Month: July 2019

Hospitality under the oaks

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.

Natomas Oaks

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.

Those Samaritans!

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

We always thank God … for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints.

“Love …for all the saints.” Paul is celebrating the love of God’s people in a congregation where things are going right. When he told the people of Colossae that he’s heard of their love for “the saints,” they knew that he meant ALL of God’s holy people—every one, not just the Christian heroes.  Here at Trinity we celebrate God’s love for all manner of saints who we find right here—and many who we don’t see. Some of them we love and rejoice in despite annoying and difficult things about them. The beloved, holy, people of God don’t all have smoothed-out edges or refined manners. Indeed, some of God’s saints can be downright disagreeable.

But God rejoices in God’s holy people, as it says in our lesson from Deuteronomy: “For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God.” God sanctifies people as holy, and we rejoice in the goodness of God’s holy people. That overrides our opinions, our annoyances, our frustrations, and our judgments—

because our call is to live in the love of God, love for all the saints.

The Gospel lesson today is famous, however most people don’t understand it well. In our country “Good Samaritan” has come to mean somebody who goes out of his way to help somebody, but that’s not this story at all. Let’s look at the story closely.  A lawyer comes up to Jesus and wants to work out the details of how he could earn eternal life. Jesus asked him to summarize the Jewish law. And Jesus affirmed him: “Do this and you will live.” But somehow, he needed to justify himself, to figure out for sure that he was special enough, how perhaps he could distinguish himself from those who weren’t going to inherit eternal life: “And who is my neighbor?”

Here’s where we moderns often stop understanding what’s really going on in this story.  Jesus spent the bulk of his time among fellow Jews.  And his questioner in this story is certainly Jewish. The essential point in this story is that in a Jewish context, the hero is not Jewish, but a Samaritan. Who were the Samaritans?  They still exist today as a

Samaritans on Mount Gerezim

very small group living in Israel. Their religion is a strict observance of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures in a version that varies only slightly from the Jewish scriptures.  In Jesus’ time they were a numerous group, probably a million or so, and they lived in villages in the part of Palestine that is still called Samaria by the Israelis. It is in the occupied West Bank, north of Jerusalem and Judea up to the south shore of the Sea of Galilee. So it is south of Galilee where Jesus grew up and first preached and his route from there to Jerusalem went through this area.

In Jesus’ time the population of the area was both Jewish and Samaritan, not so much mixed as living in separate villages that had little or nothing to do with one another. The story that was told, and many Jews believed, was that Samaritans were moved into the area after the Assyrians had conquered it and depopulated the lands of the so-called “ten lost tribes of Israel.” They regarded the Samaritans as foreigners or as of mixed heritage, and as idolaters—lazy, dirty and treacherous.  But the Samaritans then, and to this day, believe they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph. They worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and offer the prescribed sacrifices of the Pentateuch on Mount Gerezim. The Samaritans’ feelings regarding the Jews mirrored those of the Jews about the Samaritans. So these two groups hated each other—more than they hated other groups who weren’t related to them at all.

So a Jewish man on the Jewish road to Jewish Jericho is beaten up by robbers and left to die. Two leaders of his own community avoid him as he’s lying by the side of the road. The way the story reads, you might expect the next person to come along, the one who helps the man, to be an ordinary Jewish layperson.

Instead, Jesus puts a Samaritan on the road and when he does that …

The Samaritan is suddenly a human being and it contradicts all the stories that his audience had been telling themselves about these people… these SAMARITANS! Jesus told this story to answer the question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus didn’t actually tell this guy who his neighbor was. He said, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Being a neighbor is how you behave—it’s not which group your belong to, or how you judge another person. This lawyer, who was not dim, who was well versed in the Torah, understood what Jesus was saying. He answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Mercy is characteristic of God. God shows love for God’s people by extending mercy to them. It is not that we have earned God’s favor, or are entitled by our goodness, or place in society to the good things that God has for us. God gives good to his people as a gift, as compassion for our weakness, our distress, our fear or anxiety. God makes us holy through mercy. And the saints, those saints who the Colossians loved, they are made holy because they give that mercy away to others, as this nameless man, descended probably from Ephraim or Manasseh, gave to his neighbor, descended from Judah, or perhaps Benjamin. Being a good neighbor requires stepping beyond our ordinary inclinations and expectations, it requires mercy, perhaps when we aren’t seeing so much mercy.

Our country today is a country where mercy is in short supply. Where people think they can be “Good Samaritans” without welcoming foreigners or seeing the humanity of those who are different than they are. It takes courage to stand up to that, to act as a neighbor rather than shielding our own. We discover and know God’s saints through living God’s mercy and generosity. God rejoices in his holy people.

Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,

for they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;

remember me according to your love

and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.



Bringing Peace

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 7, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”

In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem. The next thing in the Gospel of Luke is today’s reading.  Jesus found seventy “others.” It doesn’t really describe them, but they were definitely not the twelve apostles. We assume they were Jesus’ disciples, people we like to call his followers. But Jesus didn’t have them follow him, he sent them on ahead, to places where he had not yet been. What were they supposed to do? We can assume a lot of things, and describe their mission, but here is what Jesus actually told them: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be with this house!’” These thirty-five pairs of people were supposed to go and pronounce peace for these houses—to be specific: “whatever house.”

These people who Jesus sent out were ordinary people, not geniuses, or orators, or great salespeople. Jesus sent these ordinary people to the places where he would be traveling with one mission: bring peace to the households they visited.

Those people were out there, and Jesus hadn’t cleared the way for them, they were ahead of him, and it was frightening.  Jesus wasn’t naïve. What he was asking them to do was not easy or safe: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Going out without bag or purse, without wealth, or power, or any office or standing makes you pretty vulnerable when all you have to offer is peace.

But that’s how Jesus sent them out.  “Peace be with this house.” What is this peace? It’s clearly more than just a greeting, because Jesus continues: “If anyone there shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” Peace is a gift from God—the God who is love gives peace to those whom he loves.  Peace is the knowledge of dwelling in God’s love—it is the foundation for compassion and for trust. If you’re going into someone else’s house and you want to talk about the Kingdom of God, you have to have some basis for trust. You have to be trustworthy. That goes for the whole church nowadays, we have to show ourselves worthy of trust, before we can expect people to trust us and to receive peace from us.  To share God’s compassion, you have to know compassion and share it.  That’s a big piece of those instructions that Jesus gave: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…” If the most noticeable thing about you is all the resources you are carrying, then that’s what people see.  The host will see that bag and expect you will be setting up a demonstration.

But there is only one thing that Jesus gives us to share: his peace.  It surpasses all understanding—and it doesn’t make sense in a world of transactions and power. It is frightening. And note: living in God’s peace and offering it, doesn’t always work out, people won’t always receive it. Jesus gives instructions of what to do in that case: “Say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off…”

Here’s what they found: in living in the peace of God, and offering the compassion of God to those they met, when that peace found the peace within others, tremendous and surprising healing power was unleashed. Even the demons, those spiritual forces that tear apart and destroy society and people, were cast out by that peace of God in those ordinary people who went out like lambs to share the Kingdom of God. The PEACE of Jesus that they shared, transformed who they were and it transformed their relationships with those they visited. As they came back to Jesus, they were are all excited—they had never witnessed such a thing. And the thing they witnessed was them! How exciting! And Jesus rejoiced with them—indeed, he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” The transformation and the healing were pretty remarkable as these ordinary people focused and lived in the compassion of God, sharing peace with those they met.

The power is greater than we can ask or imagine—yet Jesus says something else: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” It’s not the spiritual power, no more than it is the purse and bag that make the difference. Jesus did not send them out so that they could gain powers and do wonders. He sent them to bring peace, to live in compassion and for their lives to be a source of healing in the world.

We find that peace and healing here in this place, Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania. At least I do. And I believe our neighbors who I saw visit Trinity’s thrift shop last Saturday, saw the same peace and healing. The Kingdom of God is here. Jesus sends us out to bring peace. We gather here and share in Christ’s peace in the Eucharist. You know that peace is real and is of God because it helps others to be healed and grow, and we have no power to control it or make it happen. We live our lives going forward, and we don’t necessarily know what will be there when we reach the place that Christ is sending us.

But Jesus says this: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Rejoice that God’s Kingdom is here among you.

As our lesson from Isaiah says:

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants.”