“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
C. E. Murphy writes: “In Ireland, you go to someone's house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you're really just fine. She asks if you're sure. You say of course you're sure, really, you don't need a thing. . . Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn't mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it's no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.
In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don't get any damned tea.
I liked the Irish way better.” (Urban Shaman)
Hospitality is not a transaction it is an interaction. American tea, to use Murphy, is a transaction while Irish tea is an interaction. The tea is irrelevant even though eventually one gets around to it. The interaction is one of mutual assurance. It is a careful dance meant to solidify bonds, work on mutual understanding, and assure commitments. The tea is good in the end but the ritual, if it is that, leads to a sharing of hearts. It leads to a mutuality of purpose of which the tea is a tangible sign.
We consider the rest of the story of Abraham and the visitors at the oak of Mamre, a text rich in the traditions of hospitality and patronage is set against the teaching on prayer from Luke 11 in our lectionary.
Prayer and Hospitality have things in common. All the factors listed above for hospitality are active in prayer as well. What it is that you pray for is really less important than you might think. The haggling, the give and take, the coming to a mutual mind is the real heart of prayer.
Our story from Abraham is really not clear about a simple thing Abraham prays for: Does God have a change of mind? It would seem so. Perhaps there were not 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorra. Or maybe there were but God made them leave. That is the story of Lot’s flight from Sodom after all. To be honest, God knowing the content of human hearts ought be assumed to know exactly how much or little righteousness there was. Yet, knowing that, God does not cut the conversation short. The retort: “Abraham, give it up, there are not 20 righteous souls in Sodom,” is not in the scripture.
On the other hand, God does have a change of heart in the story. Genesis 18:17-18 shows the Lord rethinking the depth of his relationship to this Abraham: “The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?”
Did Abraham change? Well, that depends on what your definition of“tea” might be. In Genesis 18 we are in the middle of Abraham’s story. Ishmael has been conceived and born. Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s attempt to bring in the promise by their own means and actions. Here, somehow without warning, the birth of Isaac is foretold and it will happen. It is not the “tea” that Abraham had negotiated about but it was the “tea” that was actually in his heart: Are you real or are you an illusion of mine? Am I doing this by myself or are you behind the things that happen? Is my discipleship and your purpose aligned? Will there be a kingdom with children more numerous than the stars? The “tea” is that there is indeed a covenant, a tangible relationship between the patriarch and matriarch and the Lord most high with mutuality of purpose of which the Isaac is a tangible sign.
Prayer is an act of hospitality. It is not as if God can only work in a place of welcome — ask Sodom about that. Luther — the early Luther who was still sympathetic to the mystics — likened Baptism to the marriage of soul and Lord who then took residence in the heart of the believer, taking on the believers filth and sin and giving glory and obedience in return. It is called the Joyous exchange. (Freedom of a Christian) In hospitality to that presence, goes the thinking of an early Luther and the mystic, the outer human being will be changed by the workings of the Lord within.
So, it was not your turn to use the community oven in the village, but wouldn’t you know, friends showed up and you had to host them. Your friend next door had gotten to bake that day. Where will you get bread? (Luke 11:5-8) Again, it is in the interaction a symbol of larger hospitality is given: He will get up and give as much as needed. The hospitality that is prayer is not individual it is communal as well.They will all rise to give hospitality because by doing so, some have hosted angels.
Today, after two horrendous weeks of civil discontent worldwide, calls for “thoughts and prayers” are made and answered by many with harsh rebukes that thoughts and prayers mean nothing and are merely an excuse for inaction. “Speed the plough, I wait no more for fire from God!” Will we have another Ishmael? Will we have another Issac?
Will we get some damned tea?