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 something we find ourselves wrestling with at the cathedral again and again when someone comes through our doors whose behaviour is best described as “Challenging”. To stand as a place of sanctuary means that our doors must be open without condition...After all, if we are welcoming strangers as it they were Christ, then actually the cathedral belongs not just as much but MORE to them than it does to we who find ourselves standing inside looking out.
That’s challenging – specially when behaviour that’s a bit different from our norm seems to threaten the very peace and beauty of worship which drew us there in the first place....How do we offer hospitality in equal measure to those whose needs are radically different? How do we balance the needs of those children who need to be themselves in their heavenly father’s house and those who have come to the cathedral because the presence of children in their parish church is too hard to bear in the wake of a bereavement?
How can we be fully inclusive of those who have been forced for too long to absent themselves from worship as they were made to feel unwelcome with those for whom the very word “Inclusive” is redolent of something that strikes at the heart of their understanding of Scripture?
How can we recognise the presence of Christ in ALL who present themselves?
I wonder how it played out among Benedict’s monks in the early years...How they created radical hospitality that really did have space and welcome for all...I'm confident that they didn't always find it easy, any more than we do today - but there really isn't any wiggle-room
We should welcome strangers as we would welcome Christ.
So – our gospel shows us two different approaches to the task of welcoming Christ himself....An honoured guest is treated to the best the house can offer and his hosts revere him as the one who brings God’s blessing. But hang on. This isn't simply a question of "Lovely to see you. Do come in". 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 we know how little he cared for convention...How little he cares for it still.
He ALWAYS responds to our invitations, always comes to us if we are serious in inviting him, and so 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. To give him unmistakeable demonstrations of just how much she loves him, how much she longs to please him.
Mary just longs to be with Him ..to show her love by spending every possible moment in his presence. Gazing on his face and feeling her heart and soul transformed by the loving gaze he offers in return.
Doesn't that sound wonderful.
But - Imagine a hot day like today.
Imagine that you’re with Martha, slaving away over a hot stove while everything in you longs to be sitting with your guest, hanging on his every word, treasuring the moment.
Small wonder that Martha is loudly resentful, unable to bear the way in which Mary is enjoying everything she longs for...She slams the pans down in the kitchen, emerges red-faced and angy...and oh, 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.
You don't HAVE to do all that to please me. It's OK. Come and sit down. Let me love you
He offers that freedom 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 obviously we could, and we do, create the great acts of worship that punctuate our cathedral year...the celebrations of festivals...the ordinations....the special events that bring hundreds of guests through our doors (and remember, we’re to welcome all of them as we would welcome Christ, who is both host and guest)...
All of those things may be right and good – part of our loving response to the love that we've received.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.
So- stop and 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. We are 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.