By the Oaks of Mamre

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

OaksThat image reminds me of home, out in the arid West in the middle of summer. Cloudless days like that are quiet and hot.  But they can be quite pleasant, even without air conditioning, as long as you stay in the shade, out of the direct heat of the sun. So, in the middle of that hot day, Abraham was sitting in the shade at the entrance of his tent. That’s a meditative time, it’s not a time of day when you do much work. Chores are for the morning and early evening.

It’s unusual to see travelers out walking in the heat of the day. When Abraham saw the three men standing out there on the road, it was an event.  He suddenly sprang into action, he begged the men to stop and rest, and to receive hospitality. He ordered a feast prepared.

Why? There is nothing in the text to imply that there was anything unusual about these men beyond being strangers walking on the road in the middle of a hot day. Ordinary travelers. Abraham gave to those strangers the same welcome that he would give to any stranger, the hospitality due to an honored guest. Of course Abraham was in a slightly different context than we are in—there weren’t subways carrying five and a half million passengers per day at the Oaks of Mamre in those days as there are now in New York City. But still…

In offering hospitality to these strangers, these people whose background Abraham did not know, Abraham encountered God.  And this was no small thing, no private feel-good occurrence. You see, what we read in the Book of Genesis today is the first half of a longer passage that is pivotal in all of biblical history, in understanding God’s relationship to Israel.  This is the story where the promise of the creation of that people is made. Today’s lesson ends: “Your wife Sarah shall have a son.” That son was Isaac, who was the father of Israel. As it says just a few verses later, “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him…” In their old age, and the old age of his wife Sarah, when she was 90-years-old, they became parents, and established a people who were God’s people.  And all this because they extended hospitality to three strangers—people who they did not know.

I peeked at how the story continues—Abraham and Israel were blessed because they extended hospitality—and the whole world was blessed in them, but in the next verses Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, specifically because they violated hospitality. Abraham’s nephew Lot extended hospitality to God’s messengers, and the angry crowd gathered, and as he confronted them to protect his guests the crowd said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.”

Hospitality is the opposite of the anger that groups feel against those who are different.  It is the opposite of racism. It is the opposite of festering anger that erupts in violence. Hospitality is the opposite of terrorism.  Abraham blesses the strangers by attending to their needs. The Samaritan in the story last week blessed the injured stranger by caring for his needs, taking him to a place of healing. They themselves are blessed, not by something they receive back, certainly not immediately, but they are blessed by encountering the love of God in the ability to give hospitality.

It’s not always easy or peaceful or obvious. Sometimes our worry and our busyness gets in the way of recognizing that encounter with God, even while it is happening. In today’s Gospel lesson, which is really a short extension of the story we heard last week, where Jesus tells the lawyer the story about the compassionate Samaritan, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. She is extending hospitality to him. And she really is welcoming the Son of God, the prophet of the Most High, into her home. Hospitality is about attending to the needs of the guest. (Once the stranger enters your home, they are no longer a stranger, but a guest). Particularly in this section of the Gospel of Luke, after the Transfiguration where he is blessed along with the great prophets Moses and Elijah, Jesus is a prophet, single-mindedly on his journey to Jerusalem.

What do you need to do for a prophet? Listen to him. That’s the one and most important thing: listen to the message. So Mary is listening to the prophet, who is the guest. Martha was working very hard, doing all the things to prepare for what guests usually want and need. And Martha sort of loses it. She goes to the guest and complains.  There is nothing in this short passage arguing against hard work, or implying that the hard work of hospitality is not a good thing, or that the contemplative life is better than the active life, or that Mary is better than Martha. Martha is the main host, and her job in extending hospitality is to attend to the needs of her guest. And we should note, the way this scene is depicted, there isn’t a crowd of disciples or others, in fact, Jesus is the only guest mentioned. Martha made the standard assumptions that anyone would make: bake fresh cakes, find the good dishes, get the foot-washing bowl… And like many of us she focused on the tasks without looking up at the guest.

But what did he want? The prophet wanted to be heard. I don’t hear rebuke in his words to Martha, I hear tenderness—“Martha, you are distracted by many things, but there is ONE thing that I want, to be heard.” Martha and Mary together extended hospitality to Jesus, and in that they were blessed by his presence and by his words. Sometimes we can get so worked up about what we think we should be doing or what should be happening that we forget to see the blessing that we have received and are receiving, even now.

As Christians we are called together to live a life blessed in thanksgiving and the opportunity to extend hospitality. In welcoming those strangers, Abraham and Sarah encountered God, and were blessed throughout all generations.

Let us pray once again our Collect for today:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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