Sermon Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Where is Hospitality in our current age?
Texts: Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
If we thought that two weeks ago we had endured one of the most disturbing weeks in memory, with the murders of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the sniper attack on Dallas police officers, these past few days feel like they’ve upped the ante even further. I’m sure many of you watched all of the horror in Nice, France, unfold on your TV set, followed the next night by the mayhem of the attempted coup in Turkey, which featured, among other things, some soldiers firing wholesale at civilians who had tried to stop them on the Bosphorus Bridge. And for every atrocity we hear about on the news or see on TV, there are countless others in our country and across the world that don’t get that same exposure, particularly if they occur in African, Latin American or Middle Eastern countries. But even with the relatively small sample we receive through our media here, it certainly feels like the whole world is at war, one way or another.
Last week after each of our services, I asked you for thoughts on what we could do here in upper Manhattan in reaction to the continuing violence between police and black men. There was a strong consensus for local action – there are many marches and protests, particularly downtown, but our community here at Intercession clearly felt that prayer and civil dialogue between the police and the neighborhood was the way to go, that we needed to start in our immediate surroundings with our families, our schools, our police precincts, first, before we presumed to take on the world.
I’ll tell you what our IPC decided at the announcements, but for our homily time now I’d like to address something that contributes to the general breakdown we see in our society, and it’s the topic that is addressed in our Bible readings today. One of the many factors contributing to the general degradation of our culture is a gross loss of civility. Would you agree with me about that? The art – indeed the expectation – of engaging each other in a respectful manner, even when we disagree strongly, has been utterly lost. Civility and respect are, of course, conducive to dialogue, and dialogue may even result in resolution – but instead of conversing like civilized human beings, we have now resorted to simply yelling at and past each other. I’m not just speaking of recent protests, like those both for and against Black Lives Matter; I’m talking about a much larger issue, about our culture in general. We live in a world now where it is somehow permissible for a congressman to yell, “you lie!” at the President of the United States during a joint session of Congress, and where degrading name-calling and vulgar nicknames have replaced any semblance of respect for another human being.
Now it should be obvious to anyone who has ever an argument at home (a regular old argument, we’re not talking about abuse here) – that is to say, everybody – that fights usually have two stages. First is the loud part of the argument, which resolves nothing; that’s simply the first sometimes staking out of contrary positions. But if a disagreement is ever going to get worked out, it must move on to stage two, which takes place after everyone’s voices are lowered, and the problem can get talked out. Sometimes it’s hard for folks to get to the point of talking instead of simply repeating themselves at high volume, but that’s why our society recognizes that this is harmful, and that is why help is available: family therapy, marital counseling, anger management help, and so on. This is recognition that in order to resolve any disagreement – even a gross injustice – we must speak and listen to each other with respect.
Yet our society has adopted an intractable inability to move past the yelling stage. We see this most clearly on television – indeed this problem may have originated on television, in the “political talk show.” The first one that I remember is the McLaughlin Group, which started in the early 1980’s – the format of a “moderator” surrounded by two republicans and two democrats who “discuss” issues by yelling at each other across a table, or if they are not in the same room, across the TV screen each in their own little boxes. This format has spawned countless offspring, all of which simplify every issue into partisan talking points that solve exactly nothing and keep the volume of the dialogue turned up high.
Here’s where the Bible comes in. All of the fruitless noise is the symptom, not the disease, of the illness in our society: the loss of spiritual life, both individual and communal. It is the connection to the divine that makes us feel loved and worthy of respect, and it is only when we feel worthy of love and respect that we can offer love and respect to others. Without exception, cultures that are grounded in connection to divinity – and these are not only western cultures, but eastern ones too – these cultures have always been able to foster community by welcoming others, by truly practicing hospitality. Those who practice true hospitality base it on spiritual connection. They do it not simply because it’s a random social rule, they do it because they recognize that the person you are welcoming shares a common heritage in the divine. Sometimes, you may even be welcoming God himself, as can be seen in our readings today. We have the two classic hospitality stories of the Bible side by side – one from the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of the three men who appear to Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre, and one from the New Testament: the very famous story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home.
Hospitality rules today in much of the Middle East are much the same as they have been for millennia. A guest is to be welcomed as though they were royalty, offered at the very least tea, but usually a meal, and if they need lodging the guest is welcome for 3 days, no questions asked, after which they must leave. The point, of course, is to provide for the traveler’s physical needs first, but the larger purpose is to spend time with your guest, sharing not only your food and bedding, but also your time.
The reason hospitality requires us to spend time with guests is that time is the most precious commodity we have, second only to life itself. After all, without time, life as we know it is not possible. This is recognized by older, slower cultures than our own. We say “time is money” and by that we mean that if we use our time productively we will have bigger bank accounts, but Biblical time is currency too, to be spent on things that do not have monetary, but rather spiritual value.
Judaism and Christianity at their very foundation are all about being present in time, to God, and to each other. Remember that God creates the universe in Genesis in the framework of time – and that in fact the word “holy” (“qadosh”) is first used in the Bible to describe not a thing or a person, but a period of time: the Sabbath day. Remember too that in “the fullness of time” God sent his only Son to be with us in our time, in our history. Time is a precious gift from God given at creation.
This is the light in which both of our hospitality stories take place today. Abraham welcomes three men that show up at his tent by the oaks of Mamre with appropriate respect and some urgency. Neither he – nor we – knows exactly who they are. There is some debate even among scholars as to whether the three men are angels, or the Trinity, or are the Lord himself. Abraham instructs Sarah and his servants to provide the best meal possible as quickly as possible. Take a look at the language in the reading: there’s a of speed (everybody runs and hastens and rushes) and when the meal is ready Abraham even stands apart from the men as a servant would, making himself available to them.
After the meal, one of the men tells Abraham (and Sarah who is hiding yet listening) that they will have a son, even though they are very old and Sarah has been barren all her life. But because Abraham welcomed the men as though they were the Lord, they are rewarded with an incredible prophecy: they will have a son, and through this son, all of the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, and Moslems – would be born. The important point to take away is that any guest is to be welcomed as though they were the Lord in disguise. You never know.
Now we turn to the hospitality story of Martha and Mary. Many of us, myself included, think that Martha gets a bum rap in this story. She’s the one doing all the work – and it’s necessary work – just like Abraham and Sarah, yet Jesus chides her, and clearly prefers the way her sister Mary is interacting with him, by just sitting and chatting. Why?
Remember: Martha and Mary know Jesus very, very well – they are close friends and know him as the LORD who raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. So they are not welcoming a stranger into their home, they know he is the LORD. This is different from Abraham and Sarah; they welcomed strangers, and so they hastened to prepare first and spend time with them after the meal was over.
What Jesus is sensing in Martha is not that she’s not so much making an effort at being hospitable, but rather that she is avoiding him. People who rush the way Martha does are not at peace with their existence in time, and therefore resist being present to God and to others; in essence they are being selfish. I think many of us do the same thing; I know I do. Staying busy is a very effective tactic to avoid anything or anyone; we can avoid responsibilities, people, making decisions, confronting issues, and even God by simply staying too busy. By contrast, Mary basks in the precious opportunity to share time with God. She is willing to slow down, be still, and know that Jesus is God.
If we are to transform our lives and our society we must give our connection to God first. Even in our time of noise and hyperactivity, there are some things before which we must be still: a burning bush – a sign that God wants to speak with us (we all have burning bushes, signs that God is trying to get our attention, we miss many when we are distracted); that is one time we must put down what we are doing, and pay attention. Other times are when we see a star in the eastern sky hanging over a house with a very special newborn in it (that is, the signs that God has arrived in our life, sometimes in a surprising form, like a stranger), or, as we are about to do, when welcome the Lord to our Table, our altar here in church. These demand our full attention and our time. Anytime we have the opportunity to spend time with Jesus, our ordinary busy-ness is, forgive the word, trumped, by that opportunity.
Can we re-learn to be quiet, respectful and still? Can we recover that which our culture has robbed from us? Can we bring the temperature down, lower the volume, and help transform our society into one that has civility and respect for every human being? We have that opportunity today, but we must be open to welcoming Jesus. He is knocking on our church door, waiting to be invited in. We know he is coming, and he is not a stranger. We have a choice: we can be like Martha and rush distractedly through the encounter, so that even though we are physically present we are spiritually absent. Or we can be like Mary and enter into this awesome opportunity to be in communion with our Lord, to get to know him, to allow him to enter into us by surrendering to his presence in the Eucharist and in each other. We pray: “Be known to us LORD Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.”
Make no mistake about it – Jesus is not saying that we are never to do the things that Martha is doing, like cook, clean, and serve. He’s not giving us a lifetime dispensation from housework. But remember, our times are in God’s hands. If we are present to Jesus, he will be present to us, and if he is present to us, he will be made present through us to those in our lives – our family, our colleagues, our community, our city, our country, and yes, our world. And once he is present, true resolution, true reconciliation becomes possible.
Our world has never needed it more.