through the desert. Another creative icon imagines them as three black mothers, full of wisdom, creativity, and hope. Whatever Abram sees, he recognizes the very presence of God and rushes to make them welcome, bringing out cool water to wash themselves, pitchers of iced tea, freshly steamed crabs, and a great big bowl of Franklin’s onion rings.
This is an act of faith. Remember, the reason why we open our worship often with a Call to Worship, the reason why we confess our brokenness, the reason why we sing praise songs or quiet our hearts, is an act of faith to make the presence of God welcome in our midst.
Are we ready to get up and set the table for the presence of the Lord? Are we ready to lay out a feast of our lives and experiences for God to use? Are we willing to take a risk?
And so something remarkable happens - God responds to that sense of hospitality with remarkable, life-changing news.
These three divine messengers pronounce that Abram and Sarah will have a son in a year’s time.
Of course, Sarah, listening in nearby, laughs. She is not a villain in this story - in fact, she is the most level headed one. She’s realistic. This old couple had passed the age to have children. They are tired. They are worn out. It seems like their stories were coming to an end, not taking a surprise twist to a new chapter. So, she laughs. Are these strangers joking? Doesn’t God know how human bodies work?
Her laugh is tinged with the laugh of women throughout history who have experienced abuse, pain, separation, violence, and denigration and were told, it will never happen again - only to live in a world where it happens again and again.
Her laugh is tinged with black mothers who have lost their children to violence and were told by well meaning public officials, we are going to stop this from happening again. We are going to make reforms and changes. And then a week later, another life is snatched away.
Her laugh is tinged with the hopelessness of so many who longed for more in their lives from the people they expected to care and fight for them, including the church, but then experienced rejection or silence instead of healing and renewal.
Sarah’s laugh is a laugh of incredulousness.
But God seems to laugh right back - “are you saying we can’t do this, Sarah?” Are you saying the Creator is unable to continue to create? Are you saying God can’t bring life out strange and unusual circumstances?
Because for once in the story of Sarah, God can deliver. In a year’s time, she will have a child. Her laughter challenges God to answer, to show and prove that another future is possible. For the Creator to show that even when it seems like hope has faded, there are new stories to be told and written. Even when injustice seems to have taken hold, something new might burst forth.
In the marches in our past few weeks, we have seen an example of the creative winds of the Holy Spirit as young people responded to a call to demand something new, to demand a change in this broken cycle of violence and racism in America. A couple of weeks ago, if you had told me that this would have been possible, I would have laughed at you. A couple of weeks ago, and even some moments today, I would tell how little hope I have that we will face crises of our time - crises that claim black lives, immigrant lives, trans lives, crises that are threatening our planet, crises that our threatening hundreds of thousands of people.
And in a blink of an eye, God laughs back. God says to us, “Are you saying this story is over, Nathan? University Christian Church, do you really believe that your mission as a faith community in this unusual time is over? Are you suggesting that God has retreated and given up on this planet? Are you giving up on the power of our God to heal us and transform us from diseases of body and soul, whether COVID-19 or white supremacy?”
God says, “Let me show you what is possible.”
Our invitation in these times is to meet God at the flaps of our tent, to roll out the iced tea and red carpet, and to look with a renewed hope of what is possible - not just for our world - not just for our lives - but even for our church. Will we have the courage to meet God in the eyes of a stranger, in the eyes of a young person marching for change, in the unexpected gift of hospitality that can come at any moments notice?
Are we ready to go where God is prepared to lead us?
May our response in this time be hospitality - to the power of the Spirit - to the unexpected stranger - to the work of justice that we once might have thought impossible. Praise be to God.