Genesis 18:1-15 and Romans 5:6-8
A long time ago I fell in love with The New Yorker. My initial attraction was to the cartoons. In graduate school I began reading the articles.When I could afford to, I began to subscribe. It comes almost every week of the year. Part of it’s appeal is that reading it makes me feel smarter than I really am. Among those who write for the magazine, one of my favorites is Malcolm Gladwell.
In a recent podcast he mentioned the philosophical problem about stepping into a river. You can’t do it twice, because by the second time you step in, the river has already flowed past you, and you are in a different one altogether. Hearing that made me think of our church. We are always saying “goodbye” to people, because many of us are in Tainan for temporary relationships with colleges or universities. It’s wonderful to be part of this congregation in ANY week, but we’ll be a different church next week, next month, and certainly a year from now.
People leave and new friends join us. But they can only do that if someone reaches out to them. To get here you kind of have to know some secrets. “Come up that narrow lane, go around that staircase and into that door.” Once someone arrives, we’re friendly and welcoming. People can be comfortable. On warm days, we’re even air conditioned! Every Sunday, there are pretty pictures to look at on the screen. The fellowship we have is an important part of human life. The gospel of Jesus Christ that we uphold is valuable beyond our ability to calculate. If we have a shortcoming, it’s that people who don’t already know us can’t see us, and people we don’t already know are often invisible to us.
I: ABRAHAM, VIEWING AND VISIBLE
This afternoon we read a story about Abraham and three visitors. If you’re not familiar with the Bible, with who Abraham was in the Bible, don’t worry about it. For our purposes today he was just a guy who lived with his wife in a tent by some trees. In the story three people passed by and he welcomed them to eat with him and visit for a while. In a way, it’s like us as Tainan International Community Church. We borrow space to use for our church activities, and most of the people who make up our group are from somewhere else and only passing through Tainan for a while.
We met Abraham sitting at the door of his tent. Every tent, every house, has some kind of a door. Churches usually have SEVERAL doors. We like to think of all churches as places where people are welcomed and made to feel that they have friends. But there are churches in many places around the world that have a problem. The only people they REALLY welcome are those that come to the door where a greeter will extend a hand and welcome them in. Abraham wasn’t like this with his visitors. Abraham was at the door. That was probably the best place to be during the hot part of the day. Perhaps at the door he could feel any breeze that passed by. Perhaps at the door he could be in the shade, rather than out where the sun would shine on him. At the door he was visible to anyone who might approach him (so people who might want to secretly steal from him would be deterred).
But “at the door” is a risky place to be, too. People who see where you ARE can figure out ways to get into the places that you cannot see. People who have weapons with which to strike you from afar, throwing a rock or a spear, shooting an arrow or a sling-shot, can aim more carefully because they know where you are.
At the door is where the church has to be at all times. People can see the cross on the building and imagine that a church meets there. Here in Tainan there are a lot of churches, and a lot of folk religion temples. It saddens me to go along the streets and see many churches, some in store-fronts, others on upper floors over shops, that have closed and locked iron doors most of the time. Of course, the reason is good. We must protect the piano and the sound equipment, and prevent evil people from misusing God’s property. But it is, nonetheless, sad. All anyone sees is a well-taken-care-of building. At some churches there’s a sign so that people can know when the doors will be open, but otherwise there’s nobody AT THE DOOR. Folk religion temples are open all day, every day. (About 8 years ago I joined a protest march of pastors, Taiwan activists and Buddhist monks. At a certain point the march stopped for a few minutes, and many pastors in the group ran into a temple to use the toilet. Had it been a church we’d stopped in front of, the door to the building would likely have been locked, and the toilet would not have been available. Many pastors that day thanked God for that temple.)
20 years ago I was the pastor of a store-front church in Kaohsiung. I lived about a kilometer away. When I was in my office upstairs at the church, doing “pastor stuff”, I got lonely. One day I discovered that doing my office work, sermon preparation and other things “at the door” (like Abraham) put me into contact with the people in the neighborhood. Being Visible is an important part of our mission to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to our community.
II ABRAHAM REACHED OUT AND WELCOMED
At the door you see what’s happening outside. You can respond to any needs that may come up. When we are deep inside our houses, enjoying the air conditioning, and the television, and there is a car accident out front, or a neighbor’s house catches on fire, we are slower to respond. We may not even know anyone is in need until we hear the sound of the police car or fire-engine.
Abraham wasn’t just at the door to stay cool and deter enemies, he was there so that he could see what was happening outside. When three men appeared he ran to them, bowed and welcomed them to be his guests. He spoke to his wife, Sarah, and asked that she prepare a meal, which he then served to them.
We might imagine that under the Trees of Mamre (where Abraham had pitched his tent) there wasn’t much going on, so the appearance of three visitors would be a welcome event. If there were few people in the area, it could mean that newcomers were bringing good news. Visitors meant news and entertainment. Of COURSE he would greet them.
BUT, if we imagine a place where there were sacred trees that means there was also water, maybe there was a well. Sacred trees were where people came to worship, kind of like how people in Taiwan not long ago would gather at the temple yard to converse, and children to play. Abraham did what churches around the world need to do. He did not wait for people to ask to enter his tent, he went out to greet them. He spoke to them, invited them, and persuaded them to spend time with him.
We are careful people. We tell children to be careful of strangers. We also have the good news of Jesus and of salvation. We need to find ways to reach out and welcome travelers in the name of our Lord. We do not wait to greet people coming into the church, we bring them from where they are, through our doors, into our fellowship, and into the glorious news of Jesus.
But we’re already friendly and welcoming to anyone who comes in here for the first time. Shouldn’t THEY have to make the first move?
III: CHRIST’S SACRIFICIAL OUTREACH TO HUMANITY
We like to think of ourselves as a Christian Church. We really don’t have to waste a lot of time considering how to be like Abraham. Yes, in the Bible and in the history of Islam and Judaism he’s as important as he is for Christians. But Christ is the central figure of our religion. That, in part, is why we read a few verses from Romans 5 this afternoon. Christ sets us an example of how to act towards people who haven’t made the first move. In these verses, “WE” are described as having been “helpless,” unable to care for our own needs.
Have you ever felt helpless in the face of something? Those of us who do not speak much or any Chinese might feel absolutely helpless if we get lost in Tainan. Many of us who depend on our smartphones to hold information and files and data might lose heart if we were to drop it over the side of a boat and watch it sink away. What St Paul writes of is the kind of helplessness that people have in the face of the task of being “righteous” before (or, in a right relationship with) God. We just can’t do it. We’re too messed up.
It is into that kind of helplessness that Christ has come, even before we reached out to him, even while we deserved nothing that even looks like care of sympathy. Into THIS, Christ comes while we are helpless and sinners, and dies for us, putting us right with God, so that we can live, and live eternally.
Being a church that reaches out to people before they come to our door is more than being like Abraham, it is being like Christ. That’s part of what it means to be called, “Christian”.
We bother to do it because, like those travelers on the road who needed a shady place to rest, a meal, and some conversation in Abraham’s time, we can provide it. We bother to do it because it has been done for us.
In our case, it means that this church is neither a secret club, nor is it an open club with membership requirements. We are a place open to all, essentially without walls.
Being that kind of a place, we should be filled with people in need of the hospitality we provide. Being in this university community, there are many people in need of friendship, contacts, networks and other things we have here, and who may, incidentally, benefit from the gospel as we present it.
Sisters and brothers, the fact that there’s a door or two around this room means that it’s easy for people to get in, but it also means that we can go out, and find people to bring in, because what we have here is good for us, for them, for everyone, eternally.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN,