Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sermon for Trinity 7 Yr C (8.00 at St Matthew's)

Hospitality – a great Christian virtue – one central to the life and ministry of the church, defined by the OED as “the reception and entertainment of strangers with liberality and goodwill…”
I like that. 
Liberality and goodwill would seem to me a good starting point for any church seeking to engage with the community...but hospitality is often more complex, more wide ranging than we dare to imagine.
Think about the Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning, with their accounts of hospitality given and received.
suggest a wider definition, though, as they present two different pictures of hospitality given and received.

In Genesis, we hear about Abraham’s purposeful activity in preparing a suitable meal for the strangers who've appeared, unexpectedly, out of the shimmering heat of the desert. He's very much the host - seating his guests while he rushes inside to instruct Sarah to get baking, chooses an animal as the main course for the feast and ensures that all hospitable duties are lovingly performed.Abraham is busy doing the right thing, obeying the ancient laws of hospitality simply because they are there. He has no knowledge of his guests, no inkling that he might be entertaining angels unawares…He just does what seems right to him.

Of course, this is the story that inspired my favourite icon, Rublev's Hospitality of Abraham - about which you may be weary of hearing by now!
Looking at the icon, there are clues to suggest that there might be more going on than simply an unexpected dinner. The three strangers in the picture are each haloed, and the alternative name for this icon is “The Holy Trinity”. 
Certainly, when we hear verse 10, the last read to us this morning, we realise that something significant is happening, something well beyond the conventional expectations of host and guest. Outrageously, the stranger speaks of a personal matter, the subject of the childless couples’ deepest regrets and most fervent prayers, and announces coolly
“Sarah will have a son”.

The lectionary leaves us there, with that bald announcement changing the whole balance of the encounter. 
Here is Salvation history being played out again, unexpectedly, through the promise of a son, coming late, against all hope, to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham.
If this is the crux of the encounter, then we must ask 
"Who is the true recipient in this hospitable exchange?"

We’ll leave that question hanging for a minute, as we turn to the Gospel, where we find Martha engaged in the sort of bustling activity which is almost a paradigm of hospitality. She is, in one translation at least “Distracted through much serving” and it's easy to imagine her checking through lists in her head, dashing in all directions as she strives to ensure that Jesus receives only the very best in her home and at her table. 
No detail must be overlooked. He must be in no doubt that he is truly welcome.

The trouble is that, as many of us have discovered, it’s easy to get so involved in arranging a meal that we find ourselves spending the whole time in the kitchen, instead of with the very people we want to entertain. Poor Martha. Not only does this happen to her, but Jesus tells her off for it. Her frenzied activity, her anxiety to devote all her domestic energy to Jesus, is not what he wants at all.                        Traditional courtesies are superfluous.                                                                          Jesus wants her attention, not her cooking.

Again, as in the Rublev icon, there is a stillness at the centre of all the activity. Here Mary sits at Jesus’ feet,- something revolutionary in itself, for this is the place for a rabbi’s disciples, not somewhere for women to stake a claim. Amid all the bustle, Mary is simply there, listening, drinking in what Jesus has to say to her, learning to receive while her sister concentrates on giving.

So, in both stories, the presumed guest is in fact the one with gifts to bestow. Abraham and Martha both came so close, in all their work of hospitality, to missing out on the whole point of the encounter. Their focus on doing threatened to cloud their recognition of the unexpected gifts on offer.
They are called not to do things for God, but to be where he is and to receive from him.
Being hospitable involves being open to a myriad unguessed at possibilities…including the possibility that our efforts, our activity, whether as individuals or as a church, may not be essential!
As someone with decidedly Martha-like inclinations, I struggle with this. There is always so much to do.
Surely I’m not being told to stop all meetings, leave funds unraised, forms incomplete, discussion groups unvisited…Am I?                                                    However, I keep coming back to some words of Austin Farrer’s which I first heard many years ago
“Do you want to bear fruit for God? Then simplify your life. Do fewer things and do them better”
We’re not called to be frantic, harassed by the fulness of our diaries, or our parish newsletters. We’re called to bear fruit, to be human beings, not human doings.
Doing fewer things will give us time to listen to and receive from the One who invites us to be with Him, to be nourished by all goodness, to encounter his unexpected Grace, …which is all we need as we set out to serve Him.


Richard Gillin said...


Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed Anna's sermon in the Abbey this morning on whether we are Marthas or Marys - it struck a chord (I am, alas, too Martha like!). Having pondered this thought on and off all day, yours has helped to cement in my mind that in all aspects of life I too need to do more of less things! Thank you for sharing!


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