September 3, 2017
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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, 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.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And the king will answer them, ‘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.’
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three measures of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was well past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old, too.
The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”
* * * * *
During the flooding last week in Texas there were all kinds of stories of brave rescues and generosity and courage. Stranger helped stranger with no strings attached. Any walls of division fell away when the water came surging in. For a while, at least, the crisis of Hurricane Harvey brought out the best in people.
One of the happiest stories was about a man named Jim McVale, owner of the Gallery Furniture Showrooms. “Mattress Mack” had something everybody needed: beds. So he opened his furniture stores to the public. It wasn’t just mattresses he had to offer, but other scarce commodities, like clean bathrooms, water and food. Honestly, his store was nicer than some people’s homes before they were flooded: it had an atrium “with a live ocelot and colorful macaws…. [and] a meditation area with soft music and a thousand-gallon fish tank with sharks, stingrays and exotic fish.”
His generosity was inspiring, and soon others joined in. A local businessman ordered a lamb-chop dinner from a fancy restaurant for all 150 people staying at one of the stores. Others provided entertainment for the children, like a clown and face-painter. A dog-groomer came to bathe and groom the pets that came with the human refugees.
“If this is what you call a shelter,” one woman said, “I might not want to go home.” [Juliet Linderman, AP, “’A resort for refugees,’” The Columbus Dispatch, September 2, 2017, A1, A6.]
I found myself thinking about that story when I was working through our passage from Genesis. It seems to me Mattress Mack and Abraham had a lot in common. They saw people outside their doors who needed something they had to offer. Mack and Abraham didn’t wait for the people to ask for what they needed, they went right out and invited people in. And it wasn’t enough merely to offer hospitality to strangers; they offered their best. And when they did, they inspired others to do the same.
Now, in Abraham’s case, it ends with a blessing, a miracle promised by angels. Sarah and Abraham will have a son; something so preposterous Sarah thinks it’s hysterical. But miracles sometimes happen when you invite strangers in. Or at least, it surely can change you.
See, there are two parts to this story: what Abraham offers to strangers, and what those strangers unexpectedly give him.
Of course, miracles don’t always happen, and the people you invite aren’t always angelic. Abraham had no idea what he was getting into when he issued that invitation. They could have been scoundrels and thieves for all he knew. But that didn’t stop him. He ran from his tent and invited them in – no, he insisted they stay and have something to eat, no matter how big a burden on him or on Sarah. Lord knows they just about killed themselves getting all that food ready. It kind of makes me wonder what the strangers were doing while everyone was butchering and baking; maybe Abraham regaled them with stories of other visitors who had showed up.
But there were no strings attached. No expectations. No tit for tat. Just an invitation, because it’s the right thing to do.
Oddly enough, being that way - invitational – is one of the biggest challenges for many church folks. I don’t mean just welcoming, but inviting. It’s one thing to be warm when someone comes in the door – which for the most part, we do pretty well. It’s another thing to go out to them, to invite people in, strangers or friends.
Which is really what Evangelism is. That terrible “E” word. You know what ‘evangelism’ means? “Euangelion” in the Greek… it means “good news.” It just means sharing good news.
Presbyterians are notoriously bad at evangelism. We think of it as proselytizing, as being pushy, as shoving religion down someone’s throat. And if that’s what it means, of course we don’t want it. It’s disrespectful, presumptuous, and arrogant and rude. If that’s evangelism, ick.
But it’s not. It’s good news. It’s offering something that’s good.
So why aren’t we offering it? Why can’t we be Mattress Mack?
I think the deeper question is whether you think there anything here that’s worth offering. That’s a real, fair question. Has this church helped you grow in some way that might help someone else, too? Has your faith been challenged or strengthened? Have you learned to love God more, or feel more loved? Have you experienced something that’s healing? Say your children have found a safe, loving home here, or when you were sick someone visited you, or your gifts were used in a meaningful way… is that something worth sharing with others?
“Evangelism” isn’t selling a product; you’re not a snake-oil salesman. You’re inviting someone in because you have something others might need.
“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” That’s the gospel, good news. The primary way people come into a community of faith is because someone invites them, or brings them. If your faith has been part of your life as long as you can remember, it’s because someone else brought you to church; your parents, a grandparent, a friend.
And if you came to this faith later in life, chances are it’s because someone else asked you. Someone invited you here.
Couldn’t you do the same?
What if you did ask someone to come to church… do you really think they’d be offended? I mean, it’s not like you’re telling them that they’re bad and need repentance, or broken and need fixing, or empty and they need filling. It’s that they’re right outside your door and you have something wonderful to offer. Why wouldn’t you offer it? Isn’t this as worthwhile as food or a bed?
It’s honestly not that hard, not really… It’s not the scary thing we make it out to be. Maybe you start by mentioning your church in conversation. Then you ask if they have a church home. Or you invite them to a special worship service, then follow up and ask them to come again. You can’t assume that they would like it here, but you can’t assume they won’t! You can’t assume they’ll come back, but you can be persistent and consistent. That’s what invitation looks like.
It’s a gift. It’s a generous, humble gift.
My grandmother was 16 years old when she got married and moved to a new city, away from home for the first time. Her father had died, and her family decided they needed to find her a suitable spouse. They found a nice Armenian man in Chicago who was a dentist, so they knew he’d be able to support her. Never mind that he was ten years older than she was, and only met twice. Grandma’s family lived in Wisconsin so she couldn’t get home much, but this was the best they could do. He was Armenian Orthodox and she was Protestant, but they would have to figure it out.
Chicago’s a big city but the Armenian community was small, and soon someone invited her to church - the Armenian Congregational Church. There the women took her under their wings. Grandma didn’t even know how to cook – she made chicken soup the whole first week of her marriage because that’s all she knew how to do. But soon she was joining the other women fixing church suppers. She learned how to cook really well – so well that restaurants asked her to bake for them. I still have her recipes – though they all feed 100.
That church became grandma’s lifeline… when she was seventeen and had her first baby… and then soon her second, and third… when her difficult mother-in-law moved in with them… when her husband died suddenly when grandma was 50 years old… I don’t know what she would have done without her church home. I don’t think she could have survived without her faith that grew in their midst.
When I think of those women who helped grandma, I think of our own Erma Rutledge. Erma died recently, but it will be a long time before she’s forgotten. She was a lot like Abraham, like Sarah – like Mattress Mack. She invited people into our midst. She made strangers feel like family. They became family.
They say Erma always sat in the back of the church so she could spot anyone new. Right after the service was over she’d beeline straight to them, learning as much as she could. Then she’d report to the staff so they’d be informed. The very next day she would visit, on their front porch, with brownies or cookies in hand, inviting them to come back. She didn’t wait for them to show up again; she went to them. Our very own Abraham, our own Mattress Mack.
I guess Erma knew what was really important. That at the end of the day, someone would say, “If this is what you call church, I might not want to go home
Rev. Karen Chakoian