The Hospitality of God
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016
Psalm 147 Luke 10:38-42
A couple of weeks ago we began reading the second half of the Gospel of Luke. It opens with Jesus, having completed his work in the Galilee, determined to go to Jerusalem. There he will speak and demonstrate God’s in-breaking kingdom among the occupying Roman forces and the leaders of the religious establishment. Jesus’ ministry of shared meals and communal goods, his non-violent response to a violent world and his building of a community committed to God and one another has set the pattern his disciples are to follow. All he could promise them was that the way would be hard – and by that he meant both the way of life they were to model and the physical way that was the road to Jerusalem – but that they were participating in bringing the kingdom of God near.
More than once along this hard way he sent scouts ahead to seek out people who might offer him hospitality. And so we come to our text for today: Luke 10:38-42.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
We have seen this pattern before, haven’t we? Someone comes to Jesus, in most cases someone who was on the edge of society, and Jesus welcomes them. And then another someone complains. So we have the woman who enters a home to wash Jesus feet, and the owner of the home tries to have her thrown out. Another woman brings costly oil to anoint Jesus before his death, and Judas complains that she could have used the money in a more productive way. A man with a withered arm comes to Jesus for healing, and a teacher of law instructs him to wait until the Sabbath is over. Each time, Jesus gently, or not so gently, rebukes the one with the complaint, and then extends an even broader hospitality that includes them both.
What’s Martha upset for? She’s got Jesus – in her house. Her sister Mary even came over to hear Jesus speak.
Now. This story hangs on what you think Jesus meant when he said, “There is need of only one thing.” I think Jesus meant “one thing” quite literally: the one dish of food that hospitality requires. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean hospitality is an art of excess. Dish upon dish of delicious food, each one surpassed by the next. While August was away at sleep-away camp this week, Noelle and I enjoyed a date night down at La Boca, the Italian restaurant over on Church Street. The owner, Tony, who is a friend, treated us to tastes and bites of all kind of things he was making, generously pouring wine, and slicing imported prosciutto, and coming by the table holding a chunk of pungent Calabrese cheese: “here” he sliced a piece, stuck it on the end of the knife and held it toward me. One night he stopped at our table just to show us a dish he had just made for somebody else, and Noelle said, “That’s such an Italian thing to do – to be so excited about the beauty, the smell of a meal that you have to show it around so everyone can enjoy appreciating it! After all, in an Italian family food is a primary way you express love and care.”
Martha is making a show for Jesus, a generous show of hospitality. Jesus wants her to be content with offering the one dish that hospitality requires, so that she can enjoy the hospitality that he is offering.
Noelle and I delivered a meal this week to Valerie, our Church Council Clerk, who had emergency back surgery on Monday. She’s doing well and recovering at home. She has a lot of hard physical therapy to do, but she will be fine. Anyway, we arrived with chicken parmesan laid out on our very best platter with designs of medieval forest creatures. We had a bowl of pasta, another of gravy, and third with healthy green vegetables. Noelle makes excellent chicken parm, the best actually, but she worried all the way over that this was not her best – and Val’s Italian and chicken parm is her favorite meal! Oh, and Val’s mother is also there.
Noelle had breaded a veritable mountain of chicken in preparing the meal, and reserved a plate for when August came back from camp last night. This way it would be a quick, homemade dinner. She got the chicken parm to the table and we all tucked in. Ewww. We chewed with quizzical expressions on our face. The chicken tasted oddly sweet. Now sweet isn’t what you’re going for when you season with garlic and oregano. August quietly peeled the mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce off and diplomatically said oh, I really like eating just the cheese I think, Mom. Could I have some more of the cheese and tomato sauce? Meanwhile Noelle and I were hungry so we kept eating but not happily. Noelle is shaking her head, trying to figure out what in the world. Then there were the ten frantic minutes of googling in fear that the chicken was bad and we were delivering not dinner, but death on a plate to poor Val and her whole family. We isolated ingredient after ingredient, tasting the sauce, no. The locattella? No. The chicken itself? No. What was this taste? Could it be the breadcrumbs? We ate some breadcrumbs – no. What about the flour? I asked. Oh it’s just flour. Flour is flour. It’s in the round Tupperware over there, pointed Noelle. Flour is flour, I thought, unless it’s not, I thought as I sniffed. What was this? Cake mix! Cake mix! Noelle had breaded the chicken with cake mix! Oh no! Oh yuck! Oh help, Val’s mom was there and she’s Italian! How embarrassing! Noelle grabbed her phone and started texting apologies and Val wrote back, “you know we tasted something sweet and couldn’t figure it out. I got the best laugh of the week,” she added with emojis. The one thing needful – perhaps was not the meal after all.
If we read Luke carefully, the Martha and Mary story is not a devaluation of Martha’s hard work to welcome Jesus into her family’s home. Martha’s hard work made it possible for others to have the opportunity to hear and interact with Jesus. Jesus is not criticizing Martha so much as he is reassuring her that all that is needful she has already provided. The one dish needful. To instruct Martha to let go of the extra doesn’t mean that Jesus and the guests didn’t need hospitality. They did! And Jesus valued Martha’s gift by enjoying it. Hospitality was an absolutely essential practice in the ancient world – it made the difference between life and death for travelers on the way. And visitors and hosts put their lives in one another’s hands when they sought and accepted hospitality.
Some of you may remember that a few weeks ago we had friends from Australia visiting, Natalie, Shawn, and their son Daniel. Shawn and I got talking about biblical studies and he mentioned a friend of his from Melbourne had just finished a book on the Gospel of Luke that he thought I’d enjoy. Turned out, I had just purchased it! It’s called The Hospitality of God. The author makes the argument that while in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the Kingdom of God refers to a realm of God’s sovereign action, in the Gospel of Luke, it is more like a Kingdom of Hospitality. The Kingdom of God as the Hospitality of God. In parables and narratives, God comes to visit us, hoping to find a welcome so that we can in turn be invited into an even greater hospitality, the hospitality of God, in which we can all be fully human with one another. For God is the one who welcomes – even when it’s dangerous.
This has been a tumultuous week with eighty some people killed tragically in Nice on Friday and an attempted coup in Istanbul on Friday. Meanwhile, South Sudan, the world’s newest country that was formed just five years ago after a fragile peace was made, erupted as government troops clashed with forces loyal to the vice president in Juba, the nation’s capitol. The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan asked urgently for prayers and the last word we have is that the ceasefire appears to be holding.
Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission, expressed gratitude for the tremendous support for mission co-worker Leisa Wagstaff and our Sudanese partners over these last few days saying,
Your expressions of concern and your prayers have been a source of hope to us all. Leisa Wagstaff and South Sudanese Presbyterians have placed themselves in harm’s way to educate children, heal the sick, build peace and grow the church across South Sudan. I’m deeply encouraged that U.S. Presbyterians responded so enthusiastically to the South Sudanese Presbyterian Church’s call to prayer and advocacy because these were the tools that pushed the nation’s political leaders to stop the fighting. I’m thankful for the solidarity of God’s Spirit that binds us together as one people.
The Rt. Rev. Peter Gai, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, told Horn of Africa regional liaison Michael Weller Wednesday afternoon that the ceasefire is holding. Weller said talks would involve church leaders because the church is such an important factor in the life of people in South Sudan. “We appreciate the prayers of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in the U.S. and we will not let go of the hope that the people of South Sudan can one day live in peace,” said Gai.
In 2013, when the conflict between opposing forces escalated into violence, Gai protected the lives of 5,000 people from various ethnic groups by allowing them inside the church compound in Malakal. He stood in front of the church compound to stop armed soldiers from entering.
Let me read that again. In 2013, when the conflict between opposing forces escalated into violence, Rev. Gai protected the lives of 5,000 people from various ethnic groups by allowing them inside the church compound in Malakal. He stood in front of the church compound to stop armed soldiers from entering. This is what the hospitality of God looks like. It involves courage, sacrifice, and concrete sharing of goods. It is about the choices we make to welcome others, even and especially when it is dangerous to acknowledge another person as the child of God that they are.
Sometimes when we see violence on the other side of the world we wonder, what can I really do? What can we really do. Well just yesterday, Rev. Gai urged Presbyterians to hold a day of prayer today for South Sudan and to advocate for humanitarian assistance for the South Sudanese people. “The United Nations estimates nearly 40,000 people have been displaced during the crisis while at least 7,000 of them took refuge in different churches or parishes,” the alert states. “To make matters worse, the central warehouse of the United Nations World Food Programme has been looted.” The warehouse held one month’s worth of food and nutrition supplies for more than 220,000 people.
The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness has put out an action alert email. We have set up a computer in the back of the sanctuary that you can use to send an email to President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, urging them to immediately increase humanitarian assistance. For those of you who already receive church emails, you should have just received this email on your smartphones or tablets an email with the appropriate links (and background info).
Rev. Gai explains, “advocacy is not only necessary to stop the fighting, it will provide hope so that the South Sudanese know that they are not alone and to know that people in the other part of the world are standing with them,” he said. “It will be very encouraging for Christians to know that members of the Presbyterian Church USA are actively advocating for peace. “
Today we have an opportunity to be part of God’s hospitality through our prayers and action in community with the people of South Sudan. As we journey through the gospel of Luke for the next several months, let us continue to look for examples of God’s hospitality, not only in the pages of the bible, but in the life of our church and the wider world. And let us share these stories, to bring joy and courage today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.