It is another hot day in the desert. Abraham is sticking close to the shade of his tent, grateful for even a little respite from the sun’s merciless glare.
But when he looks up and sees three strangers approaching, he runs to greet them.
He doesn’t just give them a welcome, he bows to the ground, and invites them to stay with him.
He has a servant bring water to drink and to rinse their hot and dusty feet, and has his wife Sarah and their servants prepare a lavish feast.
There is a sense of urgency in the preparation, and a sense of deference in Abraham before these unannounced guests.
Later, after the feast has been served, it is revealed that these strangers are actually angels, messengers from God, who come bringing the extraordinary news that Sarah, who is approaching 80, will soon bear a son.
Commentaries on this story usually focus on the news that the messengers from God bring, the message that God’s long-ago promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have more descendants that stars in the sky, is finally going to be fulfilled in miraculous fashion.
But what struck me when I read this familiar story once again this week is Abraham’s hospitality to the strangers.
When they show up, Abraham has no idea who they are. They are not old friends or family, not dignitaries or people of note. They are simply strangers who have shown up at his tent in need of food and drink.
Abraham offers them hospitality, the best of what he has. This desert hospitality is more than politeness or friendliness.
In a time where inns were few and far between, travelers had to rely on the hospitality of strangers to aid them in their journeys.
Scripture is clear that hospitality is a sacred obligation.
It does not matter who the stranger is. The Book of Proverbs says that even enemies must be given the necessities of survival.
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,” it says.
The word hospitality in Greek is “philoxenia.” That literally translates as “love of strangers or aliens, to love the stranger or immigrant like a brother.”
Philoxenia is the opposite of xenophobia, the fear of strangers.
The obligation of biblical hospitality, then, is not met by inviting friends and family over for a feast. Biblical hospitality is offered to strangers, especially to the aliens, whether they be travelers or residents in the land.
The Dictionary of Biblical Theology explains hospitality this way: “The plight of aliens was desperate. They lacked membership in the community. An alienated person often needed immediate food and lodging.
“In the ancient world, the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one’s land, home, or community, and providing directly for that person’s needs.”
That sacred obligation of hospitality continues into the New Testament.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it,” the Book of Hebrews says.
In today’s gospel story we hear Jesus ordering his disciples to go out into the world to continue his work. And in doing so, he says, they must rely on the hospitality of strangers.
“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff,” he says. They must be dependent on others to care for their needs.
For people of faith today, both Christians and Jews, hospitality to the stranger, love of and care for the alien in our midst, remains a sacred obligation.
Today’s gospel reading also shows us another obligation for people of faith – that of compassion.
We hear that when Jesus saw the crowds of people coming to see and hear him, he looked at them with compassion.
Compassion is more than kindness or empathy, although those are part of being compassionate. Compassion literally means to suffer with someone, to feel another’s pain.
Compassion is a form of love, to be with someone in their suffering, to offer mercy, and kindness.
I heard a story this week that illustrates both compassion and hospitality, virtues that all too often seem missing in our culture and in our faith.
You know that earlier this year, we entered into a relationship with the Dallous, a family of Syrian refugees.
The Dallous experienced the violence in their homeland first hand. Sanaa, the mother, says soldiers broke into their home and began beating her two brothers, finally handcuffing them and taking them away, presumably to force them into the army. Her sister-in-law was killed.
After that the rest of the family, husband Ibrahim, grandmother Aesheh, and their children fled to Jordan, where they stayed for three years before finally being accepted to come to this country.
Our focus with the family now is centered on teaching English to Ibrahim, Sanaa, and Aesheh. We have teams of volunteer tutors for each of them.
Last week, one of our volunteers took an English version of the Koran, the sacred text of Islam, to the family. Sanaa received it with gratitude.
Then she asked a question, “You are Christian?”
“Yes,” our St. Dunstan’s member replied, “I am Christian.”
“But you don’t hate,” Sanaa said in wonder.
When I heard this story this week it almost made me cry.
Jesus said to his disciples before he died, “By this they will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
An old Christian camp song puts it this way, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
When you hear stories of Christianity on the news, how often are they stories of love and compassion and hospitality?
Not often enough.
This offering of their sacred text in a new language to the resident aliens in our midst was an example of love and compassion and hospitality.
There is more to the story.
As we talked, this member, who prefers not to be named, had another idea. We are now in the midst of Ramadan, the most sacred season in Islam, a month of intense prayer and fasting.
From sunrise to sunset, faithful adult Muslims do not eat or drink. The fast is broken with a feast at sundown each evening.
What if we invited the Dallous to St. Dunstan’s for a Ramadan feast?
We checked with the Dallous to see how they felt about such an invitation, and they were thrilled to accept.
So this Friday night, the Christians of St. Dunstan’s will offer a Ramadan feast to our Muslim friends, the Dallous.
We will break their fast with them, celebrate with them, show them hospitality, like our common ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, did so long ago.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”