Cyclical, Mutual Hospitality

This sermon was first preached in a joint service for St. Luke’s of Logan Square and Grace Church.

Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

It was a hot, hazy day. Abraham’s tent was enveloped by the shade of the oak trees. Trees in scripture are imbued with meaning. Oak trees, because of their age, are associated with powerful wisdom or revelation. They are also strongly associated with God. Both “elon” the Hebrew word for oak, and God have the same root prefix, El, as in Elohim. This grove of trees giving shade to Abraham was powerfully spiritual, a physical manifestation of the mystery of the divine.

From the midst of these trees, God appeared to Abraham. Throughout Genesis we frequently see God appearing in human form.  As Christians we often talk about the ways that the incarnation – God becoming a human being in the person of Jesus Christ – demonstrates a deep concern for the sacredness of bodies. But we can see in stories like this one, that a love for bodies has been a part of God’s character from the beginning. In Genesis we hold in tension images of a God who is both ethereal and mysterious and tangible, concrete. In this story, They appear out of nowhere – mysterious. And They appear in human bodies – tangible, concrete. And Abraham offered respite and refreshment to these strange and enfleshed travelers.

Grace and St. Luke’s are in a series right now reflecting on hospitality and vulnerability, and so I am sure that you already know that hospitality was a deeply held value for people in the Ancient Near East. The kind of hospitality we are talking about in scripture is not necessarily about well plated hors devours and wine pairings. It was about survival. Travel was dangerous, with threats of bandits and treacherous geography. Without someone to offer water, food, and shelter, a sojourner was doomed. There is a sense of solidarity with this hospitality, too, a social contract that was upheld. Sometimes you were the traveler. And sometimes you were the one providing for the traveler’s needs. Because you knew that next time you were journeying somewhere new, you would be counting on other people too. It was cyclical, mutual, a give and take, to care for one another’s physical and material needs.

This mutuality is important. In this story, there is a whole web of hospitality. God gave Abraham the oak trees. The oak trees provide hospitality in the form of shelter and shade, for Abraham to recline underneath and rest. But God receives hospitality too. God doesn’t only give and provide. God is vulnerable enough to need and to receive. 

There is a part of us that might think that God needing others or having needs somehow makes God less complete, less powerful. But here God is in the story, as vulnerable travelers in need of hospitality.

The idea of God needing is a scandalous thought. In part because of our indoctrination into the virtue of the lie of “rugged individualism” in our capitalist culture. I will speak for myself and say that this is something I have deeply internalized and I am constantly trying to unlearn. I say often and publicly that it is ok to need help. I spend a lot of time organizing mutual aid relief for people who are struggling under the yoke of unjust systems like white supremacy, the cis hetero patriarchy, and capitalism which cause their basic needs to go unmet. This is a no brainer to me. We have to take care of each other. But it is a lot harder to be the one who is in need of help. To the on the receiving end of generosity and solidarity.

When we were in Sierra Leone last month, we came with gifts for our loved ones. In addition to  financial help or other gifts, I really love giving our family there traditional gifts. So we often roll up to the girls’ village with things like a bag of rice and a live chicken from the market. This time, though, our family was ready with all kinds of beautiful gifts for us. Including home cooked meals, fresh coconuts, honey, and even – to our surprise – a live goat. Again, I fell into this trap of feeling really good about providing generously for others and uncomfortable about receiving hospitality. While me and Adam are definitely burdened by medical debt and school loans, we also live in the United States. We have running water and electricity every day. Those things are major luxuries in a place like Sierra Leone that has suffered under the poverty caused by colonialism, war, and the slave trade.

And yet here they were. Setting a beautiful table. Cooking delicious food. Sending us home with fruit and a goat. Imagine how hurtful it would have been if we had refused the hospitality our family was offering us. If we had refused to receive, we would be severing the opportunity for mutuality. We would not be participating in this sacred cycle of giving and receiving. Our refusal would have only served to reinforce power differentials between us, as if we believed our family in Sierra Leone has nothing to offer us. As if we have no needs. It would have positioned us above them, and only reinforced systems of oppression.

This is the reason that top down charity is toxic. It pits people against one another as Haves and Have Nots and does not at all recognize the ways our liberation is bound up with one another. True mutual aid offers an alternative, reminding us that our fate is linked to the fate of our neighbor, and that when the person next to us is taken care of, we are all safer, happier, and more whole. 

I believe this in theory. In practice its harder. When my partner Adam and I were awaiting calls early on in the pandemic, we lost our housing. I called one of my friends in tears and she said, “Elle. We love you. You have to let us help you.” She organized a group of ELCA pastors who helped provide for us until we began our first calls. And even though I had helped gather rent money for other people in the past, receiving rent money was weird. In large part, that is because of my own pride. It feels good to be the one to give the one to help. Because if we are honest, there is a kind of power and sense of control when  you are the helper. But without also allowing ourselves to be helped, we are not participating fully in the cycle of mutuality, solidarity, and hospitality modeled to us by God.

And these webs of hospitality are often more expansive than we even imagine. In moments of generosity, the people behind the scenes are often overlooked. Abraham took on the role of hosting God. But he didn’t actually prepare the food. He asked Sarah to make the bread and his servant to prepare the calf. Likewise when we give or receive hospitality, it is faithful to practice noticing all of the people whose labor and love went into that hospitality. When our host hands us bread to eat, we can give thanks also for the bread baker, for the miller who turned the wheat into flour, for the farmer who harvested the wheat, for the good earth that grew it.

This story in Genesis shows us that everyone has gifts to offer, all of them important. And it reminds us that no one is above relying on the generosity of others – not even God. In God’s economy, we are all connected to one another, woven together in a web of mutual giving and receiving, where there is always always more enough. God creates the trees. The trees give Abraham shade. Abraham’s household gives God food and drink…bread made from wheat, milk from the cow…food and drink that comes from the very earth that God created. 
God is host and guest. And so are we.

Thanks be to God.

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