1 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. 2 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. 3 He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
6 So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs [one seah = 7 ½ quarts] of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” 7 Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.
13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”
The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. 2 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. 3 Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac. [Hebrew “he laughs”] 4 Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. 6 Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” 7 She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!”
It seems likely that Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s parents, had read or heard the story of Sarah, childless until very late in life. Sarah laughed at God’s promise that she’d have a son. Yet a year later she named her miracle boy “Isaac” (a form of the Hebrew word for “laughter”). Her story showed that, in God’s world, hope can always stay alive, even in a culture where many people thought childlessness was a curse from God.
Oh God, as I wait in hope for your perfect eternity, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen.
* This idea is found in Buechner’s book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.
Strangers appear in the territory of Mamre, referred to in Arabic tradition as the “Hill of the Friend,” a place of unwalled ruins.
Abraham could easily fear the three strangers stepping into the territory of his tent. Instead, he practices the opposite of xenophobia—philoxenia—the love of strangers, which the English Bible translates simply as “hospitality.” Perhaps when the writer of Hebrews admonished early Christians not to neglect philoxenias, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13.2), he was offering a nod to this story of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah.
Many times in my own life I’ve neglected this advice, often out of busyness, fear, indifference—sometimes from a gut instinct that I believe truly served my safety. But I can think of a few times when I did slow down or muster up the courage to entertain the stranger, or even allowed the stranger to entertain me, and felt the brush of angels’ wings.
There was the man who stank on the streets of San Antonio, pushing along a walker with all his possessions hanging in plastic bags. He wore pink, stained pants, an army shirt with the name “Mr. Dire” etched into its pocket with pen ink, and had a face covered in dirt. The Voice told me to ask him to join our family for breakfast on the Riverwalk. I said no, but the Voice insisted. So I asked him, he agreed, and we shared a meal I’ve never forgotten.
Mr. Dire emptied his pockets of all his peppermints, which he gives to those who entertain him. He took a vial of oil from his pocket—a musty, earthy smell that lingered around our family for days—and used it to wipe the dirt from his face. He barely could talk without many teeth but his eyes told penetrating stories. When he finished his huevos rancheros and left up the stairs and across the bridge, our waiter approached. “I’ll never forget what I saw this morning,” he told us. “And someone else saw it too, and insists on paying for all your meals.” I cried into my napkin. The memory still brings me to tears, the love of an anonymous stranger.
This summer in Cambodia our family visited Ton Le Sap Lake, where the poor live in stilt houses on the water to avoid land taxes they cannot afford. After seeing the poverty all around us, we felt moved to give. We asked our tuk-tuk driver to help us figure out a good use for the cash we had on hand—a mere $20—and he took us to a small open-air grocers, who merrily filled the entire tuk-tuk with hot-pink bags of treats. They were in on the fun, too. Our driver took us to a run-down village, walked up and down a street calling out words that tempted people from their homes and yards, and I’ll never forget the looks on my children’s faces when about 20 kids rushed toward us with glee, overjoyed as we piled their outstretched arms full of chocolates and crackers and drink boxes.
There were the two hitch-hiking monks the Voice told me to share lunch with, who sang a blessing over me in my car, gave me a pendant of Mother Mary, and are now my friends. I’ve entertained these Little Brothers in my home, brought them to see the Resurrection Window, spent every Maundy Thursday with them in overnight prayer, have weathered a tornado under their small cupola (they nick-named me “Scholastica” as I dined with them that night, after the saint who conjured a storm to stay in her brother, St. Benedict’s, presence), and I celebrated with them as they opened their new monastery and grotto this November. They rely entirely on strangers for their food and transportation, and the Lord provides as they do God’s work with an uncommon, heavenly joy.
I think of the Muslim immigrant families who shared a Thanksgiving meal around our table last year while brothers and sisters of their faith were being banned from traveling to our country. They were gracious guests who demonstrated to us a great depth of faith by praying at appointed times, bowing on the rug in our piano room between games of Pictionary and plates of halal food. They’ve entertained our family in several of their homes since, the most gracious of hosts.
Over and over, when I overcome my fears and take an open posture toward the stranger, I am met with the greater blessing, just as Abraham and Sarah were nearly 4,000 years ago. Loving the stranger, philoxenia, is an adventure full of surprise twists, unexpected delights, bellies filled with food and that gift of God that was Sarah’s prize—laughter.
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