The duty of hospitality is something that Christianity shares with many world faiths...We know that it matters to be welcoming...to make space for all comers, - those we like on sight and those who make us nervous, those who are soul mates and those (sometimes including children) whose presence in our churches sometimes makes us wonder if we are losing our own precious sanctuaries.
We know this – though we don't always find it easy.
Hospitality is written into our Christian DNA because we know that we are all recipients of God's boundless hospitality, his unconditional welcome that excludes nobody. NOBODY!
When St Benedict was writing his Rule – the template for monastic life that has influenced so much of the western church – he was clear that his brothers should welcome strangers as they would welcome Christ himself.
That's quite a thought – something for all of us to remember on baptism Sundays when a large party of excited visitors seems uncertain about “proper behaviour” during worship.
We should welcome strangers as we would welcome Christ.
Today’s readings are all about welcome. Abraham and Sarah entertained angels unawares when three mysterious visitors arrived out of the heat of the desert...Obedient to the cultural demands of their region (the duty of hospitality is still hugely important in the middle east) Abraham acts. He snaps his fingers, orders a lavish feast, and while Sarah and the slaves get busy he is free to sit, totally attentive – the perfect host, respectfully focused on the guests, the strangers he is transforming into friends.
Sarah, of course, shows hospitality too, but in a different way....working inside and listening to the conversation drifting through the doorway. She catches her name and listens harder...The strangers bring a promise from God – that a child will be born, against all the odds. Small wonder that Sarah, hot and frazzled from her labours in the kitchen snorts with derisive laughter. A likely story! A child? To her?! What a joke...
Though of course, it comes to pass just as the strangers have said and the couple realise that their hospitality has changed them for evemore, for it has been followed by a blessing beyond their wildest hopes and dreams.
Fast forward now to the Gospel. Again, an honoured guest is welcomed with the best the house can offer, and the hosts revere him as one who brings God’s blessing. This time cultural conventions are being flouted left right and centre, for Martha and Mary are women alone, householders in a society where lone women were generally beyond the pale. They risked their already compromised reputations in inviting a wandering rabbi and his disciples to eat with them and Jesus, of course, should not have accepted the invitation
But, you know, except that he always responds to our invitations, always comes to us if we are serious in inviting him.
He comes to that house in Bethany – and it's a red letter day. Martha longs to ensure that everything is just so...and bustles about, cleaning, cooking, doing all in her power to create a perfect occasion. She wants to make things right, - to show herself truly ready to welcome Jesus.
Mary just longs to be with Him ...focussed on him as her ancestor Abraham focussed on his mysterious visitors.
Again, there's an inappropriate outburst from the kitchen where Martha, hot, bothered and resentful, cannot bear that her sister is enjoying being close to Jesus, as she herself longs to be. It must have been hard for her when Jesus appears to take Mary's part and points out what’s really going on – but I think that in fact he is offering her freedom.
He offer it to us as well.
The Christian life often seems very demanding. We've so much we could do, so many ways of serving God and his world. We could work at the food-bank or help with the flowers...we could visit the housebound or play games with the children...we could join a house group or enrol on a course. And all of those things may be right and good – part of our loving response to the love that we've received, for like Abraham we are blessed to be a blessing.
And it's true enough that when we look into our inmost souls, when we stand in silence before God there will be much that we long to change...much that needs cleansing, restoring, renewing – but that's not something we can do for ourselves...so there's no point in tying ourselves in knots in our endeavour to be READY to welcome Jesus.
But listen to him now. These words are for each of us...for we've come here today because we want to spend time with Jesus, to make him welcome in our hearts and in our lives. These are his words to us.
You’re busy with many things, but only one thing is needed.You invited me here because you wanted to spend time with me...so why not do that? Come, be with me – there's no need of special preparations or elaborate menus. Just come close. Let me welcome you as you want to welcome me....
That one thing needed is to be open and hospitable to God...to come close to him so that he can come close to you. You don't have to be anyone special. You don't have to DO anything special. Just choose the one thing that is needed....Choose to be as close to Jesus as you can, and trust him to do the rest.