In today’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) Jesus is welcomed into a small house in Bethany, near Jerusalem. We know this story, because we remember Martha and Mary – but notice that the story is about more than the two sisters; it’s also a story about hospitality.
In our first reading (Genesis 18:1-10 ), three travelers come to Abraham and Sarah’s tent in the desert. And this story is about more than Abraham and Sarah; it, too, is a story of hospitality.
These are the stories of our spiritual ancestors. And, as the stories were told again and again, the dwelling places – the house, the tent – became symbols of hospitality. We can find Abraham’s tent in the earliest art of the Christian church – with the three visitors an icon for the Holy Trinity, gathered in mutual love around Sarah’s table. We can find Jesus with Martha and Mary, the Son of God sharing the intimacy of a family meal, in great paintings from the Renaissance.
The more traditional the society, the more rules there are for hospitality. There are rules about food and drink; rules for men and women; rules for the family, and rules for visitors. But notice that in both of today’s stories at least one of the traditional rules is broken.
In Abraham’s day, it was the servant who was supposed to welcome visitors (not the master) – but Abraham himself runs out to greet the travelers. In Jesus’ day, it was the men who were supposed to visit with guests, while women prepared the meal – but as Martha works in the kitchen, Mary sits and listens to the visitor. Maybe, all along, Luke’s story has been about more than which sister is doing the right thing. Maybe hospitality is being offered on all sides: Martha offers food, Mary offers a listening ear, and Jesus offers a place at his side.
When we hear these stories, I think it’s helpful to think about our own rules for hospitality, because our human rules are not same as God’s rules. In fact, the God of Abraham – the God of Jesus – actually breaks our rules again and again. Abraham shows us, Jesus shows us, that in God’s house everyone belongs, no one is a stranger, all are fed, and all are heard.
In Sallie McFague’s Life Abundant, the house becomes a metaphor for the world. She pictures the whole earth as God’s household (oikos) – and she says that for this household to thrive – even to survive – we need to let go of our rules and learn God’s ‘house rules.’ If God’s house is a place where everyone belongs, were no one is a stranger, where all are fed and all are heard, then we’re going to have to welcome everyone to the table. And if everyone comes to the table, some of us would have let go of our second and third helpings, just so others would have enough to eat.
Today’s world is not a household, today’s world is not a place where we treat each other like family. But if we began to think this way – if we broke our customary rules and began to live by God’s ‘house rules,’ what would the world look like?
In Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography, Dominic Crossan says that the radical equality of the Kingdom of God will be more terrifying than anything we have ever imagined, because will demolish all our carefully constructed boundaries. Jesus once told a parable (Luke 13:15f) in which a man invites all his friends and family to a banquet, but no one would come. So the man sends his servants out into the city, to bring complete strangers to his table. If we took Jesus’ parable seriously, we would have to lose all the boundaries we have always drawn between nationalities, races, genders, and classes.
I’d like to close with one more story of hospitality.
When I was a young woman, just married,, I heard stories of Rob’s family again and again. (In church, I was hearing stories from the Scriptures; when we visited his family, I was hearing stories of his ancestors.) And the greatest stories were always about the farm, where Rob and his brothers went every summer, to work in the orchards, to play in the river, and to live in the house with their grandparents, C. W. and Minnie.
Before they worked the farm, C. W. and Minnie had been teachers on the Indian reservations of Arizona. And before she became a teacher, Minnie had grown up in Williamsburg, Virginia, where there were very proper rules for eating around the family table. And, of course, those rules were the rules Minnie enforced around her own table on the farm.
But many days, when C.W. had come in from his work in the orchard and just sat down for his dinner, there would be a knock at the kitchen door. Every time, C. W. would get up to answer the door – and Minnie would say, “Sit down and eat, C. W. They can wait until you’ve eaten.”
But then C. W. would voice his only swear word – he’d say, “Ah, pshaw, Minnie!” and go to the door. Outside would be a hungry man, a man without a job or a place to sleep. The man would ask if there was a job to be done – and if there was a job, C. W. would give him some food and then show him the work. Even if there wasn’t any job to be done, C. W. would still give the man some food to take on the road. Only when the man had been fed would C. W. come back to his own dinner.
Now my own mother didn’t grow up in Williamsburg, but she had strict rules for eating around the family table. So I didn’t blame Minnie for wanting C. W. to eat his food while it was hot, and I understood why she thought the man at the kitchen door could wait until dinner was finished.
When our own children were growing up, Minnie and C. W. were long gone. When we visited the farm in the summer, the stories our children heard were about Murphy. In the old days, when Rob’s mother was a girl, Murphy was a handyman on the farm, and he had lived in a cabin just a few yards from the main house. Our boys spent many happy hours exploring Murphy’s cabin.
But until yesterday, when I was talking with Rob about the old stories, I never learned how Murphy came to the farm. C.W. met Murphy one day, sitting under a tree by the railroad track, exhausted from his travels. So C. W. had invited Murphy home, gave him food, and gave him a job. After that, Murphy stayed and worked for C. W. for years and years. And then Rob added a new detail that I had never heard before: “Of course, Murphy always sat at the table with the family.”
Thinking about C. W. and Minnie, I wonder how long it took C. W. to get Minnie to change her rules about the family meal. I wonder how many days it took for Murphy to be fed, as a matter of course, at the family table.
And I also wonder what the world would look like if we all broke our customary rules and began to live by God’s ‘house rules.’
Preached on July 21, 2013
at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos