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July 18, 2004 (Pentecost 7)—“Opening Ourselves to Others through Hospitality”

Pastor David Barber

Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
 

Last Sunday in our prayers we remembered Benedict of Nursia, the Abbot of Monte Casino around 540. That evening at Compline, Pastor Fritz also reminded us that during World War II, a famous and fierce battle was fought at Monte Casino. Senator Daniel Inouye, a member of the courageous 442, lost his arm in this battle.

The monasteries of 15 centuries ago were small, usually housing about a dozen monks. This made the monastery feel something like a large family. They gathered as a Christian community in order to live and grow toward the Divine together.

To guide them in this effort, Benedict crafted a simple short document called The Rule of St. Benedict. This Rule has endured for the past 1500 years. It has shaped most of Western monasticism, and for that reason, St. Benedict is known as the father of Western monasticism.

There is much within this Rule, but at the center is hospitality. He stressed the importance of welcoming the outsider, the poor, and the pilgrim. Indeed, all strangers to the Benedictine community are to be welcomed as Christ himself.

Such hospitality is encouraged not only for the welfare of the stranger, but it's also important for the spiritual development of the monks themselves. Guests and community are crucial to the making of any heart. If you want to be a person of great spirit, you can't do life alone.

In this regard, hospitality is not about social graces but about mutual reverence for each other. It's about opening ourselves to the stranger so that we might open ourselves to the Sacred. If we lock our doors and bolt our gates, and as a result, close our hearts, then we're forbidding God to come to us. True hospitality happens when we are fully present and available for those who enter our midst.

Perhaps this little story captures the flavor of this kind of hospitality. It's from a book that we studied over a year ago during Lent entitled Radical Hospitality.

In a sprawling market in Mexico City an old Indian man named Pota-lamo is selling onions. Twenty strings of onions lay in front of him. And a man from Denver walks up to him and asks, "How much for a string of onions?"

"Ten cents," replies Pota-lamo.

"Well, how much for two strings?" the prospective buyer inquires.

Pota-lamo fixes his eyes on him and says, "That would be twenty cents."

"Well, what about three strings?" the man from Denver asks.

"Thirty cents," responds Pota-lamo.

"That's not much of a reduction for quantity. Would you take twenty-five cents for three?" "No," Pota-lamo wouldn't do that.

"Still determined that he was going to get some kind of a bargain, the Denver man pushed even harder, "Well, how much for all of it, the whole twenty strings?"

"I will not sell you the whole twenty strings."

"Why not?" asks the American. "Aren't you here to sell onions?"

"No," replies Pota-lamo, "I am here to live my life. I love this market. I love the crowds. I love the sunlight and smells. I love the children. I love to have my friends come by and talk to me about their babies and their crops.

That's my life and for that reason I sit here with my twenty strings of onions. If I sell all my onions to one customer, then my day is over, and I've lost my life that I love--and that I will not do."

Today in our Scripture readings, we have a couple of stories about hospitality. In one setting, the meal and the hospitality seem to flow without a hitch, but in the other story the karma of the hostess is off, and she becomes a tad unraveled.

It's a familiar story from the gospel of Luke--the saga or the soap opera concerning Mary and Martha and their relationship with Jesus. It happens right after the story of the Good Samaritan, and more than one commentator suggests that this is a second example illustrating Jesus' answer to a lawyer's question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus asks him, "What's written in the Law about this matter?" The lawyer responds by saying, "Love God with every fiber of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself."

Several commentators have suggested that the story of the Good Samaritan is an illustration of loving your neighbor as yourself, and that Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, shows us what it means to give our undivided attention to God.

As a keeper of the institution, however, I need to raise at least a half-hearted objection and come to Martha's defense. Perhaps she was just trying to put into practice the application of being a good neighbor by offering a very gracious hospitality to Jesus and his disciples.

It's Martha who steps forward to offer the shelter and sustenance of her home to Jesus. It's Martha who senses the practical needs of the leaders and works diligently to see that these needs are met. Besides, whose food would you rather have at the potluck brunch, Mary's or Martha's?

In fact, where would this church be or any church be without Martha? The last time we depended on Mary we didn't have any Sunday School teachers, or communion assistants, or council members, and the choir only sang every third Sunday. We didn't even have a budget. I certainly don't want to go down that road again.

Unfortunately, there are some troubling aspects to Martha's behavior in this story. If we notice the body language, for instance, Martha stands over Jesus while Mary sits at his feet. And Martha speaks to Jesus while Mary sits and listens.

Then, of course, we have the words of the text itself that tell us that Martha was distracted by her many tasks, and Jesus himself tells her that she is worried and distracted by many things.

Goodness gracious, I would suspect that in this world of distractions most of us can sympathize with Martha. The Greek word for distracted means, "to be pulled from all directions." Right here this morning, as you sit in worship, many of you are being distracted, being pulled by opposing forces.

You're not necessarily being pulled or distracted by unnecessary things or trivial things. The demands of family, or work, or church, not to mention managing a household or other volunteer activities beckon for our attention. These are all good and valuable gifts from God and a means by which we can indeed serve God and love our neighbor.

But there are also those times when we simply have to drop our work or whatever else it is that's distracting us. We just need to let go--and not try to hold our life together. We need to stop trying to juggle all the balls in the air.

There are those times when we need to be silent and listen to the voice of Jesus and the voice of our neighbor. There are those times when we simply need to sit in the presence of Jesus and in the presence of our neighbor, and to be fully present for them and with them without doing anything.

Isn't that what St. Benedict taught us about the true meaning of hospitality--to open ourselves to the stranger so that we might open ourselves to the Sacred? When we're distracted, can we be fully available and present for those who enter our lives as a gift?

If we're distracted, we may miss the wonderful news that might come to us through the voice of the stranger. To Abraham and Sarah these odd visitors bring the promise that the barren will rejoice.

And with Mary, Jesus shares the promises of God that the lowly will be lifted up, the dead will be raised, the blind will see, and the hopeless will be given hope.

In her book Amazing Grace, the author Kathleen Norris has a chapter on "Silence." She mentions that when she worked as an artist in elementary school she devised an exercise regarding noise and silence.

The rules for noise were simple. When she raised her hand, they could make all the noise they could while sitting at their desk using their mouth, hands, and feet. Their eyes would grow wide, and as you can imagine, the teacher's eyes as well. But then she also added, "When I lower my hand, you have to stop."

It usually took two or three attempts to get them quiet after making noise, but then they attempted the silence. "Just breathe normally, but quietly: the only hard thing is to sit so still that you make no noise at all," she said.

"We always had to try this more than once.... But in every case but one, over many years, I found that children were able to become so still that silence became a presence in the classroom."

Then she concludes:

What interests me the most about my experiment is the way in which making silence liberated the imagination of so many children. Very few wrote with any originality about making noise.... But silence was another matter: here their images often had a depth and maturity that was unlike anything else they wrote....
In a parochial school, one third grader's poem turned into a prayer: 'Silence is spiders spinning their webs, it's like a silkworm making its silk. Lord, help me to know when to be silent.' And in a tiny town in western North Dakota a little girl offered a gem of spiritual wisdom that I find myself returning to when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me: 'Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.'

"Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go." If we can do that and if we can know when to be silent, then the hospitality that is offered will both be pleasing to God, and we will open ourselves to the presence of God in every person and stranger we meet.

Amen.


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