A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2019
Trinity Episcopal 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.
Three years ago, we moved to California for a year. We lived in Sacramento, in California’s Central Valley, which has a climate not that much different from the parts of the Middle East where Abraham dwelt—a rainy season in the winter and very hot summers. A short walk from our home was a grove of heritage oaks that had been protected so that it grew as oak groves did in that area before mass agriculture and the building of cities, towns and roads changed the environment. So the Natomas Oaks were probably not much different from the Oaks of Mamre. If you walked over there on a hot day, the difference in temperature when you entered the grove was quite dramatic—maybe 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The trees formed a canopy and their roots intertwined making it one huge structure, or living organism, really. It was cool and dark inside, but if you looked out across the street and lawns to the apartment complex, it was blazingly bright; sometimes you could even see the ripples of heat coming off the pavement.
So, on this quiet summer afternoon, Abraham is sitting in the doorway of his tent, within the shade of the oak grove at Mamre, and he is looking across the field. And in the brightness of the mid-afternoon he sees three travelers walking along.
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—there weren’t subways carrying five and a half million passengers per day near the Oaks of Mamre. 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, and 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.
So 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 an 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 anxiety 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 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.
So how do we as Christians extend hospitality in a country where the most powerful person and his fans chant, “send her back” and tell citizens to “go back home?” Listen. Care for the stranger and the guest. Be honest in your hospitality, compassionate for those who have suffered rejection.
Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?
who may abide upon your holy hill?
Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right,
who speaks the truth from his heart.
There is no guile upon his tongue;
he does no evil to his friend;
he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.
He does not give his money in hope of gain,
nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown.