God appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent. It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham lifted his eyes and saw three men nearby. He ran from his tent to greet them and bowed before them. He said, “Master, if it please you, stop for a while with your servant. I’ll get some water so you can wash your feet. Rest under this tree. I’ll get some food to refresh you on your way, since your travels have brought you across my path.” They said, “Certainly. Go ahead.” Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. He said, “Hurry. Get three cups of our best flour; knead it and make bread." Then Abraham ran to the cattle pen and picked out a nice plump calf and gave it to the servant who lost no time getting it ready. Then he got curds and milk, brought them with the calf that had been roasted, set the meal before the men, and stood there under the tree while they ate. The men said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” He said, “In the tent.” One of them said, “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent opening, just behind the man. Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” God said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Me? Have a baby? An old woman like me?’ Is anything too hard for God? I’ll be back about this time next year, and Sarah will have a baby.” Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh," because she was afraid. But he said, "Yes, you did; you laughed." When the men got up to leave, they set off for Sodom. Abraham walked with them to say good-bye. GENESIS 18:1-16
One of perks of my job is that I get to regularly participate in biblical and spiritual dialogues with folks who are experiencing homelessness and folks who are wrestling with addiction. Over the years, those dialogues have dealt with the stories of Abraham and Sarah numerous times.
Usually when we talk about Abraham and Sarah—and the covenant through which they will be a blessing to “all the families of the earth”—we’ll ask the group a question.
“What does it mean to bless someone?”
Dialogue participants are invited to shout out their definitions of blessing as Chris Estus, Ryan Jacobson, and I try to write down every response—filling a dry erase board with their answers. We get a lot of answers. But each time we ask this question, the same responses arise—answers that every group shouts out when they are asked to define what it means to bless someone. Answers like…
Sharing a meal
We should recognize the unrestrained hospitality of Genesis 18 in these answers as they describe exactly how Abraham and Sarah show up. But here’s something else that is interesting about those dialogues. In all our years of asking folks, “What does it meant to bless someone?” not once has anyone equated blessing with converting, with proselytizing, with telling people where they’re wrong, or encouraging people to think, believe, or behave a certain way. No one in our dialogues have ever confused those actions for blessing. And neither, apparently, did Abraham and Sarah.
The differences between my hospitality and the unrestrained hospitality offered by Abraham and Sarah are troubling. I am prone to qualify the people I decide to help. I frequently measure strangers by their tribe and allegiances. I can very easily apply filters, judgments, and categories that let me dismiss strangers as unworthy of my assistance.
It’s very easy for me to tell people where they’re wrong and how it would be better if they thought, believed, or behaved differently. If I do take action to help someone, I am tempted to look for reciprocation, for gratitude, or for an indication that the stranger will now become more like me—maybe choose my God or join my church.
To be honest, I don’t usually scan the horizon for strangers when I am communing with God. I don’t usually scan the horizon for strangers, period. My relationships, especially my relationships with strangers, are usually what Rabbi Nahum Ward Lev would call “imperial relationships.”
In his book, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets, Ward Lev writes, “One essential fault in imperial relationships is a lack of responsiveness or reciprocity. People with privilege can feel entitled to receive from others without a responsibility to give back, entitled to receive without concern for the welfare and flourishing of other people.”
I need a theophany.
And the thing is, I think this story is trying to tell me that I have one—that I’ve always had one.
The creation poem of Genesis 1 describes humanity as created in the image of God—male and female. Strangers bear the divine image.
The creation poem of Genesis 2 reveals a loving Creator who breathes the divine breath into dirt in order to form humanity. Outsiders carry within them the spirit-breath of God.
The covenant into which God calls Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 is to become a family that will bless “all the families of the earth.” No one is unworthy hospitality and assistance.
And if that’s not enough, the theophany of Genesis 18—Abraham and Sarah welcoming and serving strangers in the desert—further blurs the line of where God is.
Is God in my private communion—my prayer, study, and worship? Yes.
Is God in the very outsiders and wayfarers that need help? Yes.
This theophany is certain about that.
What is uncertain is whether or not I can see it.
Will I scan the horizon for those who need help?
Will I run out to them and invite them in?
Will I care for them, listen to them, accept them, share a meal with them, offer them shelter, give them resources, and show them compassion—regardless of whether their behavior or worldview disturbs me?
Will I quiet my heart in order to feel their humanity and our kinship?
Will I do all this in humility without trying to garner influence, acknowledgment, or reciprocation?
Friends, I don’t need a theophany. I have one.
I don’t need an encounter of the divine that invades my space and time to remind me who I really am.
It’s all around me right here, right now.
All I have to do is lift up my eyes.
There are carriers of the divine breath suffocating—and being suffocated—in our streets. There are divine image bearers being crushed under the weight of our systems. Our hospitals are filled with the sick and isolated. Our shelters overflow with the homeless and hungry. The oppressed and endangered are crying out for our help.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “We let God into the world and ourselves to the degree that we forget ourselves and focus on others.”
Do I really have something more important to do?
Not according to this story. According to this story, I should leave God in the tent in order to find God in the stranger. My theophany is in them. May we raise our eyes and scan the horizon in remembrance of our forbearers Abraham and Sarah. May we run to the stranger in the name of a line-blurring God who is both with us and within us. May we bow in humility before the weary with the presence of the Christ that has called us. And may we offer all that we have for others by the power of the spirit-breath that unites us. As we do, like Abraham and Sarah before us, we will bear witness to the birth of something miraculously new. In the words of the stranger:
"Is anything too hard for God?"
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