9 Pentecost, Year C
Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
About twenty years ago I received a phone call on a Saturday morning from a secretary at Sheldon, whose husband’s memorial service was scheduled to begin in a little over two hours. Since I had told her many times during this man’s battle with cancer that if there was ever anything I could do for her to please let me know, she was calling to ask if I could possibly say a prayer at his service. She explained that she had planned this event to be totally areligious, with the Sheldon principal rather than a clergy person presiding, because she and her husband were not religious people. However, because one of their children was a church-goer, she had decided at the last moment that maybe there should at least be one prayer. But, could I please not mention Jesus, because while her husband had had his doubts about God, he definitely didn’t believe in Jesus. Sure, I replied, I’d be honored to help. I hung up and immediately ran for my prayer book, opened to the Burial Office, and pulling phrases from one prayer and another, cobbled together with phrases of my own, I composed what I deemed to be an acceptable prayer, finishing with something like, and may the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be with us all evermore. Amen. That sounded rather Jewish to me, but I figured that was probably appropriate for someone who believed, maybe, in God, but not in Jesus.
A decade or so later I read Bruce Feiler’s book Abraham A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Though I’d certainly known of Abraham before that, it was only then that I realized how important Abraham is not merely to the world’s twelve million Jews, but also to the two billion Christians and one billion Muslims currently populating the earth. Just to help you with the math, that’s 43% of the world’s population who regard Abraham as our spiritual ancestor. Jews and Christians understand ourselves to be connected to Abraham via Isaac, while Muslims believe themselves to be descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael. While Judaism is the oldest religion to trace its heritage back to Abraham, Paul refers to Abraham 19 times in his letters, more often than to anyone except Jesus. So we Christians are aware of Abraham not only from studying Hebrew scripture, but also our own. Moreover, Abraham is mentioned in 25 of the Koran’s 114 suras, with sura 14 named for him. What is it about this utterly fallible man that makes him so important to all of us? I believe that above all else, it’s that Abraham was a man of faith, who, in spite of numerous moments of doubt, periods of profound impatience, even anger with God, never completely turned his back on God. Abraham never gave up on God, and God never gave up on Abraham. I suspect that because Abraham was at once so ordinary and yet so faithful, his life’s story gives us hope.
In today’s Old Testament reading we find Abraham lolling in the entrance of his tent on a hot desert afternoon when suddenly three strangers appear. Without a moment’s hesitation Abraham leaps up, rushes over to them and begs them to stop for some water, food, and a rest. This unhesitating offer of hospitality was not merely the custom in those times, but a necessity. Given the barrenness of the country, the lack of water, travelers had to rely on the hospitality of others if they were to have any hope of surviving a long journey. Abraham had to have known from personal experience just how critical the hospitality of strangers could be. After all, he had become a stranger in a strange land himself when, at the forever young age of 75, Yahweh had called him to go forth from his father’s house to a land that Yahweh would show him. In return Yahweh had promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Surely in his wanderings to the land Yahweh had promised him, Abraham must have relied on the hospitality of strangers to survive the journey. So his gracious hospitality to the wanderers in today’s lesson seems only meet and right. God had blessed him. It was his turn to be a blessing.
Sadly, in spite of worshiping the same God, in spite of our shared sense of being descendants of Abraham, followers of the three monotheistic religions have not always been particularly hospitable to each other. There have been stretches when Jews and Muslims have lived in complete harmony in the middle East, periods when Muslims were quite tolerant of Christian pilgrims making their way to the Holy Land. Sadly, we all know there have also been long periods of time when mistrust, if not outright hatred of each other, has been the norm. It doesn’t have to be that way. In 1968 as I was finishing my degree at Rochester I received a grant to complete a master’s program at Boston University. A friend whom I’d known since freshman year was also headed to Boston to work for Little, Brown Publishing Company. We decided to rent an apartment together. The last thing on our minds was that she was a Jew and I was a Christian. We were far more concerned about making it on my $200 a month stipend and her $64 a week salary from Little, Brown. Now, unlike many of my fellow students at Rochester, Donna was a religious Jew, not merely a cultural one, while I was every bit as faithful about my church participation then as I am now. At the same time, while we both took our own faiths seriously, we each also had a deep appreciation of the other’s tradition. Donna, who has a beautiful singing voice, earned her spending money at Rochester as a soloist in Roman Catholic churches, which means she sat through a lot of church services during her college career. For my part, I had at one point lived for four years in a part of Trenton, New Jersey, that was so predominantly Jewish that on high holy days we would simply decorate bulletin boards and play games at school because there weren’t enough of us in class to do anything else. I learned a lot about Judaism during those years. In the days when I lived with Donna, I didn’t eat meat on Friday. Donna always honored that. As much as I hate to cook, I got instructions from our neighbor upstairs on how to prepare a brisket that I could serve to Donna when she broke her fast on the evening of Yom Kippur. We had a cross with a star of David in the center we hung by our door as our interfaith household mezuzah. Nothing about living together in any way watered down our individual religious identities. Why would it? By being intentionally hospitable to each other, we were each living out what we professed to believe.
So, it was with some degree of distress that I arrived home one day to learn that Donna’s father had informed her that he was not at all pleased she was rooming with me because I was a Gentile. Perhaps it was because her older brother had married a non-Jew, I don’t know, but her father was quite concerned about his other two children remaining true to their faith. Whatever was at the root of his concern, Donna was both hurt and angry that her father would doubt her commitment to Judaism, while I felt badly at being a source of tension in her family. Nevertheless, being nothing if not stubborn, we went on living together. Time passed, and perhaps because she didn’t turned her back on her faith, or maybe because she became engaged to a good Jewish boy early in 1969, but in the spring of that year I was invited to fly to Watertown, to join Donna’s family for the second Passover seder. I was truly touched and deeply honored by the invitation. I still remember listening to Donna’s younger brother answer the questions of the Passover liturgy and opening the door for Elijah at the appointed time because he was the youngest person at the table. I remember listening to Donna’s father read the story of the Hebrew people’s escape from bondage in Egypt. We Episcopalians read that story every year at the Easter vigil. The Passover story is our story as surely as it is that of the Jews. Who among us hasn’t been in emotional bondage at some point in our lives? Who hasn’t wandered in a spiritual wilderness at one time or another?
As much as I treasure the memories of that seder all these years later, I know that what was most important about my being there was that it meant Donna’s father had gotten over his fear of me, that he no longer saw me as a threat to his daughter’s Judaism. He had apparently accepted that Donna’s faith was more than strong enough to be lived out in the real world. It didn’t need to be practiced in a religiously homogeneous cocoon any more than mine did. Indeed, years later Donna went on to become one of the first female Jewish cantors in the United States, while I stand before you today as a lay preacher. Neither of those roles even existed in 1969.
Moving from a personal example to a slightly broader and more recent one, about ten years ago Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska needed a bigger building. They wanted to move to west Omaha and hoped they could find neighbors as wonderful as their current Methodist neighbors had been for many years. As it happened a Muslim congregation that was considering building a new mosque and education center in west Omaha, heard that the Jews were thinking about building there as well, and suggested a delegation from Temple Israel meet with them. They met at the Omaha Public Library. The delegation from the temple entered through one door carrying plates of food. The Muslim delegation entered through the opposite door, also carrying plates of food. As their website states, “All involved were warmly reminded that hospitality is a central tradition to all the Abrahamic faiths.” As they talked about land needs and parking lots they realized that as two Abrahamic faiths, if they could find a Christian partner also looking to build in west Omaha who had similar values and a commitment to interfaith work, they would have something really special. Since the population of Omaha is approximately half Roman Catholic, they first approached the Roman Catholic Archdiocese as a potential partner. The Archdiocese declined. They next approached the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. The Episcopal diocese agreed to become the Christian partners in what has become the Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha.
Many meetings between the three groups followed, leading to a Memorandum of Understanding that states, among other things, that each faith entity would own its own land and building, and that there would be no proselytizing on the grounds. The Initiative incorporated in 2006, and in 2010 they purchased thirty-five acres of what had once been a Jewish country club, founded in the 1920’s when Jews weren’t allowed to join the “real” country clubs in the area. The developer’s drawings indicate the site will have a synagog to the east of a pond, once a water hazard I suppose. To the northwest of the synagog will be the mosque, and south of the mosque the Episcopal church. Between the mosque and the church will be the Tri-Faith center, a multipurpose building all three faith groups can use together and separately for education, fellowship, and outreach. What a remarkable example of what can happen when people dare to trust those different from themselves.
Ultimately, isn’t that what hospitality is all about, a generosity of spirit that enables us to welcome into our comfort zone, be it our church, our home, our circle of friends, or our personal space in an airport concourse, someone who at first seems different from us? Abraham didn’t know that one of the strangers whom he welcomed to rest and eat with him was Yahweh himself, but he recognized that in Yahweh’s call to him, “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing,” he was called to be hospitable to strangers. Moreover, he understood that he was meant to be kind to others not because of who they were, but because of who he was, a man called by God to be a blessing. We are the children of Abraham. Clearly God has blessed us. Let us in turn, be a blessing. Amen.